1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 9:35-38
What leads to a healthy, happy life? In the 1930’s, researchers at Harvard selected nearly 300 students and collected data about their personal and social lives for nearly 80 years to try and answer that question. They found that the most powerful influence on these men’s health was how happy they were in their relationships with family, friends, and communities. As one researcher said, “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”1
The life of St. Vincent de Paul bears witness to that finding. When he was the same age as the men who began the study, Vincent was a moody, temperamental, lonely young priest who had pursued his calling with mixed motives. While he did love Christ and saw the priesthood as the path to holiness he, like many poor people, also saw it as the path to a better standard of living. His ambition was to rise to bishop as soon as possible (or be the beneficiary of a will), save as much as he could, retire early and return home.
That ambition unrealized after several years, Vincent found himself spiritually adrift, directionless, and alone in Paris. There, two things happened that changed his life forever. First, he was assigned pastor of a poor rural parish. He expected the material poverty of his parishioners but the depth of their spiritual poverty shocked him. Second, he met a visiting bishop named Francis de Sales. In him Vincent found a kindred spirit, someone he could really connect with. A deep friendship formed. Of all the things he learned from Bishop de Sales he was especially moved by the idea that all people, whatever their station, are called to holiness. Until that moment Vincent assumed like most people that the devout life was reserved for those with a religious vocation.
These experiences opened his eyes, brought him out of his self-centered shell and gave him the direction he needed. Vincent devoted the rest of his life to care of the poor and the formation of priests. On behalf of the poor, he went to the wealthy, the people of influence, and those in organizations, seeking to provide large-scale, long-term material assistance. He founded an order, the Vincentians, and co-founded another, the Daughters of Charity, to provide for their sacramental and spiritual well-being. For men in priestly formation, Vincent focused on the spiritual life. He did not want them to be as he had once been: Complacent, insulated, seeking only their own holiness. He knew that the priest’s path to holiness was the path of Christ; out in the world feeding and tending the lambs as did the Good Shepherd who knew his flock and whose flock knew him.
In reality, the Harvard study on happiness confirmed what the Church has long known. Happiness lies in our relationships – with God, with each other, and with the world. In the first reading St. Paul urged us to consider our calling, so let us examine ourselves. We claim to love God but do we do so on our own terms, allowing fear or worldly concerns to take priority? We claim to love each other but do we tend to reserve our time, favors, and affection for a chosen few and pass others by as if they don’t exist? We claim to love all people but do we fail to reach out to those in need, refuse to give of ourselves when it’s inconvenient, or condemn those who disagree with us? The love that is the foundation of all healthy relationships casts aside fear, treats each member of the Body with the same regard, and wishes none to die but all to come to repentance and knowledge of God. It gives totally and without condition. That is the love of Christ.
St. Vincent de Paul didn’t begin any better than we, but he ended as well as we can ever hope to. What led him to a healthy, happy life? His relationships to God, his peers, and his flock. How does that help us? At least three ways. First, our relationship with God is at its best when we remember that He dwells not only above but also within each one of us; second, that when we reach out in love to others God is reaching them through us; and third, that we are both sheep and shepherd; the call to holiness is not only a call to take up our cross and follow Christ but to take up our staff and bring others to Him by the example of our lives.
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.
St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us.