Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Reflection on the 400th Anniversary of the Charism of Charity

In January 2017, the Vincentian Family around the world will begin a year of celebration to highlight 400 years of the "Charism of Charity." In January 1617, two events changed the life of Vincent de Paul. The first happened in Gannes where Vincent heard the confession of a dying man who proclaimed his joy at being forgiven and made Vincent aware of how much the country people needed to have easier access to priests. From this began the effort to organize priests to preach missions to the country people. This effort grew into the Congregation of the Mission (or the Vincentian priests).

During this same year, as Vincent was serving as pastor at the country church in Chatillon, he was approached by some parishioners before Mass who told him of a family in which everyone was sick. Vincent preached such a heartfelt sermon about the need to reach out to help others that a large crowd of parishioners went to the family, bringing along food and aid. Vincent then realized the need to organize efforts on behalf of the poor and he began to write a set of guidelines. This effort grew into the "Confraternities of Charity." Today, these confraternities are known as the "International Association of Charity" (IAC) and are the largest and oldest group of volunteers in the Church.

I recently had the privilege to participate in a month-long Vincentian Session at our Motherhouse in Paris, studying, praying, and reflecting on the lives of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac. One day of this session was spent in Chatillon, visiting the church where Vincent preached the sermon that was the beginning of the IAC. As I prayed in that church and walked around it in pilgrimage, two things that I have known all of the fifty years I have been a Daughter of Charity took on a whole new meaning to me.

The first was that Vincent's first organized work of charity was the creation of a lay organization to serve the poor. As I looked at the stained glass windows in the sanctuary of the church which depict Vincent giving the women of the first confraternity the rule which he had written, I was struck by how God's Providence began, through Vincent, to empower and inspire the laity to service in the Church. Then, I recalled that 300 years later, the Holy Spirit, through Vatican Council II, sought to restore the laity to their position of leadership and service in the Church.

The second realization I had was that it was not until 1633 that the Daughters of Charity were established as the first community of religious women to serve actively outside the cloister. St. Vincent often reminded the first Daughters that he never thought of founding a religious community, that it was God who founded the Daughters of Charity.

These pondering gave me a new appreciation of God's presence and action in our daily lives. I pray for the grace to be attentive to God's presence each day, just as St. Vincent was!

Written by Sister Mary Frate, D.C.

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