A modern saint in early modern times

A modern saint in early modern times
Pope Francis’ missionary approach echoes that of St Vincent de Paul, Greg Daly learns


NUI Galway’s Dr Alison Forrestal hadn’t planned on writing a book to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian charism’s birth when she started work on St Vincent de Paul. She was simply, she says, “working as a scholar on something nobody had done before”.

The project, she thought, would take about eight years, concluding close to key anniversaries of St Vincent’s “first sermon of the mission” in Folleville and his subsequent sharing of the lives of the poor in Châtillon-lès-Dombes. This timing, she thought, was “marvellous”, but in the end it proved a happy coincidence that Vincent de Paul, the Lazarist Mission and French Catholic Reform hit the presses in 2017.

Any new book around a figure so well known as St Vincent de Paul might seem superfluous, but Dr Forrestal stresses that the historiography of early modern Europe has changed immensely in recent decades.

“Right up to the mid-20th Centur, historians writing about Catholicism were writing in a very reactive way to writing about Protestantism – this set Catholic historiography on the back foot,” she says. “Even the labels ‘Protestant Reformation’ and ‘Catholic Counter-Reformation’ reflected this. It’s only been in the last 30 to 40 years that there’s been quite a paradigm shift, recognised by historians working in any area of early modern Christianity.”


Nowadays, she says, historians tend not to talk simply of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and recognise that Catholic reforms weren’t simply prompted by reaction to the Protestant challenge.

St Vincent de Paul, for example, had been born during and lived through the French Wars of Religion, but his approach to Catholic renewal, Dr Forrestal says, drew on ideas and practices that were not necessarily rooted in a reaction to Protestantism.

Not that he should be considered in isolation, she stresses. “The ‘Great Man’ is a staple of historical writing, with biographies of such being common, and in some ways this book could be accused of being traditional in that sense,” she says, before clarifying: “It’s not really a biography of an individual – it’s more a thematic case study of how someone achieves reform by working with others.”

There are lessons there for how visions can be realised, she says. “Nobody emerges in that cultural environment as an isolated figure, though later in the hagiography, other people fall away and you’re left with the sole saintly figure.”

Speculating that St Vincent would have been horrified at the prospect of being the sole person remembered while others were forgotten, she says: “I don’t think anyone has done what I have done for the Catholic renewal movement in France or anyone else. I don’t see this kind of reworking of the key figures, that sets them within a very vigorous and active network.”

Looking at them in the context of their networks, she says, allows their roles and those of others to be analysed and highlighted.

One other figure from the era who has not been forgotten is St Francis de Sales, the Savoy-based Bishop of Geneva, whose famous Introduction to The Devout Life St Vincent had read before St Francis spent about a year in France between late 1618 and late 1619.

“It had been published about 10 years earlier, and we know that Vincent de Paul had been reading that, because he referenced it explicitly in 1617 when he established the first Confraternity of Charity in Châtillon, and he urged the women in that confraternity to read the book,” she says, noting how it was specifically designed for the lay vocation, and especially useful for women.

“They met, then, at the end of this period. Vincent de Paul certainly – we know from his own records – spent quite a lot of time with de Sales at this point,” she says, observing, “De Sales became a kind of mentor to him.”

One effect of this was that Salesian thinking became key to the development of St Vincent’s own thought, she explains, while another was that St Vincent was nominated by St Francis and by Jean de Chantal to be ecclesiastical superior of Paris’s first Visitation convent. This was “an enormous mark of trust”, but also a gateway to a whole new set of networking and patronage opportunities.


St Vincent’s belief that women could and should play active public roles in Church life came both from his own experience and from a strain of Salesian thought, Dr Forrestal elaborates, although St Vincent went further than St Francis in considering how women from less affluent social levels could contribute.

“When Vincent de Paul takes on this idea about how it is possible to live a perfectly valid vocation in any form of life, he doesn’t just think about the wealthy woman who might be able to act as a patron, who might be able to organise visits for the sick and all of these kinds of things. He also begins to think of women from other social groups, and I think that’s one of the really significant things,” she says.

The first institutional expressions of the Vincentian charism were the confraternities of charity, designed to provide structures that would allow all women, except for those in most need, an active role in the Church. Such public organisations – as distinct from purely devotional confraternities that might care for chapels – were unusual at the time.

The attempt to mobilise lay women in the Church also owed a lot to St Vincent’s time as tutor and spiritual director to Marguerite de Gondi, a noblewoman who had impressed him with her devotion, but what was most innovative about the confraternities is that they opened up pastoral roles in the Church to other women.

“It’s more likely that someone like Madame de Gondi might be able to do these things and get away with it, if you know what I mean, but for women in lower social groups it was much more difficult to send them out into the streets and to have them go into poor areas,” Dr Forrestal explains, continuing that there were issues both of physical safety and of dishonour. “A woman’s reputation was so critical for herself and for her family at this point,” she says.

The confraternities, she explains, gave women a kind of protective structure where they could organise themselves and take on public roles in respectable ways.

“And of course they are taking on roles in nursing and care for the poor, which were in themselves recognised at least domestically as being activities which were quite feminine, so in that sense he was trying to overcome the prejudice against women’s public role by using what were regarded as female characteristics or female qualities and were valued in that way,” she says.

A major concern for St Vincent and for St Louise de Marillac, co-founder with him of the Daughters of Charity, was that the women they were mobilising would be treated as nuns and confined in enclosed monasteries or convents.

They realised they had to be “fairly ingenious” about this, Dr Forrestal says, explaining that this was why the Daughters of Charity remained a confraternity with an annual private vow, rather than the solemn vows that were hallmarks of religious orders. “It’s a very clever approach,” she says, adding that Ss Vincent and Louise were helped by their patrons in seeking approval – and in delaying seeking approval – for various structures at suitable times.

“So he’s slow enough to kind of make these plans. He always argues ‘well, I’m waiting on providence, and I’m waiting on God’s will and stuff’ but actually it makes absolute sense to take these things slowly and make it a reality and then legislate for it,” she says.

Key to St Vincent’s success, she says, aside from his knack for collaboration, is his remarkable combination of vision with a head for detail.

“We all tend to have one or the other – you’re either a big vision person or you’re a head-for-detail person. It’s not often that the two come together and with Vincent de Paul they really, really do,” she says, adding that he didn’t follow a tight plan from the start, but was instead very quick at responding to opportunities, expanding his vision based on them, and at maintaining a close eye on the overall vision as it was enacted.

If he hadn’t had that sense of organisation prowess and administrative skill, she says, “I don’t think he would have achieved half as much as he achieved”.


One of his real gifts, she says, is not merely persuading people to do things, but persuading them to do things where he says that they knew all along what they were going to do. “That comes down to, I think, how he provides a kind of central idea, which is this idea of charity which can be articulated or expressed in multiples ways, and that’s key to it,” she says, explaining that he believes in people being given opportunities to practice charity in ways that best suit them.

Even the poorest have an important role in this, she says, since “they are contributing to the salvation of the people helping them”.  Stressing that St Vincent wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, she says that he was trying to provide an overarching idea that would open up “the organisation of charity and the use of charity as a kind of guiding principle in life”.

The Jesuits of St Vincent’s time are sometimes described as the ‘first corporate multinational’, but Dr Forrestal thinks the era’s trading companies offer better analogies for such religious orders, given their capacity for slotting into places and establishing communication networks beyond the State’s capabilities.

“I see Vincent de Paul as being like that,” she says, continuing: “A lot of the work that he did was in areas where the French State was either unable or unwilling to become involved.”

Organisational growth posed a real challenge for St Vincent, she adds.

“One of the problems I think for Vincent de Paul, and it’s something that he’s constantly worrying about in the 1650s, is the fact that so much of it goes back to him, both in terms of the charisma of the founder, and also the problem of how you establish a more decentred network without losing the core ideas and practices that had originated in Paris with him,” she says.

He didn’t quite overcome this problem, she says, adding that this isn’t really surprising as it’s an ongoing problem for religious bodies: “How do you remain faithful in perpetuating practices and ideas as you decentre and as you move towards a period when the founder will no longer be there?”


St Vincent’s collaborators were especially troubled by this – “terrified of drifting away from his ethos” – in the decades after his death, she says, but “every generation has to answer new questions and new contexts, and it becomes extremely difficult as a whole set of new challenges and new opportunities arise”.

The challenges for Vincent’s successors, she says, included issues of decentralisation, which raised questions of incipient nationalisms with what seemed to be a distinctly Parisian French ethos being challenged by Italians and others.

Decentralisation, one might think, was part and parcel of a project that came in some ways from the peripheries, with St Vincent being especially keen on “enabling those voices to be heard”.

“Vincent de Paul never talked about or used the term ‘reformation’ or even ‘reform’, to be honest, and he wouldn’t really have seen things like that,” she adds. “For de Paul, if he talks about religious change, he talks about it in terms simply of improving, and he also talks about it as though he doesn’t see himself as reforming anything, in a sense.

“It’s a process of renewal as much as anything else for him, and I think he would understand ‘reform’ in a different way to ‘renew’. He talks about improving while remaining traditional. This makes him very interesting in the sense that he looks back but he’s always looking forward,” she says.

Explaining that in some ways St Vincent was deeply traditional – he was utterly opposed to Jansenism, for instance – Dr Forrestal says in other ways he was innovative: “In terms of lay participation, in terms of listening and hearing and allowing the voices of those who are not normally heard in any kind of formal sense within his Church, he’s very open to that.”

Curiously, she points out, he was utterly opposed to direct attempts at converting Protestants to Catholicism.

“This is a core part of his thinking about mission,” she says. “He does not want any form of confrontation at all. He says that if you can’t convert people by the example of your goodness and your virtue, there is no point, because you must – I suppose – shine a light through your own life, and if that attracts people, all well and good.”

Acknowledging that this approach is at least partially drawn from St Francis de Sales, Dr Forrestal stresses that “he doesn’t do this on the basis that he thinks Protestantism is right or anything like that, but he tries to deal with it on a very human level”. Pointing out that he had belonged to organisations whose members had tried to convert Protestants, she says she has found no evidence that he ever did this himself.

“It would go against everything he says and everything he trains his missionaries to do. Occasionally he has to reprimand missionaries who are displaying a little bit too much zeal and remind them that no, that’s not the way we do things here,” she says.

Describing his thinking around this as “one of the most remarkable things about him”, she says that “on that, I think, de Paul is a forerunner in some ways I would say of the likes of Pope Francis. And some people won’t like this, of course – even now his views can be quite contentious.”


St Vincent may have been opposed to proselytisation, but that did not stop him from emphasising the importance of catechesis both because people should know more about their Faith in general and as a kind of protective shield.

“In one way, I suppose, if you want to ensure that Protestantism doesn’t grow, you must ensure that Catholics are fairly understanding of their Faith and see the benefits of their Faith so that they might not be tempted to cross the line,” Dr Forrestal says. “It’s that indirect sense of ensuring Catholicism recovers and maintains its presence in France.”

Catechesis was, in any case, absolutely central to his approach, centred as it was around such concepts as free will, rationality, and humility. “The Lazarists under Vincent use catechesis far more than any of the other religious orders that I’ve looked at,” she says, adding: “He thinks it’s really through catechesis that people will understand the love of their God and the mercy of their God and will make that decision to commit to him.”