A Vincentian View: “I feel your pain”

Fr. Patrick Griffin, C.M.

We have just completed the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian charism.

January 25, 1617 was the day on which Vincent de Paul preached what he considered to be the first sermon of the mission. For the past year, in various ways, we have remembered and valued his insight and guidance at St. John’s University.

One of the special gifts for me during the year was the opportunity to teach a course on St. Vincent de Paul in the Theology Department of St. John’s College. I had, of course, spoken about Vincent on numerous occasions, but this was the first time that I could offer a semester-long focused presentation. In the three and one-half years before I returned to SJU in 2014, I had lived and worked in Paris. What a privilege and a blessing! I came to experience the Vincentian story through the streets and places where so much occurred. I told my SJU class that I would love to have them in Paris with me so that we could tell the story and service of Vincent de Paul in place, so that we could walk around and feel the spirit.

Most people might think that I would like to begin that French journey in the South of France where Vincent was born. That would not be true. I would begin in the little park which now rests within the campus which was the St. Lazare estate in Vincent’s time. Vincent had lived on this property through the latter years of his life (1632-1660). From there, much of his ministry had proceeded. In this little fenced park, there are benches and grass and paths and flowers. There are also (usually) a number of homeless people. (I think that Vincent would have liked that.)

At one end of the park, is a granite column about 6 feet tall. In the column is engraved an image of Vincent de Paul and these words of his: “J’ai peine de votre peine” which I loosely translate as “I feel your pain” For me, these words offer a proper and very human introduction to the heart of Vincent. He felt the afflictions of those who suffered and he gathered around him women and men who felt that same hurt. With his words and actions, he enabled all his supporters to come to some appreciation of the pain of the poor.

That is the lesson which I would hope to convey in my Vincent course. For him, to open oneself to the service of those in need involves exposing oneself to their aches and torments. There can be no armor to protect one’s innermost and tender self. As I allow myself to look at our current world, I see the desire to shut ourselves off from the pain of others. To allow ourselves to feel that hurt would demand that we do something. It is easier to ignore or demonize the poor without medical care and immigrants and others. These are the people whom Vincent would look in the eye with the assertion; “I feel your pain.”