This year, we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission by St. Vincent de Paul. We commemorate this milestone with this monthly series by Fr. Ray Van Dorpe, C.M., which explores the Vincentian vows and virtues.  

In the very early days of the Congregation of the Mission, St. Vincent realized that if the ministry of evangelizing the poor was to have any success, the priests and brothers engaged in this work would have to be men of good character, able to live and work comfortably in the secular world. They would take vows, as others in the Church did, but in a less formal and public way. The Congregation would be (in later terminology) a “society of apostolic life.”  To the traditional vows of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience, Vincent added a fourth vow – the vow of stability. The goal of these vows was to help the missioners follow Jesus Christ more closely, both privately and publicly. In the words of St. Vincent, “Jesus Christ is the Rule of the Mission.” In addition to the vows, Vincent urged his confreres to practice five virtues that would help them in their spiritual and apostolic lives. These virtues are humility, simplicity, meekness, mortification, and zeal. If you were to ask, “What makes a Vincentian,” you may get many answers, but eventually you will hear about the four vows and the five virtues.

The vow of poverty is often misunderstood. It does not mean living a life of destitution. Rather, it means living a life that is simple, not building up unneeded wealth, and sharing a life of common goods. But most importantly, it is to live as Jesus lived. That he lived a life devoid of riches is obvious to even the most casual reader to the gospels. He was dependent on the gifts of others who supported his preaching and healing (see Luke 8:3). Not having a “place to lay his head” meant that he was free to pursue his preaching and healing ministries anywhere he saw the need. In recent years, the priests and brothers of the Congregation have become more intentional about inviting others to support our ministries, enabling the confreres to go where the Spirit is calling them. Our Development Office has, over the past 20 years, enabled many of our friends to join the Vincentian mission of evangelizing the poor.

In Vincent’s day, the confreres shared a life of common goods. Although they were allowed to keep money given to them by family or friends, anything that came to them as a result of their ministry was turned into the local superior to provide for the needs of all. That practice is still a part of the vow of poverty within the Congregation today. Every house and every confrere has an approved budget by which the confreres can pursue their ministries, knowing they have the resources to live strong, healthy, and productive lives.

Another necessary but (again) misunderstood aspect of poverty is good money management. St. Vincent never took on a new ministry without first making sure that it was adequately financed. Although he was known to rely greatly on Divine Providence for many things, he was a practical man, too.  Today the Vincentians use all the best accounting and financial planning practices to make sure our income and expenses are both transparent and enable us to plan for the future.

Today the vow of poverty is practiced differently than in the time of St. Vincent, but there are many similarities. Vincentians still strive to be poor in spirit and poor in fact, as Jesus was. They strive to accept some of the privations that poor people experience. They examine, on a regular basis, how they live, work, recreate, and share with the poor. Most of all, Vincentians strive to see everything they have as a gift, given in love by our generous God.