How St Vincent Ferrer influenced St Vincent de Paul

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Pat Collins, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2011 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
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When I was reading about the life and works of Vincent Ferrer, whom I admire enormously, I was surprised to find that some of his biographers mentioned that he had a significant influence on St Vincent de Paul. For instance, in his book, St Vincent Ferrer: The Angel of the Judgment, Andrew Pradel OP claimed that the Spanish saint influenced “blessed Nicholas Factor, a Franciscan and the great St Vincent de Paul… St Vincent acknowledged St Vincent Ferrer as his own special patron. He made his life a daily study and had constantly in his hands the Treatise on the Spiritual Life (hereafter TOSL), in order that he might conform thereto not only his own heart and actions, but also those of the priests of his institute1. Pradel says that a biographer named Antonio Teoli OP who wrote a major biography of Vincent Ferrer which was pub- lished in Rome in 1735, had mentioned that the Spanish saint had quite an influence on St Vincent de Paul2.When I read these claims I wondered if any of them had foundation3. Coste says that on one occasion Canon Richard Dognon of Verdun wrote to St Vincent de Paul and said, “For the good of our century, God has passed on to you by a sort of reincarnation, which he alone can bring about, the spirit, affections, and design, together with the name of the great Patron of missionaries, Saint Vincent Ferrer. The apostolic missions he instituted in his time are manifestly more necessary than they ever were before.”4 These quotations raise two questions. Firstly, to what extent was Vincent de Paul influenced by the life and teachings of Vincent Ferrer? Secondly, did Vincent de Paul refer to Vincent Ferrer in his talks and writings?

It is probable that Vincent had read one or more biographies of Vincent Ferrer. We know that shortly after Ferrer’s death, the bishop of Lucera, Peter Ranzano wrote the first official account of the Dominican’s remarkable life (1455). It was followed by other biographies, such as one which was written in French, by Dominican Bernard Guyard (1634). It is quite possible that Vincent de Paul read this book. That said, it is unlikely that he had access to any of Vincent Ferrer’s sermons5. However, we are sure that he did read and re-read the TOSL. While we know that people such as Pierre Bérulle, Francis de Sales and Benet of Canfield influenced Vincent’s spirituality, the fact that Vincent Ferrer also influenced him is often overlooked.

Vincent de Paul used to refer to his namesake and quote his words, both in his letters and in the talks he gave to the Daughters of Charity and to the members of the Congregation of the Mission. There are no less than nine such quotations referred to in the general index of the French edition of the Correspondance, Entretiens, Documents (here- after CED), edited by Pierre Coste6. For example, Vincent de Paul wrote to Fr Bernard Codoing about a business transaction which would require a knowledge of languages. He said, “God will give you the grace, if he wishes, to make yourself understood by foreigners, just as he gave it to Vincent Ferrer.”7 In a conference Vincent gave to the priests of the Mission in May 1658, he spoke about the importance of deferring to the opinions of others in all things that are not sinful8. He then referred to the following words in the Treatise on the Spiritual Life, “it is more advantageous to rule oneself by the will of another, provided it be good, although our own judgment may appear better and more perfect.”9 In the course of a talk to his priests about seminaries, Vincent said, “If St Vincent Ferrer strove for sanctification so that God would one day raise up good priests and apostolic workers for the reform of the ecclesiastical state and for readying men for working for our perfection to cooperate in such a happy restoration when we see the ecclesiastical state now returning to what it should be.”10 On another occasion Vincent said, “Let us work with a new love in the service of the poor, looking for the most destitute and abandoned among them. Let us recognize that before God they are our lords and masters, and we are unworthy to render them our small services.”11 The striking phrase, “our lords and masters” seemed to have been borrowed from Vincent Ferrer who wrote, “we should have a humble and sincere regard for our brethren, and cheerfully submit to them as our lords and masters.”12

There is no doubt that St Vincent Ferrer was a remarkably effective evangelical preacher. He described his understanding of this ministry in a chapter entitled, “On Preaching.” In it he advised, “Use simple and familiar words in preaching and exhortation. To explain in detail what you mean; and so far as possible, illustrate what you say with some examples, in order that the sinner, finding his conscience guilty of the same sins which you reprehend, may feel as if you were speaking only to him. Do this, however in such a way, that your words, so to speak, may appear to come from the heart, without being mixed with any movement of indignation or pride, and to spring from the bowels of compassion, from the tender love of a father, who is grieved at the faults of his children.”13 When one reads the sermons of Vincent Ferrer it is clear that he put these principles into practice. Furthermore, a number of points will probably strike anyone who reads the TOSL. Firstly, it contains virtually no quotations, either scriptural, patristic or contemporary. Secondly, the style is very simple and clear, and tends to speak briefly about the nature of the topic under consideration, e.g. Christian perfection, while going on to mention motives and means of practicing it14.

Authors such as Abbé Arnaud d’Angel15, Jacques Delarue16, and José Maria Román17 include interesting sections on Vincent de Paul’s views on preaching. They show how implicit in the various things Vincent de Paul said about the subject over the years, was the “little method,” which he said was the method of Jesus Christ himself. He exclaimed on one occasion, “Hurrah for simplicity, and for the “little method” which is in fact, the most excellent method and one that brings more glory because it moves hearts more than all this speechify- ing which only irritates the listener.”18 The method consists of three interrelated parts which need to be varied depending of the subject under consideration such as a virtue, the life of a saint, a parable etc.

Firstly, it deals with the nature of the subject under discussion, e.g. sal- vation. Secondly, the preacher suggests motives for acting, e.g., why a person should desire to experience salvation, e.g. sorrow for offending the Lord, and fear of losing heaven. Thirdly, the preacher deals with the means of doing something practical and specific, e.g. trusting in the free, unmerited gift of God’s mercy, and making a good general confession.

Anyone who reads Vincent Ferrer’s Treatise on the Spiritual Life will notice that the little method comprising of nature, motives, and means, was implicit in the way he wrote. Furthermore, many things Vincent de Paul said about preaching seem to echo points that Vincent Ferrer had already made. We can look at a few examples. Firstly, as has already been noted, Vincent Ferrer did not quote secular authors. For his part, Vincent de Paul admonished preachers who tried “to cause wonderment by filling their sermons with a great variety of things such as extracts from philosophy, mathematics, medicine, jurisprudence, quotations from Jewish Rabbis, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Chaldaic words… in a vain display of knowledge.”19 On one occasion, Vincent de Paul said, “Do not use quotations from the profane authors, unless you use them as steppingstones to the Holy Scripture.”20 Secondly, Vincent Ferrer warned preachers not to speak in a spirit of pride. Vincent de Paul repeat- edly warned against the same danger, “we must remain faithful,” he said, “to the simplicity and humility of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He could have done startling things and spoken momentous words, but he did not do so.”21 Thirdly, Vincent Ferrer said that preaching aimed to help sinners to become aware of their sins in a way that would lead to repent- ance. Vincent de Paul said, “Let us never desire to satisfy ourselves, but to satisfy God, to win souls, and to lead people to repentance, because all else is nothing but vanity and pride.”22 Fourthly, Vincent Ferrer stressed the importance of preaching the truth in a spirit of compassion like a loving father or mother. Vincent de Paul quoted his patron when he said, “St. Vincent Ferrer says that there is no means of profiting by preaching if one does not preach from the depths of compassion.”23 Fifthly, Vincent Ferrer recommended preachers to illustrate what they meant by everyday examples. Vincent de Paul said something similar, “Notice how Jesus spoke in an understandable language, using the simple comparisons of a farmer, a field, a vine, a grain of mustard seed. This is how you must speak if you want to be understood by the people to whom you announce the word of God.”24

While the two Vincents were remarkable evangelists, each in their own distinctive way, there were obvious differences between them. Vincent Ferrer was an eschatological prophet, who focused on the presence of the antichrist and the immanence of the end times and general judgment. Vincent de Paul did not focus on any of these topics. Vincent Ferrer was a remarkable wonder worker, whereas there is very little evidence that Vincent de Paul healed the sick or delivered them from evil spirits. Nevertheless, like Vincent Ferrer, Vincent and his missionaries could be remarkably effective. Here is one example. In 1641 the Duchess d’Aiguillon repeatedly appealed to Vincent to evangelise the faubourg Saint Germain des Près in Paris. It was a very deprived, run down, crime ridden area. As a result of their grace filled efforts, Abelly tells us that, “those who worked on this mission were astonished seeing the dispropor- tion between the means used and the result attained. Besides the large crowds at their sermons and catechism instructions which they presented in the simple and familiar style suggested by Monsieur Vincent, they were filled with admiration at their results. They saw inveterate sinners, hardened usurers, fallen women, criminals who had spent their entire lives in crime, in a word, people without faith in God or anyone, throw themselves at their feet, their eyes bathed in tears, their hearts moved with sorrow for sins, begging mercy and forgiveness.”25

The findings of this article are intended to be indicative rather than conclusive. The subject of Vincent Ferrer’s influence on St Vincent de Paul’s spirituality deserves a more rigorous treatment from a meth- odological and textual point of view. Even so, it is my belief that, taken together, the example of the two Vincents teaches us at least three relevant lessons at this time of crisis in Church and State in Ireland. Firstly, our multiple problems, which are often the result of sinful for- getfulness of God, are a providential call to seek the Lord while he may still be found (cf. Is 55:6). Secondly, while Christians are right to stress the primacy of the loving mercy of God, they also need to refer, not only to the divine justice which will be exercised on the last day, but also to the possibility of eternal separation from God. Thirdly, when we share the Gospel in different ways, we can expect God to manifest his saving power and presence by means of charitable works, action for justice (the characteristic way of Vincent de Paul) and charismatic deeds of power (the characteristic way of Vincent Ferrer) . In this way we will help to usher in the renewal spoken about by Benedict XVI when he wrote in his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, “Holy Spirit, comforter, advocate and guide, inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal for the Church in Ireland.”

  1. (Rockford, IL: Tan, 2000), 185-6.
  2. Storia Della Vita, e del Culto di s Vincenzo Ferrerio (Rome: 1735).
  3. Pierre Coste, The Life and Works of S. Vincent de Paul, vol 3 (New York: New City Press, 1987), 305.
  4. Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, vol 1, (New York: New City Press, 1985), 152.
  5. Some of them are available at http://www.svfparish.org/svfsermons/index.htm
  6. Vol XIV, (Paris: Lecoffre, 1925), 636.
  7. Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, vol 2, op cit, 232.
  8. CED, X, 482.
  9. TOSL, op cit, 3.
  10. CED, XI, 7-8, & quoted by Abelly, vol 2, op cit, 254.
  11. CED, XI, 393.
  12. TOSL, op cit, 38.
  13. TOSL, op cit, 24.
  14. Cf TOSL, op cit, 30-2; 40-1.
  15. Saint Vincent: A Guide for Priests (London: Burns Oates, 1932), 106-33.
  16. The  Missionary  Ideal  of  the  Priest According  to Vincent  de  Paul  (Philadelphia: Vincentians, 1993), 121-8.
  17. St Vincent de Paul: A Biography, op. cit., 348-51.
  18. CED XI, 286.
  19. Quoted by Delarue, op cit, 123.
  20. CED XI, 50, & quoted in Abelly, vol 2, op cit, 19.
  21. CED XII, 211-27, & quoted by Abelly, vol 2, op cit, 86.
  22. Delarue, op cit, 127.
  23. Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, vol 1, op cit, 526.
  24. CED XI, 342-51, & quoted by Abelly, vol. 3, op cit, 320.
  25. Ibid, 223-4.

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