thomas mckenna, "vincentian spirituality: a core leadership trait," vincentian heritage, 26: 1 (2005), 69-71
Utilizing a modern phrase in the context of 17th Century France, we could say Vincent de Paul was very "present to" his contemporaries. While there were those who thought him mistaken in his methods, and those who opposed him on certain spiritual teachings, there is no record of anyone who did not consider him genuine. For decades he moved in the intrigue-filled world of the French Royal court, engaged in his share of controversy - and yet he managed to maintain the trust of all sides. At the same time, he had nationwide credibility among the little people, the poor of the cities and the country. Standing in a breech between the classes, he was remarkably believable to both.
In many letters and conferences, he declares that being genuine is uppermost among his personal values and that in fact he has spent a lifetime pursuing this trait. His word for it? Simplicity.
Simplicity for him meant personal transparency, squaring up outside appearances with inner attitudes and dispositions. It was truth-telling and truth-witnessing. In a letter of 1634, he writes to a collaborator:
You know that your own kind heart has given me, thanks be to God, full liberty to speak to you with the utmost confidence, without any concealment or disguise; and it seems to me that up to the present you have recognized that fact in all my dealings with you. But am I to fall into the trap of being forced to do or to say, in dealing with you, anything contrary to holy simplicity? May God preserve me from doing this in any way whatsoever! Simplicity is the virtue I love the most, the one to which in all my actions I pay the most heed, so it seems to me. And if it were permissible for me to say it to you, it is the one virtue in which by God's mercy I have made some progress.
It was a virtue he urged in all his followers. Their heart must not think one thing while their mouth says another. They must steer clear of all duplicity, hidden agendas, two-facedness, cunning, studied cleverness and double meaning. He allows that he has such a great respect for simplicity that he calls it "my gospel." He confides that he has a conscious intent to say things as they are, and that he gets strong consolation when he does.
Why is it so valuable to him? First of all, because he sees the trait in Jesus Christ and in his Father. God himself is this way, Vincent says; where this kind of transparency prevails, God is present. Simplicity is in the makeup of Jesus Christ, demonstrated even unto his death.
But there is also a very pragmatic reason Vincent praises simplicity. It is impossible to be effective as an apostle without it. If people see that your words do not correspond to what is really inside you, they will not hear your preaching nor will they accept your ministries. Vincent expands on that reasoning. The people he has observed having the highest sensitivity to deception are the poor. They see through the clever talker. They sense what is hidden in an agenda. You cannot doubletalk them for long. To bring the good news to these individuals (Vincent's life mission) the evangelizer's language has to be coming from his heart. Her service has to spring from her inner conviction about the worth of the other, and not from some masked self-interest. For Vincent, it is the simple who have what he calls "true religion." And they instinctively recognize those with false religion.
What does this say for personal presence? Everybody, even the most astute critics, the poor, came to take for granted that the Vincent in front of them was the real Vincent, evidenced by a contemporary's compliment, "M. Vincent is always M. Vincent." He was real; his presence was real. And he insisted that those around him be the same, because without personal transparency the gospel would not be preached. The outer word has to be a faithful echo of the
inner. This, for him, is what it meant to have simplicity - be a personal presence that was real.
A litmus test for rooted personal presence comes in apostolic service. Motives for serving the needy can be other than respect for the dignity of the one served. Those good feelings that accompany giving, a reward for the giver in the next life, the subtle rush one might get in the power differences between giver and receiver, all these and more can be part of the transaction - and they diminish and do not build up the self-esteem of the one served.
For charity to be healing, only one motive suffices: genuine love and respect for the person receiving it. There must be a match between the words of the giver concerning the goodness of the poor, and the giver's inner attitude. Vincent's special knack was to honor the ones he helped in the very act of helping them. As one writer put it, "the poor could forgive him the bread he gave them." When he gave assistance, the people believed his charity came from real respect for them. A way to regard Vincent's service of the poor? Simplicity, a key to action, a real presence in charitable works.