Missionary Disciple Saints: What I learnt in Paris

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I was really inspired by the first chapter in Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples, where Sherry Weddell writes about the “generation of saints” in the decades after St Francis de Sales arrived to re-evangelise a French Catholic wasteland in 1594. What inspired me was the network of “disciple friends” – lay, religious and clergy – who had tremendous impact in evangelising the community around them. So, when I was in Paris last week, I just had to go and visit these saints to pray for evangelisation of the UK.

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First up, St Louise de Marillac. This is her tomb in Rue de Bac, the congregation of the Daughters of Charity that she founded together with St Vincent de Paul (she began working with him in 1629). What I found very moving about the story of St Louise is how, in a very dark period of her life – her husband was extremely ill, her son also had health problems, and they were struggling financially – the Holy Spirit gave her a special grace. On the feast of Pentecost, she understood that she would devote herself to God in service of the poor, living in a community, but non-cloistered (highly unusual in those days). She knew that God would send her a priest to help her in her mission. This grace came to her in 1623. It was in 1626, after her husband had died, that she was forced to move into a small Parisian flat because of her diminished funds. Little did she know, she had moved into the parish of Fr Vincent, who was looking for a dedicated helper to coordinate his projects with the poor.

Over the next few years, Louise worked tirelessly, encouraging the Confraternities of Charity that Fr Vincent had begun to establish in response to the devastating poverty in and around Paris. At the time, a terrible trafficking of children was happening outside the church of Notre Dame, and Fr Vincent and Louise stepped in to rescue them, renting a house to accommodate them. Eventually, in 1642, they founded the Daughters of Charity, vowed sisters dedicated to the poor – the fulfilment of Louise’s earlier illumination from the Holy Spirit.

Many of us who work in the field of evangelisation have friends with whom we collaborate – we know we couldn’t do it without them! – and the friendship between Vincent and Louise is greatly inspiring. An intense and efficient collaboration is evident between them – each relying on the charisms of the other.

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The tomb of St Vincent de Paul (above) is just around the corner from Rue de Bac. And yet, his influence did not stop in his own generation. Nearly 200 years later, Catholic France was being ravaged once again, this time in the deadly throes of the Revolution. In a small village in Burgundy, a 12-year-old girl would go every day to pray in the chapel of Our Lady in her local church. The Revolution had devastated the Church, and her parish was without a priest, and the tabernacle was empty.

One night, this young girl had a dream. An old priest was celebrating Mass. She was standing at the door of the church, about to visit a sick person. The priest spoke to her: “My child, it is good to care for the sick. One day you will come to me. God has designs on you. Don’t you forget it!” When she woke up, she was full of joy.

This young girl’s name was Catherine Labouré. Aged 18, and staying in a boarding-house of the Daughters of Charity, she spotted a picture on the wall. It showed none other than the priest of her dream: St Vincent de Paul.

Catherine Labouré would later join the Congregation. In 1830, she would have a miraculous vision of Our Lady surrounded by rays of light shining across the globe. Our Lady asked for the image to be engraved onto medals, promising that those who would wear them would receive great graces. Among the ravages of the Revolution, cholera threatened to reach France in 1832, and everyone panicked. The Sisters handed around the first of these medals, and miracles were witnessed. One poor woman brought her 12-year-old paralysed son to Rue de Bac, to the chapel in the vault dedicated to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. He came back up from the chapel, his legs strong, able to walk!

I love these examples from the history of salvation of disciple-friends, interconnected – even through time – depending upon one other, responding to the call of God on their lives, generously using their charisms for the salvation of the world. Certainly, the “wasteland” we face in this country cannot be compared to that of post-Reformation, and later post-Revolution France. And yet, just imagine what God could do, in our own day, with a network of disciples. The story of Paris can inspire us to discover our charisms, to stay connected with many disciple-friends, and to expect that God will act. The history of salvation is still underway – let’s ask God to use us!

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