Saint Vincent de Paul and Fratelli Tutti

Posted on 27th September, 2021

Saint Vincent de Paul and Fratelli Tutti

Vincent was the third born son in a farming family in the South of France. Two sisters arrived in the family after him. There is a story told that as a young boy he gave all his money to a beggar. This would show that right from his youth he had a love for the poor. I would doubt the authenticity of this report, for I don’t think that a farmer’s son would have any money of his own.

Though Vincent took part in the running of the farm according to his capacity – in particular in looking after the flocks – he was not really suited to this work. He was happy when his parents decided to have him study for the priesthood. He contributed to the expenses by tutoring the children of wealthy families, He saw the priesthood as a way to an easier life.


At the age of 19 Vincent was ordained a priest. He was not, however, able to exercise his ministry because he did not have the required age. So he continued studying, first in Toulouse, and later in Paris. He was eager to arrive in Paris in order to enter into contact with noble families. He was driven by ambition.


I have mentioned these seemingly negative points to show that one is not born a saint, one becomes a saint by attention to the reality which the Lord provides for our lives.

In Paris Vincent became associated with the Ladies of Charity, a group which Louise de Marillac had gathered around her. Vincent was horrified by the poverty these ladies revealed and were trying to alleviate. It was this reality that shaped his mission.


When the husband of Louise de Marillac died, Vincent was instrumental in forming with her the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity. He also founded a congregation of priests, the Congregation of the Mission, known in the English-speaking world as the Vincentians. He felt that it was necessary to give sound instruction to future priests, and this has always been one of the characteristics of his congregation.


Pope Francis does not speak about St Vincent de Paul in Fratelli Tutti. He does speak about Francis of Assisi. He adapts his title from words of Francis ( FT 1) He refers to the saint as “This saint of fraternal love, simplicity and joy” (FT2).  He refers to the visit of Francis to the Sultan Malik el-Kamil, “that shows his openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, colour or religion” (FT 3). He concluded: “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God.” (FT 4). I would encourage you to read these passages yourselves.


Pope Francis says that he has drawn inspiration from non Catholics: “Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more” (FT 286). In the very last paragraph of the encyclical he evokes the figure of a saint waiting to be Canonized. I want to quote this paragraph in full.


“Blessed Charles directed his ideal of total surrender to God towards an identification with the poor, abandoned in the depths of the African desert. In that setting he expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being and asked a friend to ‘pray to God that I truly be the brother of all’. Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen.” (FT 287).


He expressed the “desire” to feel the universal brother, and he felt the need to ask for prayer, which shows that this desire was not automatically realized. Charles had to grow in holiness.

In his introduction to the encyclical Pope Francis refers to the Covid-19 pandemic which, he says, has exposed our false securities (Cf. 7). We have all been shaken by this storm and, as he had said in his solitary prayer for an end to the pandemic: “We are all in the same boat together”.

It is in this spirit that Pope Francis describes the present state of the world. He points to Dark Clouds over a Closed World (the title of the first of the eight chapters of his letter). Because in our world today there is an emphasis on promoting individual interests, we tend to feel alone. St Vincent de Paul would surely agree with this. There are significant headings in this chapter: “Globalisation and progress without a shared roadmap” introducing FT 29-31; “An absence of human dignity on the borders” where Pope Francis speaks about migration which “will play a pivotal role in the future of our world.” (FT 40 and 37-41).


In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis is presenting a vision of how the world should be, a world of universal brotherhood, but he is not proposing to us that we should just wait for it to come, rather he is telling us to be active so that this fraternity and social friendship may be achieved. This is the purpose of chapter three Envisaging and Engendering an Open World. “Envisaging”, because we have to have a clear idea of what we want; “engendering”, because our actions produce effects, whether negative or positive. Both envisaging and engendering are needed. An artist may have a clear idea of the subject he or she wishes to portray, but if no paint is put on the canvas there will be no portrait.


Pope Francis reminds us that growth depends on relationships. Our self-consciousness develops through encounter with others. This is valid for individual persons, and at every stage of their existence, from infancy to old age. It is valid for married couples and for families, for societies and for the Church. The challenge is to move beyond oneself. The enemy of growth is self-centredness, which closes the horizon. So he speaks of “Moving beyond ourselves” (FT 88-94); “a love ever more open” (FT 95-105).


St Vincent de Paul would be very happy, I am sure, with Chapter Four “A Heart open to the Whole World”. Pope Francis speaks again of the attitude towards migrants, suggesting four words as a guide: welcome, protect, promote and integrate (FT 129). The gifts of other people are to be recognized, not dismissed (FT 133 sq).


The Pope is not engaging in party politics, but rather stressing the need for A Better Kind of Politics (the title of chapter five). He is advocating political activity which is “truly at the service of the common good” (FT 154) and which “makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable” (FT 155).


Chapter Six is entitled “Dialogue and Friendship  in Society” “Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground: all these things are summed up in the one word ‘dialogue’ “ (FT 198). Dialogue can be very public, for instance in peace negotiations, but it can often be rather hidden. As Pope Francis says: “persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines” (FT 198). The break-up of a marriage, leading to divorce, is “news”, but the patient dialogue that keeps a marriage going for many long years is not talked about. The same holds good for a religious community. Dialogue is out-going. It should be a characteristic of the “out-going Church” that Pope Francis is encouraging. He remarks that “some people attempt to flee from reality, taking refuge in their own little world; others react to it with destructive violence. Yet between selfish indifference and violent protest there is always another possible option: that of dialogue” (FT 199). Dialogue is not self-seeking; it is not an attempt “to seize every possible advantage” over the other, but rather cooperation “in the pursuit of the common good” (FT 202). In this process we have to be ready to accept the truth wherever it is to be found: “even people who can be considered questionable on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked” (FT 217). At the same time we have to be ready to express ourselves, not hiding our reality out of fear of raising opposition: “Let us not forget that differences are creative, they create tension and in the resolution of tension lies humanity’s progress” (FT 203). This supposes nevertheless “the ability to recognize other people’s rights to be themselves and to be different” (FT 218).

All this calls for an attitude of kindness which means “to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled “(FT 224).


This takes us to Chapter Seven Paths of Renewed Encounter.  Here again Pope Francis insists on the importance of truth: “Truth, in fact, is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy. All three together are essential to building peace; each, moreover, prevents the other from being altered… Truth should not lead to revenge, but rather to reconciliation and forgiveness” (FT 227).


Here the Pope goes against the usual advice “to forgive and forget”. On the contrary, he states:  “Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Or better, in the face of a reality that can in no way be denied, relativized or concealed, forgiveness is still possible. In the face of an action that can never be tolerated, justified or excused, we can still forgive. In the face of something that cannot be forgotten for any reason, we can still forgive. Free and heartfelt forgiveness is something noble, a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive. If forgiveness is gratuitous, then it can be shown even to someone who resists repentance and is unable to beg pardon” (FT 250). He has already said very clearly that the Shoah should not be forgotten, nor should the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki be forgotten (cf.FT 247, 248). He continues with these strong words: “Those who truly forgive do not forget. Instead, they choose not to yield to the same destructive force that caused them so much suffering. They break the vicious circle; they halt the advance of the forces of destruction. They choose not to spread in society the spirit of revenge that will sooner or later return to take its toll. Revenge never truly satisfies victims. Some crimes are so horrendous and cruel that the punishment of those who perpetrated them does not serve to repair the harm done. Even killing the criminal would not be enough, nor could any form of torture prove commensurate with the sufferings inflicted on the victim. Revenge resolves nothing” (251).



The final chapter of Fratelli Tutti is dedicated to Religions at the service of Fraternity in our World. Pope Francis appeals for the voice of religions to be heard, not only that of Christianity, but of all religions. “From our faith experience and from the wisdom accumulated over centuries, but also from lessons learned from our many weaknesses and failures, we, the believers of the different religions, know that our witness to God benefits our societies. The effort to seek God with a sincere heart, provided it is never sullied by ideological or self-serving aims, helps us recognize one another as travelling companions, truly brothers and sisters” (FT 274). He returns to the document on Human Fraternity which he had signed together with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi on 4 February 2019. “In my fraternal meeting, which I gladly recall, with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, we resolutely [declared] that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women… God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want his name to be used to terrorize people” (FT 285).


I hope that this summary of Fratelli Tutti will encourage you to read it. It is long, but it doesn’t have to be read at one go. It can be taken chapter by chapter.

Michael Louis Fitzgerald 

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