Lighting a new fire
St Vincent dePaul
Confraternities of the Ladies of Charity(AIC).
Sparks are insubstantial things and without kindling are are gone before you have barely noticed them. Likewise events that set in motion profound changes, at the time can seem unremarkable, banal even but with the right kindling they can become a revolution. One seemingly insignificant spark, -too much charity- set a fire that still burns today.On the 21st August 1617; Fr. DePaul, the new priest of Chatillon, a prosperous market town in central France preached an inspiring sermon about the needs of a poor family in the parish. Rather too inspiring, as he found on a visit to the family that same afternoon. So many woman had come with gifts of food, that the family which, before, had nothing, now had too much! Reflecting on the experience later on, the priest who would one day become the Patron of Organised Charity, noted.
“Here is an example of great charity but it is not well organised. The sick poor will have too many provisions all at once, some of which will spoil and be lost and then, afterwards, they will fall back into their misery”
The spark had found its kindling! By the following Wednesday Vincent had organised a meeting of the generous woman of the previous Sunday. By Christmas he had diocesan approval and a template for expansion. The Confraternities of the Ladies of Charity, the first organisation in the Vincentian Family, were born. The model of empowered woman engaging in spiritual and practical service of the poor, in an organised way was revolutionary, and when linked to the practical fervour of a later collaborator, Madame leGras (known now as St Louise deMarillac) the movement quickly went “viral”. By Vincent’s death the confraternities were well established in France and already spreading to neighbouring countries.
Revolution, World War and a name change (International Associations of Charity-in English) failed to extinguish the flame of Chattilon and today there are 200,000 woman working in 53 countries, responding to the needs of women in poverty. Deliberately there is no narrow definition of what works they do, (nor a limitation to cooperating only with women) thus giving the organisation the flexibility to respond both to needs as they arise, and to circumstances as they change. Internationally, prison and hospital visiting, care of seniors, and education of woman and girls in grass roots settings are common apostolates. In Ireland the organisation is not well known, but St Peter’s has a long established branch responding discreetly to the hidden poverty of women who struggle to make end meet behind the facade of “keep up appearances”. In Ballyfermot a new branch is supporting grandmothers who are burdened with challenging childcare responsibilities. In different circumstances, both internationally and locally woman engage with women to address forms of poverty that often go unnoticed and underappreciated in the wider society.
St. Vincent collaborated easily with woman and respected them as his equals in the service of the poor. He was part of a movement that was rediscovering that lay women (and men) are as capable of a profound spiritual life as are priests and nuns. There were already several woman of influence involved in the movement (St. Vincent would go on to know many of them personally) but Vincent’s genius was to open a pathway which directed that rediscovered spiritual energy towards the needs of poor people. Rather radically, he saw their work as overturning St. Paul’s injunction that women should be silent in Church
You are undertaking the work of the widows of the early Church, which is to take care of the corporal needs of those who are poor and also of [their] spiritual needs. In this way you are lifting the prohibition imposed upon you by Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 14: ‘Let women keep silence in the churches. They are not allowed to speak there.
He also compared the work of the expanding confraternities to those of the discontinued clerical order of deaconesses. In our time, it is this same order which is being proposed as a way of instating women into the ranks of the clergy.
Vincent dePaul was no feminist, and it would be quite wrong to present his as such, but in a world which often ignored female talent, he created spaces for the empowerment of women that remain significant to this day. In the month when we remember him, it is important to celebrate that empowerment and ask him to keep tending the fire he started from one spark in Chatillon – the Confraternities of the Ladies of Charity*