Saint Vincent and Church Renewal

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Myles Rearden · Year of first publication: 1980 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 2.
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In 1564 Pope Paul IV published the decrees of the Council of Trent. Publishing the decrees within a year of the Council’s close was a considerable achievement, but ensuring that they were officially accepted outside Rome was an even more difficult task. The Council had fixed 24 as the age for ordination (Sess. 23, c 12), yet Vincent de Paul was ordained in 1600 at the age of 19. Indeed it would be another fifteen years before the reforming decrees of Trent would be finally accepted in France. Church renewal after Trent was an agonizingly slow process.

One consequence of this was that St Vincent was in at the beginning of the counter-re formation in France. The French church was much in need of reformation. For one thing, Calvinism had won many adherents, and vicious wars between Catholics and Calvinists had gone on intermittently for fifty years. The wars ended in 1598 with an edict of toleration for Calvinists, and then the specifically counter-reformation work of combatting heresy had to begin in earnest. But the need for reformation went much deeper. French Catholicism showed all the defects which so horrified the Protestant reformers. Some of these defects lend themselves to lurid description; Pierre Janelle writes: “In the Italian wars three cardinals, two archbishops, six bishops and an abbot were in the following of Louis XII of France when he entered Milan in 1507. Some of these took part, with much gusto, in the actual fighting. At a court festival, about the same time, two cardinals danced before the King” (The Catholic Reformation, p 9). But the same writer argues persuasively that the problems of the sixteenth-century church stemmed ultimately from defective organisation and its consequence, defective discipline. This underlying condition of the church showed itself especially in two things: the benefice system, and the confusion between political and religious power.

The benefice system concerned the thorny problem of Church finances. In a parish, parishioners had to pay 10% of their annual income to the Church, so that many parishes had good incomes. Similarly, monasteries were wealthy because of the rents paid by tenants on monastic lands. The positions of parish priest and abbot were therefore much sought after as sources of revenue, like stocks and shares in later times. Sometimes the benefice holder was a priest who actually carried out his duties; but often he might not be a priest, and even if he was he might also be an absentee. He would then appoint another priest to run his parish or govern his monastery. These vicars were often badly paid, were usually badly educated, and were heartily despised by the people at large. Consequently, parish life was stagnant in many parts of France, if stagnant is not too mild a word. One fiery priest of the day put it like this: “There are but too many pastors who abandon the care and management of the souls of their whole parish to a vicar to whom they would not entrust their purse, nor the key of their desk, nor even that of their wine-cellar” (Delarue: The Missionary Ideal of the Priesthood, p 2). The problems went right up the ecclesiastical ladder. When Cardinal Richelieu was first made bishop of Lugon none of his predecessors had even visited the diocese for sixty years.

It was the lack of clear demarcation between political and religious authority that delayed the beginning of the official counter-reformation in France. The king of France had refused to allow the decrees of Trent to be published in his country. Many of the leading families had the right of appointing bishops; for example, the diocese of Paris was in the gift of the De Gondi family. In St Vincent’s own lifetime one of that family became archbishop and later cardinal in spite of the fact that he was one of the most notorious scoundrels in all France. The wars of religion already mentioned show clearly the dangers of close identification of religion and politics; and to make matters worse, the Calvinists were even, more committed to the identification than were the Catholics. This situation made it virtually necessary for the state to interfere in religious matters. And it worked the other way also; for a large part of St Vincent’s lifetime the prime ministers of France were cardinals.

It was at these underlying flaws in Church management that the Council of Trent directed its efforts. To quote Janelle once more: “The fathers of Trent went on a very definite plan, which is never declared as such, but which unmistakably emerges from the Canones et Decreta taken as a whole, that of strengthening the authority of the hierarchy, both secular and regular, in conjunction with the papacy” (op. cit. p 76). The way was thus opened for the resumption of serious pastoral work, amounting in many places to re-evangelisation of ihe people. This process was only beginning in the France into which Vincent was ordained, Trent had not yet reached the country through official channels. It had. however, begun to seep in despite official blockage. This was mainly due to the great religious orders of the counter-reformation, the Jesuits, the Oratorians and the Capuchins, nil of whom moved up irom Italy into France. The Capuchins worked among the people, chief!) in towns and cities. They were very popular because of their care for the sick and the beauty of iheir liturgy. It was apparently from the writings of a Capuchin, Benet of Canfield (an englishman), thai Vincent learned one of his fundamental beliefs: that Christian perfection consisted in absolute fidelity to God’s will. The Oratorians were founded chiefly to restore the dignity of the priesthood, and in France they engaged largely in the education of youth. Vincent took the founder of the French Oratorians. Pierre de Bérulle, as his spiritual director and followed his instructions implicitly. However, the main carriers of the counter-reformation in France were neither the Capuchins nor the Oratorians but the Jesuits. In founding schools the Oratorians were only following the example of the Jesuits, who had begun to do so before Trent and by 1600 had up to twenty colleges in France. However, the shock-troops of the counter-reformation, as the Jesuits are often called, did not confine themselves to teaching in colleges; such an apostolate could achieve comparatively little in a country where only some three million out of a population of eighteen million were literate. Jesuit preachers were converting thousands up and down the country by their missions and their care for the poor, the sick, and prisoners.

Between them, then, these three orders did in France the work of reformation that bishops and secular clergy were in no position to do. They were engaged in work many of us might regard as typically Vincentian: the liturgy, missions, care of the sick and poor, restoring the dignity of the clergy. Rather than labelling these works Vincentian it seems more reasonable to see Vincent as inheriting from the Jesuits, the Capuchins and the Oratorians the authentic spirit of the counter-reformation. He was, in fact, giving a mission with some Jesuits in a country place near Amiens in 1617 when he realised what specific contribution God was asking him to make to Church renewal. The confession of the old man of Cannes in January that year followed by the sermon in Folleville on the 25th made him realise the work to which God was calling him, though this realisation took some time and the prompting of Madame de Gondi.

The townsfolk were catered for by the Capuchins and Jesuits, but the country people were almost entirely neglected. To make matters worse, the priests who lived in such places were in a terribly low state morally, spiritually and intellectually. Consequently Vincent’s Congregation of the Mission extended its scope to include both the preaching of missions and clerical formation. In due course the Congregation took up the work of general education, so central to the whole drive of the counter-reformation.

We can now see that Vincent de Paul was at once a principal agent of the counter-reformation in France and a product of that movement. At his ordination he was an unreformed, worldly-minded man, as anxious to secure rich benefits as most other priests. But seventeen years later he had learned in a deeply personal way what it meant to be a Christian and a priest. Before setting out to renew others he was himself renewed, and he was renewed by the counter-reformation.

We can be even more precise, it was to the Council of Trent that Vincent owed his conversion from worldly to dedicated priest. In its very first reforming decrees the Council had called for good education, both religious and secular, and for high-quality preaching, lest the words of Scripture be fulfilled: “The little ones have sought bread and there was no one to break it for them” (Sess. V, cc 1 & 2). The work of the counter-reformation orders stemmed largely from these calls of the Council. In the Common Rules Vincent echoes the Council’s words: “They shall break the bread of the divine word for little ones by preaching and catechising”. The Council had told clerics that they were mirrors in which the people were to see how to live (Sess. 22 c 1), and Vincent saw clearly the desperate need for priests who would lead exemplary lives. In his letters he often quotes Trent. Its rules, he said, are to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit (II 459). As already mentioned, fidelity to God’s will was the keystone of his spirituality, and there is no doubt that he saw in the decrees of Trent a clear expression of the divine will.

However it is not enough to see Vincent as a Trent-man, rather as many today are Vatican II-men. The Council of Trent was largely the achievement of the Papacy. One of its main effects was to strengthen the Papacy, and it entrusted to the Pope the execution of the work of reformation which it had begun (Sess. 25). Vincent recognised God’s call not only in .the Council documents but also in the on-going authority of the Papacy.

Vincent never met a Pope, but he did see one, Pope Clement VIII. This experience, on a visit to Rome shortly after his ordination, was to leave a life-long impression on him. He frequently referred to Clement, who was one of the greatest of the post-Trent popes. Vincent spoke often of his sanctity. When he decided to send his priests on the foreign missions he was influenced chiefly by the reflection that the Pope had the authority to send missionaries anywhere in the world, and that priests had a corresponding duty to go. He also had in mind a story he had been told about Clement. It appears that two visiting ambassadors attended the Pope’s mass. Clement was renowned for the devotion with which he celebrated daily mass. They observed him overcome with sorrow and in tears during the mass, and afterwards asked him the reason. The Pope explained that during the mass he had felt deeply saddened by the losses the Church was daily Suffering from heretics, so that he feared that God might wish to transfer the Church to another part of the world. This thought seems to have been a constant factor in Vincent’s thinking about the foreign missions, (cf G van Winsen CM in VInCenTIAnA, 1978/3, p 158), and it came to him, indirectly to be sure, from Pope Clement VIII. Other connections with Clement can also be noted. He was so close to St Philip neri that it was said that St Philip ascended the throne in his person. now Philip neri represents the most human side of the counter-reformation; his gentle, cheerful and highly cultivated spirit finds its French equivalent in St Francis de Sales. It was Clement who made Francis bishop of Geneva, and Francis was another of those who deeply influenced Vincent both by his writings and by personal contact. Francis made Vincent the superior of the Paris Visitation Monastery. Again, Vincent and Clement both lived very sacramental lives. They both shared great devotion to the eucharist, and unusually for that time they both offered mass daily. Clement started the Forty Hours Adoration in Rome, and Vincent advocated, if he did not in fact originate, solemn First Holy Communions in France (III 119, 120, & n 3). Both had the custom, unusual for that, or any, time, of daily confession. Vincent’s attitude to the Papacy was then neither purely juridical nor purely theological, though it was deeply theological; it was also spiritualised and personalised by his affinity with Pope Clement VIII. Clement was to Vincent what Pope John XXIII is to many people today.

Vincent de Paul, then, is not a lone figure. On the contrary he is part of a whole movement. The counter-reformation is however no ordinary movement. It is not just a drift in a general direction, but a clearly defined process. unlike the Protestant Reformation the counter-reformation had a coherent programme (the documents of Trent) and was under central control (that of the Holy See). One of its great achievements was to raise the priesthood to a standard scarcely ever reached before, with consequent benefit to everyone in the Church. Vincent adopted the programme of Trent, aligned himself to the Papacy, and worked for the achievement of the Church’s goals at that time.

There may seem to be little surprising in all this. Yet it is surprising. Another movement was going on in France at this time; this was Jansenism, called after Cornelius Jansen; it was a kind of Catholic Calvinism or Puritanism. It was based on the teaching of theologians rather than on official Church teaching, and in this resembled the Protestant rather than the Catholic Reformation. Vincent was most vigorous in combatting this spurious reform, and he did so by constant reference both to the Papacy and the documents of Trent. Jansen claimed to base his teaching on St Augustine and Vincent declared roundly that Augustine must be interpreted in the light of Trent rather than the other way around, for the Council was infallible whereas the doctor was not. It is not at all self-evident that Vincent had to be a counter-reformation person; he could easily have been a Jansenist.

He was not a Jansenist, and Jansenism is just another forgotten heresy. But the thought must come to anyone today that the counter-reformation too is firmly buried in the past. If so, isn’t Vincent de Paul also an outdated figure? We have had two councils since Trent, and while it is usual to see Vatican I as a continuation of Trent, Vatican II is almost always presented in sharp contrast to Trent. If the contrast is so sharp, then Vincent de Paul is rather someone to be against than to be for.

To emphasise the contrast between the two councils does not seem to be a balanced view. Rather there are important elements of continuity which do not usually receive enough prominence. For example, the renewed liturgy is continuous with Trent’s emphasis on the eucharist and the other sacraments; the ministry of the word is as central to the theology of Vatican II as it was to the practical thinking of Trent; and most of all, Vatican II is continuous with Trent’s drive towards moral and spiritual renewal. The opening words of the first document produced by Vatican II are: “The Sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful”. The originality of Vatican II has been so widely hailed as to obscure its essential continuity with what preceded it. Consequently there has been a drastic crisis of confidence in the institutes deriving from the Trent period — certain religious orders, and seminaries as a whole. The first stage in recovering confidence must be the recognition that Trent and Vatican II complement each other rather than conflict. The next stage is to see that the new insights of Vatican II, which are most important, are not ready for instant application in all cases, any more than the new insights which Trent had in its day were ready for instant application. This paper concludes by examining how Vincent went about the practical implementation of what Trent laid down. His policy was one of creative interpretation.

Vincent believed that the practical implementation of Trent depended on experience. Take the matter of catechetics. Trent ushered in a great period of catechetical activity. Catechisms were published to suit all kinds of people. The best known is perhaps the Catechism of the Council of Trent, or The Roman Catechism. It is a literary masterpiece. Vincent’s missionaries wrote back from Madagascar looking for copies of it. He himself preferred St Robert Bellarmine’s, which was more practical arid imaginative. But at home in France his priests were not preaching to the three million literates, and the people of Madagascar had never seen a book in their lives. So, he made effective teaching of Catholic doctrine both to children and to adults an essential part of the missions given by his Congregation, and he insisted that the spoken word be supplemented by pictures and dramatic experiences like processions, beautiful ceremonies, and so on. The priest who wrote back from Madagascar asked for all the books he could think of, including not only the Roman Catechism and the Decrees of Trent but also the complete works of St Thomas! Vincent sent the books but included of his own accord a set of visual aids, as a gentle hint to his confrère not to be carried away by the bookishness of the counter-reformation. Vatican II is, if anything, more bookish than Trent; its own documents are at least twice as long as Trent’s, and very much more complex. The way Vincent dealt with Trent speaks to us today also. It says: Learn from experience how best to communicate the message.

The second example of how Vincent interpreted Trent in the light of experience concerns seminaries. The Council had fixed twenty-four as the age for ordination, and twelve as the minimum age for entering a seminary, but had been rather vague about how the intervening twelve years were to be spent. naturally in the few seminaries which were set up the vast majority of those who came in at twelve left as soon as they had got a secondary education. Vincent saw that two quite different kinds of seminary were needed, Trent’s kind, which we today would call a minor seminary, and another kind which would prepare students immediately for ordination. In the Vincentian seminaries of Vincent’s day and after, the ordinands remained for as little as ten days in some cases, though three, six, fifteen or even eighteen months eventually became normal (cf Poole, A History of the Congregation of the Mission, 1625 — 1843, p87). These seminaries were chiefly places of spiritual, pastoral and moral formation, more like novitiates than houses of studies. Perhaps the Fathers of Trent would not have recognised them, any more than they would have recognised their finely polished definitions in the visual aids unpacked by the missionary in Madagascar. nonetheless, the ultimate effectiveness of Trent depended on the existence of people like Vincent who knew how to interpret it creatively. Vatican II is probably more in need of such interpretation than even Trent was.

Experience is already teaching us to interpret Vatican II creatively. For example, the development of a married diaconate and greater lay involvement in Church functions are already clashing. experience will show which is better, but at present it seems to lean definitely towards a more prominent involvement of the laity. Again, missionaries are not quite sure what to make of non-Christian religions in the light of Vatican II; in April 19781 was present while a SMA priest, on the nigeria-Benin border, and a pagan priest called the Awan Cashie, politely discussed the problems of forcing Catholic women to take part in pagan ceremonial; the Awan Cashie seemed to be well up on current theology, because he produced as his trump card that we all worshipped the one God, basically! experience has not yet allowed us to make a creative interprepation in that area.

As a final example of how the import of Vatican II is not yet clear to us consider the new moves towards political dissent among Catholics in the light of the Declaration on Religious Freedom and the Church’s social teaching. There is confusion among Catholics about the best course to adopt both in Latin America and in the Phillipines. The Vincentian message is one of strict fidelity both to the Council and to the Holy See, combined with careful attention to the unfolding lessons of experience. If there is a rider to that message it is that experience has a habit of teaching its lessons slowly. On this point we may give Vincent the last word:

It is true that I delay much before replying or doing things, but I have never yet found any matter the worse for my delaying, indeed it is rather the case that everything gets done in good time with all the necessary consideration and precaution …. God is much honoured by the time taken to give due consideration to what concerns his service (II 207).

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