A likeness of St. Vincent de Paul is seen in stained glass at Caldwell Chapel on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Editorial: Called to serve

  • November 11, 2021

There is no shortage of inspiring stories in Church history, none more compelling than the winding trail of faith, providence and persistence that led to one of the most iconic organizations of charity — the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

This year marks its 175th anniversary in Canada and the mission today is as simple and powerful as it was in 1846: “To live the Gospel message by serving Christ in the poor with love, respect, justice and joy.” It is an especially poignant reminder to all Christians for the World Day of the Poor (Nov. 14).

Throughout its history, the Society has been blessed with inspiring people, and of course it starts with St. Vincent de Paul himself, who was once enslaved by pirates in the early 1600s and spent two years in bondage before escaping to his native France.

He became a priest and, the story goes, discovered his calling to aid the poor as he was hearing a peasant’s dying confession. In 2017, on the feast of St. Vincent de Paul (Sept. 27), Pope Francis reflected on this seminal moment of the saint’s journey. “He allowed himself to be touched by the eyes of a man thirsting for mercy and by the situation of family lacking everything. At that moment, he was deeply moved by Jesus looking at him, inviting him to no longer live for himself, but to serve Jesus wholeheartedly in persons who are poor.”

St. Vincent de Paul created the Confraternities of Charities — lay women who helped the poor — which became the model for the Daughters of Charity he founded. More than 200 years later, one of the members of that order, Sr. Rosalie Rendu, was a guide for Frédéric Ozanam, a scholar and lawyer who was looking to put Church teaching on charity into practice. Thus the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was born in 1833.

Thirteen years later, a young doctor-in-training from Quebec City, Joseph Painchaud, was in France and, inspired by Ozanam and the Society’s work, became a member. Upon returning to Canada, he quickly became a driving force for expansion and the first Canadian conference of the Society was created.

Painchaud went on to be credited with founding 12 Canadian arms of the Society by the time of his death in 1855 at the age of 35. Today, Vincentians are spread across the land with about 15,000 members in more than 850 conferences.

The work they do for the poor knows few bounds, whether it’s the familiar clothing and food drives, summer camps, shelters or scholarships, to name but a few ways the charity reaches out.

The Society’s story features some incredible turns, starting with a peasant’s confession to a priest, a lawyer who took Church teaching to heart, a nun who understood the world of poverty, a young Canadian doctor with a vision — the chain of people who keep the Society going continues to grow.

“In truth, all of us are called to drink from the rock of the Lord and to quench the thirst of the world with the charity that comes from Him,” Pope Francis said. “Charity is at the heart of the Church; it is the reason for its action, the soul of its mission.”

May we all be infused with the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul.

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