The remarkable explosion of wealth, knowledge, and technology that occurred during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment completely reshaped human society. No institution was left untouched. Local communities were shaken from their sleepy timidity and thrust into the hustle bustle of mercantilism and urbanization. The church was rocked by the convulsions of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Anabaptism, Deism, and Neo-Paganism. Kingdoms, fiefs, baronies, and principalities began to take the torturous path toward becoming modern nation states. Such revolutionary changes are not without cost. Ultimately, the cost to Western civilization was devastating. Immorality and corruption ran rampant. Disparity between rich and poor became endemic. Ruthless and petty wars multiplied beyond number. Even the old horrors of abortion, infanticide, abandonment, and exposure began to recur in the urban and industrialized centers.
Vincent De Paul was born on this day in 1581 for just such a time as this—to tackle just such problems as these. Raised the son of a peasant farmer in Gascony, he surrendered to the ministry at the age of twenty. Spurred on by a passionate concern for the poor and neglected, he quickly developed a thriving outreach to the decayed gentry, deprived peasantry, galley-slaves, unwanted children, and convicts of France. Over the ensuing years, he mobilized hundreds of Christians for charitable work and established innumerable institutions—hospitals, shelters, foundling centers, orphanages, and almshouses throughout all of Europe. He, and those who followed his lead, brought much needed light into the darkness of the Enlightenment.
Despite its many advances in art, music, medicine, science, and technology, the Renaissance and Enlightenment were essentially nostalgic revivals of ancient pagan ideals and values. The dominating ideas of the times were classical humanism, pregnable naturalism, and antinomian individualism—or in other words: godlessness, materialism, and hedonism. Taking their cues primarily from ancient Greece and Rome, the leaders of the epoch were not so much interested in the Christian notion of progress as they were in the heathen ideal of innocence. Reacting to the artificialities and contrivances of the late Medieval period, they dispatched the Christian consensus it had wrought with enervating aplomb--and in short order, the very foundations of Christendom had begun to erode.
Vincent made it clear to his fellow-laborers that merciful service in such at time is not an option for the believer—it is mandatory. By the time he died in 1660, the charitable relief movement he had sparked was alive and well—alert to the threat against the innocents that inevitably comes when men turn their hearts away from Christian truth and toward the delusions of this world. To this day all around the globe, members of the Society of Vincent De Paul continue the momentum that he began by modeling a life of obedience to the truth.