Saint Vincent and the Church in his time (1)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Luigi Mezzadri, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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Many researchers make the mistake of isolating Saint Vincent from his time.1 A statue needs a niche. Saint Vincent needs the Church of his time or rather the Church and his time, otherwise understanding him would be impossible.

We shall, therefore, consider three different aspects: the con­dition of the Church in the 17th century, the notion of the Church in Saint Vincent and the action of Saint Vincent for the Church.

The condition of the Church in the 17th century

We need to consider two things: the juridical condition and the real situation. The Church, as it was recognized by the Assembly of the States General of 1615, was of the “first order” in the French Kingdom. It, therefore, enjoyed prestige and privileges. It had autonomy in the fiscal and judiciary fields. It was undisturbed in the spiritual sphere and the laws of the Church were protected by the state.2

The Bishops

At the beginning of the 17th century in France, there were 14 archdioceses and 105 dioceses; some were very small (Grass had 23 parishes) and others were very large (Rouen had 1380 parishes).

The criteria that guided the choice of bishops3 were, according to importance, the following: political, intellectual, moral.

Very many dioceses were given by the king as a reward for the services of the family or of the individual. The Pragmatic Sanctions permitted some “sweet and benevolent supplications” on the part of the king for the election of his candidates. For example, a son of the king’s lawyer whom evidently he wanted to reward for the favor he had done for the monarchy was placed at Rouen.

For this reason, dioceses were quite often the property of great families (phenomenon of the “Episcopal dynasties”). As the Amboise had control of Rouen, Langres, Albi, Clermont in the 15th and 161h centuries, in the same way at the end of the century and the beginning of the new one, the de Gondi’s had inherited Paris. The La Rochefoucauld, Bethune, Potter, Estrees and Fouquier were other dynasties that settled in different dioceses. Since Richelieu considered the virtuous nobility a requisite for a good bishop,4 most of the bishops were thus nobles.

Many of them held several benefices. Cardinal Estouteville during the years 1440-1450 was bishop of Courserams, Mirepoix, Nimes, Beziers, Lodeve, from where he could get important revenues able to support a rich way of life and to pay the expenses incurred in obtaining a cardinal’s hat. They were many indeed yet never as numerous as the ten dioceses of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Proverbial was the wealth of Mazarin, an obvious result of an accu­mulation of benefits.

The second criterion was an intellectual one. University de­grees were considered a very important document for the career. Etienne Poncher, bishop of Paris, was connected with the intellectuals of his time. Guillaume Briconnet transformed Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where he had been the abbot, into a cultural center, before founding the “Cenacle of Meaux.” As for the French episcopate, it was observed that more than two thirds were the king’s advisers with a good preparation, mainly juridical.

The third criterion was a moral one. It would be unfair to reduce the episcopate of this period only to picturesque characters of amoral, wealthy and intriguing prelates. Claude de Seyssel (1450­1520) was high profile figure towards the end of the 15th century. He was saddled with good juridical and classical studies carried out in Pavia and in Turin. He joined the service of Louis XII, king of France, and when he was about fifty he became a clergyman. He was an upright and faithful servant of the king as well as of the Church. In 1507, the king told the chapter of Marseille that he wished them to elect his friend and faithful adviser (Master of Appeals in the Council of the State) as bishop of the city. Then he transferred to Turin where he died a holy death. He was the historiographer of Louis XII. He wrote many historical treatises and his most important treatise was the Tractatus de Tr iplici Statu Viatoris, which was one of the first works about bishops that had a pastoral character.5

At the time of SaintVincent, we remember Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Francis de La Rochefoucauld, bishop of Clermont, Blessed Alain de Solminihac, the holy bishop of Marseille Jean-Baptiste Gault. Henceforth, the number of bishops that was distant from the religious world, pleasure-seeking and licentious was definitely diminishing. Not all bishops naturally were models. What had changed was that most of the bishops had begun to exercise their authority again. Thus, in the 17th century, there was a generation of bishops who were au­thoritative and demanded commitment to reform, who were dreaded and dreadful. The crosier was no longer just a symbol, but also a threat. In times of “dispersion” and uncertainty, even this can be useful.

The Lower Clergy

1. Recruitment

We cannot speak of “vocation” at least up to the time of the “Spiritual Exercises” of Saint Ignatius. One could be in the clerical state through the tonsure (beginning at seven years of age) that was usually given after confirmation. The family made the decision regarding states of life. In making their decision, the parents had the following models:6

  1. sacrificial model: the family would choose one of their children and “offer” him to God.
  2. cultural model: one enters the clerical state in order to dedicate himself to studies.
  3. social model: one or more of the sons were sent to the clerical state to gain social prestige.

It was this last model that Vincent’s family followed in choos­ing the priesthood for him.

In fact, many who were tonsured would remain in this state of life which conferred some privileges. They could be recognized by the manner of cutting the hair, by the simple and long dress, by mar­riage “with a virgin and only wife.” The number of these tonsured was great indeed. From September 1506 to April 1507, Agen had 1028 tonsured. On Apri110, 1520 at Mende, they tonsured 411 persons. In Paris, up to the middle of the 15th century, there were 400 tonsured per year. Only ten (10) years later, they became 360. At Rouen, the tonsured in 1410 were 3000, but at the end of the century they became 1300. They represented one third of the total population.7

How many of these were able to reach the priesthood? In Paris in the sixties of the 15th century, the ratio would be 1 to 15. Ne­vertheless, the strange phenomenon was that when the number of tonsured diminished, the priestly ordinations increased. At Rouen the ordinations became three times as much. At the end of the century they had about 200 ordinations per year. In Paris about the middle of the 15th century, there were 20 new priests every year and in 1645 they became 27. In Toulouse, the priestly ordinations were 50 annually.

Of course, many priests came from the outside to be ordained. In the year 1506-1507 at Agen, they ordained 690 priests, but only half of them belonged to the diocese. It was like getting a priest every year more or less for each parish. If we consider the other half of those ordained in Agen, we find that 96 were from Cahors, 66 from Sarlat, 31 from Bazas, 22 from Rodez. In the year 1521-1522 at Angers, the newly ordained were 417. At Poitiers, they also ordained 1600 presbyters. If we consider only the secular priests, they were 5%of the whole population.

All this created a huge concentration of presbyters and ton­sured. It seems that in Limousin alone, there lived 10,000 priests so that sometimes a village had 30 to 40 priests.

One of the reforms, therefore, was to control the number of ordinations. In Avignon there was a huge number of ordained priests, so they started to limit the number. In 1600, the bishop of Bezier wrote to Rome that he could not introduce the entrance examination for the assignment to the various parishes due to the ignorance of the priests.

2. Formation

What was the formation of those who prepared themselves for holy orders? The major part of those who had been tonsured entered the orders through a sort of apprenticeship under a parish priest. Those who stopped at the tonsure served during the mass, assisted at the altar (sacristans), sang the office of the dead or they became school teachers. For them there was no formation.

Those who aspired to become presbyters, first of all, had to show they had a little private income of at least 15 to 20 lire annually acquired through a benefice, a titled real property or coming from the family or a generous benefactor.

Then the candidate learned to carry out the rites and to read the missal… nothing more. After all, the greater number of these priests did not carry out a pastoral service but simply the celebration of the masses and the offices of the dead. There were therefore two kinds of priests: “the priests of the Mass” and “the parish priests.”8 The former lived with their families, worked in the fields like the rest or, at most they were employed in some lucrative activity. To enter the orders it was enough to be of legitimate birth (that was the time of the bastards), to know how to read and to sing.

According to the statutes of Tournai of 1366 an examination was provided. This was administered by the archdeacon two days before the ordination. The candidate had to know the formula for the administration of the sacraments, the fourth book of the Summa of Pietro Lombardo, the 2nd and the 4th book of the Decretali, plus, nat­urally, the rights and the duties of the ecclesiastical state.9

A special formative modality was the one of the pueri cantors.10 They had in many cathedrals some small schools for those youths that provided the service and the singing in the cathedral. In the beginning these schools were supported by the canons, but later many of these schools had revenues from some chapels or vacant benefices. But they were certainly not in the position of solving the problem of the formation of the secular clergy.

Towards the middle of the 14th century, some conscientious bishops started looking for a solution to the problem of the formation of the presbyters. The bishop of Utrecht, having given an examination to his clergy, discovered that out of over 300 candidates, only three were qualified.

For the “permanent formation” there was a series of books, as the collection of sermons, manuals for confession and pastoral work, at a modest level but useful.11

Before the foundation of seminaries there were colleges. In Paris, the College of Montaigu was famous. It was a university college founded in 1344. There they lived a life of poverty while the director was John Standonck (1450-1504).12 He first of all restored discipline. Then he founded, close to the college, the house of the poor, a kind of seminary ad erigendum gentem novam (to build a new generation). There were in it eighty young people who aspired to the priesthood or the consecrated life. They were supported by the fees paid by the well off students. They would get a room, white bread and a candle daily. The study was intense, but the approach was defective, as it gave too much importance to nominalism, without being open either to Saint Thomas or to humanism. Erasmo, who complained about the kitchen, Saint Ignatius and Calvin studied in that college though at different times.

The college, with its monastic and conservative set up, was successfully realized. Standonck founded four other colleges at Cam-bray and Valenciennes (1499), Malines and Lovanio (1500) after the same model, thus prefiguring a possible congregation. At the head of each house there was a minister pauperum (minister of the poor). The new candidates did not make any vow, but only a promise of obe­dience. They wore a dress of rough cloth, of different colors, black for the theologians and gray for those who studied in the arts faculty. No meat was served at table and no wine, except a little quantity that was added to the water for the theologians. Life was poor; fasts were rigorous. Discipline was severe. At night, they had to get up by turn for the matins. Every day Mass was compulsory and so was half an hour meditation. Each student had to record in an exercise book during his free moments the spiritual sentences that had struck him most.

For a while, this initiative was successful. Almost 300 boarders became religious in various communities, such as the Carthusians, Carmelites and Franciscans. Nevertheless such initiative had no future. The model was medieval and monastic. It could be enough for those who were searching for certainties, not for those who were committing themselves to the risky journey of the new century.

The Council of Trent had ordered the institution of a seminary in each diocese.13 At Reims a seminary had been existing since 1567. Other dioceses founded seminaries some years later, like Pont-a­Mousson (1579), Carpentras (1581), Aix (1582), Bordeaux, Embrun Valence (1583), Sarlat (1584), Avignon e Cavaillon (1586), Toulouse (1590), Vaison (1594), Agen (1597), Auch (1609) Macon, (1613), Rouen (1615), Lucon (1617). In fact in 1644 there were seminaries only in Bordeaux, Reims and Rouen. All the others had disappeared and their work had vanished.

3. Defects

Without seminaries the quality of the clergy was poor indeed. Bourdoise remembered what he had been told in 1607: “You have to learn to read well so that you may sing well in the Church. It is a beautiful thing when a priest knows to read and to write.”14

The ignorance of the clergy was a well documented argument since pastoral visits left a rich documentation. In many places the weaknesses of the priests were very well known. A priest that would give a helping hand in the manual work and that would participate in a good long drink with his parishioners, in some regions like La Rochelle or in Auvergne, was very welcome. But this kind of clergy would not preach, nor hear confessions, or if they would, often they did not know the formula of absolution. The catechism was neglected. At Treguier, for example, it was said that the priests were not teaching it.

One of the reasons why the Congregation of the Missions was founded was the abandonment of the countryside. This can easily be explained. In the region of Toulouse, half of the clergy before 1631 were nonresident. In 1624, the Bishop of Treguier discovered that the priests did not take care of their churches. During pastoral visits in the diocese of Chartres from the years 1628-30, it was found that the tabernacles either did not exist or they were dirty. Often the parish priests did not know whether the hosts were consecrated or not. Even worse, in many cases, the visitors saw that the ciboriums were full of worms.

4. Pastoral Life

The members of the parish personnel were many. It included the parish priest, the chaplains, the chaplains of the minor chapels, the “recipient priests” (filleuls ou communalistes) and the “obituaries.”

The parish priest took care of the parish which was often joined to other parishes or benefices. Thus, the parish priest did not reside in his parish. A substitute priest who received compensation far below the regular income would take his place.

Then there were the parish chaplains, who somehow helped in the pastoral service. They should not be confused with the chap­lains of the minor chapels who did not have any pastoral care, but were in charge only of the liturgy. These latter were still different from the obituaries who were in charge of celebrating the masses for the dead, and who, therefore, received a stipend.

In some places, there were the “recipient priests” (filleuls ou communalistes).15 The communities of the “recipient priests” (pretresfilleuls) were part of the parishes and were made up of priests who were born in the parishes and who were receiving pension from the income of the parish. In the diocese of Clermont, these communities of pretres­filleuls were created towards the end of the 12th century. In 1535, there were 104 communities of this kind in the diocese, most of which were founded in the 15th century. They were composed of a variable number of priests. One third of them was made up of a couple of priests only. But there were communities also with a big number of members. Aurillac, for example had 30 priests in 1344, 48 in 1439 and 100 in 1508. They were receiving a pension of 45 lire per annum.

These “recipient priests” (pretres filleuls) administered the reve­nue of the parish. The parish priests could choose his collaborators among them. The city consuls used to entrust to them the school and the ministry of charity.

To examine concretely the pastoral life, we bring a specific case that has been carefully studied. It concerns the diocese of Clermont in France. Through it we can see a microcosm of parish life starting from the problem of income.16

Parishes could survive with two kinds of income. The first was the rent which was very low, i.e. between 2 to 4 lire for the parishes in the mountain, 35-40 lire for the city parishes. Then there were the extras that included the rights of the altar and those of the Church. The administration of the sacraments (rights of the altar) ensured a certain income. The offering for baptism was 3 cents for the head of the family and 1 cent for the other members. For the celebration of marriages, the spouses had to pay at the door of the church 5 coins, a quarter of the wedding bread, a quarter of the wine, a leg of the pig, a piece of beef and a chicken. In Borgogne the rule was that they had to provide the food for the celebrant for the day and the next. If the bridegroom wanted to get married in another place, if he was a landowner he had to pay 10 coins and 1 chicken, if not, he had to pay 5 coins and bring a chicken as a gift. The contribution for a funeral was very precise. In the beginning of the 16th century a hostel owner had to pay 16 soldi (coins), for other adults, only 5 coins; for children, only 2 coins and 6 denarii. The rights of the Church included different kinds of taxes, usually to be paid in kind. For the pastoral Sunday service, i.e. for a simple Mass and a sung Mass, they had to contribute to the parish priest a measure of oatmeal. At Longpre’, at the end of the 14th century, each parishioner had to contribute to his pastor a measure of rye for the annual service, plus a copper for the Gospel of the Passion. In some cases the tax included a lunch for Christmas, for the parish priest, his chaplain, his acolyte and the sacristan of the Church. On the same occasion, they also had to feed the 3 dogs and the horse of the parish priest.

Essentially, what was the income of a parish? In Pierrefite­sur-Loire, a parish of 100 families, we know that annually they had an income of 25 lire from the administration of the sacraments and 30 lire from the rights of the Church., The greater the income, the greater were the taxes. Among them there was the “free gift,” a tax that the monarchy imposed on the Church. This was not a due, but was considered a “free gift” even though it was a must.17 Naturally the episcopate subdivided this amount among the various parishes. For the “free gift” in 1535 the required amount varied between 7 coins and 6 denarii to 50 lire for the better off parishes. Then there were the rights of patronage that varied between 5 coins in Vilplaix to 10 lire in Theil. On the occasion of the synod, the bishop would ask for a tax (paree synodale), like for the pastoral visit (droit de procuration). The former was between 6 denarii and 5 coins, while the latter, according to the documentation, varied between 4 and 48 coins.

In exchange for this income the parish priest was bound to assure the spiritual care of the people. At Monetay-sur-Allier the parishioners had signed an agreement with the parish priest by which the latter had to celebrate a low mass and a solemn mass every Sunday and feast day. In addition, the parish priest was bound to celebrate the marriages and the funerals and to administer baptisms. He had to preach the Gospel from the feast of the Holy Cross in May to the Exaltation of the Cross in September.18 When the weather threatened the harvest with hailstorms, excessive cold, etc., he had to hold processions and special prayers. Finally, the parish priest was bound to provide a good and sufficient paschal candle, the incense, for feast days and the blessed bread for the feast of the Circumcision.

At Molinet every Sunday the parish priest had to sing the Libera Me before and after the Mass, blessing the tombs with holy water?19 In another parish there was an absolution for the dead before and after the Mass. As we can see, the activity for the dead was very intense, so much so that, during a synod, the priests of a parish asked the bishop to exempt four priests from participating because they were very busy with the services for the dead.

At the center of the pastoral life there was the Eucharistic celebration. When the people had arrived in Church, all had to wait for the beginning of the celebration until the lord of the place and his family would arrive. If he was very late, it could even happen that the parish priest could not say Mass.20 There were nevertheless the chapels for the parishioners who were living very far from the parish. When they did not have their own chaplain, the celebration took place once a year. Finally there were the processions. These took place almost every Sunday and sometimes these were occasions for meeting parishioners who lived far away.

Finally in presenting the Church, we have to avoid two extremes: the exaltation (“the beautiful time long ago”) and the indignation (“everything was bad… and here comes Saint Vincent”). At the beginning of the 17th century there was an acceptance of the Council of Trent (1615) and there was an institutional, spiritual, missionary and educational renewal.

The institutional renewal included the nomination of worthy bishops (Saint Vincent contributed a lot to this most especially during the years when he was a member of the Council of Conscience).

As for the spiritual renewal, Bremont spoke of a “mystical invasion.” Here we remember the influence of the Rhine-Flemish spi­rituality, of the Italian (Savonarola) and of the Spanish (Saint Theresa). We cannot ignore the group of Madam Acarie, the Company of the Blessed Sacrament and the Tuesday conferences.

The missionary renewal included the founding of the mis­sionary communities: the Oratory of Berulle, the Congregation of the Mission, the Eudists, the Seminary for the Foreign Missions (1663) and intense missionary campaigns in France and in mission countries (Madagascar, French Canada, England, Vietnam).

In the educational field there was a flowering of colleges (Jesuits, Oratorians, Ursulines), and of schools (starting with the “Little Schools of Port-Royal and continuing with those of many male and female religious communities).

  1. Dizionari essenziali: Dictionnaire du Grand fiecle, a cura di E Bluche (Paris, 1990); Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana (Salamanca, 1995); Dictionnaire de l’Ancien Regime, a cura di L Bely (Paris, 1996); Dizionario storico spirituale vincenziano, a cura di L Mezzadri (Roma, 2003).
  2. M. Aubrun, La paroisse en France des origines au XVeme siecle (Paris, 1986); J. Chelini, Histoire religieuse de l’Occident Medi’eval(Paris,1991); AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993); E Rapp, Reformes et inerties, in AA.VV., Histoire du Christianisme, VII: De la reforme a la Reformation (1450-1530) (Paris, 1994), pp. 143-207.
  3. Per quanto riguarda it ruolo di s. Vincenzo nella riforma dell’episcopato: P. Blet, Vincent de Paul et repiscopat de France, in Vincent de Paul. Actes du Colloque International d’Etudes Vincentiennes (Paris, 25-26 Septembre 1981; Roma, 1983), pp. 81-114.
  4. Richelieu, Testament politique (Amsterdam, 1688), p. 54.
  5. Analisi in P Broutin-H. Jedin, L’Eveque dans la tradition pastorale du XVIeme siecle (Paris, 1953).
  6. V. Tabbagh, Effectifs et recrutement du Clerge seculier franca/s: in AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 181-202.
  7. Ibid., p. 183.
  8. Pia tardi si dira: preti da messa e preti da confessionale.
  9. M. Aubrun, La paroisse en France des origines au siecle (Paris, 1986), p. 162.
  10. P. Demouy, Les Pueri chori de Notre-Dame de Reims. Contribution a Phistoire des clergeons au Moyen Age, in AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 135-149.
  11. A. Prosperi, Di alcuni testi per clero nell’Italia del primo Cinquecento, in Critica storica 7 (1968) pp. 137-168.
  12. R. G. Villoslada, La Universidad de Paris durante los estudios de Francisco de Vitoria, (Roma, 1938).
  13. A. Degert, Histoire des seminaires en France jusqu’a la Revolution, 2 vol. (Paris, 1912); M. Venard, Les seminaires en France avant Saint Vincent de Paul, in AA.VV., Vincent DepauL Actes du colloque international d’etudes vincentiennes (Paris, 25-26 Septembre 1981; Roma, 1983), pp. 1-17; E. Preclin-E. Jarry, Le lotte politiche e dottrinali nei secoll XVII e XVIII (1648-1789), a cura di L. Mezzadri (Storia della Chiesa di Fliche- Martin XIX/1) (Torino, 1974); La Chiesa nell’eta dell’assolutismo e dell’illuminismo (Storia della Chiesa di H. Jedin VII), (Milano, 1978); R. Taveneaux, Le Catholicisme dans la France classique 1610-1715, 2 vol. (Paris, 1980); Histoire de la France religieuse, a cura di J. Le Goff e R. Remond, II: Du christianisme flamboyant a l’aube des Lumieres (Paris, 1988).
  14. Cit. da E. Labrousse-R. Sauzet, La lente mise en place de la reforme tridentine (1598­1661), in Histoire de la France religieuse, p. 390.
  15. R. Germain, Revenus et actions pastorale des pretres paroissiaux dans le diocese de Clermont, in AA.W., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 109-111.
  16. R. Germain, Revenus cit., pp. 101-119.
  17. II clero francese pretendeva per diritto divino di essere esente da ogni contributo pecuniario in favore del regno. Se lo faceva, non era per obbligo, ma per una sua spontanea decisione, per spirito di conciliazione e di compiacenza verso it sovrano. Era una liberta teorica. Ogni qualvolta it clero o una parte rifiutava veniva richiamato all’ordine. II “dono gratuito” variava a seconda the ci si trovasse in pace o in guerra.
  18. La festa della S. Croce di maggio era Ia festa dell’Invenzione della Croce (3 maggio); quella di settembre era la festa dell’Esaltazione (14 Septembre). Si veda a questo proposito it “Glossario di date” in A. Cappelli, Crono/ogia, cronografia e calendario perpetuo (Milano, 1930), pp. 109-124.
  19. E’ noto l’uso di seppellire in chiesa. Questo spiega l’abbondanza e Ia ricchezza di parecchie cappelle nelle chiese soprattutto degli ordini mendicanti.
  20. M. Aubrun, La paroisse, p. 173.

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