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FRIEND OF THE POOR

Father Francis's picture
Saint Vincent de Paul

He was the son of a French farmer but made many aristocratic friends, winning the confidence of a queen and raising huge sums of money for charity. Yet to the end of his life he remained the peasants’ priest.

Born in Gascony in 1580, Vincent attended the University of Toulouse and was ordained a priest at the early age of 20 and in time became tutor to the children of the Countess de Gondi who made him her spiritual director and confessor.

In 1617 a chance meeting prompted Vincent to embark on his life's work. At the country seat of the Gondi family he was called to hear the confession of a sick peasant, and discovered that the man did not know how to make a proper confession. The peasant recovered and openly declared that 'Monsieur Vincent' had saved his soul; Vincent realised how desperately these poor peasants needed spiritual teaching. The Countess, too, was moved to help them and asked Vincent to preach and give instruction on Confession. He was so successful that huge crowds came to receive the sacrament, and some nearby Jesuit priests had to help.

With financial help from the Countess Vincent was able to establish a permanent mission to poor and uneducated country people. In 1625 he formed the Congregation of Priests of the Missions who became known as the Vincentians. They lived simply, from a common fund, and devoted themselves to serving in small country towns and villages.

Vincent was anxious to do something to help the sick, and with the help of Louise de Marillac he organised the Sisters of Charity, who ministered to patients who were unable to pay for medical treatment. To finance this work Vincent persuaded several rich ladies in Paris to raise the necessary funds. Hospitals were set up to serve the sick and the old, and to care for orphans, and missionaries were sent to other countries to carry out similar work. He collected relief funds for the victims of war and ransomed galley slaves from North Africa.

He was zealous in conducting retreats and training for the clergy at a time when there was great laxity and ignorance among them. This hardworking priest was highly regarded even at court. When King Louis XIII was dying, it was Vincent who was called to attend him. Queen Anne respected his opinion and often consulted him on state and ecclesiastical matters. He gave her shrewd advice although she was not always brave enough to act on it.

Towards the end of his life Vincent suffered a long period of ill-health. He died on 27 September 1660, aged 80, and has been proclaimed the patron of all charitable societies. He had the opportunity to move in the highest social circles but his concern was always for the people who most needed him. In 1833 a young Parisian was inspired by Vincent's example to found the Saint Vincent de Paul Society which is still actively helping the poor.

He saw Christ in every needy person; may he make us more aware of the needs of people in our own area or parish and more generous in our response to them.