Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

September 27, 2007

In late September of 1660, a modest, four-sentence obituary appeared in the Gazette de France. It was Vincent de Paul’s obituary. By the time of his death on September 27th, Vincent de Paul was one of the best-known names in France.

  • He had organized an order of priests and brothers, and another order of women religious called the Daughters of Charity. 
  • He had started confraternities of charity in the parish churches of France through which the laity of every locale had begun taking care of the poor in their midst. 
  • He had reformed the seminaries where priests were trained. He had started post-ordination training programs for priests. 
  • Working with Louise de Marillac and his many collaborators, he had founded orphanages for abandoned children, schools where women could learn to read, soup kitchens and job-training programs for the poor. He had opened hospitals for the poor, improved conditions of galley slaves and prisons, attended to the displaced of two major wars in France, and seen to the needs of the extensive poverty both in the rural areas, and ever-increasingly, the urban centers. 
  • More importantly to him, he had seen to the spiritual needs of all these people and more, helping them reconcile their lives to their God. 
  • He had seen all these works spread to several additional countries, and then entrusted these works to those who would follow him. 
  • He had organized the wealthy and powerful of France to support these works and placed all his works on a firm ground of reliable funding so that they would continue.
  • But, except for a one-sentence mention of his Congregation of the Mission (the organization which founded and sponsors DePaul University to this day), the obituary mentioned almost none of that extensive life’s work. Instead, it focused on something else: who came to the funeral. Here’s what the obituary said:

    On the same day, Father Vincent de Paul, Superior General and Founder of the Congregation of the Priests of the Mission, died in his sleep at Saint-Lazare in his [eightieth] year, after having received the sacraments with the deep piety of which he has so long given testimony.  As illustrious monuments to this, he has left nearly thirty houses of the Mission, which he established in various provinces of France, as well as in Rome, Savoy, Genoa, Poland, and as far off as Africa and Madagascar, where he has had the Gospel preached.

    The following day, a solemn funeral service was held for him.  It was attended by the Prince of Conti, the Nuncio of His Holiness, several Bishops, the Duchess of d’Eguillon, and a large number of Lords and ladies who wished to honor his memory, along with the common people, who were there in a large crowd. 

    Vincent de Paul had lived to see 80 years of age, a very long life for the 1600’s. And thus he had been blessed to see some of many initiatives take root. But even he could not have imagined that:

    • His Daughters of Charity would become today the largest group of women religious in the world. 
    • That his works today could be found in every region of the world. 
    • That nearly 2 million people today would call themselves “Vincentians,” believing it important to continue this man’s work. And that most of those 2 million Vincentians would be lay people. 
    • That DePaul University in Chicago would already have educated 108 years of graduates, giving women and men an education that changes their prospects, opens the doors to a meaningful and successful life, that challenges them to build a life of purpose and wisdom, and encourages them to do so in communion with their God. 

    No, all this would have been beyond even the imagination of Vincent de Paul. But he could have predicted who would have come to his funeral. Everyone.  The powerful and the poor.  The high and the low.  The privileged and the unknown— especially the unknown.  Because they were known to Vincent, and they loved him for it. 

    Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, who turned his own attention away from the powerful to the poor, and who lost his life for doing so, once wrote this:

     It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

     This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

     We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

    We pray then, at this breakfast in 2007 in Chicago that the food we are about to share be blessed, and that we might in turn be a blessing to the world around us. May we continue to water seeds not planted by ourselves. May we plant seeds whose growth we will never know. May we always have the love of the poor and marginalized in our hearts. Lord, may we who dare to call ourselves “Vincentians” see always with the eyes of faith that we are part of your work. And when our time ends, may it be the poor who have been better off because we lived and worked and followed in the footsteps of this holy man, Vincent de Paul. 

    We ask this of you who guard and guide our days, now and forever. Amen. 

    My colleagues, I wish you a wonderful week of celebrating St. Vincent. It’s a true blessing for us to work with each other. Thank you for all that you do. Lives change because of your work. God bless you.​​​​