“Our vocation is to go and enflame the hearts of men, to do what the Son of God did, He Who brought fire into the world to set it alight with His love. What else can we wish for, than for it to burn and consume all things?” – St. Vincent de Paul
These words of St. Vincent de Paul, born into a French peasant family around 1580, reveal the intensity with which the man lived. St. Vincent de Paul’s strong sense of mission and effectiveness in action make him an extraordinary model for those who seek to be missionaries and entrepreneurs in the world today. What lessons can we learn from St. Vincent de Paul’s life and apply to our work in the business sphere or in the New Evangelization?
St. Vincent de Paul the Missionary
St. Vincent de Paul had a simple but profound statement that served as a guiding principle for all of his actions: “God sees you.” This simple phrase distills the powerful reality that each person’s life is sacred in the gaze of the Almighty God. God sees you; He notices you. Digesting this reality is transformative, as evidenced by St. Vincent de Paul’s example.
Because prayer gave him a profound conviction in and understanding of these three words— God sees you— St. Vincent de Paul burned with a desire to reach those who felt most unseen, uncared for, and unloved. These words fueled his missionary efforts, leading him to spend his life facilitating encounters between others and God’s loving gaze, reminding persons of their worth and lovability. St. Vincent de Paul realized that love is what people crave even more than food; as he put it, “It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
The Whole World is a Mission Field
St. Vincent de Paul’s missionary zeal was not dependent on his location. When, as a young priest, he was captured by Moorish pirates and sold into slavery in Africa, he witnessed to God’s love there, converting his owner to Christianity. When he was freed and returned to France, he served as a missionary through his pastoral work, serving convicts in the galleys, preaching missions, and distributing money to the poor. St. Vincent de Paul’s own words best express the missionary zeal he lived and loved:
We are chosen by God as instruments of His immense and fatherly love, which seeks to be established and to spread in souls…. Our vocation is therefore to go not to a parish, nor only to a bishopric, but to the whole world. To do what? To set peoples’ hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did, He who came to bring fire to the world, to set it ablaze with His love.
St. Vincent de Paul’s missionary endeavors led to the foundation of the order now known as the Vincentians, priests especially devoted to apostolic charity. He also assisted in the founding of the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, who would help poor, invalid, sick, and unemployed girls. Throughout all his endeavors, St. John Paul II noted, St. Vincent de Paul’s “principal concern, which remains so timely,” was “the preaching of the Good News to the most materially and spiritually destitute.”
For Us: How Must I Myself Burn?
One of the lessons St. Vincent de Paul offers the 21st century missionary entrepreneur is that there can be no sharing of God’s love if we don’t first possess it ourselves. “If it is true that we are called to bear God’s love near and far, if we must set nations alight,” wrote St. Vincent de Paul in a conference to other priests, “if our vocation is to go and spread this divine fire in the whole world, if it is so, my brothers, if it is really so, how must I myself burn of this divine fire!” This necessity of being on fire with love is why the logo for the Saint John Institute, which seeks to equip lay leaders to be missionary entrepreneurs in the New Evangelization, is a torch. The heart of the missionary is on fire, and he carries that flame of God’s love wherever he goes!
To be filled with the burning of the divine fire, we need to look receptively to God, receive His gaze, and pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The vocation to be a missionary—like St. Vincent de Paul lived out— is a response in the heart of a Christian to the Savior, a response that reveals the profound light of the One who called him. St. John describes in the book of revelation that the eyes of Christ are flames of fire! Saints like Vincent de Paul have allowed themselves to be confronted with these eyes, and that has kindled in them a response.
To be faithful missionaries, we need to have habits that regularly rekindle this light in our soul, from disciplined daily prayer time to annual retreats. Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to receive the love of God is spend time in Adoration, simply being with Him and giving Him all the passion and love in our soul. In Adoration, we are invited to listen and receive, and to speak directly to Him simple words of Love.
For Us: Priests and Laity can Work Together
Another lesson St. Vincent de Paul offers missionary entrepreneurs today is that everyone is called to participation in evangelization. Priests and laity alike have special roles in sharing the Good News. St. John Paul II points out that St. Vincent de Paul undertook his first great evangelization effort with lay members of the Church. St. John Paul II adds that St. Vincent de Paul also realized that “the benefits of mission cannot endure if the flame is not kept alive by zealous and well-trained priests who base their lives and ministry on their intimate encounter with Christ.”
St. Vincent de Paul’s example of collaboration between clergy and laity, while respecting the uniqueness of each vocation, calls us to better realize collaboration between clergy and laity in our lives. Are we supporting the priests of our parish, and our local religious orders? Are there ways to be more actively involved in their particular areas of ministry?
St. Vincent de Paul the Entrepreneur
As St. Vincent de Paul entered wholeheartedly into his ministry, he became aware that the team he was working with, the other clergy in France, was not realizing its full potential. Accordingly, St. Vincent de Paul played an important role in clerical reform through means like retreats, conferences, and the development of seminaries, all designed to nurture the knowledge priests needed to be Good Shepherds for their flocks.
As entrepreneurs, we can learn from St. Vincent de Paul the importance of education, of forming people rightly so that they are empowered to do their best in whatever position they hold. Importantly, St. Vincent de Paul did not grumble or simply wait for the state of priesthood in his country to improve. Instead, he dove readily into action, doing what he could with energy and love to facilitate better teamwork This reminds us of how we are called to be men and women of action; love invites us to engage and participate in our country, our state, our family… working humbly and prayerfully for positive change.
For Us: Business Connection
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, business thinkers Chip and Dan Heath write that “clarity dissolves resistance,” making change possible. The flipside is true as well: ambiguous messages do not result in lasting change. The Heath brothers use the Food Pyramid as an example of an ambiguous message; it doesn’t clearly reveal how to have a healthy diet. People simply don’t readily know what it is saying or how it applies to their life!
Part of what made St. Vincent de Paul so successful in revitalizing the priests around him was the clarity of his message. He knew that it is not enough to tell people, “Love God more.” Rather, leaders provide specific behavioral goals and action-steps that transition the idea of loving God into a real conversion of heart. Through his establishment of hospitals, education programs, and other apostolic works, St. Vincent de Paul gave people concrete ways to put love of God into action.
St. Vincent de Paul’s Intercession
St. Vincent de Paul’s life reveals the love of neighbor that flows from a heart that loves God. Let us pray through St. Vincent de Paul’s intercession to be more effective missionary entrepreneurs, confident that God sees and loves us. Confidence in this guiding principle can lead us to develop concrete ways to spread the flame of God’s love in our workplace or area of ministry. Let us pray that, like St. Vincent de Paul, we see God in the poor and give generously of our resources and talents to serve Him.
St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us.