January 30, 2009
Paul and St. Vincent de Paul both experienced a dramatic conversion
in their lives. As a result, they both became powerful
transformative figures within their own time and place, and their
impact was felt on a global level. We too have the potential to
experience conversion in our own lives, and be transforming
This life-changing opportunity was the focus of, “Paul and Vincent
de Paul: Conversion as Transformation,” a presentation by Rev.
Patrick Griffin, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission and
Branch Campuses. Fr. Griffin delivered the presentation for
administrators and staff on January 28, as part of the University’s
annual Founders Week celebration.
Founders Week celebrates the many different ways that our
Vincentian Heritage continues to guide our entire University
community. This year’s theme, “Changing Hearts; Creating Peace,”
urges the St. John’s community to become the transformers needed
for the 21st century, and Fr. Griffin’s discussion pointed
University staff and administrators to two stellar role models who
had done so in their own lives.
Conversion, Then Transformation
While Paul and Vincent both experienced conversion in their lives,
their experiences were vastly different but equally significant,
Fr. Griffin observed.
He stressed that conversion and transformation are two distinct
notions. “Conversion is something one does for him or herself,” Fr.
Griffin stressed. Conversion entails accepting things in a new way.
“Transformation is something we do outside ourselves – it’s how we
influence others and society.”
Paul’s conversion experience was a dramatic one. On the road to
Damascus, he was literally knocked off his horse by the Risen Lord,
who asked Paul (then known as Saul) why he was persecuting him. A
fervent Jew, Saul originally felt the beliefs of the early
Christians ran contrary to the faith to which he was so
Saul could have easily rejected the words of Jesus, Fr. Griffin
said. Instead, his belief in Christ became the one truth he held
above all others. “That was his moment of conversion,” Fr. Griffin
stressed. “Everything else (in his life) flows from that.” As Paul,
he changed the face of Christianity by traveling into the Gentile
world and inviting everyone to join.
Fr. Griffin explained that Vincent’s conversion experience was much
milder than that of Paul. “Vincent does not have an incandescent
moment or extraordinary experience.” Instead, he has a number of
experiences that change his heart and force him to think about ways
he can influence the world. “It is no less a conversion, but not
the same character as Paul.”
Vincent’s moments of conversion are subtle and are the result of
observations he made during his life about the poor and how to best
meet their needs. In one instance, Vincent is informed of the needs
of a sick family, and before he can come to their aid, a group of
townspeople “beat him to the punch.”
Fr. Griffin noted that while he is impressed by the generosity of
the townspeople, Vincent observed that this act of charity is not
well organized, and much of the food will spoil before it can be
put to good use. He worked with the townspeople to organize a plan,
and from this seed eventually springs the Ladies of Charity.
Fr. Griffin noted that one of Vincent’s great gifts was for
organization. “He often said the poor suffer less from a lack of
generosity than from a lack of organization,” adding that he aided
those with a desire to do charitable works by enabling them to do
so without feeling overwhelmed.
When he saw the needs of the rural poor were not being met, Vincent
organized his priests entirely around the salvation of the poor,
creating the Congregation of the Mission. Fr. Griffin said that
Vincent’s gift for stability came into play with the creation of
this order of priests. Vincent’s enormous respect for the gifts of
Religious women and their capacity for hands-on service to the poor
also led to his creation of the Daughters of Charity.
“Like Paul, Vincent was converted,” but not in a miraculous way,
Fr. Griffin stressed. “He brought about the miracle of
transformation in the values he held up – organization, stability
and respect. These elements that he brought out transformed his
society. His own experience of conversion allows him to be
transformative to others.”
Fr. Griffin offered that before we can transform the minds and
hearts of others, we must first be transformed ourselves. “The
beginning of transformation is conversion. Out of that conversion,
I am able to be a transforming figure in my home, my church and my