Recalling the lives of the saints each day, I suspect we might think of them as persons who always sought to know God and to be faithful to God with such steadfastness so that sanctity would surely one day be theirs. But when we go a little beneath the surface of their biographies, we might often discover that God was seeking them far more than they were initially seeking God. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was ordained a priest for parish ministry in Paris when that church position was equated with security and status, if not also wealth. Certainly, from his youth he sought God. But eventually, he would discover that God was intensely seeking to lead Vincent where he had not thought to go.
As happens so often in the ordinary priestly ministry of the sacraments, Vincent was seized by God so powerfully that the scriptures and Christ himself began to define his life ever more clearly. His pastoral care in hearing the confession of a dying peasant was the doorway through which Christ, lover of the poor, took over Vincent’s heart. After that, the poor would have a claim on him for the rest of his life.
Instead of thinking of the poor as on the fringe of society, Vincent made them the center of his attention. He bequeathed that spirit of preferential option for the poor to the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), and to the Daughters of Charity, which he founded with St. Louise de Marillac. That same spirit of preaching good news to the poor in practical acts of support engages countless laypeople in direct ministry to people in need everywhere in the world through parish-based St. Vincent de Paul societies.
Vincent learned that service to the poor in imitation of Christ is the only real wealth that matters. “Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor.”
(Father Paul Zilonka, C.P. is a Member of the Passionist Preaching Team of St. Paul of the Cross Province).