A challenging portrait of all-consuming charity

This week I commend to your attention a challenging film from the Vatican list of recommended movies, Monsieur Vincent, a 1947 French production which provides some instructive insights into the life and spirit of the now canonized 17th century priest Vincent de Paul.

Still known today for the food pantries and thrift stores established in his name, the legacy of this saint originates in the soup kitchens, hospices, care homes for the elderly, homes for abandoned children, and other practical works of mercy he founded to improve the material well-being of the poor.

Whereas such organizations seem normal and obvious to us now and are operated by civil authorities in many societies around the world, this film underscores how such institutions began as works of consciously undertaken Christian charity.

The real gut punch of the film, though, comes from the unflinchingly unromanticized way it depicts this kind of ministry.

After renouncing his worldly goods to live in greater solidarity with the poor, de Paul opts to rent a ramshackle room where he can hardly sleep without interruption from his neighbors’ crying baby, domestic disputes, and a woman who laughs maniacally every quarter hour.

The homeless man with whom he shares these quarters comments on the cacophony, “The poor don’t sleep at night. They work. They insult each other. They fight. They cough. They make more poor people. You can’t let that get to you. You have to do like everyone else and not care.”

Such a council of despair only strengthens de Paul’s resolve, though, and he gets down on his knees to beg forgiveness for living in ignorance of so much misery.

His volunteers run up against the same kind of squalor. For example, when a nurse tries and fails to break up a fight between two men fighting to die in the same bed, she cries out to de Paul in exasperation, “They demand things, they insult us, they spit on us! How could I possibly love them?”

“They can be tough and unfair, but we have to serve them and love them like we would our masters,” he returns. “The uglier and dirtier they are, the more unfair and vulgar they are, the more love you’ll have to give.”

With this the future saint calls attention to one of the lesser publicized characteristics of truly Christ-like charity: the more purely and completely a person’s love of neighbor participates in the love of the Creator for his creatures, the more one-sided and unreciprocal it becomes.

From another angle, the poorer a person is, materially and spiritually, the less resources he or she will have to offer anyone in return—perhaps even gratitude.

Since natural love naturally expects some sort of reciprocity, though, to love such persons persistently and with the kind of tenderness and solicitude that God extends towards each of us, the charitable giver’s love must necessarily tap into something deeper than mere emotion, even deeper than anything simply natural.

Indeed, it is arguably impossible to truly love the poorest in this world apart from God’s own love, which has the power to deepen, strengthen, and transfigure our finite offerings so that they participate in a supernatural reality as inexhaustible as it is generous and, ultimately, miraculous.

If there is a shortcoming in this film, it is on this point. Specifically, for failing to prioritize, or frankly even recognize, the interior supernatural communion which is the source of all truly Christian charity, the film ends up advocating a rigorist, even secularized kind of sacrifice that is fully human but less than divine.

We hear de Paul in this film tell a struggling fellow worker, “It is not enough to do a little good. You have to take on a little more every day” – which is fair enough.

But the characterization goes too far when de Paul as an old man laments how little he has accomplished. Sitting in a private audience with the Queen of France, he comments that his efforts amount to nothing, to which she naturally compares her own achivements.

“You’ve given your whole life, you’ve given up happiness and power forever, you’ve built more than useless palaces, more than vain glory. Do you also feel, now that death is near, that you’re leaving nothing but an empty hole behind?”

“Yes, Madame,” he responds. “I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Agitated, she voices our next question. “What is one supposed to do in life, then, to accomplish anything?”

His answer is as simple as it is devastating. “More.”

“You will soon realize charity is a heavy load to carry,” he tells another of his helpers.

But is it? What about that yoke Our Lord describes as easy, and the burden light?

On the one hand, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one of the greatest daughters of charity in modern times yet whose private journals disclose a felt absence of any natural consolation across most of her adult life, perhaps one of God’s severest mercies is to entrust a few of us with a share in that interior poverty he expresses most searchingly in his cry of dereliction from the Cross.

On the other hand, for most of us, I suspect, however toilsome and demanding the work to which we are called, Christ’s presence with us this side of the Resurrection means no cross need be carried alone: it may be heavy, but love lightens all burdens.

So, what should we make of this film’s insightful, challenging, imperfect picture of saintly service?

In the end I do think its portrayal falls short of expressing the sacramental dimension of love that must have animated the lifelong charitable activity of St. Vincent de Paul.

Nonetheless, the movie does at least one thing better than any other film I know, that is, it represents a man who might be described as the patron saint of unsentimental love of poor, and, by extension, an icon of a love as unostentatious, abundant, and indifferent to human appreciation as the rain which falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike (see Matthew 5:43-48).

Christ calls his followers to a love that is perfect, even as our heavenly Father’s love is perfect – and it is a high and beguiling command. But if you could benefit from a clue as to what this might look like – particularly when it comes to a practical love for the wretched in this world – search no farther than Monsieur Vincent.