September 27 marks the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul, founder of Catholic Charities. Because he knew suffering, he was able to minister to those who suffered. From this month’s edition of Magnificat, we learn the following:
“Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was born into a French peasant family, earned a degree in theology, was captured by Turkish pirates and sold as a slave, escaped with his master, whom he converted, and returned to France. A lesser man might have been embittered or fatally traumatized. Saint Vincent, by contrast, began to work tirelessly for the poor. He had a special charism for galley convicts, who at the time lived in subhuman conditions of pestilence and misery. He opened shelters, soup kitchens, and hospices, first in France, then around the world.” (Heather King, September edition of the Magnificat)
Like St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Vincent of France knew the humiliation and drudgery of slavery. However, in both cases, the Lord empowered them to use their unwelcomed circumstances for a greater good. In the end, their slavery led to the liberation of souls.
And what St. Vincent de Paul discovered, like the early Church Fathers, is that when you minister to the body or meet someone’s bodily or emotional needs in Christ's name, they will listen to what you have to say about their spiritual needs. For him, evangelization and teaching was never far from corporeal works of mercy. Indeed, it is by serving people in ways that may not be religious or spiritual in nature- such as visiting the lonely or feeding the hungry or providing someone with professional skills for viable employment –but, nevertheless, can be used for a higher, spiritual purpose.
There is a saying that goes something like this: “People may doubt what you say, but they’ll always believe what you.” Not only do actions speak louder than words, but godly actions give credibility to the words we use to talk about God. As St. Vincent de Paul said, “Outpourings of affection for God, of resting in his presence, of good feelings toward everyone and sentiments and prayers like these ... are suspect if they do not express themselves in practical love which has real effects.”