The Charities: the imperceptible movement of the Lord on the dusty road of the poor (1 Kings 19:3-15)
In the house of Cornelius, Peter stated: what has happened all over Judea, began in Galilee (Acts 10:37). We could paraphrase that text and say: what has happened all over the world, began in Châtillon-les-Dombes.
Today that town is called Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne and is located in the area of Rhône-Alpes, Department of Ain in the district of Bourg-en-Bresse. At the present time, it has the largest population and is the capital of this area.
During Saint Vincent’s time, Châtillon had a population of 1,200 and in 2011 its population was 4,940. For some time Châtillon had been a war-torn area and in 1617 many buildings had been destroyed … furthermore, many people in that area had converted to Protestantism.
Vincent de Paul made a decision to dedicate his life to service on behalf of the poor country people. With the support of Cardinal de Bérulle, he left the de Gondi household and in August 1617 arrived in Châtillon. He resided in the house of Jean Benier (a Huguenot) … at that time Vincent was thirty-seven years old.
Soon, after Vincent arrived, on August 20th, some people approached him and spoke with him about the needs of an infirm family. That event was to change not only Vincent’s life but the life of many people who surrounded him. We are fortunate to have Vincent’s own description of those events … words that he spoke on February 13th, 1646 to the Daughters of Charity when he exhorted them in matters concerning their service on behalf of the poor: While I was living in a small town near Lyons, where Providence had called me to be the pastor, I was vesting to celebrate Holy Mass one Sunday when I was told that in an isolated house a quarter of a league away everyone was ill. None of them was able to help the others, and they were all in indescribable need. That touched me to the heart. During the sermon, I made sure to commend them zealously to the congregation, and God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people. After dinner a meeting was held in the home of a good townswoman to see what help could be given them, and everyone present felt urged to go to visit them, console them with their words, and do what they could to help them. After Vespers, I took with me an upright citizen of the town, and we set out together to go there. Along the way, we met some women who had gone before us and, a little farther on, we met others who were returning home. Since it was summertime and the weather was very hot, those good ladies were sitting by the side of the road to rest and refresh themselves. In a word, Sisters, there were so many of them, you would have said it was a procession. On my arrival, I visited the sick persons and went to get the Blessed Sacrament for those in greatest danger — not at the parish church for the district was not a parish but depended on a Chapter of which I was the Prior. So, after I had heard their confessions and given them Holy Communion, the next thing was to see how to provide for their needs. I suggested that all those good persons animated by charity to go there might each take a day to make soup, not for those sick persons only, but also for others who might come afterward, and that is the first place where the Confraternity of Charity was established (CCD:IX:192-193).
It was necessary to organize the Charities! That same afternoon (August 20th) Vincent began to put in place his plan. Three days later, on Wednesday, August 23rd, Vincent organized the first group of pious women in that town … women who were moved by compassion and who were animated to create an association that would care for the infirm in their homes (cf. CCD:XIIIb:3). Among the first members were Françoise Baschet, Mlle, de la Chassaigne and Charlotte de Brie, the wife of Cajot (cf. CCD:XIIIb:4).
Vincent provided the members with a Rule (cf. the provisional Rule, CCD:XIIIb:3-5; the definitive Rule, CCD:XIIIb:8-19) which he had drawn up and which clearly defined the purpose of the Charity, namely, to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town (cf. CCD:XIIIb:8) … and the reason for all of this was also clarified: charity toward the neighbor is an infallible sign of the true children of God (CCD:XIIIb:8). The women committed themselves to initiate this good work on the following day (August 24th), taking turns in performing that service on a daily basis.
The provisional Rule of August 1617 contained three essential elements:  it provided an organizational structure for on-going service;  it outlined the spiritual and material help that was to be provided to the infirm in their homes;  it also highlighted the fact that such service was to be done with care and tenderness and was to be grounded on a gospel spirituality.
Some months later, Vincent formulated a more precise Rule (which all should read and reflect upon). In that Rule we see an outline of the organizational structure and the qualitative care that was to be provided (CCD:XIIIb:8-19). On November 24th, 1617, the first Charity was officially recognized by the Archbishop of Lyon and was then officially established on December 8th, 1617.
Such is the origin of the organization that Vincent referred to as the Charities and which, after the Second Vatican Council, became known as the International Association of Charity (AIC) … the oldest laywomen’s association.
- Reading and interpretation of the events
In developing this theme, I have been inspired by the profound reflections of Father Eli Chaves dos Santos, CM, former Assistant General of the Congregation of Mission and by the insightful words of the message that Pope Francis sent to the members of the AIC.
We ought to celebrate this event from the perspective of three distinct but complimentary elements: (Κρόνος) cronos, (καιρός) kairos and (ἔσχατον) eschaton.
The first element: (Κρόνος) chronos
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a proper or opportune time for action. In other words, chronos refers to the passing of time, a specific period of time … earthly time that can be measured. Thus we have the measuring units of our time: millennium, century, year, month, day, hour etc. Chronos is the manner in which men and women measure time.
In the specific situation that we are dealing with in this presentation, we are referring to calendar time (August 1617), time that occurred in a specific place (Châtillon-les-Dombes in southern France).
Let us look at the stages in which these events unfolded:
[a] … I was told: The laity took the initiative. Everything began with the person who approached Vincent as he was preparing to celebrate Mass: While I was living in a small town near Lyons, where Providence had called me to be the pastor, I was vesting to celebrate Holy Mass one Sunday when I was told….
[b] The manner in which Vincent listened and his gift of persuasion: During the sermon, I made sure to commend them zealously to the congregation, and God, touching the hearts of those who heard me, moved them with compassion for those poor afflicted people.
[c] … I suggested that all those good persons …: I visited the sick persons and went to get the Blessed Sacrament for those in greatest danger — not at the parish church for the district was not a parish but depended on a Chapter of which I was the Prior. So, after I had heard their confessions and given them Holy Communion, the next thing was to see how to provide for their needs. I suggested that all those good persons animated by charity to go there might each take a day to make soup, not for those sick persons only, but also for others who might come afterward, and that’s the first place where the Confraternity of Charity was established.
In Folleville the first sermon of the Mission was preached and in Châtillon, the Charities were organized. Those were events that occurred in time, events that we recall this year. In fact, we are able to visit and to celebrate these events in the very place where they occurred (those places still exist) … and many people will undertake pilgrimages during the course of this Jubilee Year. We cannot, however, simply commemorate such events with large, festive Eucharistic celebrations; with pilgrimages to the “Berceau” of the Association; with encounters with the Pope; with the publication of books, videos, etc. All of that is good, but we also have to take new, decisive steps. Therefore, let us reflect on the second element.
The second element: (καιρός) Kairos
Kairos can be viewed and understood as a favorable time, an opportune time, a precise moment in God’s time. Chronos refers to time as a quantity while Kairos refers to time in a qualitative manner (cf. Romans 5:6). Kairos is the opportune time, time planned and designed by God so that God might intervene in the life of human persons in a providential manner. In other words, Kairos is time designed in heaven that is then revealed on earth on behalf of men and women.
The experience in Folleville and Châtillon were not simply time (chronos) centered. They are inseparable experiences, one leads to the other and they reveal to us an understanding of those realities from the perspective of faith of a man who allowed himself to be touched by the Lord, who embraced, discovered and deepened that grace (grace that we call charism) that the Holy Spirit placed in his heart, who, in a new manner (Vincent did not simply repeat the past) was led to respond to the Lord of the poor who called and consecrated and sent him forth in order to discover him (the Lord) in the person of the poor.
We have received this heritage and for four hundred years we have carried it in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). Now it is God’s time to actualize and to “refound” in a vital and spiritual manner the experience of Vincent de Paul … and to do that in the “here and now”, time that is gifted to us by God.
I will highlight here some “ways/paths” that I believe respond to this reality:
- The 400th anniversary is a time of grace to “refound” and actualize in an existential and spiritual manner the experience of Vincent de Paul. We can understand this time as the movement of Providence that becomes present to us as a “fresh gentle breeze” and that enables us to hear and discern and act in accord with the heart of God and the heart of Vincent de Paul.
- Ministry with the poor and on behalf of the poor has a special matrix. We do not view such ministry as the work of another non-governmental entity (even though from a civil perspective it is) or the work of any of the countless institutions that work on behalf of the poor. Following Vincent de Paul, our ministry has as its starting point a profound faith that leads us to an encounter with Christ, evangelizer of the poor … Christ who is present, hidden and abandoned in the poor. Our ministry on behalf of the poor unites in an inseparable manner mission and charity.
- Kairos attempts to revitalize the charism, thus enabling us to move beyond daily routines that have often led us “to do the same thing over and over”, enabling us to recognize (with calm humility) historical errors such as paternalism … errors that in so many situations became obstacles to the growth and the dignity of the poor. Can we not recognize the movement of God in the midst of the Vincentian Family as we continue to clothe ourselves in the new mentality that is provided to us by the process of systemic change? Is not this one of those paths of renewal, a creative path that enables us to revitalize the charismatic heritage that we have received from Vincent de Paul?
- On-going conversion:
- Vincent de Paul was a good pastor who not only animated people to run to attend to the poor in the same manner as if they were running to extinguish a fire (CCD:XI:25) but who himself became involved in such activity. Vincent is a standard bearer of direct contact with the poor … he discovered the needs of the poor by establishing relationships with those men and women who found themselves in situations of misery and poverty. Is not this the time to leave our offices and to encounter the poor in their present-day situation?
- Until 1971, the AIC depended on the Superior General of the of the Congregation of the Mission and on the Missionaries … then the task of guiding and orienting the members was placed in the hands of the volunteers themselves. If this was a breakthrough that resulted from Vatican II, can this not also be viewed as a reality that led the Missionaries and the Daughters to abandon altogether providing the counsel and spiritual support that was required of them in order to remain faithful to the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul? Cannot this Jubilee Year be seen as a time of grace that enables us to reestablish a proper relationship with the eldest members of our Family, that is, with the members of the AIC?
- We have made great progress: Now we recognize ourselves more and more as sons and daughters of the same father. Now is the time to join forces, to collaborate together and to go to the new frontiers, to the peripheries of the new poverties where the poor shout and cry out to us. We work hard for the poor, but each branch does this by itself … imagine the impact of a common project, of a common mission?
The third element: (ἔσχατον) eschaton
The International Theological Commission refers to eschaton in the following manner: Since we have our human lives once only, it is clear how serious a matter our lives are. There is no second time around. Since our earthly life is the way to the reality of the last things, our behaviour in life has irrevocable consequences. Our life in the body has an eternal destiny (International Theological Commission, Some Current Questions in Eschatology, , #10.1).
How do we create those ways/paths so that we can attain the realities of tomorrow?
- In the thoughtful letter that Pope Francis sent to the members of the AIC (February 22, 2017), the Pope stated: I convey my best wishes that this beautiful initiative continue its mission of bringing authentic witness of God’s mercy to the poorest (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017). The Pope invites us to look at the past with gratitude, to look at the present with enthusiasm and to look toward the future with hope. In other words, grounded on Vincent’s experience, we are to create a movement of mercy with all those persons who have inherited the Kingdom.
- The Pope then went on to say: open yourselves to His surprises, to discern, through the breath of the Holy Spirit, new ways to render the service of charity ever more fruitful (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017). Great discernment is needed in order to look for those paths … we have no mathematical formulas at our disposal but we do have the power of God’s Spirit that demands that we listen attentively to the cries of the most needy members of our society.
- There is an element in the Pope’s message that, for me, is new: the poor are not only the beneficiaries of our evangelizing service but they also have a mission … a mission to convert us: Vincent’s work for and with the poor who were often marginalized or abandoned in the countryside and in the towns was intended to reflect God’s goodness towards His creatures. He saw the poor as representatives of Jesus Christ, as the members of His suffering body; he grasped that the poor, too, were called to build up the Church and in turn to convert us (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017).
- The AIC is called to promote the development of the most disadvantaged, and to alleviate the moral, physical, moral, material and spiritual suffering (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017) … to make the new evangelization effective.
- That commitment has to be undertaken in the same manner as Vincent, that is, the commitment must be grounded on trust in Divine Providence. This implies that our feet are firmly planted on the ground, that our ears are listening attentively to the cries of those in new situations of poverty, that our hearts are free to love and willing to engage in a process of on-going conversion; that our mouths are open to announce and to denounce, that our minds are sharp and clear; that we kneel before the Lord, the evangelizer of the poor and that we raise our voices in supplication for authentic insights that will enable us to act with boldness.
- In order to “see” poverty and to approach it, it is not enough to follow great ideas but rather to live from the mystery of the Incarnation, this mystery so dear to Saint Vincent de Paul, the mystery of this God Who lowered Himself by becoming man, Who lived among us and died to elevate man and to save him (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017). Today there are new spiritualities, spiritualities that are far removed from any incarnational reality, spiritualities with a pretense of mysticism, spiritualities that are alienating and that lack any biblical/ecclesial foundation. Because we are part of that “market” that is seeking “new offerings” we have to be discerning in this matter of the new forms of spirituality and should not allow ourselves to be fooled.
- The credibility of the gospel is in our hands: it is not merely a question of encountering Christ in the poor, but also of the poor perceiving Christ in you and in your action. By being rooted in the Christ’s personal experience you can contribute to a “culture of mercy” that profoundly renews hearts and opens them up to a new reality (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017).
- That is quite special, especially when such honor is given to Vincent de Paul, the Pope “dignifies” Saint Louise and points out her hidden treasure: it is not merely a question of encountering Christ in the poor, but also of the poor perceiving Christ in you and in your action. By being rooted in the Christ’s personal experience you can contribute to a “culture of mercy” that profoundly renews hearts and opens them up to a new reality (Pope Francis, Message to the Members of the International Association of Charity, February 22nd, 2017). It has been said that the XXI century is the century of the laity. In our Vincentian Family that has been true and will continue to true. At this time of the 400th anniversary of our charism, the members of the AIC have demonstrated that if we continue to be open to God’s will, then we will also continue to give life to this charism “until the glorious coming our Lord Jesus Christ”.
- All of us, from a faith perspective, need to read and interpret the events that impel us toward the future with a burning charity. Thus we can face the future with hope and assist the poor in living as children of God, living lives characterized by dignity and justice.
- We are a large family, a Vincentian Family, a family called to unite our efforts in order to create a world of love and mercy that benefits the poor. We are called to rise above the present culture of hedonism, pleasure, consumerism, apathy and individualism. How could we not dream of becoming a “mega” Vincentian Family, a unique entity that serves the poor.
- The previous Superior General has given us a special task: to welcome the stranger. This is a challenge that should influence and make us question everything that we do. As a family, how can we welcome displaced persons and immigrants? How can we make real the Pope’s desire and his challenge that we move out to the peripheries? How will we live in creative fidelity to the charism?
- As previously mentioned, we will participate in many activities during this Jubilee Year: encounters with the Pope; international, regional and provincial gatherings; radio and television programs; various publication … all of these activities are good because they help us to understand that this year is a time during which the Lord walks in the midst of our large Family, encouraging us to build an evangelical future of “mission and charity” that leads us back to our charismatic roots. In that way we are able to leave behind all that is not worthy of our vocation and mission and thus, return to our first love (Revelation 2:4), to the One who set our hearts on fire. Our Founder liked to say, in nómine Domini and he knew that love is inventive to infinity (CCD:XI:131). Like Simon Peter may we affirm: At your command we will lower the nets (Luke 5:5).
- Châtillon and ourselves: some points for dialogue and discussion
1 The events in Châtillon have to be seen as events of grace, events that question us today as members of the Vincentian Family.
- What are we called to be and to do in the midst of today’s world?
- Are we listening to the voices that are calling out to us?
- How can we respond, in a Vincentian manner, to those calls?
2 Châtillon is the response of well-organized charity:
- What responses are we giving to the calls that we hear?
- Are we engaged in a struggle to eradicate poverty or are we satisfied with offering people “hand-outs”?
3 The affective and effective response of Vincent de Paul flowed from a solid spirituality:
- Do we truly love Jesus Christ and is that love revealed in our commitment on behalf of those persons who are poor?
4 In order to confront the poverty of the seventeenth century in an effective manner, Vincent brought together the efforts of the members of the Congregation of the Mission, of the Daughters of Charity and of the Confraternities of Charity:
- How can we unite our efforts in order to respond to the long-standing forms of poverty as well as to the new forms of poverty that have become so present in our world?
By: Marlio Nasayó Liévano, CM
Charles T. Plock, CM
 CCD:IX:192-193 refers to: Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-13b), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-13b), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11-12); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2009. Future references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number.
 This document can be found at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_1990_problemi-attuali-escatologia_en.html