Reflecting and living the charism of each institute is an unavoidable element in each age. It is very significant to celebrate it when it is a milestone in the history of the institute. The global initiative of the Vincentian Family to celebrate 400th anniversary of the Vincentian Charism in 2017 with the theme “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35) is a fitting tribute to our holy Founder Saint Vincent de Paul and the Vincentians of all the branches of the Family who faithfully lived this charism until today.
Charism is a word widely used today to indicate the reality that inspired the founder of an institute. The founder’s initiative is not merely human but is the fruit of a divine project manifested by the Divine Spirit. Charis, the grace, is unique and a total gift from God. New Testament references are constantly used in the singular and not the plural, charites. “There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord… But at work in all these is one and the same Spirit, distributing them at will to each individual…” (I Cor 12, 4-11). There are many ways to live and transmit the gift of the Spirit, the charis. These gifts are distributed according to each one’s vocation so that the ecclesial community can grow and reach complete maturity. But there is only one unique grace applied to each person in different ways so that each one can live the Christian life in truth and liberty.
Charism is the Gospel lived in the Church over the centuries. When it is in the history of a religious institute, charism is handed over from the founder to its members. Charism is inspiration and gifts of the Holy Spirit received from the founder based on the teachings of Jesus. For the members of a religious institute, the reference point is the life and works of their founder but always pointing to the life of Jesus. The Gospel becomes a story in the life of the members of the religious institute through their life and works called charism.
When we speak of Vincentian Charism, it refers to the gift of the spirt given by God in the Church in the person of Vincent de Paul. This gift of the spirit is shared by the followers in different institutions and associations under the same inspiration. Vincentian charism is understood today as the integration of evangelization and charity. It refers to serving the poor in a holistic way as Vincent did four hundred years ago together with Louise de Marillac. The humble attempt made by Saint Vincent to serve others, especially the poor, translated the gospel into a living reality in the 17th century. That is how he responded to the challenging social problems of the time. As a consequence, evangelization and service became the Vincentian Charism. Today we Vincentians worldwide continue this humble initiative of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise, translating our lives into living gospels addressing the challenges of our times. Serving the poor, we engage in preaching, education, faith formation, social services, health care, missions, formation of the clergy and we can add a hundred titles to it. But the base of all our services should be seeing Jesus in the poor as Saint Vincent did.
Charism of the founder
The Second Vatican Council refers to the founder as a person who instituted a community of consecrated life. (LG 45, 46; PC 2). The Second Vatican Council does not use the term charism of the founder explicitly but while speaking about charism uses the term “under the inspiration of the Spirit” (PC 1). Lumen Gentium presents religious life as a charism which, without entering into the hierarchical structure of the Church, belongs undeniably to her life and holiness (LG 44). It was Pope Paul VI who officially introduced the term charism of the founder into an official document of the magisterium. “Only in this way will you be able to reawaken hearts to truth and to divine love in accordance with the charisms of your founders who were raised up by God within His Church” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica Testificatio 11).
Mutuae Relationes (May 14, 1978), which was drafted jointly by the Congregation for the Bishops and the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated life and Society of Apostolic Life, was the first document to describe “the charism of the founder”. “The very charism of the Founders appears as an ’experience of the Spirit,’ transmitted to their disciples to be lived, safeguarded, deepened and constantly developed by them, in harmony with the Body of Christ continually in the process of growth” (MR 11). The document L’école catholique (March 19,1977) coined for the first time the expression “dynamic fidelity to the charism of the founder”. Significance of this term meant that one can only be faithful to the original charism when one knows how to respond effectively to the signs of the time.
The charism lasts through the centuries. However, it is not automatically preserved by observing the customs, practicing the devotions, doing the apostolic activities or living and working in a particular community of the institute; but rather its permanence is possible only through a dynamic fidelity. In other words, each member has to be open to the signs of the times by being one with the founder’s initial vision in order to maintain the identity of the charism in renewed developments. It is essential to discover the charism of the founder but it should not be limited to research of the documents of origin. There must be a study that becomes dynamic movement. Each institute should be able to discover the founder’s charism and to express it in contemporary language adapted to the signs of the times.
- C. Futrell wrote, “The charism of the founder of any religious community is this charism as it is lived now”. The charism is more than the constitutions, statutes, common rules and historical documents. The charism has no lived existence unless it becomes a concrete reality through the actual members who are called by the working of the Holy Spirit to serve following the original vision and dynamism that the founder received as a gift from the Holy Spirit. Today, the charism of a founder is not only becoming a reality through the members of institute; but more widely, it is a reality in the church through the life of the faithful. The inspiration and the dynamism of the founder is not limited to the members of the institute alone; but rather, it is a gift to the whole world.
At this juncture, when we proudly celebrate the 400th anniversary of our charism, celebrations at different levels in the world definitely add meaning to the life to the Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity and all the branches of the Vincentian Family worldwide. At the same time, we the members should remember that, even after 400 years in the Church, the charism is alive concretely in our ministry and service. In other words, when we “welcome a stranger” the Vincentian Charism becomes alive in the Church. Let us continue to live our charism. When the worldwide Vincentian Family celebrates the auspicious occasion of the foundation of our charism, it behooves us to revitalize our Vincentian life through fidelity to our charism and through being docile to the spirit of Saint Vincent by responding to the needs of the Church. Our reflection of the Vincentian charism should help us to reawaken our interest in religious life and its implications. This is the way we can incarnate the spiritual inheritance that our founder left for us.