On March 8th, 2017, the International Day of Women, the volunteers of the AIC in France gathered together in the cathedral of Notre Dame to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Confraternity of Charity (presently known as the International Association of Charity). This was an extraordinary gathering in which the members of the AIC filled the immense nave of the cathedral. It was most fitting to join the celebration of that event with all those generations who for more than 800 years have prayed and continued to pray under the roof of this incredible architectural work that was built with such ingenuity!
More than thirty priests and brothers gathered to give thanks for this work which was begun by Vincent de Paul and carried forth by countless energetic and dedicated women. We were welcomed by the Vicar-General of the Diocese, Father Sinety Benoist and we walked in procession behind the heart of Saint Vincent de Paul.
During the celebration of the Eucharist, we listened to the story of the people of Nineveh and their conversion as a result of Jonah’s preaching. We then listened to the gospel in which Jesus presented himself as someone greater than Jonah and as someone who exhorted people to engage in the process of conversion. The sign that is offered to humanity is no longer the preaching of Jonah but rather the resurrection of Jesus … a sign of hope that is offered to all people. While the King of Nineveh asked: who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:9), God responded by revealing himself as a God of tenderness and mercy, a God who desires that which is good, a God who accompanies every human person and who desires to save all humankind.
The sign of the cross, the sign of charity, becomes the only sign of conversion that allows people to escape the coming judgment. How is that possible? That is only possible as people embrace the charity of Christ who came to save the world that was lost. Loving one’s neighbor as Jesus loved the neighbor is to preach the reality of conversion to this present generation. The saints lived that charity and understood that such charity was rooted in God. In the same way that Jesus allowed his heart to be pierced so also the saints loved their neighbor to the extreme. Saint Vincent and Saint Louise are privileged witnesses of that love.
Four hundred years ago in Folleville, after discovering the spiritual works of mercy, Vincent was deeply moved and his life was changed forever. He went to Châtillon-les-Dombes (today, Châtillon-sur-Chalarone) and there on a Sunday in August someone informed him about a family whose members were ill. Vincent preached about the situation of that family and touched the hearts of his parishioners who in turn provided assistance to that family. Vincent’s preaching was a great success and a true pilgrimage was initiated as a result of Vincent call. But, what would happen after Sunday? … charity had to be organized. Therefore, with women filled with compassion and faith, with women willing to volunteer their time, Saint Vincent created the first Confraternity of Charity. On December 8th, 1617 (the day on which the Church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception), the Confraternity received its Rule … the Blessed Mother became the model and the protector of the Confraternity … the Blessed Mother who identified herself with human suffering and who time and again revealed her maternal vocation.
A movement had begun. Thereafter, a confraternity of charity would be established in every place that the Missionaries gave a popular mission. At the present time the members of the AIC continue to work as they did on the very first day of their existence. We recall here the fact that there are currently about 150,000 volunteers throughout the world. While numbers might have some importance, much more important is the spirit of these volunteers … the spirit of so many men and women who have organized themselves in an effective manner so that they can communicate God’s love to their brothers and sisters and provide them with the conditions that are necessary for their integral development. We can cry out with these members: yes, we can change the world!
We can summarize the meaning of this celebration in the following words: although we are an evil generation, God offers us a sign of mercy and invites us to conversion … let us love with all our strength and mind and heart because mercy makes a mockery of judgment.
The celebration concluded with a procession to the chapel in the cathedral that was designated to receive the heart of Vincent de Paul. Then everyone proceeded to the Motherhouse at 95 Rue de Sèvres (Paris) where they shared a meal that was served by the young men and women from the Albert de Mun School. In addition to some words of gratitude, there was the presentation of a magnificent tapestry that was made by some of the pilgrims, the volunteers and members of the various Confraternities. There was also an exhibition of photographs and no one departed from the event without expressing their pleasure for the manner in which they had been received by the Vincentian Community at the Motherhouse.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM