What Would St. Vincent de Paul Do?

In the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign, on issues such as wealth and poverty and "entitlement" reform, American Catholics and other Christians may wonder where to turn for guidance. One outstanding guide is Vincent de Paul, a saint whose feast day is today.
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In the midst of a bitterly fought election campaign, on issues such as wealth and poverty and "entitlement" reform, American Catholics and other Christians may wonder where to turn for guidance. One outstanding guide is Vincent de Paul (1581-1660), a saint whose feast day is Sept. 27. French priest, outspoken servant of the sick, of the poor, of the refugee and of the prisoner, he was a relentless critic of the arrogance and avarice of the wealthy 1 percent of his time. The 1947 film Monsieur Vincent won many accolades, including the Academy Award for best foreign film. It remains as pertinent as ever, and is an astonishingly poignant portrayal of a man whose total commitment to love of the deprived and the marginalized continues to inspire.

Vincent de Paul worked tirelessly to improve the lives of those scorned and exploited by the rich and powerful. Together with Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity, a congregation of sisters that was not to be cloistered but present in the world among the the most needy persons. Saint Vincent and Saint Louise met with plenty of opposition, especially from self-righteous elites who equated poverty with moral depravity, and elites who did not want to get their hands dirty in any sense. Such persons were adamantly opposed to charity for children abandoned by single mothers, for proper Parisians considered such children the offspring of sin. The Daughters of Charity focused their ministry on just such neglected persons, by creating orphanages and hospitals, and by making health care available irrespective of ability to pay. In the early nineteenth century, St. Elizabeth Seton founded an American branch known as the Sisters of Charity, and they have staffed hospitals as well as schools for some two centuries.

But Vincent de Paul did not only appeal for charity on the part of wealthy individuals. He also took his cause to the highest levels of the state, including to Armand Cardinal de Richelieu, first minister to Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, Queen Regent during the minority of Louis XIV, and Philippe-Emmanuel de Gondi, the overseer of royal galleys to which prisoners were sent for long periods of hard labor so exhausting that it would kill many of them. Once he had witnessed the inhumanity of the galleys, Vincent de Paul insisted that treatment of galley prisoners be improved, and it some improvement did indeed follow. Richelieu brought France into the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) between the Austrian Hapsburgs and a coalition of their opponents, France among them. The war brought not only battlefield deaths of soldiers, but civilian mortality as well, and frequent outbreaks of plague and other contagious diseases. Paris filled with desperate refugees, and Vincent de Paul became their advocate, as well as an advocate for peace.

What if St. Vincent de Paul were alive today, in 2012 America? He would be utterly appalled by the war on the poor waged by certain politicians, some of whom even call themselves Catholic, though they may be followers of atheist Ayn Rand, spokesperson for greed unlimited. Vincent de Paul would support a major increase in the minimum wage, and he would defend President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act, as at least a step in the right direction toward universal access to health care, however imperfect that Act may be. Vincent de Paul would surely praise those who support such access, and the taxes needed to make it possible, but he would denounce the rich who seek ever greater tax reductions they do not need, even as they campaign to cut Medicaid, to cut Medicare, to cut food stamps, to cut student loans and grants, and to create privatized social security, an oxymoron if ever there were one. He would be horrified by a nation that equates a person's value with how much money he or she has, for such a perspective makes a thorough mockery of the Catholic Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person. Vincent would find sadly familiar the dishonesty of those who like to pretend that the poor, and indeed anyone with modest resources, is lazy and lacking in the supposedly virtuous ways that make the rich somehow worthy of their wealth.

Some politicians speak of the need for entitlement reform, and by this they mean that those in need should be told to get a job or starve. But Vincent de Paul would work for authentic entitlement reform: a radical change in the self-satisfied, arrogant mentality of many well-off persons who consider themselves entitled to live in limitless luxury while others around them suffer in countless ways. Vincent would take up the cause of families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. He would take up the cause of refugees and immigrants, welcoming them and finding for them the assistance they need, regardless of their race or nationality.

Prisons in the United States are overflowing with the poor, the undereducated, and men and women often the victims of crime at least as much as much as it perpetrators. In many states prisoners are treated as but refuse to warehouse as cheaply and as inhumanely as possible. St. Vincent de Paul would take up the cause of prison reform, and work to give those imprisoned the dignity that is the right of every human being.

A Vincent de Paul today would be a prophetic voice, calling the greedy to immediate repentance and total reform. A Vincent de Paul today would be relentless in promoting the responsibility and moral obligation of those well off to assist those in need. He would support both church-sponsored efforts such as Catholic Relief Services and laws and state-sponsored programs that guarantee a decent standard of living. He would denounce the exaggerated individualism that infects so much of American life, and promote instead the Catholic ideal of the common good. In these difficult times, may St. Vincent de Paul pray for us, and may God not delay in sending us more saints like him.

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