Chesterton once said that the difference between a sinner and saint is not that the saint doesn’t sin. The difference is that the saint knows they’re a sinner. This is what strikes me with St. Vincent de Paul. You might expect, and certainly you will get to some degree, a listing of all the amazing charitable works this grand saint of seventeenth century France undertook. However, what is seldom mentioned in the popular accounts about St. Vincent is his bad temper.
We perhaps all know that saints are in the habit of making mountains out of what we would consider molehills when it comes to their own sins. A saint who has visions of our Lord and levitates whilst in ecstasy might say that they are the worst of sinners. But this just sounds odd to the dad who the night before yelled at their three year old for dropping the milk on the kitchen floor… worst of sinner indeed. We’ll see who gets that title.
Fr. Alban Butler, who has studied the lives of more saints than I’ll ever read, notes about St. Vincent de Paul that he may have been subject to “humble exaggeration” when it came to assessing his own bad temperament. But then Fr. Butler states that other people noted it as well. Yes, nothing like your closest friends to tell the truth about your own nature.
What did they say about him? Well, they said that he was “by nature of a bilious temperament and very subject to anger.” When someone throws out a word like “bilious” to describe you, you’ve got issues. St. Vincent himself tells us that were it not for divine grace he would have been “in temper hard and repellent, rough and crabbed.” He said that he would be tortured by “black and boiling moods.”
Yet, this is the same saint that is referred to by his countrymen as their “dear Vincent.” Whether nobleman or peasant, this French peasant through his desire to serve God above all things, received the grace necessary to mollify that bile.
I think this is important to keep in mind because of what it doesn’t mean about St. Vincent de Paul, the patron of charitable societies. What this doesn’t mean is that St. Vincent de Paul was driven to do his charitable work through anger. Many times, I have spoken to folks about the social justice teaching of the Church. What is usually discussed is how the injustices of the world ought to drive us to action. Indeed, in speaking to a wonderful man several months ago, our conversation fell upon Mother Teresa about whom he said, “She acted because she could see the injustice in the society.” This is exactly wrong though.
What Mother Teresa saw, and what drove St. Vincent de Paul, was Christ in the poor. These two were not social experimenters. In fact, St. Vincent deliberately did not seek to overturn the monarchy in France or the noble class or the social structures at all, though no doubt they were corrupt and sin-ridden. As a man of peasant stock himself, one might think that he would see the injustices extant and want to undo the whole blasted system. But no. St. Vincent de Paul worked to convert the nobility, and the poor. Indeed he endeavored to convert the nobility by having them help the poor, and he used their money so as to save the souls of the poor.
In one of his conferences for the Daughters of Charity that he founded he said this:
… the poor … you are not to attend to their bodies solely; you are also to help them to save their souls. Above all, urge them to make general confessions, bear patiently with their little fits of bad temper, encourage them to suffer patiently for the love of God; do not get angry with them and never speak to them harshly. They have enough to do to put up with their illnesses. Reflect that you are their visible angel guardians, their father and mother, and do nothing to oppose them except in such things as are bad for them for, in that case, it would be cruelty to yield to their importunities. Weep with them; God made you their consolers.
How many in our social justice circles are only too concerned with the body. “Let us undo the violations against social justice that inhibit liberation,” they might say. I answer by pointing out that the saints have a deeper task: let undo the trappings of sin that keep us from loving God who will remake our society and make all things new. This is why St. Vincent tells his sisters to make sure they do not give in to the inappropriate requests and behaviors of the poor. The goal is to save souls, friends. That is the purpose of the Christian. Why does it seem that we’ve lost that?
Note, too, how St. Vincent instructs his sisters to “encourage them to suffer patiently for the love of God.” The great Christian thing includes a theology of suffering that is not just absent but unheard of in any other faith. Why would we not pass that on to the poor who are as spiritually thirsty as they are no doubt physically so?
St. Vincent de Paul, the irritable saint, was not driven by anger at the injustices of the world, though of course they are there. Rather, he was driven by his deep love for Christ who taught him how to get over himself and his anger. When responding to a sister who was having difficulty praying, this is how he responded:
Each one can take her stand at the foot of the Cross, in the presence of God and, if she had nothing to say to Him, let her wait till He speaks to her; if He should leave her there, let her remain there willingly and await from His bounty the grace of either speaking or of listening to Him.
It is to the foot of the Cross, the unparalleled image of hope and love and mercy, that St. Vincent de Paul said we should go. There we should take our vices and troubles and irritations, for there is the King of Love that cures all wounds and salves all pains and brings about social peace and justice.