Opinion: this year is 400th anniversary of the foundation of Vincent de Paul-style charity. But who was de Paul, what was his impact and why is he remembered?

Echoes of the past

In Ireland, the echoes of a 17th century saint’s life ring out strongly as we go about our daily lives. The shopfronts of Vincent’s, with their bright blue and yellow signs, stand out on the main streets of towns all over the country. In December, the TV ads for the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul mark the coming of the Christmas season by encouraging us to put our hands in our pockets so that others can share in a little seasonal cheer. 

Today, De Paul organisations are among the most active and visible in the voluntary and non-governmental sectors. They are a regional subset in a worldwide network of volunteers, case-workers, fund-raising and advocacy. The Society is active in 113 countries, and has 11,000 volunteers in Ireland alone. Another large organisation, DePaul Ireland, relates closely to sister organisations in Britain, France, the USA and Ukraine (Depaul International).

This year, they celebrate the legacy of their patron, who began his own charitable work in September 1617, with the foundation of a confraternity of charity in France to care for the sick poor. Such is Vincent de Paul’s stature that thousands will travel to Rome for a major celebration of his ethos and legacy this month. In May, the European Parliament welcomed a delegation from Depaul International to speak on the work they do for the homeless, the addicted, the migrant and the trafficked. 

Why ‘De Paul’?

Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 in rural south-west France. He was ordained a priest in 1600 and died in 1660 after a lifetime of missionary and charitable work. Not many people live on to speak through the centuries as he does, and he has escaped the caricature often suffered by iconic figures. Although long-dead and a Catholic priest to boot – a combination of characteristics that do not tend to lead to public praise these days - de Paul has managed the rare feat of attracting admirers amongst believers and non-believers alike. 

Even though his own religious convictions formed the basis for his teachings and activities, his Catholic fans are side-by-side with such staunchly secular thinkers as the architects of the French welfare state. For some, de Paul is important not because of his religious beliefs, but in spite of them. For others, his religious beliefs are at the heart of his significance. But all recall his tenacity and creativity, summed up by his claim that "there is no act of charity that permits us to do more than we can".

He did not follow the crowd in discriminating when helping the needy and rejected the common notion that poverty was a moral failing

Values and actions

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It would be a mistake to judge de Paul by modern standards of welfare provision. He was subject to many of the same convictions as his contemporaries, such as a belief that the existing social hierarchy was permanent and ordained by God, a belief that the Catholic church and the French monarchical state were the twin pillars of society and a world view that placed a premium on living a devout life in order to reach heaven after death. This meant that he was inclined to work to alleviate hardship rather than to tackle the fundamental causes.

Context is also important. De Paul lived through a period of extraordinary turmoil. France emerged from a devastating civil war around 1600, only to find itself embroiled in another in 1647 and also taking a major role in the Thirty Years War from 1618. 

It was a time of unprecedented adversity and anxiety in French society, and de Paul was in the thick of it. Growing numbers of rural poor turned to the cities to find food when harvests failed. Refugees poured into Paris as troops destroyed crops, stole animals, and spread disease in north-eastern France. Thousands died from starvation in this devastated region and elsewhere.

He helped them to find grounds to reject the teaching of Saint Paul which forbade women to teach the faith, on which the church had based much of its gendered view of authority.

Public female activism

One of de Paul’s most remarkable insights related to the potential for public female activism. For social and ecclesiastical reasons, women were not normally permitted to engage in public roles. What is known as the "circle of exclusions" restricted their access to most positions of early modern civil, political, and ecclesiastical leadership in society. Moreover, if not at home looking after children, Catholic women were usually nuns in convents, enclosed and cloistered away from the rest of society.

De Paul realised that both church and society were missing a trick. Womanpower was a huge resource that could be directed through Catholic religious expression to the alleviation of suffering amongst the sick and poor. He also understood that if they worked collectively in confraternities, women stood a much better chance of withstanding criticism from their families, friends, neighbours, and the authorities, while their sense of belonging and common purpose would encourage them to persevere when the first flush of enthusiasm ran out. As a result, he founded his first confraternity for women in south-east France in August 1617, and went on to promote this model of activism for the rest of his life.

Decision-making in these groups was overwhelmingly in the hands of the women themselves, another innovation that makes de Paul’s thinking seem closer to modern values than those of most of his contemporaries. He also helped them to find grounds to reject the influential teaching of Saint Paul which forbade women to teach the faith, on which the church had based much of its gendered view of authority.

De Paul and one of these women, Louise de Marillac, established a groundbreaking community of women, the Daughters of Charity. They were to become an inspiration for Florence Nightingale and many of the non-enclosed female religious orders that subsequently emerged to teach and nurse in Catholic societies. Although they lived in community and worked in the tenements and streets of towns, the Daughters were not nuns and provided a model for a future in which, as de Paul put it, "their cloister would be the streets of the city". This rallying call was revolutionary in scope, and transformative in practice.

The poor and the marginalised

Another value has meant that de Paul’s example has spoken through the centuries where marginalisation, want, inequity and injustice can always be found. He deliberately sought out the poor and marginalised to recognise their innate dignity whatever their circumstances. In doing so, he resisted the widespread social belief that the many abandoned and illegitimate infants on the streets were tainted by the supposed sins of their parents and undeserving of compassionate help.

He did not follow the crowd in discriminating between Catholics and Protestants when helping the needy and rejected the common notion that poverty was a moral failing. De Paul countered the prevailing norms and stereotypes of his time and challenged others to question their own limitations and to push social and religious boundaries to create new opportunities for themselves and others.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ