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Who Was Saint Vincent de Paul?

Many people wonder why this society founded by Frederic Ozanam was named after Saint Vincent de Paul. Who was Vincent? This article may shed some light on an interesting man, who with God's help, became a servant to the poor.

Vincent de Paul was born to a peasant family in 1581 in the village of Pouy, France. He was the third child of six, with three brothers and two sisters. At an early age, Vincent showed a talent for reading and writing. While the family could not afford it, his father sold the family's oxen and sent him to seminary school at a college in France when he was 15. Despite being known as one who angered easily, the well-spoken young man was well-liked by the religious elite and ordained at the young age of only 19.

Unfortunately, this was against the established regulations, which required a minimum of 24 years of age for ordination. Vincent was appointed as a parish priest; however, the appointment was appealed based upon age and current laws, so he continued with his studies. In 1604, Vincent received his Bachelor of Theology from the University of Toulouse and went on to earn a Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of Paris.

Many would be surprised to know that Vincent's entry into the clergy was initially self-serving. He was ashamed of his roots, hoped to escape poverty and secretly desired a life of luxury. It's noted that while he was still in the seminary, Vincent refused to greet his visiting father because he was too embarrassed by his father's unfortunate appearance. Thanks to his intelligence and charm, many were often fooled by Vincent's intentions.

God's path was an interesting one for Vincent in the years to come. It started when he sailed on a trip to sell off an inheritance from a patron. He planned to get wealthy; however, that was not God's plan. The ship, traveling from Marseilles to Narbonne, was raided by Barbary pirates. He was taken to North Africa and auctioned off as a slave. During this time, he prayed and pledged to the Lord that if he made it out alive, he would then devote the rest of his life to the service of the poor. Vincent spent two years in bondage serving several different masters until he finally managed to escape and return to France.

Safe and changed, Vincent then went on to continue theological studies in Rome and eventually back to France on a mission for King Henry IV in 1609. Once in France, he made the acquaintance of Abbé Pierre de Bérulle, whom he took as his spiritual advisor, a connection that eventually allowed him to be the country's most influential spiritual advisor. In 1612, he was sent as parish priest to the Church of Saint-Medard in Clichy. In less than a year, Bérulle recalled him to Paris to serve as a chaplain and tutor to the Gondi family.

During his time in France, be began serving the poor as promised and was moved by the poverty he witnessed. Basic needs were not met, and many died of starvation. Thankfully, Vincent had many connections with wealthy and influential contacts in France that he persuaded to help overcome the terrible poverty. This included the Gondi family, who would eventually endow and support missionaries to work among the poor in France.

Vincent inspired others to organize in their efforts to help the poor. He led groups that went door to door, seeking furniture, food, and clothing that could be taken and given directly to those in need. His parish was hugely successful in their efforts. Other congregations learned from him and churches all over France began taking similar actions to help care for the poor in their communities. He led what is now known as the Congregation of the Mission, or the Vincentians. These were priests that took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability with a goal of service to their local townspeople.

During a time where apathy and ignorance were widespread among clergy, Vincent was passionate about the formation of retreats, training, and continued education and seminaries. He worked to change the hearts of those who were called to serve. Vincent spent twenty-eight years serving as the spiritual director of the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels and was said to have touched thousands upon thousands of clergy members.

During this time, De Paul continued to connect those in need with those who could be of assistance. For example, together with the help of Saint Louise de Marillac, grew the Daughters of Charity, a group "whose convent is the sickroom, whose chapel is the parish church, whose cloister is the streets of the city."

He also organized the rich women of Paris to collect funds for his missionary projects, founded several hospitals, collected relief funds for the victims of war, and ransomed over 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa.

In 1643, with Louis XIII dead, Queen Anne had her husband's will annulled. This action abolished the regency council and made Anne sole Regent of France. With her new power, Anne exiled some and appointed others to important positions. She nominated Vincent de Paul as her spiritual adviser, which helped her deal with religious policy.

With a changed heart, Vincent de Paul became known as "The Apostle of Charity" and "The Father of the Poor." He died in 1660 at the age of 79. He was canonized in 1737 and, in 1883, the Church designated him as the special patron of all charitable associations. During his life, Saint Vincent de Paul became the symbol of successful reform of the French Church. His life transition from selfish to complete selflessness shows us all that change can happen with God's Love.

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