The purpose of this paper is to survey the formative years of Saint Vincent de Paul, with special emphasis on his growth in sanctity. It will be presented in three parts. The first deals with his life from the time that he left his childhood home in the village of Pouy to go school in Dax until his disappearance in 1605. The second deals with the missing years, 1605-1608, (that is, the controversy over the Tunisian captivity). The third covers his life in Paris from his arrival in 1609 until the time of the first sermon of the mission at Folleville.
Part I: 1595-1605
Jean de Paul had decided on an ecclesiastical career for his son and this meant that the boy had to be educated. Fortunately for him, the Franciscan Friars had a secondary school or collége in nearby Dax. It was there that the young Vincent went. The question is: when?
The chronology of these years is not always clear. Saint Vincent says of himself, “ayant vécu á la campagne jusques en l’age de quinze ans”. Coste interprets this to mean that Saint Vincent went to school in Dax at the beginning of his fifteenth year and so he favors the date of 1595. Abelly, on the other hand, says that he began his studies in Dax “environ l’an 1588”. Since Abelly dated Vincent’s birth in 1576, it would have meant that the future saint was about twelve years old. Abelly also says that he spent vine years in his studies, finishing them, that is, about the year 1597. The latter date seems certain—his degree in theology, dated October 1604, said that he had been studying there for seven years. The best that can be said is that Vincent probably entered the Franciscan school at Dax in 1594 or 1595, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, and stayed there until he went to Toulouse in 1597. The only known incident from this period is the famous one that he once related to Madame de Lamoignon.
Je me souviens qu’une fois… au collége ou j’étudiais, on vint me dire que mon pare, qui était un pauvre paysan, me demandait. Je refusai de lui aller parler; en quoi je fis un grand péché.
Through the agency of the Franciscan Guardian (superior), the future saint had come to the notice of M. de Comet, the district judge of Pouy, who became his benefactor and paid for his education. Vincent lived at his house during the rest of his stay in Dax and tutored the Comet children while pursuing his own studies. Vincent, according to Coste, studied at Dax for two years and, by the French system, finished the fifth and fourth grades (or forms), thus completing his famous fourth form to which he was to refer in later life.
On 20 December 1596, with the permission of the Chapter of Dax (for the see was vacant) he received tonsure and the four minor orders at the collegiate church of Bidache at the hands of the Bishop of the neighboring diocese of Tarbes. By modern reckoning Vincent was fifteen years old. The following year he left to begin his theological studies at the university of Toulouse. According to Abelly, he interrupted his course of studies to spend some time at the University of Zaragoza in Spain. “Il est vray que pendant ce temps il passa en Espagne, & fit quelque sejour á Saragosse pour y faire aussi quelques études”. Coste does not accept the story, which he considers unlikely for a young student in straitened circumstances (though such changes of schools were not uncommon in that century). Father Román, on the other hand, spends considerable time in proving the likelihood of the account and showing that Saint Vincent had a first hand knowledge of Spain. Granted that some of the Saint’ s statements do indicate a knowledge of things Spanish, this would not have been extraordinary for someone born fifty miles from the border and who had frequent contact with the Spanish-born queen of France, Anne of Austria. His one clear statement
Je me suis trouvé dans un royaume où un religieux, allant trouver le roi, demanda quelque nouvelle de la tour, et celui á qui il s’addressa lui dit: “Eh quoi! mon Pire, faut-il que les religieux se mêlent des affaires des rois!” C’est que dans ce royaume-là on ne parle point du roi. Et parte que c’est une personne sacrée, ils ont tant de respect pour tout ce qui le regarde, qu’ils n’en parlent jamais. Et de là vient qu’en ce royaume tous son unis au roi, et il n’est pas permis de dire une parole contre ses ordres…”.
may very refer to Spain but it does not demonstrate that he pursued theological courses in Zaragoza. In the present state of knowledge it would have to be said that the matter is open to some skepticism.
Coste has also given us a rather complete description of the organization of the university and its nations. As Román has pointed out, however, these questions have distracted historians from a far more important one: what kind of theological education was given at Toulose? What schools and systems of theology predominated? Which teachers were most influential, and how would they have affected the thought and formation of the young Vincent? Unfortunately, we cannot answer these questions because the matter has not been sufficiently researched.
During his first year at the university his father died. His will, which was dated 7 February 1598, urged his family to spare no sacrifice so that Vincent could continue his studies. Either these sacrifices were insufficient or Vincent did not wish to be a burden to his family because he soon accepted an offer to direct an academy for small boys at Buzet-sur-Tarn, a short distance from Toulouse. Vincent seems to have been a natural teacher for the reputation of his small school soon spread. He soon moved the school to Toulouse so that he could continue his studies. This combination of being teacher and student was not unusual for those times. Despite the success of his school, Vincent’s financial situation seems to have remained somewhat precarious.
On 19 September 1598, he was ordained a subdeacon and three months later, 19 December, a deacon, both times by the same Bishop of Tarbes who had given him tonsure and minor orders. The see of Dax was still vacant at the time of the ordination to the subdiaconate. It appears that by the time of the second ordination the new bishop of Dax was not yet in his see for the dimissorials for both orders were issued by the vicar general. Dimissorial letters for his ordination to the priesthood were issued on 13 September 1599 by the Vicar General of Dax. It seems plausible that his intention was to be ordained at the following Ember Days (Quarter Tense), the traditional time for such ordinations. For reasons now unknown, he waited more than a year before accepting ordination. When the time came he did not go to his own bishop or even to the neighboring Bishop of Tarbes. Rather, he went to some distance and inconvenience to receive ordination from FranÇois de Bourdelle, Bishop of Perigueux, on 23 September 1600. The ceremony was performed in the bishop’s private chapel in what is now the village of Cháteaul’Evéque. Why Périgueux? The Bishop of Périgueux was old (eightfour years of age), blind, and famous for the case with which he performed irregular ordinations. He died a little over a month later. Though Vincent was only nineteen years old, that should not have caused him to go to such trouble. His dimissorials were in order and there had been no problem >i age in his previous advances toward the priesthood. It must be admitted that the matter is obscure.
Coste says of Vincent that “the young priest was not twenty years of age.” This, of course, is based on Coste’s reckoning that Saint Vincent was born in 1581.
His ordination at such an early age, however, does present some problems. The Council of Trent had decreed twenty-four years of age as the minimum for priesthood. The disciplinary decrees of Trent, however, were not accepted in France until 1615. Irregular ordinations were frequent snd dispensations easily come by, though there is no evidence for such in the life of Saint Vincent. Diebold has shown that the newly-appointed Bishop of Dax, Jean-Jacques Dussault, was a reformer who attempted to put the Tridentine program of reform into practice. For that purpose he convened a diocesan synod on 18 April 1600, between Vincent’s dimissorials and his ordination. Is it possible that the bishop’s reforming tendencies obstructed Vincent’s progress to the priesthood and caused him to go elsewhere?. That is plausible. The young man was not yet a saint and he was following a path common at the time, one that he had already followed for his earlier orders. It seems certain that in later days the memory of this method of achieving the priesthood was painful to him. His closest associates, even those who had been with him from the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, never heard him speak of his ordination nor did they know the date and location of it.
Ils voudraient bien savoir comment il se sépara du légat d’Avignon, qui le mena á Rome, ce qu’il fit en cette tour-là, oie il alla en sortant d’Italie, en quel temps il vint á Paris et pourquoi, en quelle année et en quel lieu il a été fait prêtre… Il ne nous parle jamais de lui…
It was only after his death that the documents were found. It may also explain, together with the Berullian exaltation of the priesthood, Vincent’s statement, repeated in various forms at various times, “Pour moi, si j’avais su ce que c’était, quand, j’eus la témérité d’y entrer, comme je l’ai su depuis, j’aurais aimé labourer la terre, que de m’engager á un état si redoutable.” Expressions such as these are the feelings of an old man, advanced in sanctity, looking back on the follies of youth.
Whatever the circumstances of his ordination, it is difficult to say for certain if they harmed his standing with his bishop. In 1607 he asked for a letter of recommendation from him that he had always had a good reputation. Almost immediately, through the intercession of M. de Comet, he received an appointment as pastor of the parish of Tilh, a very good parish of the diocese. Again, the uncertainties that surround Vincent’s early life arise again. According to Abelly, the appointment was made by the Vicar General of Dax because the see was vacant. Coste, on the other hand, says that it was the Bishop who appointed him. (In actual fact the see was not vacant; however, even when it had a bishop, the Vicar General issued documents, such as the dimissorial for Vincent’s diaconate). In the absence of the original documentation, we have no certitude just how he was appointed.
Vincent never took possession of the parish. The appointment was contested by a certain Father Saint-Subé, who was awarded the parish by the Roman Curia. Vincent, according to Abelly, did not wish to enter into litigation over it because it would have meant discontinuing his studies. Father Román has pointed out that to see any special holiness in this is to project the later Vincent back into his youth. Vincent had against him his youth, the fact that the Roman Curia had made a decision, and perhaps the antipathy of his own bishop who had had no part in either his ordination or appointment.
There is evidence, however, that Vincent did pursue the matter. It is incontrovertible that he went to Rome at about this time and the affair of Tilh would be the only plausible explanation for it. In later life he made fine specific references to a stay in Rome. On 20 July 1631 he wrote to FranÇois du Coudray, one of the first Vincentians to be stationed in the Eternal City,
O Monsieur, que vous êtes heureux de marcher par-dessus la terre ont marche tant de grands et saints personnages! Cette considération m’émut tellement lorsque je fus á Rome il y a trente ans, que, quoique je fusse chargé de péchés, je ne laissai point de m’attendrir, même jusqu’aux larmes, ce me semble.
That Vincent was not using the term “trente ans” in a wide sense is shown by the four other references, all of which place the journey in the pontificate of Pope Clement VIII.
J’ai va un saint Pape, qui était Clément VIII, un fort saint homme, tellement saint que les hérétiques mêmes disaient, “Le Pape Clément est un saint.” Il était tellement touché de Dieu et avait le don des larmes en telle abondance que, quand il montait un chemin que l’on appelle l’échelle saine [La Scala Santa], il baignait tout en larmes.
…Le Pape Clément huitième, que j’ai eu l’honneur de voir et qui est un saint…
Et ce saint Pape, que j’ai eu le bonheur de voir…
Pape Clément VIII, que j’ai eu l’honneur de voir.
Since Clement VIII died in 1605, it is certain that Vincent is referring to a visit to Rome prior to the one he claimed to have made in 1607/1608 after his return from Tunis. This trip probably took place around 1601 in an attempt to win back the parish. It was something that Vincent remembered fondly, though he never explained why he had been in Rome and quite obviously no one ever asked him. Though this may seem to be a rather small point, it is of supreme importance in evaluating the veracity of the Tunisian captivity. Vincent returned to his studies, his boarding school and his hope of eventully having an ecclesiastical career. In 1604 he received his degree of Bachelor of Theology, which authorized him to expound the second book of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This, together with the Licentiate in Canon Law that he would later receive in Paris, were to be the only degrees that he would ever have.
With the year 1605 we come to an important and crucial part of the life of Saint Vincent de Paul. Before doing so, however, it would be good to pause and ask: what kind of man are we dealing with at this time? What kind of person was he at the age of twenty-four? The answer will have to avoid two extremes. The one is hagiographic, the tendency of biographers such as Abelly, Collet, and most of those of the nineteenth century to find the holiness of the later years in his youth and young manhood. The other, toward which authors like Redier have tended, is to see a wild and turbulent young priest who did not seem worthy of his calling.
Several characteristics can be discerned in the young Vincent. He was obviously intelligent. He must have been a good and attractive person. Otherwise, it would be difficult to understand how someone like. M. de Comet could have become his benefactor or how his boarding school could have been a success. He was devout enough to have been moved to years by his experiences in Rome. He seems to have been a naturally good teacher, as the school and his later experience with the Gondis indicate. He also showed dedication to his family. The detachment of the later years is not found in the young priest. That he was primarily interested in a respectable clerical career is beyond doubt. He was constantly looking for a good benefice, one that would enable him to lead the respectable life of a devoted but comfortably situated pastor. Though he had great potential, he was limited in his outlook and ambitions. He seems to have been in many ways a typical Gascon: lively, impetuous, given to dramatic exaggeration, a bit tumultuous and rather hot-headed and choleric.
Was he, however, even more roguish and turbulent? Was he capable bf more impulsive and violent steps in his pursuit of money? And was he capable of lying, even to his benefactor? The answer to these questions will depend on whether or not one believes the story of the Tunisian captivity.
Part II: The missing years, 1605-1607
By his own account, Saint Vincent de Paul was heavily in debt in the year 1605. Hence the first part of that year saw him involved in several attempts to obtain the money necessary to satisfy his creditors. Then, suddenly, in July of 1605 he disappeared from view and was not heard from again until July of 1607. These are the missing years of Saint Vincent de Paul when, in Father Dodin’s phrase, he “escapes the rigorous control of history”.
What had happened to him? One answer was given by Saint Vincent himself in his two famous letters to M. de Comet, the younger brother of his benefactor. The first was written from Avignon on 24 July 1607, the second from Rome, 28 February 1608. They describe what Henri Bremond has called “the last chapter of the Arabian Nights”.
The contents are familiar to all who have studied the Saint’ s life. He tells how he had been left a legacy by a kindly widow of Toulouse and that this legacy included a debt of three or four hundred crowns (écus) owed to her by “un méchant mauvais”. Vincent went to Toulouse but found that his man had fled to Marseille. He went to Marseille, jailed his quarry, and settled the debt for 300 écus. A gentlemen with whom he had been lodging persuaded him to return to Toulouse by taking a boat from Marseille to Narbonne. Vincent did so but the chip was captured by Barbary pirates who enslaved the passengers. Vincent himself claimed to have been wounded in the fighting. He recounted how they were sold in Tunis and how his first master, a fisherman, had to get rid of him “pour n’avoir rien de si contraire que la mer”. He was then sold to an alchemist who taught him some tricks of the trade. The alchemist died after being summoned to Constantinople and Vincent passed to tne old man’ s nephew who sold him when he heard that the French ambassador, Savary de Breves, was coming to Tunis to ransom Christian captives.
His final owner was a Christian renegade from “Nici” (Nice or Annecy) in Savoy whose Turkish wife befriended Saint Vincent. It was through her instrumentality that the renegade decided to return to his religion and flee to Europe. The two escaped in July 1607 and after a journey across the Mediterranean in a small skiff, they arrived at Aigues-Mortes on the 28th of that month. The renegade was received back into the Church by the papal legate, Pietro Montoro (or Montorio) and then entered the Fate Ben Fratelli. Vincent joined the legate’ s household and accompanied him to Rome, where he continued his studies and made strenuous efforts to gain himself a good benefice.
Some time in 1608 or 1609 Vincent went to Paris, which was to be the scene of his life’ s work. There is no evidence that he stopped at Dax or Pouy, despite his Glose to both places. The younger Comet died in 1609 and another connection with his native province was severed. His last visit was in 1622 when he went south to give a mission to the galley slaves. For the rest of his days Paris was his city.
After Comet’s death, the two letters passed to his sister, Catherine de Comet, the wife of Jean de Saint-Martin. In the years that followed, their existente was forgotten, even by Saint Vincent himself. The events they described, if they had ever been know to Vincent’s friends and relatives in Pouy and Dax, also fell into oblivion.
In 1658 the letters were rediscovered by Catherine de Comet’s son, Saint Martin d’Agés, who had inherited them from his mother. Overjoyed by his discovery, he took them to his uncle, the Canon de Saint-Martin, a close friend of Saint Vincent’s. The canon thought that his friend would enjoy seeing them again and had copies forwarded to him. The response was not what the good canon had anticipated. Sain Vincent burned the copies and wrote to Saint-Martin begging him to return the originals. Brother Bertrand Ducournau, Vincent’s secretary, added a postscript to the letter to warn the canon that the letters would be destroyed if they fell into the Saint’ s hands. As a result the canon never answered the request. Ducournau advised him to make contact with Father Jean Watebled, the superior of the College de Bons Enfants in Paris. This the canon did.
Watebled informed Antoine Portail, Rene Alméras, and others of Vincent’s associates of the discovery. The account of the captivity was a total surprise to all because Vincent had never mentioned a word of it. Brother Ducournau echoed the general astonishment in a letter to the Canon de Saint-Martin in August 1658.
Aucun de nous n ‘avait jamais su certainement qu’il eut été en Barbarie et encore moins qu’il eut converti son patron. Pour moi, Monsieur, j’admire la conversion de cet apostate, l’humilité de son esclave, l’assurance qu’il sentait en son âme d’avoir liberté, et la grâce qu’il avait de se faire aimer des Tures… mais je vous assure que j’admire encore plus la force qu’il a eue de ne dire jamais un seul mot de toutes ces choses á pas un de la Compagnie, quoiqu’il ait eu occasion d’en parler cent et cent fois, en parlant de l’assistance des captifs, qu’il a enteprise depuis douze ou quinze ans… Si ces deux lettres étaient tombées en ses mains, jamais personne ne les aurait vues.
This testimony was corroborated by Vincent’s other secretary, Brother Louis Robinau.
Having had the honor, during the space of thirteen whole years, of being as near to him as anyone in the Community, with the exception of only two or three persons, nevetheless he never said to me nor even hinted, either by word or in writing, that he had been a slave, although many times he happened to chance on the subject of Barbary, on the wretchedness of the poor slaves, and he wrote rather often to that country.
It is quite clear that Saint Vincent, who was always reserved about himself, was quite reticent in speaking to his associates about his early life. What he did say fell into the category of formalized statements about his poor childhood or his life as a swineherd. Even for those who had know him the longest, his life prior to his arrival in Paris was a closed book. His ordination to the priesthood, his trip to Rome, and the reasons why he went to Paris without a benefice from the papal legate were all things that were never mentioned. His silente about the sojourn in Tunis was to assume great importante in the controversy that eventually swirled around his account.
Saint Vincent continued his efforts to regain possession of the two letters. On 18 March 1660, at the age of seventy-nine and with only six months to live, he wrote an anguished appeal to SaintMartin:
Je vous conjure, par toutes les grâces qu’il a plu a Dieu de vous faire, de me faire celle de m’envoyer cette misérable lettre qui fait mention de la Turquie; je parle de celle que M. d’Agés a trouvée parmi les papiers de M. son père. Je vous prie derechef, par les entrailles de Jésus-Christ Notre-Seigneur, de me faire au plus tôt la grâce que je vous demande.
The canon did not reply. In the following centuries, after innumerable adventures, the letters finally ended up in the possession of the Vincentian Fathers and the Daughters of Charity.
The authenticity of the letters has never been in doubt. They are clearly in the handwriting of Saint Vincent and he never disavowed them. Nor, for three centuries, did anyone doubt the truth of their contents.
Although Abelly used the letters and quoted them in his life of Saint Vincent, he did not give a complete account. In quoting the first letter, he removed the reference to the captives’ being stripped totally naked and suppressed the referentes to Vincent’s participation in the experimenta of the alchemist. Because Abelly’s work was written with an eye to future canonization, these omissions are understandable.
Abelly’s work was the basis for the second major life of Saint Vincent, La vie de Saint Vincent de Paul, by Pierre Collet, C.M., published at Nancy in 1748. Collet was not an historian and his work clearly reflects this. He was guilty of even more outrageous historical sins than was Abelly.
With regard to the Tunisian captivity, Collet repeated Abelly’s account. Between the first and second editions of his work, however, Collet made some interpolations in the account that were to muddy the waters for two centuries. Since the matter is rather complex, some preliminary points should be emphasized.
In his letter of 24 July 1607 Vincent did not mention the narre of his last owner nor did he identify him in any way except to say that he was a renegade from Nice or Annecy in Savoy. He said nothing about the man’ s having been a priest or former religious.
In that same letter he stated that they arrived at Aigues-Mortes on 28 June 1607 and very quickly thereafter (tót aprés) went to Avignon for the renegade’ s reconciliation and abjuration before an unnamed papal legate. In neither of his letters did Vincent mention the legate ‘s narre. In the summer of 1607 the papal vice-legate in Avignon was Msgr. Pietro Montore (written Montorio in most modern histories). He became vice- legate in 1604 to serve the customary three year term whic expired on 24 June 1607, although he remained in Avignon until November of that year, awaiting the arrival of his successor Msgr. Giuseppe Ferreri. When Vincent wrote in his second letter that the legate, after learning some of the old alchemist’ s tricks, was more delighted than if “io le avesse datto un monte di oro” (“I had given him a mountain of gold”), he was apparently making a pun on the legate’s narre.
In addition to these bare facts there is other evidence that dates from the eighteenth century.
1) In the Musée Calvet at Avignon there is a manuscript entitled Journal historique et recherches pour servir á l’histoire d’Avignon (1170-1740) by Joseph-Laurent Drapier. It contains the following entry which the author said was taken from the register of the collegiate chapter of the church of Saint-Pierre, Avignon.
Monsieur Vincent de Paul, apostolic missionary, brought about the abjuration of a renegade before Msgr. Pietro Montorio, vice-legate of Avignon. The ceremony took place in the parish of Saint-Pierre.
In the aboye passage the word “renegade” has been erased and the phrase “minister named Guillaume Gautier, who had been a priest and a Franciscan” substituted. After this entry, someone has added, “M. Vincent de Paul was afterward canonized”. This last entry would obviously have to be after 1737. Drapier did not give a date for the recantation but the mention of Montorio would put it within the period 1604-1607.
2) Another manuscript history, Notes sur l’histoire d’Avignon: dixhuitiéme siécle„ by Canon Massilian, contains the following: 1607. 29 June. Saint Vincent de Paul, having converted a renegade, brought about his abjuration in the church of Saint-Pierre, 29 June 1607, at the hands of Msgr. Pietro de Montorio, vice-legate of Avignon, who was present there, during the office of Saint Peter.
3) The Delibérations du Chapitre de Saint-Pi erre d’Avignon: registre du XVIIIe siécle, after describing some abjurations that took place on 29 June 1775, adds, “At the beginning of the last century, Saint Vincent de Paul brought about the same thing in our church, on the same day, before Msgr. Pietro Francesco de Montorio, Bishop of Nicastro, vice-legate of Avignon.
All three of these documents agree in crediting Saint Vincent with the reconciliation of a renegade but without giving the narre of the renegade (if we temporarily leave aside the insertion about Guillaume Gautier) or the circumstances of the abjuration. All three agree that the abjuration occurred during the term of Montorio and two specify it as 29 June 1607. All three date from the eighteenth century and rely on a common source, the book of deliberations of the chapter of Saint-Pierre, a book now lost. Hence the three documents are no more reliable than their source.
At this stage of the discussion, however, two points must be stressed. First, the date of 29 June 1607, if accurate, presents grave difficulties for Vincent’s account. It would mean that Vincent and his convert, after an exhausting and lengthy journey across the Mediterranean in a small boat, immediately left Aigues-Mortes for Marseille where, without any investigation, the renegade was reconciled in a formal ceremony. Second, the insertion that identifies the renegade as Guillaume Gautier must be rejected.
Where did this Gautier come from? In a book called Conclusions capitulaires du Chapitre de Saint-Pierre, which was discoverd in the eighteenth century, is to be found the following entry.
On Saint Peter’s day, 29 June 1608, the Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Msgr. Giuseppe Ferreri, Archbishop of Urbino and vice-legate of Avignon, chanted the Pontifical Mass and presided at Second Vespers, having beforehand publicly received in the same church a Calvinist minister named Guillaume Gautier, who had been a priest in the Franciscan order.
If we temporarily put aside the dubious insertion previously mentioned, the differences are obvious. This document identifies a renegade named Gautier. It puts the abjuration a full year after Vincent’s return. It says that the abjuration took place before Montorio’s successor. It makes no mention of Vincent de Paul. How, then, did Gautier become identified with the renegade of Vincent’s account? In 1757 Collet visited Avignon and made the acquaintance of a prominent local historian, Joseph-Louis-Dominique de Cambis, the Marquis de Velleron. The latter showed him the entry concerning Gautier and perhaps some of the others—we do not know for sure. Whichever ones Collet saw, he quickly concluded that Gautier was Vincent’s renegade. In an abridged edition of his biography published at Avignon in 1762, Collet identified the renegade as Gautier and added, “I learned this bit of information on the spot in 1757 from the virtuous and learned M. le Marquis de Cambis. Gautier was reconciled to the Church on 29 June 1608. M. Ferreri had succeeded Pietro Montorio in 1607.” Collet seemed not at all bothered about the discrepancy in dates. It is now almost impossible to say what led him to make the identification.
Cambis was taken aback by this identification and hastened to disabuse Collet. He pointed out that the date of 29 June 1608 made it impossible because it was a full year after the return. Equally impossible was the date of 29 June 1607 because it would have meant that Vincent and his companion, after their Mediterranean journey, set out for Avignon on the very day of their arrival at Aigues-Mortes, “a good twelve leagues away”. Even in the eighteenth century the journey was a day and a half by coach. Cambis also pointed out that it would be doubtful that such a reconciliation would have taken place without extensive preliminary investigation. Cambis noted that he found no trace of the abjuration of Vincent’s renegade in the records of the Holy Office. He did not mention another obvious fact: Gautier was a reconvert from Calvinism, not Islam.
Collet was now faced with an insuperable problem of chronology but he was unwilling to give up the identification. His solution was simplicity itself. In the next edition of his abridged life (Paris, 1764), he backdated Saint Vincent’s arrival at Aigues-Mortes to 18 June. This identification has had remarkable staying power and can still be found in even recent histories.
The conclusions to be drawn from this are:
- There is no way of knowing the name of Vincent’s renegade or the precise day when the abjuration took place. If it did occur, it was during the terco of Montorio.
- There is a later tradition that Vincent was involved in the reconciliation of a renegade at Avignon on 29 June 1607. The insertion of the name of Guillaume Gautier into this tradition must be rejected and may even have resulted from Collet’s erroneous identification. There is no way of evaluating the validity of this tradition but if it is true, it casts suspicion on Vicent’s claim to have arrived at Aigues-Mortes on 28 June.
There the matter stood until the twentieth century.
In 1926 a young French author named Antoine Redier was searching for a subject for a biography. Since biographies of saint were fashionable and potentially profitable, he decided to write a life of Saint Vincent de Paul. He acknowledged that his motives were less than spiritual and that he hunted for the topic as he would for an apartment. In search of information, he sought out Father Pierre Coste, C.M., the acknowledged authority on Saint Vincent. Coste had recently published his monumental edition of the Correspondance, Entretiens, Documents, thus for the first time bringing together in one place the sources of the Saint’s life. Five years after this he would publish his biography, Monsieur Vincent: le grand saint du grand siécle. Redier, whose own account of his dealings with Coste is manifestly self-serving, said that he was the first person to make use of the CED, that he worked under Coste’s direction “dans sa cellule et sous son regard”, and that Coste told him that he would have the unique privilege of writing the “true life” of Saint Vincent de Paul. And that is what Redier would title his book, La oraie vie de Saint Vincent de Paul.
Redier went to Dax and to the Berceau in search of background. During his stay there he was surprised to learn from one of the Vincentian priests that Father Coste did not believe in the truth of Vincent’s captivity account. On his return to Paris, Redier asked Coste about this and claimed to have received an affirmative answer. The principal reason was Saint Vincent’s inexplicable silence over the matter and his frenzied attempts to regain possession of the letters. Coste did not think that humility, the most frequently alleged reason for the silence, was persuasive. When Redier eventually published his biography, however, he contented himself with saying that the letters contained a mingling of the true and the false.
Redier’s comment aroused the interest of Pierre Grandchamp, chief of the Residence Générale of Tunis, a prominent historian who in 1927 was preparing to publish the sixth volume of his series called La France en Tunisie à la fin du seizième siecle et au dix-huitième siecle. He secured a photocopy of Vincent’s letters from Coste and put his evaluation of them into the forward to his book. It was later printed separately as “La pretendue captivité de Saint Vincent de Paul á Tunis (1605-1607)”. Though he was careful to emphasize that his rejection of the truth of the accounts did not reflect on the later Vincent, who was indeed a saint and a French national hero, his work aroused heated controversy. The first response was in newspaper and journal reviews and later in letters, anides and books. That the debate should have been found in the papes of L’Ami du Clergé is a understandable but that it should also agitated Le Tunisie Socialiste is a remarkable testimony to Saint Vincent’s stature in France. So strong were the reactions that in 1929 Grandchamp had to publish his Observations Nouvelles.
When Coste’s life of Saint Vincent appeared in 1931, the controversy aroused by Grandchamp’s articles was at full heat. Coste dealt with the question in a lengthy footnote. (36) His response to Grandchamp was somewhat confusing, especially with regard to the identification of the renegade with Guillaume Gautier. The strongest argument he used against the Grandchamp thesis was the one that troubled him the most: the psychological one. What was the motive that Vincent would have had for such a complex web of deceit, especially when it would have involved deceiving his own mother? In general, however, Coste did what he supposedly told Redier he would do: he gave a weak defense of a position that he did not really believe.
The first lengthy attempt at rebuttal on the part of a Vincentian was the book Captivité et oeuvres de Saint Vincent de Paul en Barbarie by Father Raymond Gleizes, C.M. (Paris, 1930). The book dealt both with the controversy over the captivity and with the other works of Saint Vincent in North Africa. Gleizes, who had had personal experience there, was not a professional historian and so the book was not very effective. In 1937 Father Joseph Giuchard, C.M., attempted a more thoroughgoing refutation in his work Saint Vincent de Paul, esclave á Tunis (Paris, 1937). The book was massive and thorough but was justly criticized as being a collection of undigested data. Grandchamp replied with a harsh review in the Revue Tunisienne, January 1938. A more persistent critic of Guichard was Father Pierre Debongnie, C.SS.R., professor of church history at the University of Louvain who wrote a series of articles on Saint Vincent for the Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiasti que from 1936 to 1963. Jean Calvet, in his life of Saint Vincent de Paul (1948) sided with the traditional account.
The cudgels were taken up anew in 1960 by Father G.F. Rossi, C.M., of the Collegio Alberoni in Piacenza, Italy, in an article titled “La schavitú di San Vincenzo de’ Paoli é un fatto storico,” Divus Thomas, LXIII (1960), 468-522. The article was verbose and Rossi showed little historical awareness or critical sense in approaching any of the data. Worse was the polemical and personal tone of the article in the Reme. It was also in 1960 that Father André Dodin, C.M., published his .Saint Vincent de Paul et la charité (Paris, 1960) in which he somewhat tentatively allied himsef with the revisionist school. He appears to have been the first Vincentian of scholarly repute to have doubted in print the veracity of Vincent’s story. In 1966 the controversy carne full circle when the Cahiers de Tunisie reprinted all of Grandchamp’s articles. The latest contributions to the half century of controversy has been the article by Professor Guy Turbet-Delof of the University of Bordeaux, “Saint Vincent de Paul, a-t-il été esclave á Tunis?” Revue d’Histoire de l’Eglise de France, LVIII (1972), 329-340, and “Saint Vincent de Paul et la Barbarie en 1657-1658, Revue de l’Occident Musulman et de la Mediterranée (ler semestre, 1967), 153-165. The former concludes that the Tunisian adventure could easily have occurred as Saint Vincent described it and the special value of the latter is that it supplies a plausible explanation for Saint Vincent’s desire to destroy the two letters.
What were Grandchamp’s arguments that provoked what one anonymous critic called “this painful polemic!”. A detailed consideration would be too long for this paper. Let us look at them in a general way by dividing them into three categories.
The first are the arguments from silence, that is, from the lack of references, documentation, or expected results. Thus, Grandchamp pointed out that there were no written references to the combat in the waters off Provence, nothing further was said about Vincent’s companions (including the gentleman who persuaded him to make the voyage), no mention of the subsequent fate of the ship that he was on, Vincent’s failure to make contact with the French consul in Tunis, the failure to say anything further about the Turkish wife who aided him in his escape. Grandchamp’s critics were not slow to point out the weakness of such argumentation. Coste, on the other hand, believed that the accumulated silences ammounted to a positive argument.
The second category of arguments was based on Vincent’s supposed ignorance of Tunis and things Moslem, e.g. , the freedom with which the Moslem wives of the renegade spoke to him, the fact that his description of the acts of the corsairs did not tally with known data, that Vincent apparently describes Tunis as a seaport when it is actually on an inland lake, that contrary to Vincent’s statement all land did not belong to the Sultan, and his use of the word temat to characterize a non-hereditary fief.
The third category, and probably the most damaging, was the difficulty of reconciling Vincent’s account with some known data, specifically the chronology of his sale to the last master and his escape. He states that Savary de Breves “was coming” (venait) to ransom captives when in fact he has already departed from Tunis.
One thing is clear: almost all the arguments, both for and against the veracity of Vincent de Paul’s story are based on internal evidence, that is, on the intrinsic reliability, accuracy, and probability of what is found in the letters themselves. Thus authorities have been able to look at identical data and arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions.
Will it ever be possible to arrive at a resolution of this problem? An affirmative answer can be given only if it if possible to link Vincent’s account to some known facts. It is my belief that this can be done.
The key, I believe, is to be found in the question of Vincent’s visit to Rome in 1608, as described in his letter of 28 February of that year. If it can be demonstrated that Vincent was not in Rome in that year, then it can be presumed that the story of the Tunisian captivity is equally false.
We have already pointed out that Saint Vincent was definitely in Rome about the year 1601 and before the death of Clement VIII in 1605. The pope had proclaimed a jubilee from January 1600 to January 1601. There are five different references to that trip, all of which we have cited earlier. There is no reference in all of the CED to any other stay in Rome or one in the years 1607 or 1608. His silence on this score is absolute as his silence on the captivity. The most commonly alleged motive for the latter silence is humility. This would not apply to his silence on the Roman stay. He did not explain why he went there the first time nor did anyone ask him. The same could easily have been done with regard to the second journey. This silence is even more inexplicable than his silence about the captivity.
In his letter from Rome, Vincent wrote:
Il n’y rien de nouveau que je vous puisse écrire, fors la conversion de trois familles tartares, qui se sont venues christianiser en cette ville, que Sa Sainteté reçut la larme á l’oeil, et la catholisation d’un évêque ambassadeur, tour les Grecs schismatiques.
While the conversion of three Tartar families may not have left a permanent imprint in Vatican records, surely the reconciliation of a schismatic bishop who was also acting as an ambassador for Orthodoxy must have beert noted somewhere.
The fact is that such an event reflects the Rome of Clement VIII’ s jubilee year more than it does the Rome of Paul V in 1608. Clement VIII had been deeply involved in efforts, with uneven success, to bring about reunion with some of the schismatic churches. Conversions and reconciliations were a major feature of the jubilee. There is no evidence of such activity, at least to the same degree, in 1608. If Saint Vincent’s second letter is not truthful and he was not in Rome, it may well be that he inserted an event from his first, visit in order to give verisimilitude to his statements. Hence it would also be more probable that the pope who received the three families “la larme a l’oeil” would be Clement VIII who had the gift of tears in such abundante and bathed the Scala Santa with them.
It is my personal belief that Vincent de Paul was never in Tunisia and never made a second visit to Rome, that the letters were a hoax designed to cover up his disappearance at a time of heavy debts.
Part III: The road to sanctity, 1609-1617
Some time between 1608 and 1610 Saint Vincent de Paul went to Paris. Between his arrival and the first sermon of the mission, 25 January 1617, he underwent a period of accelerated spiritual growth that set him firmly on the road to sainthood and which some have called “conversion”.
What does conversion mean? For our purposes it can be defined in three ways.
1) A transition from a state of unbelief to one of belief, from non-Christian to Christian, from non-Catholic to Catholic. Obviously there is no question of such a conversion in the life of Saint Vincent.
2) A change from an irregular or sinful life to one of practicing Christianity. In the case of saints this will develop into sanctity, as in the case of Saint Augustine. Again, the evidence does not support such a conversion in the life of Saint Vincent.
3) A change from being a good but ordinary Christian to the state of heroic sanctity. This involves a decision or change of life and attitudes that would lead from a state of acceptable but hardly outstanding goodness to a state of heroic sanctity. It differs from a more gradual growth in holiness in that it involves a definite shift in a way of life, a movement away from an earlier path, perhaps as the result of some event or occurrence in a person’ s life. From the historical point of view, this is the only definition applicable to Saint Vincent’s life.
Is there justification for speaking of a conversion in the life of Saint Vincent? Most modern scholars have answered in the affirmative. There is less agreement, however, about when it took place or under what circumstances.
Coste does not treat the matter as such. He does mention that
“Vincent de Paul, on le voit, n’était déja plus en 1611 tel que le peint la lettre qu’il écrivait á sa mére l’année précédente.” The letter he refers to is that of Saint Vincent to his mother, 17 February 1610, in which he talks about his concern for his family and for securing a good benefice. It will be mentioned later.
Redier sees the conversion as having taken place in the years 1610/1611 after Saint Vincent had become chaplain to the retired Queen Marguerite, at which time he began to have a sharper view of the vanity of the world. Pierre Debongnie cites the incident of the falce accusation of theft by the Judge of Sore as the event that set Vincent firmly on the road to sancity. He says that this had to occur some time in late 1610 or early 1611 and views it as a complete rupture with the past. Father Defrennes, on the other hand, considers the key event toi be the long temptation against faith, possibly three or four years, that followed on the help given to the doctor of theology.
Other authors do not feel that it can be dated so presisely. The Abbé Brémond situates it generically between 1610 and 1620. Father Dodin feels that it is rash, in the present state of documetation, to try to fix the date too precisely. He sees it as happening between 1613 and 1617. He also believes that it was an acceleration of an evolutionary rhythm already at work.
Let us study this matter in more detail. In order to do so, we will look at the know events in Saint Vincent’s life between 1610 and 1617. To begin with, we shall deal with those incidents that can be dated in some fashion and then go to those whose dates are uncertain.
We do not know exactly when Saint Vincent de Paul arrived in Paris—or why. Father Dodin dates it in September 1608, Father Coste at some unknow time in 1609. Most modern authors join Coste in rejecting Abelly’s story that Saint Vincent went to Paris on a secret mission from the pope to King Henry IV. The first clear date for his Paris stay is 17 February 1610, when he wrote to his mother in Pouy. In this well-know letter, he expressed his delire to secure a good benefice and to live out the rest of his days near her. In sharp contrast with his attitudes in later life, he was largely concerned with his family and the fortunes of his brothers, sisters, nephews and other relatives. The next letter from Saint Vincent will be dated six years later, by which time a definite change will have taken place. Still, as Coste says, “la situation de Vincent de Paul ne semble pas bien brilliante”. A few days after this letter, however, he was enrolled as a chaplain to the retired Queen Marguerite of Valois, the former wife of Henry IV. His principal duty consisted of distributing alms for the ex-queen.
Although it is impossible to date precisely the first meeting of Vincent de Paul with Pierre de Berulle, it seems that it can have been no later than 1610. The future saint soon took him as a spiritual director and the influence was strong and lasting. The basic ideas of Berulle will be dealt with by other speakers at these conferences. Close to this time also we can place his first contacts with André Duval, whose influence may have been even longer-lasting than that of Berulle. There is not doubt that both men were important during these formative years of Vincent’s vocation.
We know from documentation a few months later that he was near the royal palace. (50). This documentation, dated 17 May 1610, granted him the Cistercian Abbey of Saint Leonard des Chaumes in the Diocese of Saintes. Vincent had his long awaited benefice but it did not bring him nearly the income that he needed or wanted. Perhaps what is more significat is that now that he had two ec clesiastical positions, there is no evidence of any attempt to help his family financially, as he indicated he wanted to do in his letter to his mother.
The next dated occurence is even more important. On 20 October 1611, almost a year and a half gaining the abbey of Saint Leonard, Saint Vincent made a gift of 15,000 liares to the hospital of the Brothers of Saint John of God in Paris. The money had been given to him by John Latanne (or de la Thane), the master of the Paris mint (maitre particulier de la monnai e en cette ville de Paris). The question at issue here, one that has been raised by scholars, is whether or not Saint Vincent was acting on his own or as the representative of de la Thane. Was this done merely in his capacity as chaplain to the queen or had the money actually been given to the Abbé de Paul for his own personal use? If the latter is the case, then this would be striking evidence of an advance in santity from the time of the letter of 17 February 1610. Even if, as seems more likely, the former is the case, it still indicates a high degree of trust and some sort of association of Vincent de Paul with a charitable donation. It is interesting that this is the last document that identifies Vincent de Paul as a chaplain to Queen Marguerite.
Less than a month after this the Abbé de Paul was appointed to the parish of Clichy. The pastor, Francois Bourgoing, like Vincent a disciple of Bérulle, had resigned the parish in Vincent’s favor at Bérulle’s suggestion. For unknow reasons the new pastor did not take possession of the parish until 2 May 1612. The story of his brief sojourn as parish priest of Clichy is well-know. He himself confessed that he was happier than the Archbishop of Paris or the pope and he aten looked back on his years there with great affection. It was at Clichy that he first met Antoine Portail. There is no reason to doubt the available evidence that he was an outstanding pastor. His actual stay in the parish lasted only a year. In 1613, at Berulle’s advice, he accepted a position as chaplain and tutor in the house of the Gondis. It should be noted that he did not give up the parish in Clichy until 1626. During that time he directed it through an administrator and although he made visits, he was essentially an absentee pastor, a not unusual occurrence in those times. He was, in addition, still the abbot of Saint Leonard and now he was also a chaplain and tutor to an aristocratic family. Again, there is no evidence that he tried to help his family.
In 1614, through the instrumentality of the Gondis, Saint Vincent was given the parish of Gamaches in the Diocese of Rouen. Very little is know about this appointment, not even if he took possession of it. In the following year he was appointed treasurer and canon of the Chapter of Ecouis, a post over which his patron, M. de Gondi had the right of patronage. Although he did visit Ecouis, he again was essentially an absentee canon. He accepted the post through a procurator and eventually the chapter was to complain about his lack of residence. There is no indication as to when he may have resigned from this benefice. Coste says that he probably did not hold it long but Debongnie claims that he kept it for thirty years. A year and a half later, on 29 October 1616, he resigned the Abbey of Saint Leonard. It may be, as Coste said, that he was learning the duties of clergy and growing more aware of what benefices in- volved, but it should also be noted that Saint Leonard was heavily burdened with lawsuits and had apparently not returned the hopedfor income.
In addition to these events, there are others which are difficult or impossible to date and which play important roles in Saint Vincent’s development. These are the false accusation of the Judge of Sore and the temptation against faith of the doctor of theology.
The incident of the false accusation was given, without excessive detail, by Saint Vincent in a conference of 9 June 1650.
Ily a une personne dans la Compagnie qui, étant accusée d’avoir volé son compagnon et ayant été publiée pour telle dans la maison, quoique la chose ne fut pas vraie, ne voulut pourtant jamais s’en justifier, et pensa en elle-même, se voyant ainsi faussement acusée, “Te justifieras-tu? Voilà une chose dont tu es accusée, qui n’est pas veritable. Oh! non, dit-elle, s’élévant á Dieu, il faut que je souffre cela patiemment.” Et elle le fit ainsi. Qu’arriva-t-il ensuite? Messieurs, voici ce qui arriva. Six mois après, celui qui avait volé étant á cent lieues d’ici, reconnut sa faute et en écrivit et demanda pardon.
Abelly adds far more details. He dates the event in 1609, says that the person who made the accusation as the Judge of Sore and identifies the thief as an apothecary’s boy. He adds far more details also about the eventual way in which the truth was uncovered. It is significat that Abelly also quotes from a conference of Saint Vincent describing the incident, a conference distinct from the one given aboye and now lost. As was his wont, Saint Vincent spoke of the incident in the third person but both times without the wealth of detail given by Abelly. Where did Abelly get these details? Are they accurate? It is difficult now to say.
One aspect of Abelly’s description that may be questionable is the date he gives, 1609. Although it has been accepted by both Coste and Román, it can be surmised that it is a bit early for such an act of virtue. Debongnie dates it in 1610 or early 1611.
The divergences between Saint Vincent’s account of an event and Abelly’s emerge more strongly in the account of the temptation of faith of a doctor of theology. Abelly quoted the account as given by Saint Vincent in an undated conference. It concerned a famous doctor of theology, who had been the canon theologian in his own diocese and who had become attached to the housé of Queen Marguerite. Because of the excessive leisure that he had, he was assailed by temptations against faith. He consulted S. Vincent and told him of his distress, which was so great that he had even temptations to suicide. He had been dispensed from saying his breviary, Mass or any prayer at all. He was advised to turn his hand or point a finger toward Rome or some church as sign of his belief in what the Roman Church taught. The theologian was delivered from these temptations very suddenly after falling seriously ill. He eventually died free of the temptations.
To this story Abelly added further details about the good doctor’ s deliverance which he claimed learned “selon le témoignage qu’une personne tris-digne de foy en a donné par écrit, laquelle n’avoit aucune connoissance du discours de M. Vincent cy-dessus rapporté”. According to this witness, Saint Vincent delivered tne man from temptations by asking God to transfer the temptations to him and that he thus suffered from these assaults on faith for some three or four years. During that time he wrote out the creed and put it near his heart, so that whenever he touched it, it would be the equivalent of an act of faith. He also began working with the sick poor of the Hópital de la Charité in the Faubourg Saint Germain. He was finally delivered when he made a promise to consecrate the rest of his life to the service of the poor.
Abelly’s elaboration of this story is not without its difficulties. Aside from the unnamed person on whose testimony it relies, he claimed “il pluisieurs autres de merite et de vertu encore vivantes, qui ont assuré la mesme chose, comme l’ayant apprise de M. Vincent mesme, qui leur avoit declaré en confiance ce qui s’éstoit passe á son égard en cette occasion, pour les porter á se servir des mesmes remédes… “. Abelly was writing close to half a century after the events recorded, so there was little or no possibility that there was a contemporary witness to this. There is no other evidence of any promise or vow to serve the poor. What casts a true shadow over the story, however, is again Saint Vincent’s famed reticence to talk about himself and his own spiritual experiences. Inevitably, if these would have given him honor in any way, he would narrate them in the third person. It is rather unlikely that he would have shared such a personal experience with anyone, even in giving spiritual direction. In view of this, it would be better to restrict ourselves to Saint Vincent’s own account. (63).
Even if we put aside the second account given by Abelly, we are still faced with a priest who has advanced in virtue enough that he can be consulted on a personal problem by a recognized theological expert. Because of the fact that the theologian was employed by the Queen, apparently at the same as Saint Vincent, we can date it some time in 1610 or early 1611.
How, then, can we judge the incidents of Saint Vincent’s life in the years 1610-1617 in terms of conversion?
My own belief, and it is little more than that, is that the principal lines of Saint Vincent’s spiritual growth were complete by the time he went to Clichy. That would mean that the principal incidents described aboye, including the false accusation which I see as the key one, and his “great leap forward” in holiness occurred between 1610 and 1612. The change was not complete. The old line, especially the accumulation of benefices and attachment to his family, were long in disappearing. The essential change, however, had taken place and he was well on the road to sainthood. He was also ready to give the first mission at Folleville.