St. Vincent de Paul

Author: Theodore Maynard


Theodore Maynard

St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660) contributed greatly to the transformation of religious life in France in the Seventeenth Century, although he is perhaps best remembered today for the society which he founded, and in connection with charity. Some of his many activities are touched upon in the following short extract by the late "dean of American Catholic biographers."

There was never a more many-faceted man among the saints than Vincent de Paul. He is thought of by most people, and rightly, as the great organizer of charity in a day when charity, though widely exercised, was usually too haphazard to accomplish a great deal. It was he who revolutionized the hospitals of France, for though shortly before this time St. Camillus de Lellis had founded a nursing order of men in Italy, this was a work that could, after all, be best performed by women. It was Vincent who placed foundling hospitals upon something like a systematized basis, and it was he who may almost be said to have begun the humane treatment of lunatics, when he found that some of these unfortunates were confined in the grounds of the priory of Saint-Lazare that he took over. He grappled with the problem of mendicancy (though it would be too much to say that he solved it) when the spiritual charge of the Salpetriere prison came under his charge, as it was he who cared for the galley slaves, and during the Thirty Years' War and the disturbances of the Fronde sent Sisters of Charity to act as nurses in the army. There are, indeed, very few charitable activities which do not stem from him.

In our admiration for this side of his achievement we must not forget that the Congregation of men he founded bore the title of "the Missions." It was partially endowed for the purpose indicated and carried out by preaching in country places, at the same time extending its operations. Other Congregations were doing a somewhat similar work, but without in the least seeking to belittle other such efforts, the palm must certainly go to Vincent. It was he who was the initiator, reaching out more widely than anybody else in his missions, and inaugurating a number of innovations.

The preaching of missions in country parishes was not entirely new. The Dominicans and Franciscans had from time to time done what they could, but usually only through individuals, and then only sporadically, as they had more than enough to see to in their parishes in the towns. In general the care of the peasants had been left to their priests, and these only too often considered that they were doing quite enough in attending to their parochial duties; for preaching, virtually none of them had any qualification. Vincent had had it impressed upon him during the time he spent in Madame de Gondi's household that nearly all country districts were badly neglected.

If that was the state of affairs in the country, not much better could be said of the towns. There, the priests at least knew the formula for absolution in the confessional (which, so Vincent had discovered, was not always true of the village cures), but among the lower grade of the city clergy the sacraments were often administered in what can only be described as a rather individualistic style. The truth is that the majority of priests had not been adequately trained for their office, and in some instances did not give good example to their flocks. The trouble was not so much corruption as ignorance, so Vincent came to the conclusion that if the spiritual standard among lay folk was to be raised, the clergy had to be renovated first.

The Holy See was not unaware of these conditions and the Council of Trent had called for the establishment of seminaries. But these could not come into being very quickly, and to make matters worse, many of the bishops were often absent from their dioceses or, because of family influence, were appointed much too young to posts which they were not as yet capable of occupying worthily. It was not to be expected that ordinaries of this type, on whom rested the obligation of putting the decrees of the Holy See into effect, would do much in the way of reform. This had to be carried out, if at all, by organizations devoted to the purpose.

Fortunately a number of such organizations came into existence almost simultaneously in France. Apart from seminaries, there was the scheme initiated by a priest in Paris named Adrian Bourdoise, who thought of founding small communities of secular priests in various places whose object should be the purely practical one of instructing the fledgling clergy how fittingly to administer the sacraments. As he could gather his young men for no more than an hour or two a week, he prescinded altogether from teaching theology and concentrated on showing priests what their parochial duties were. In Vincent's opinion the instructions given were excellent, better in fact than that in some of the few seminaries that were arising, but of course they left a large field of training completely untouched.

The better class of priests studied at a university, where a good grounding in theology and philosophy could be acquired; the rest went no further than to pick up enough Latin to say Mass, seeking practical direction as to how to administer the sacraments from a handbook or from their own pastors. As these pastors were themselves men who had stumbled into the priesthood by the same route, it may be imagined that the results left much to be desired. But the Oratorians had a seminary of a kind, and St. John Eudes, who saw the immediate needs more clearly than did Berulle, left him to establish a seminary in charge of the group of priests he assembled. Moreover, and best of all, Jean-Jacques Olier founded the Sulpicians, a society of secular priests living in community whose sole work was to be that of conducting seminaries. This it has remained to the present day.

Vincent led the way by starting a seminary at the College des Bons Enfants and at the instance of the Bishop of Paris he arranged to give retreats to the young men who were about to be ordained. This last activity he accepted a little reluctantly, urging that the Congregation of the Missions was for preaching in country districts and could not afford to dissipate its slender resources. "In the beginning," he confessed afterwards, "we did not think at all of serving the clergy; we thought simply of ourselves and the poor." However, after fuming the project over in his mind, he reached the conclusion that by doing something for the clergy, something would be done for the poor as well. So without knowing where the money was coming from, he had to proceed in naked trust in God's providence. This confidence was rewarded when one of his wealthy benefactors came forward with an offer to meet the expenses for the first five years; then Anne of Austria agreed to shoulder the charges for the next five, after which the Ladies of Charity undertook the obligation. Vincent never seems to have lacked for funds in any of his enterprises.

The success of these clerical retreats was such that he enlarged their scope by the establishment of the Tuesday Conferences, which, lasting only a day, did not cost much, and probably did even more good than the week's retreat for the ordinands. By means of these Conferences Vincent kept in touch with the priests of Paris, or a select body among them which turned into a kind of guild. The meetings discussed, in a spirit of humility and simplicity, the Christian virtues, in particular those necessary to the priesthood. All eloquence was discouraged, though among those who attended and sometimes spoke were many men of learning who were famed as orators. One of these, Bossuet, was the greatest orator of the age, and he has testified to Vincent's wish to avoid taking any part in the proceedings, because of his humility; but whenever Vincent yielded to the pleadings of others, everyone present was conscious that in this unassuming priest was the soul of the gatherings. Vincent himself said: "What is there in us to attract all these gentlemen, the ordinands, the theologians, the bachelors and licentiates of the Sorbonne and Navarre, who come here? It is not the learning or the doctrine we offer them, for they have more than we. No, it is the humility and simplicity in which, by the grace of God, we act towards them. They come here only to learn virtue; when they see its light grow dim in us they will withdraw." His Conferences were the first of many such that have since been held in various parts of the world.

Vincent further extended his work in this field to reach out to laymen. Abelly, his first biographer, relates that there was not a single day in the year when there were not at least twenty guests present at Saint-Lazare. They were of all social ranks, including men of title, judges and lawyers, soldiers, tradesmen, down to artisans and footmen, all meeting, at least for the occasion, on a plane of perfect equality. One of the most remarkable things about these retreats is that Vincent would never accept any contributions from these men, fearing lest voluntary donations turn into customary offerings, and thus keep away the poorer of those who attended. This was all the more generous because the Ladies of Charity, who had given so freely to meet the expenses of the clerical retreats, would not interest themselves in the laymen, probably feeling that those among them who were wealthy should pay the costs.

From the time that he served Madame de Gondi, Vincent had clearly perceived that if he was going to move the hearts and minds of his rustic audiences, he would have to use the simplest and most direct mode of address. He called his style the "Little Method." He had no use for the ornate and orotund pulpit oratory that had only recently been in vogue and was not yet quite discarded. On the other hand, he regarded with horror those who may be called the "Billy Sundays" of the period. Such a priest was "Little Father Andrew," for example, the Provincial of the Augustines, who shouted, when he was preaching on St. Mary Magdalene, "There! I see a woman like her; I'm going to throw my handkerchief at her head!" And when the handkerchief went flying through the air and several women ducked, he shouted again, "Ah, ha! I thought there was only one; I find that there are a hundred." One can feel nothing but contempt for such boorish tricks, designed only to raise a laugh!

Vincent was a peasant by birth but a fine gentleman in his manners, as is shown by the fact that every salon was open to him. He therefore insisted that his Fathers should, in using the Little Method, treat their congregations with respect. There was to be no buffoonery. Neither were they to talk down to people, but rather would they employ a style an inch or two above their heads, so that their listeners would be obliged to stand on their toes. What he wanted was the unaffected and the intelligible. He had declared that the Fathers of the Mission "will speak to convert and not to be esteemed, and if men are to be converted they must understand what is said."

It was this style, as exemplified in Vincent's Conferences to his priests and to the Sisters, and in his letters, that has led the Prince de Broglie to give him a place among the makers of modem French prose. This may be claiming a little too much, for Vincent represented a rather general movement away from the ornate expression of the Renaissance and towards the more lucid manner of such writers as Moliere, Racine, Corneille, Malherbe and Vincent's own disciple Bossuet. But it is incontestable that he was sensitive to that trend and was very much a part of it.

His influence on literary style is, of course, of small importance when compared with the influence upon religion in France that Vincent exercised in other fields. It is possible to touch only very lightly upon the apostolic zeal that moved him, in his later life, despite all the many calls being made on him at home, to send missionaries to Corsica, the British Isles and Madagascar. All the missions were fruitful and the one in Corsica had some amusing aspects. Thus his Fathers there had so good an effect upon a clergy addicted, like the rest of Corsicans, to the vendetta, that on one occasion a local priest who was to take part in a procession of the Blessed Sacrament agreed to carry only one pistol in his belt instead of the two he usually carried.

Vincent's large heart was shown by what he did for the redemption of Christian captives in North Africa. He could not forget that in his youth he had been a slave there, so he raised very large sums of money with which to ransom those who would otherwise have been left to die among infidels.

The work he did as a member of the Council of Conscience was one that he would have been glad to escape. Some of the laws on the books, however well intentioned, could not easily be enforced. Particular difficulty was encountered with the laws against blasphemy and those against dueling. Vincent found it possible, however, to meet the latter difficulty by persuading most of the leading military officers to pledge themselves not to accept a challenge; and this example proved more salutary than an indiscriminate enforcement of the law. Further, he did his best to hold the scales even-or if anything to tip them against his own side- when any dispute was referred to him that had arisen between a Catholic and a Huguenot. "How do you know," he wrote to a provincial Governor, "if the Catholic really has a just claim to what he demands? There is a wide difference between being a Catholic and an honest man." He himself knew perfectly well that there was much dishonesty in Catholic circles-for what was it but dishonesty when powerful families tried, often successfully, to obtain for a younger son a bishopric or an abbey held in commendam? It was an old abuse and Vincent was powerless to eradicate it, but at least he refused his support to the claims of such people. Legend has it that a Duchess who was enraged when Vincent would not back her son, threw a stool at his head. All that he did was to wipe off the blood saying, "What a wonderful thing is mother love!" It is, however, not at all a legend that the Comtesse de Chavigny asked Vincent to give a couple of abbacies to her five-year-old son and that he would not hear of so monstrous a proposition. Yet the best that he could accomplish was to see to it that nobody obtained an abbey in commendam before he was eighteen, a priory before he was sixteen, or a collegiate church before he was fourteen. Little as he was able to accomplish, it was too much in the eyes of Mazarin. The Cardinal therefore hit upon the device of not letting Vincent know when a meeting of the Council of Conscience was to take place. It was a great relief to Vincent when at last, in 1652, he was informed that he was no longer a member of this committee in charge of ecclesiastical affairs.

From "A Treasury of Catholic Reading", edited by John Chapin, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy (1957).