St Vincent de Paul and his Missionary Virtues

A few months ago I attended the annual Synod of the Society of the Holy Cross in London. After Mass and a lunch, the main speaker was the Bishop of Burnley, Bishop Philip North—some of you will remember him from some years ago when he was the Administrator at Walsingham!

He spoke to the assembled brethren of SSC about St Vincent de Paul’s ‘Missionary Virtues’- urging us to take them to heart and live them out in our parishes!

By way of context, it was the life of St Vincent de Paul that inspired Fr Charles Lowder, Vicar of St Peter’s London Docks, to found, along with a small group (five) of priestly companions, The Society of the Holy Cross on 28th February 1855. Suspended from office for six weeks by the Bishop of London for inciting a group of choir boys to throw rotten eggs at a banner carrying Protestant, Lowder spent some time in a French seminary where he was to read a life of St Vincent de Paul, described as the ’Apostle to the Poor’. Returning  home he was to conclude that England was in desperate need of priests committed  to service of the urban poor  and that’s just what he and his 5 companions committed themselves to do! As priests in the anglo– catholic tradition  they not only wanted to live disciplined priestly lives, they very much wanted to live those lives following Our Lord’s directive to proclaim the good news of the  Gospel to the poor, not just in words but in deeds, living in their midst, just as St Vincent and his brother priests, ‘The Community of the Mission’, had in France!  Proclaiming ‘good news’ to the poor has been something Bishop Philip thinks the Church of England has been in danger of overlooking in recent years, taking every opportunity as a member of The Archbishop’s Council and  in General synod, to constantly remind everyone of this! Accusing the C of E of abandoning the poor communities in our larger towns and cities, whilst favouring flourishing middle class suburban areas and putting money and other resources into creating mega ‘membership’ style churches in the more thriving city centres!

Interestingly recent data collected on behalf of The Society (not SSC) and Forward in Faith shows that anglo-catholic priests, often (like myself) members of SSC, are still willing to serve in the sort of parishes usually shunned by the career minded! Of the resolution parishes, under the care of Bishops like our own Bishop of Richborough, 14% of the 10% most deprived areas in the country are Society parishes, which rises to 18% of the 1% most extremely deprived areas of the country—considering we are a minority its not a bad showing!

Despite the many things that work against mission in these places, dilapidated buildings, lack of financial resources, the sheer misery 

of deprivation,- the Church, as we know it, is doing its best to follow  Our Lord’s own way— parishes that require a particular kind of priest and a particular kind of people, to form a faith community with him! And yes the Missionary Virtues that St Vincent de Paul wrote and spoke about are not just for priests but for any committed Christian who takes mission seriously– and who wants to work for the Kingdom, proclaiming the Gospel to those Jesus showed a special leaning towards, the poor, those who are oppressed in any way, prisoners, the sick in body and mind!

The challenge Bishop Philip offers to the wider Church of England raises many questions, but rather than trying to work out complicated answers, the challenge begins with each of us!

A transformed and transforming church must begin with us as individuals and if we are to convert the world and transform  lives, as the Diocesan Missionary Initiative urges us to do– then it must begin with how we live our lives as Christians– for how are we to convince anyone that the Gospel is true if they can not see Jesus in us!

You know it was really refreshing to see in the Vicar’s Life on BBC the young, enthusiastic, cassock wearing curate who actually helped one homeless woman get back on her feet –it takes a bit of nerve doesn’t it in a society where we seem to be afraid of getting too involved—but he did it!

Back to the Missionary Virtues, Five of them-

Simplicity, Humility, Meekness, Mortification, Zeal– we only have 3 Sundays so that’s a lot to cover — especially with digressions along the way—as you will note as it has already taken a few minutes to get started!

St Vincent de Paul is often referred to as the ‘Apostle of Charity’, he looks upon the missionary virtues as ‘the five smooth stones with which, even at the first assault, we will defeat the infernal Goliath in the name of the Lord of Armies…!’ Over time these virtues were to become central to all his  thinking, his ministry  and his mission! As a missionary he got going working among prisoners and slaves, indeed he had been a slave for 3 or more years! He set up hospitals, he founded communities where the poor could work to support  themselves, he set up homes for orphans and devoted himself to caring for  the sick—he genuinely turned his Christian concern into ACTION and drew others to follow his example. He spoke of simplicity as ‘the virtue I love most, the one to which in all my actions, I pay most heed—in short it is  ‘my Gospel’! For him simplicity first of all means speaking the truth, the heart should not be thinking one thing while the mouth says something else, when we are serious about mission we must  ‘avoid all duplicity, dissimulation, cunning and double meaning’ -St Vincent says he has a particular devotion.. ‘To saying things as they are’, what we now call ’telling it as it is!’  Simplicity also means doing ‘everything for love of God and  for no other end’ , and then what  we do shouldn’t be ‘to gain human respect’ or so ‘that we get a (better) assignment in another place’!

Simplicity also involves, of course living a simple or what he calls ’an unadorned lifestyle’ , we fail in simplicity ’when our rooms are filled with superfluous furniture, pictures, large numbers of books and vain and useless things’, adding that ‘we must use with great simplicity the things that have been given to us!’ If we are engaged in the work of mission, then simplicity also involves, he says, ’explaining the Gospel by simple comparisons ..i. e when teaching a virtue we should present a motive for living it , define exactly what it is and explain the means for putting it into practice.’

St Vincent lists a number of good reasons why we should practice simplicity, among them, first and foremost, ‘God communicates with the simple and is himself simple,.. Where simplicity is, there is God.’ Simplicity is the spirit of Jesus  and if we practice simplicity we will be better able to deal with simple people( remember we are talking 17th century France). As a community, and this applies as much to us as a faith community as a religious community, we should try to possess this virtue of simplicity, living, as we do, in a world of duplicity ( double dealing, double standards) Ultimately he says, ’True religion is simple!’ Each of us should take care to behave always in a spirit of simplicity, remembering that God likes to deal with the simple  and that He conceals the secrets of Heaven from the wise and prudent of this world and reveals them to little ones… though whilst Christ recommends the simplicity of a dove he tells us to have the prudence of a serpent as well!’

Next week Meekness and Mortification!