Saint Vincent and the Church in his time (2)

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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The notion of the Church in Saint Vincent

Feel with the Church

Saint Vincent, participating in the Tridentine Renewal, believed in the value of certain fundamental themes e. g. the Church as perfect society, visible, indefectible, blessed with an infallible magisterium. For him the Church was the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the holy Ark of Salvation so that those who are not members of the Church cannot be saved. The Church is also the place where we pray, where we venerate the relics, where we get the indulgences, where pil­grimages are encouraged. It was then a Church in which “practices/ activities” were important, but where also interiority was required. This Church had come out wounded from the religious wars. First of all, she had a rival in the Protestant Church which had been officially recognized by the Edict of Nantes (1598). On one side, there was the “Church,” the Catholic Church; on the other side, there was the “religion” from where derived the words religionari, “Calvinists,” “reformed.”

This Church was being reformed and Saint Vincent partici­pated in this reform (which means giving back the “form of Christ”) — episcopal, monastic, clerical reform. He understood, nevertheless, that his mission had to be inside the Church, in obedience to it, in favor of the poor, who hungered for the Word and for bread. The Church then was the place for preaching and for the mission of charity.

Saint Vincent presented the Church as the Body of Christ, but his vision was neither theoretical nor political: “How can I bear this sickness if not because of the participation that we have with the Lord, who is our head? All people together form the mystical body, we are all members one of the other. Yes, we never heard that one member has been insensible to the pain of another member, or that one part of a man was bruised, wounded or violated and that the other parts did not feel the consequences. That cannot be. All our members sym­pathize so much and are so united that the pain of one is the pain of the other also. All the more, Christians, being members of the same body and members one of the other, have to support one another. What! You are a Christian and you see your brother afflicted and you do not cry with him? You do not feel sick with him? This is to be without charity, it is to be a painted Christian! This is to be without humanity. This is to be worse than an animal!”1 He was not inter­ested in presenting the Church as “unique” like Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam, but as the extension of Christ, of which the poor are the privileged portion.

The Church was also presented as the Kingdom of God. “We have to know that by these words: ‘You have first of all to look for the Kingdom of God and His justice.’ Our Lord does not ask of us only that the Kingdom of God and His justice be in us, but, this not being enough, that we desire and strive that the Kingdom of God may be brought and extended everywhere, that God may rule in all souls, that over the whole world there might be only one and true religion, that the world may live in a different way by the strength of the virtue of God through the means He established in His Church, so that His justice may be imitated and practiced by all through a holy life, and that God may be perfectly glorified here on earth and in all eternity. Behold then what we have to do: wish for the propagation of the glory of God and work for it. I said His glory, I said His Kingdom and I mix the two together because they are the same thing. The glory of God is in Heaven and His Kingdom is in the soul. Let us have there­fore this continual wish that the Kingdom of God spreads; and this desire to work in it with all our strength, so that, having succeeded in getting the Kingdom of God in this world, we might be able to join Him in Heaven. Let us keep this lamp always burning in our hearts. Friends, let us be happy that we are in a Company, the goal of which is not only to make us worthy that He might reign in us, but that He might be loved and served by the whole world and that the whole world be saved.”2

Another image was that of the Church as Spouse. This idea of the Church as Spouse did not put the accent on the mystical union with the Word in prayer, but on the fidelity that the faithful should show towards the Church, since it does not change in matters con­cerning the faith. The theme of the Church was a question for Saint­Cyran. For the reformer, the Church has ceased to exist for the past 500 years. Saint Vincent never accepted this thinking and fought against it throughout his pastoral ministry.

Saint Vincent’s vision of the Church nevertheless was not free from preoccupations. He was afraid that it would be transferred else­where. “We ought to, Friends and Brothers, enter into these sentiments and be afraid that the Kingdom of God might be transferred. It is a great disaster what we can see now with our eyes: six kingdoms were taken away from the Church; Sweden, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland and Ireland and, on top of this even a huge part of Germany with many other big cities. My Saviour! What a loss! And after all this we might be on the point to see also the huge Polish kingdom lost, if God in His great mercy will not preserve it. It is true that the Son of God promised that He will be in His Church till the end of times, but He did not promise that this Church will be in France or in Spain, etc…. He simply said that He will not abandon His Church and that she will last till the consummation of the world, no matter where. He did not determine whether it will be here or elsewhere. And if there is a place where He should leave her, it seems that none should be preferred to the Holy Land, where He was born and where He started His Church and worked so many marvels. Meanwhile it is precisely from this land, for which He worked so much and where He conclu­ded His mission, that He took away in the beginning His Church to give it to the gentiles.”3 The Church in fact was attacked by many enemies. Those outside the Church were the Protestants. But there were also enemies inside; in the first place, would be the priests. This explains his involvement in the reform of the presbyters, his work in the seminaries and the mission. He felt deeply with the Church and wanted that his Vincentian Family be specially attuned with and for the Church. After all, the Church was his home, where he felt at ease, his mother, and the anticipation of the Kingdom of God. It was in fact a Vincentian, Guglielmo Pouget (1847-1933) who formulated the expression used by John XXIII in his opening remarks at Vatican II: “one is the substance of the old doctrine contained in the deposit of our faith, another is the formulation with which we clothed it.” This blind but farsighted man, accused of modernism (he was removed from teaching in 1905), but venerated by Jean Guitton, Chevalier, Latreille, Garrone responded to the suspicions and accusations against him with love. From Saint Vincent he had learned to make of histo­rical criticism an instrument of asceticism. According to Giordani, Saint Vincent, since he was in the Gondi house, “was trying to make of that affluent family a little Church.” Similarly at Chatillon, “he had succeeded to make of the Church a home, of the parish a community…. He had made of Saint Andrew the heart of the village, of the sacra­ments, the heart of the souls. He had revived the Church…. The new sense of community, awakened the debt of solidarity and was pushing from isolation to communion.” Vincent, according to him, was one “who not only believed and felt with the Church, but lived her. His ideal therefore was to rebuild the Church in souls.”

Church and Salvation: Jansenism

While the Greek Church was reflecting on the doctrine of the nature of God (the Trinity) and on the Incarnation (against the Nesto­rians and the Monophysitists), the Latin Church was preoccupied with problems like divine grace and human freedom, of the means of salvation and man’s response to it. Saint Augustine proposed a solution that emphasized the role of grace and predestination. Luis de Molina (1535-1560), a Spanish Jesuit, tried to reconcile predestination and free will while valuing human freedom. With the “revival” of these doctrines, the Spanish Dominicans entered the fray, accusing the Jesuits openly of being Pelagians, since Pelagianism denies the role of grace in salvation.

Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638), better known as Jansenius, was a doctor of theology and a professor of Louvain. He was a friend of Jean du Vergier de Hauraunne, the parish priest and future abbot of Saint-Cyran who was also a friend of Vincent de Paul.

Jansenius had undertaken the writing of a treatise entitled Augustinus, where he expressed a rigorous view of the role of God in salvation. His idea was fully appreciated by those residing in the Cistercian Abbey of Port-Royale and those that frequent its sur­roundings. This abbey was firmly governed by Angelique Arnauld, the protagonist of the events of September 25, 1609, when the free access to monasteries was prohibited to visitors. In 1625, Angelique temporarily left her residence “Des Champs” (Port Royale des Champs) and transferred to the neighborhood of Saint Jacques. In 1648, she and some of her companions returned to the quiet little valley of Des Champs.

During the first decades of the 17th century this monastery was under the rule of Saint-Cyran who not only was against the Jesuits but also against Richelieu. Richelieu had just consolidated his powers after the famous “Day of Dupes,” November 10-11, 1630 (which had caused the disgrace of the uncles of Louise de Marillac — Louis and Michel. Louis was beheaded and Michel died in prison). He was at the point of declaring war against Spain and was very sensitive to all sorts of opposition. On the other hand, Saint-Cyran came as the heir of Berulle, stalwart supporter of the Spanish alliance during the thirty years war, (if France and Spain had become allies, the Catholics in Germany would have been the victor); while Richelieu, whose only concern was the interest of France, wanted to ally himself with the Protestants against Spain and Austria.

According to Saint-Cyran, “formerly the penitents did penance and the blameless did the same… and the Fathers of the Church said that penance was the remedy of one and the glory of the others.”

He then looked for ways from among his circle of clientele, twenty or thirty persons of them who had confided to him, for a method of saving souls from sin and to bring about a conversion. This method consisted of a delay in absolution after penance has been done, without approving nevertheless long suspensions even for religious nuns who requested a delay of 3 to 4 months in imitation of the first Christians. The goal of this method was to give a psycho­logical shock, similar to that of a spiritual retreat. This came from his theory of the necessity of contrition within the sacrament of Penance, which cannot be verified except by the fruits of penance, that is to say, for a period of expiation in proportion to the sin.

Such orientation was the exact opposite of that favored by the Jesuits: that is, of frequent reception of Holy Communion.

It was an ordinary happening that provoked the controversy. Saint-Cyran had written a letter to Anne of Rohan, Princess of Guemene, with a concise instruction on the use of the sacraments. It counseled in particular a period of “waiting” before receiving communion. This document was conveyed by Madelaine de Souvre, Marchioness de Sable, to her confessor Pierre Sesmaison, a Jesuit. (1588-1648). Ses­maison had a different way of dealing with his penitents and thus wrote a counterresponse.

The Princess of Guemene sent the written pamphlet to Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) requesting for an answer. This response trig­gered a triple controversy. The 1″ was the historical plan between Arnauld and the Jesuit Denys Petau. The 2nd was the religious plan concerning the legitimacy of the young theologian and 3rd the political plan of whether they will seek the intervention of the monarchy. In the end, no condemnation occurred as demanded by the anti-Jansenist. Instead, the preface written by Barcos was censured.

Vincent’s opposition to Saint-Cyran’s views was clear and sure. Vincent, who had been a friend of Saint-Cyran, was in the posi­tion to know the man. He could not accept the continued criticism thrown to the Church by Saint-Cyran, nor had he thought that the way to the reevangelization of Europe was through the preaching that Christ did not die for all mankind; that human nature was intrinsically ruined by sin and therefore all human acts not animated by grace were worthy of damnation.

Vincent was of the opinion that Richelieu had more than one reason for disagreeing with Saint-Cyran. Not only did Richelieu fear Saint-Cyran’s politics which was diagonally opposed to his own but also for his important doctrine that could change the balance of power.

In 1638, the all-powerful Richelieu had Saint-Cyran arrested and conducted an investigation against him. If he succeeded in obtaining negative testimonies against his doctrines from persons like Vincent, he would have succeeded and have him in his hands. Vincent was therefore called to be a witness. On the one hand, Vincent knew that Saint-Cyran was culpable but on the other hand, he did not like to play the political game of the Cardinal. The issue was not therefore the doctrine of the Church but an issue of power. Vincent made a testimony, so prudent that they could not draw any valid accusation from it. It was a “masterpiece” of charity, according to Bremond. On the other hand, Saint-Cyran did not have the same scruples as Vincent, judging him as “prudent but may make mistakes through lack of insight and understanding concerning matters of doctrine and learning.”

As to the “frequent communion” of Arnauld, we have two letters of Vincent de Paul to his confrere Jean de Horgny.4 Vincent could not accept the restriction on the celebration of masses and the receiving of communion that “deprive the Blessed Trinity of praise and glory, the angels of delight, sinners of pardon, the just of help and grace, souls in purgatory of refreshments, the Church of the spiritual favors of Jesus Christ, and themselves of medicine and a remedy.”5 Arnauld, by favoring abstention from receiving communion in the spirit of penance, seems to put on the same level the merits of the individual and the opus operatum.

Furthermore, Vincent did not admit that the current practice of the Church was decadent. He loved the Church too much to accept the position of Arnauld. “…we do know that throughout Europe, the Sacraments are approached in a manner condemned by M. Arnauld, and that the Pope and all the bishops approved the custom of giving absolution after confession and of doing public penance only for public sins. Is it not insufferable blindness, in a matter of all Chris­tendom the ideas of a young man, who, when he did his writing, had no experience in the direction of souls?”6

Vincent’s opposition to the Augustinus became stronger still. The initiative to have some propositions of the Augustinus condemned was for the Sorbonne to work on. In the beginning there were seven propositions and these propositions have been submitted by Nicolas Cornet (1592-1663) to be examined by the theologians. The Jansenists saw in this action a condemnation of Saint Augustine. Unofficial negotiations were done. The strategy succeeded. By the Bull Cum Occasione (1653) only five propositions were condemned.

The center of the opposition was then left to Port-Royale. The climate that prevailed in the two Port-Royale was exemplary. Trials and hardships form the character. That was why Jacqueline Pascal said this famous quotation: “Since the bishops have the courage of women, women should have the courage of the bishops.”

The condemnation of the five propositions did not bring peace, not even a truce. Arnauld admitted that the propositions were errors but he denied they were of Jansenius. By doing this, he let the errors pass from supernatural anthropology to ecclesiology. Has the Church the right to pass judgment on the interpretation of an author in his formulation of a proposition? Thus an attack on the morals of the Jesuits started especially in the Lettres Provinciales of Pascal (January 23, 1656-March 24, 1657). Through a new sentence, Rome affirmed that the five propositions had been condemned in the sense understood by Jansenius (Quaestio facti: Bull Ad Sanctum Petri Sedem, 1656). There followed a period of fighting and tension, of formulation and protest that were partially calmed under Clement IX with the Paix Clementine (1669). The flame was extinguished but the ember was not completely put out. The controversy resumed at the beginning of the 18th century with a new vigor and will spread further than Paris. This became an extremely important event in the Church.

Until his death, Vincent de Paul fought to stump the effects of Jansenism and to preserve his communities. In this, he acted in agreement with some of the greatest representatives of the French Church: Condren, Olier, Eudes to name some. They differed from those who were against Jansenism from political motivation, like Richelieu, Mazarin, Louis XIV and from theologians who opposed the “spirituality.” They were against Jansenism not because they were well versed in doctrines and morals or because they were averse to international politics of both Cardinals, but because of their love for the Church and the salvation of the little ones.

Vincent could not accept that a simple theologian can proudly proclaim himself as a reformer of the Church. Worst, he could not accept that the merciful image of God cannot be preached to the suf­fering people of the 17th century, instead of the severe face of God who did not die for all. On hearing a theologian affirm that anyone who did not know the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation can be saved, Vincent commented that, “I am afraid that I will be condemned for not instructing unceasingly the poor people.” For him, the image of a kind and merciful God is the hope of the poor. He could not, therefore, abandon them to themselves and to an austere and false preaching.

During the 18th century, the Congregation of the Mission was implicated in the affair of the Unigenitus. In 1713, Pope Clement XI condemned 101 propositions of Pasquier Quesnel, a Frenchman of the Oratorian Order. Four Bishops called for a Council and unleashed a strong opposition. Some adherents were Cardinal de Noailles and a big group of the clergy. Rome also asked the Congregation of the Mission to accept the Bull. The Superior General Fr. Bonnet took a neutral position which was unacceptable to Rome. The Italian mis­sionaries revolted. Since 1697, they had opposed the leadership of the French General, Nicolas Pierron and asked that a Vicar General be nominated independent of the General in Paris. But neither the Holy See nor the French government agreed. This incident enflamed hearts once again. During the Assembly of 1724, they could no longer postpone the decision. The Visitor of the Latin province, Bernardo della Torre, was placed in charge by the Secretary of State of the Pope, Cardinal Paolucci to tell Fr. Bonnet that the Pope was informed of the “bad reputation of the Congregation of the Mission that circulated in France due to the large number of its members imbued by the new doctrine and who were reluctant to accept the Constitution Unigenitus, bringing with it a great danger that sooner or later a large part of the kingdom will be contaminated, since many seminaries in France were under the direction of the said Congregation.” Della Torre would have acted together with the Visitors of Turin and Poland. But this time, Fr. Bonnet made the decision and accepted the provisions of the Unigenitus. At the same time he imposed it on all the confreres of the Congregation of the Mission. Many confreres, around thirty of them, refused to accept it and were sent out of the Congregation. Thus, the unity of the Congregation was saved and Jansenism was stopped. Saint Vincent de Paul would not have acted any differently.

  1. Conference to the CM’s, Conference 207, pp. 589-590.
  2. Op. cit., Conference 198, p. 478.
  3. Op. cit., Conference 154, p. 332.
  4. Coste III, Letter 1043, pp. 318-330.
  5. Op. cit., Letter 1064, p. 365.
  6. Ibid., p. 362.

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