Saint Vincent as a Person

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Thomas Davitt · Year of first publication: 1979 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 1.
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St. Vincent is frequently portrayed against the background of the France of his day or the Church of his day. If we are to get to know him as a person, though, we need to be able to see him against the background of his own Congregation as he deals, in his letters, with day to day community matters.

In the hope of speeding up the process of getting official approbation for his new Congregation Vincent sent one of his best men, Francis du Coudray, to Rome in May 1631 to conduct negotiations with the Holy See. In a letter to him Vincent summarised the purpose of the Congregation, and added:

“…to do this it is necessary to live as a community”. (I, 115)

Living together as a community brings problems. In his explanation of the expression “to strive for one’s own perfection”, which occurs in the opening paragraph of the Common Rules, Vincent placed first “getting on with others and respecting their rights” (XII, 27). This naturally applies within the community as well as in relations with other people. It is interesting in going through Vincent’s letters to see him dealing with the concrete realities of everyday community life; these are the situations which helped him to build up his views on this matter before he encapsulated them in the rules of 1658.

In 1637 he wrote to Anthony Coléee, the superior in Toul:

“I’ve heard that your bread isn’t properly baked; please get it done by a baker, if you can find one, for it is essential to have good bread. It will also be well to vary the menu from time to time to cater for poor human nature which gets sick of always seeing the same thing. You will also do well to recommend to the brothers cleanliness and tidiness in kitchen and refectory”. (I, 387-8)

On 9 November 1649 he wrote to Mathurin Gentil, the bursar in the seminary in Le Mans. He writes as though he were referring to another house of the congregation, though in fact he was referring to Le Mans; he used this device on other occasions as well:

“I’ve heard of one of our houses where the bad food served is having a detrimental effect on bodies and minds. Now, if the bursar, who goes to this extreme of economy under the pretext of cutting down expenses, does not manage things better after my warning and the letter I sent him, I’ll be forced to replace him by someone who has a proper idea of how to feed the community, as is done in Saint Lazaire and elsewhere; because otherwise many confrères fall ill. Since you’re in the same sort of job, Father, I tell you all this so that you’ll be careful to avoid such an abuse and will serve good bread and good meat, and won’t sell off the good wine and serve the worst, and in this way you’ll give the community no reason to complain of miserly treatment”. (III, 504-5)

In July 1649 he wrote to Bernard Codoing, the superior in Richelieu:

“You certainly must not be surprised at the little misunderstandings which crop up; the angels and the apostles had their differences, and our Lord allows this, inside and outside communities, for a greater good. It is up to us, though, to prevent the harmful consequences, and to settle things as quickly and as fully as possible. What would it be like, Father, if everyone agreed with us in everything, and we never had any reason to complain of other people’s conduct? God would have to change human nature”. (III, 468-9)

Three years later he wrote to a laybrother in Genoa a long letter in answer to complaints which the brother had made. Towards the end he says that saints had their faults, and that our Lord had to put up with a lot from the apostles, and then continues:

“Since that’s the case, my dear brother, should you be surprised at having something to complain about in the community in which you live? You well know that you yourself are not always in the same mood; one day you’re very assiduous, close to God and edifying the whole house; the next day you’re slovenly, lax and a trouble to everyone. On such a day the others will have to put up with you, just as you will have to put up with them”. (IV, 452)

On this matter of putting up with others he has a good fitter to the Daughters of Charity in the hospital in Nantes, written in 1647; it is long letter, and the following extract is taken from the middle:

‘You’ll say to me: ‘I would willingly put up with that sort of thing from externs, Father, but when it’s a question of my own sisters, who should be a help to me but who are a burden, a cross, and a trial in everything they say, everything they do and everything they don’t do!’ Now my dear Sisters, whom would we have to put up with if not those with whom we live? Someone miles away whom we never saw and never will see?… Who annoyed our Lord except the apostles, the disciples and those among whom he lived, and they were the Chosen People? A man going to confession one day was asked by the priest what profit he drew from annoyances caused by others; he said: ‘Ah, sure, Father, I’ve nothing like that to put up with. Since the wife and children died I’m by myself, and I’ve no one to give out to even if I wanted to’. The point of that, Sisters, is that our daily cross of bearing with others can come only from the people with whom we live”. (III, 176-7)

The question of troublesome confrères in the Congregation is one that comes up frequently in Vincent’s letters. In 1650 René Alméras was superior in Rome and had to deal with this problem. Vincent answered his letter and accepted the points which Alméras had apparently made about some confrères who were causing trouble, and then continued:

One is gone, after we had put up with him as long as possible, and it would be just as well if the others were also far away; it would be acting justly towards the Congregation to amputate gangrenous members. That’s true enough, and prudence demands it, but since we have to put all virtues into practice let’s now try patience, forbearance and even charity, in the hope that they will improve … Our Lord did not expel Peter for having denied him several times, nor even Judas…”. (IV, 36-7)

We cannot quote this, though, as Vincent’s invariable practice.

In an earlier letter, in 1643, to a predecessor of Alméras in Rome, Bernard Codoing, he wrote:

“You tell me that we must put up with these men as our Congregation is in need of men as it’s only beginning, and that later on we can get rid of them. It’s true, Father, that the Congregation needs men, but it is better to have fewer men than to have several troublemakers and suchlike. Ten good men will do more for God than a hundred like that. Let’s rid the community of them, Father, let’s rid the community of unspiritual men who are not pleasing to God and he will increase and bless it… It takes only one man like that, Father, to disrupt the community…

I pray to God, Father, that he may enlighten your understanding so that you can appreciate the importance for the glory of God, the santification of the Congregation and the good of the Church, of not holding on to men who are no good…

Remember, Father, that the ruin of most communities stems from the weakness of superiors who won’t take a stand, and from not getting rid of troublemakers and those who won’t mend their ways”. (II, 380-382)

These two diametrically opposed ways of dealing with apparently identical situations do not indicate that Vincent changed his mind on the matter or that he vacillated. The fact is that in each case he was not enunciating a theory but was dealing with specific persons, and obviously he had a different opinion about each of the confrères concerned. To use the standard expression, Vincent judged each case on its own merits, and in one of them he was clearly of the opinion that there was hope, but in the other, not. In this type of situation, when it arises in his letters, the adjective “incorrigible” is a favourite one of Vincent, and he never wavers from his conviction that-an incorrigible confrère must be expelled from the Congregation.

“Incorrigible” means that a person will not mend his ways, that he cannot be corrected. Vincent did not make this judgment about a confrère without very good reason. He was always very kind and tolerant to confrères in trouble, and in many letters he suggests similar kindness and tolerance to superiors who complained of troublesome confrères. In October 1650 he wrote to the superior in Sedan, Mark Cogley from Carrick-on-Suir:

“You ask how to deal with the quick-tempered, the touchy and the critical. My answer is that prudence should determine this, and that in some cases it is useful to see the thing from their point of view, making yourself all things to all men, as the Apostle said; in others it’s well to oppose them in a kind and gentle way, and in still others to take a firm line against their behaviour, but this must be always in the sight of God and in keeping with what you think is most for his glory and the good of your community”. (IV, 90)

In February 1653 he wrote to Stephen Blatiron, superior in Genoa:

“I praise God that your community is faithfully observing our customs, apart from the two men you mention; I entirely agree with your being tolerant towards them for a while. Some people slacken off at certain times and not at others, and there are even some who don’t do well in one place who do marvellously in another. We must hope for such an improvement from these two confrères, being content to wait instead of nagging them”. (IV, 551-2)

Many of these matters arose in letters which were written to Vincent and which needed answering. He was insistent that every confrère had the right to send letters to him as Superior General: (cf II, 373, 490). It is hardly surprising that many availed of this right in order to make complaints about their superior, or about others in their communities. Vincent was no fool and he knew enough about human psychology to realise that not everything in such letters was to be accepted at its facevalue. In December 1639 he wrote to Nicholas Durot in Toulouse:

“…we have to accept as absolutely certain the maxim that the difficulties we have with other people stem more from our own insufficiently-disciplined inclinations that from any other cause”. (I, 608)

Since he holds that as a basic principle it is not surprising to find Vincent tackling such problems by suggesting that the person complaining should set his own house in order first. He wrote to Louis Lebreton in Rome in Lent 1640:

“…most people offend God by criticising what other people do… without knowing the reasons they have for doing what they do; for how can you draw conclusions about something if you do not know the principles involved?” (II, 29-30)

At the end of a longish letter to William Delattre, superior in Cahors, he wrote:

“Following what I’ve said it occurs to me to give you another bit of advice … The blessed bishop of Geneva said that if there are a hundred ways of looking at something we should always choose the best way. In God’s name, Father, let’s act that way, even though our own inclinations, and human prudence suggest the opposite to us”. (II, 584-5)

Bernard Codoing, when superior in Richelieu, had complained to Vincent about two confrères; in a following letter he expressed hope that their retreat had done them good. In his reply Vincent had this to say:

“We can often be wrong in our suspicions; and we’ve lost a very good man, who has left us, because someone had ill-founded suspicions about him, rather like what you have about these two”. (IV, 80)

Complaints about confrères sometimes came from superiors who objected that those appointed to their houses were not too good at the work to which they were assigned. Stephen Blatiron, superior in Genoa, had complained along these lines in 1653, and Vincent replied:

“…I’ll tell you, in this connection, something I heard Fr Lambert say, something I’ll remember a long time: when God has not given us first-class men to bring success to our work he is very pleased that we appoint those whom we have, even though they are inadequate”. (IV, 549)

He touched on the same thing in a letter to Louis Thibault, superior in Saint Méen, in 1651:

“I’m asking you not to get annoyed at Fr So-and-so; everyone can’t be an outstanding man, and the less gifted can’t always be foisted off on other houses; they have to be kept, as long as they are God-fearing and well-disposed, as that man is”. (IV, 257)

Most of the extracts so far have shown Vincent giving advice to others on how to get on with troublesome persons. Let’s turn now to extracts from letters which show Vincent himself in direct contact with such problems. His letters always convey his personal interest in the addressee and his appreciation of his work. In February 1638 he wrote to Robert de Sergis:

“I can’t tell you how glad I was about the way our Lord was pleased to bless your mission in Montpezat, but I must admit I was, and still am, very worried about those three months of long hard work; I’m very much afraid you’ll break down if you don’t take a good rest, and the same goes for Fr Brunet. In God’s name, Father, take a break, and do something about your eye-trouble and your throat; have them seen to in Aiguillon or Agen, if you haven’t already done so, for I’m afraid they’ll pile on the work as soon as you get to Toulouse”. (I, 438)

Vincent was both realistic and practical, as well as being idealistic; although he knew that there was a huge amount of work to be done on missions he realised that nothing would be gained by overworking the missioners; too much work could ruin their health and render them unfit for anything in the long run. Proper care of health is a constantly recurring theme in his letters. A representative excerpt on this subject is one from a letter he wrote to Louis Serre in Saint Méen in January 1650:

“I’ve been very pleased indeed at your letting me know how things are in your house, but what you say about Fr Thibault worries me; he’s endangering his health too much; he hasn’t been well, yet he went off to work; I’m afraid this will lead to a breakdown. In God’s name, Father, take care of him; make him take a rest, and see to it that he takes better care of himself; you’ll be doing a good turn both to the Congregation and to the large number of people who should receive spiritual help from him. That goes for the others, too, who need to ease up a bit”. (III, 532)

One way to lighten work on a mission was to have one free day per week during it; this was recommended to Vincent by Cardinal Richelieu, as he told Lambert aux Couteaux in March 1638:

“His Lordship the Cardinal is of the opinion that during a mission there should be one free day a week, Saturday for example, and has ordered me to see that this is done everywhere”. (I, 469)

In July 1639 he wrote a long letter to Jane Francis de Chantal about the sort of community his Congregation was, and the sort of life they led; she had asked him for this information. In the course of the letter he has this passage on missions:

“We work from about All Saints’ Day to St. John’s Day, and in July, August, September and part of October we leave the people free to work at the harvest and vintage. When we’ve worked for about twenty days we rest for ten or twelve before starting again; it’s not possible to stick at this work for much longer than that without a break, as well as one free day a week”. (I, 564-5)

In November 1642 he wrote to Bernard Codoing in Rome:

“I’m worried about your heavy work-load and I’m afraid you’re overdoing things mentally and physically. In God’s name, Father, take care of yourself. (II, 315-6)

One of Codoing’s successors in Rome was René Alméras and he too, apparently, tended to overdo things; Vincent’s advice to him is along the same lines, but with some more detailed instructions:

“Don’t overdo things, don’t be in a rush, don’t take things too much to heart, don’t stick too long at the same thing with too much concentration, and lastly, give up all activities apart from your duties as superior and whatever you’re able to get in the way of relaxation”. (IV, 139)

Vincent was good at letting confrères know how pleased he was to see them, particularly when they were taking a break after a spell of hard work. In August 1646 he wrote to Louis Gallon:

“Thanks be to God for the good news, the hope you give us that you’ll be coming here soon for a rest after your hard work. You’ll be very welcome, Father, and I’ll be more than glad to receive you. Come along, Father, without delay; I promise you we’ll take special care of your health and you’ll be master of the house, saying and doing whatever you please, and I’m especially at your service, having always loved you with more affection than my own father”. (III, 32)

Later the same year, in November 1646, he wrote something similar to a confrère whom Coste identifies as probably Thomas Berthe. Berthe was an interesting man and it’s worth knowing something about him. He joined the Congregation at the age of eighteen in 1640 and was ordained in 1646. He was from just outside Sedan, but nothing is known of his background. His first appointment was to Sedan and he somehow got the impression that ‘he was appointed as superior; when he found that this wasn’t so he left the Congregation and returned to his family in November 1646, as Vincent told Alméras in a letter of 10 November:

“I think I wrote to you that Fr. Berthe had left, as he couldn’t take the appointment we had given him; more than one person outside the community thought, and he himself had spread the rumour, that he was going there as superior; when we put him right about that and recalled him here, he pretended he was sick in Rheims and from there returned to his parents in Donchery, three miles from Sedan”. (III, 105)

On November 24 Vincent wrote a long letter to Berthe; he started off this way:

“I’ve received two of your letters which have redoubled my sorrow, seeing that you are determined to cut yourself off from us. This makes me also determined to point out to you the danger to which you’re exposing yourself, but I do so with all the humility and affection of which I’m capable…”. (III, 116)

Then follow seven paragraphs of reasons why Berthe should not leave the Congregation, each paragraph numbered, as was Vincent’s practice in this type of letter. The letter then ends up:

“That’s why I implore you once again, in the name of Jesus Christ and the love he has for you, to come back here. I’ll have more confidence than ever in you, being no longer afraid of losing you, seeing you safe from such a dangerous reef. Choose any house you like; you’ll be welcomed anywhere with open arms …”. (III, 118)

Berthe returned, and in about a year’s time he was superior in the Bons enfants (HI, 274). Six years after that he was sent as superior to Rome (IV, 541); even before going to Rome he had been appointed to carry out visitations of other houses, a work he seems to have been engaged in all during his life; he was appointed to go to Poland to carry out visitations there, though in actual fact he never went. At one stage he was Director of the seminaire, and he was one of those who were present at Vincent’s death. He presided at the Assembly which elected Alméras as Vincent’s succesor as Superior General, and he himself was, after Alméras, Vincent’s second choice for the office. This outline of his subsequent career shows how shrewd Vincent was back in 1646 in not letting him go. There was another confrère later on whom he willingly let go, and went around the house for days afterwards saying: “Thank God we’re rid of him”! (XIII, 187)

Sister Margaret Chetif, who succeeded Louise at the head of the Daughters of Charity, at one stage also wished to leave the community and Vincent wrote her a letter setting out reasons for her to stay on; another example of his insight into persons’ characters and their potential. (VI, 100)

Another confrère whom Vincent jollied along through a difficult time was Claude Dufour, who had joined the Congregation shortly after his ordination. In 1647 he was superior in Saintes, and began to have worries about remaining on in the community; he had got the idea that the Carthusians would be a more suitable community for him. He let Vincent know about this and there are quite a few of Vincent’s letters to him which refer to this matter. On 31 March 1647 Vincent wrote in the course of a letter:

“Look, Father, there’s no position in the world where a man will have nothing to put up with. What man is there who does not experience trouble and opposition in the majority of things with which he has to deal, and who doesn’t feel he’d be better off in some job other than his present one? You can be quite sure, Father, that this is a trick of the devil … Let me know what I can do to help you in this matter, for if some confrère is a trouble to you we’ll send you a replacement”. (Ill, 164)

About three weeks later Vincent wrote again:

“If your appointment to Saintes or the work you’re doing don’t suit you, tell me, please, and we’ll appoint you somewhere else… I pray to our Lord that he’ll let you see the dangerous nature of this temptation the way I see it, tending as it does to make you exchange the certain for the uncertain, and making you think an opinion is an inspiration, and that being tired is the same as being worried”. (III, 173-4)

In June of the same year Vincent is still helping him along:

“When you’re tired of living where you now are, let me know; I’ll do everything I possibly can to make you happy”. (III, 203)

He did not in fact leave the Congregation and a few years later Vincent appointed him to Madagascar, adding that many a Carthusian would give a lot for a chance of such an appointment! (IV, 104). As usual there was a long delay between his appointment and his actual going aboard a boat bound for Madagascar, and in the interval he sent Vincent the manuscript of a book he had written; there is no indication what it was about. In connection with this Vincent made the comment that there is no rule of such general application as to have no exceptions (IV, 445). In 1653 while he was still waiting for a boat to Madagascar Dufour was appointed Director of the seminaire during the absence of Alméras (IV, 629). In October 1655 he eventually set out for his mission, and on arrival at Fort Dauphin started a long letter to Vincent, but he died before he had completed it. In its unfinished form it was sent to Vincent, and even unfinished it takes up eight pages of small print (VI, 9-16).

Another facet of Vincent’s character emerges in his correspondence with Lambert aux Couteaux, one of his closest friends in the Congregation. He was a native of the diocese of Amiens, some twentyfive years junior to Vincent. He joined the Congregation in 1629, the eleventh member to join. He was the first superior of Toul, the first house opened outside Paris; he was also first superior of Richelieu and of the Polish mission. At the General Assembly of 1641 Anthony Portail was appointed First Assistant (XIII, 298) and in 1645 Vincent appointed Lambert as acting Assistant in the absence of Portail (II, 535). He was appointed by Vincent on many occasions to conduct visitations, including that of Saint Lazare itself. At one stage there was a request from Rome for a priest of the Congregation to be named as coadjutor bishop of Babylon, and Vincent put forward Lambert’s name, though he admitted that the departure of Lambert would be like the loss of his eye or his right hand (III, 158). This project fell through, but when Vincent sent Lambert to establish the mission in Poland he added a PS to his first letter to him in Warsaw saying that he felt as though he had lost his right hand. (IV, 292)

He knew well that Lambert would be lonely in Warsaw and would love to get items of news from Paris, so most of Vincent’s letters to him contain such items, including the fall of Limerick, the escape of Fathers Barry and Brin, and the murder of Thady Lee. In a letter in March 1652 he gives a long account of the visit of a nephew of Lambert to Saint Lazare:

“I’ve just seen your nephew off; he came to see you and stayed only twice twenty-four hours. He wanted to get back by today’s coach; he’s married, and God has given him children and he didn’t want to upset them by staying any longer. He has two horses and about twenty-four acres, some of them under crops. That would be ample to live on if there were no soldiers in France. When they arrive Mr Jouailly [i.e. the nephew] receives them willingly with what they bring. I’ve never met anyone who better exemplified our Lord’s goodness and simplicity, and I don’t mean a stupid sort of simplicity for he’s not lacking in shrewdness. He embraced me more than half a dozen times and kissed me on the cheek with such cordiality that he seemed to be all affection. We spoke a lot in the Picardy dialect, though with this difference: he tried his best to speak good French while I tried to speak good Picard. He said you’d be absolutely flabbergasted when you heard he’d been here. He was a bit disappointed at not finding you, but he went off as happy and contented as possible. His good humour put me in the best of form, linked as it is with piety and the fear of God”. (IV 341)

Like so many of Vincent’s letters this one is in the handwriting of one of his secretaries, but the expression “absolutely flabbergasted” was inserted in Vincent’s own hand; he often made insertions like this as he read over his letters before signing them.

In May of the same year he wrote to Lambert:

“If you’re happy at our exchanging letters each week on a regular basis I can assure you I’m no less so, and I can give you a couple of indications of this. As each Thursday approaches I get impatient for your letters, as they usually arrive on that day; and I was very disappointed at not getting one by the second-last ordinary delivery…”. (IV, 376-7)

In that connection it is worth going back to the start of the letter about the visit of Lambert’s nephew; it opened this way:

“I received your letter of 19 February. I was rather disappointed on opening it to find only half a page of writing…”. (IV, 341)

In a later letter dated 17 May 1652 he refers back to this:

“When I told you I was disappointed at how short one of your letters was, containing as it did only half a page, that was to let you know the happiness I get from reading them and not to oblige you to write me longer ones; don’t go to that trouble if what you have to say doesn’t call for it”. (IV, 387)

Finally, here’s an extract which shows a very human side to Vincent, a flexibility which he could show in certain circumstances. The letter was to Alméras in Rome, written in October 1647; he mentions the end of the annual retreat in Saint Lazare and the fact that the confrères had renewed their vows, and continues:

“…since some said that they [the vows] are null and that they had a problem about renewing them, Fr. … and a student being the main ones, I stopped the latter from renewing them. And the said Fr. … came along to tell me that all his difficulties had vanished as a result of the few poor words I addressed to them all yesterday evening; this morning he asked me frankly for permission to renew them and, in fact, brought along some things which he had been keeping privately, in order to give them up; however, I let him hold on to them…”. (III, 245)

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