Saint Vincent De Paul 1600-1614, A Psycho-spiritual Study

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Patrick Collins · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 9.
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In this study we will look at Vincent’s life from his ordination in 1600 to the time he vowed to serve the poor in 1614. For the sake of clarity we will divide these 14 years into three separate stages:

  • 1600-1605 early-adult transition, during which Vincent was ordained;
  • 1605-1608 a time of crisis when Vincent went missing;
  • 1608-1614 years of purification and transformation.

We will use three complementary kinds of resource material. Firstly, there are the known historical facts: events, dates and some biographical material in letters and conferences. That said, we know precious little about the events of his early days and even less about his inner life. For example, Coste devotes only 50 pages of his 1500­ page biography to the first third of Vincent’s life. Secondly, we will attempt to interpret the available facts in the light of developmental psychology. We will use Levinson’s1 study of the male life-cycle and the Whiteheads’2 theological presentation of Erickson’s developmental stages and tasks. Thirdly, we will use the Ignatian description of two main stages in spiritual growth.3 Each has its own specific dynamic. In the first, the experimental emphasis is on the Lord’s relationship with the believer. In the second, the focus shifts to the believer’s desire to be united with Jesus poor and humble. The movement from one dynamic to the other becomes evident in a renunciation of pride and a worldly desire to possess, or to be noticed. This kind of conver­sion opens the heart to the possibility of great holiness of life.

By using these historic, psychological and spiritual resources we will hope to gain some insight into the possible dynamics of Vincent’s interior life. They tend to be neglected in the biographies I have read. It is disappointing because these are significant years in Vincent’s formation. Not only was his future sanctity rooted in this period, it marked the time when his experience of God was most like our own. It is my hope, therefore, that as we become aware of the dynamics of his early growth in holiness we will also throw light on our own potential for union with God. My approach will be tentative. That said, I hope it will stimulate fruitful reflection on this fascinating period of Vincent’s life.

Early-adult transition 1600-1605

In his Seasons of a Man’s Life Levinson says that men enter an early-adult transition between the ages of 17 and 22. This is a bridging period between adolescence and early adulthood. The main pre-occu­pations of this time are a desire to get established in the world and to begin working out an adult sense of identity. These issues tend to be highlighted in what he calls “marker events”. Vincent reached his at the age of 19 when he was ordained a priest.

Ordination was a significant event in Vincent’s life. It was illegal. Local custom tended to reflect the teaching of the recent Council of Trent 1545. A man was not eligible for ordination until he was 24. Nevertheless Vincent became a deacon at the tender age of 17! He then applied to the Bishop of Dax for permission to be ordained a priest. He must have lied about his age to get his dimissorial letters. Then he showed cunning, if not simplicity, by being ordained by a bishop who wasn’t scrupulous about the Tridentine directive. This prelate was neither the bishop of Toulouse, Vincent’s place of resi­dence, nor of Dax his place of birth. The future reformer of the clergy got off to a rather irregular start himself. No wonder his confrères were never to know anything about the date, place, or circumstances of his ordination. Prudence rather than modesty seems to have been the motive. Vincent found it hard to get established in a priestly job or identity. The bishop of Dax offered him a parish but there were legal problems, so he continued to live as he had before. He ran his small school and continued to study at the university. It was a time when he seemed to rely on his own considerable talents for success. His earnings increased, his debts grew less and he got his bachelor’s degree in theology in 1604. We don’t know what the priesthood meant to him; had he a formal commitment to the role, or an interior sense of union with Jesus the highpriest? Two incidents in 1605 point towards an answer. Early in that year Vincent headed off to Bordeaux on a secret mission. He said it would be rash to mention what it was about. It is remotely possible that he had been offered a bishopric. “What we do know for certain — on Vincent’s own admission — is that the business promised to be of GREAT ADVANTAGE TO HIM, that it would involve considerable expenditure.”4

When he returned from the South, Vincent found that he had been left some money in a woman’s will. There was a complication. The only way he could get the 400 crowns was to collect the sum from a man in Marseilles who owed that amount to the deceased. To finance his trip Vincent had to borrow heavily himself. He hired a horse and set off. The future apostle of charity showed little compassion when he caught the man he called “a scamp”. He had him thrown into jail until he would agree to pay the debt. This was a far cry from the text “be mindful of prisoners as if you were sharing their imprisonment” (Heb. 13.3). Meantime Vincent sold the hired horse. It was a bit like selling a rented car to raise money. It would be an immoral act in any age, and an illegal one in ours.

In 1605 Vincent was a talented and well qualified priest of 25. He had his faults. He could act in an unscrupulous and callous way if it served his desire for ecclesiastical and financial advancement. In fact he was the kind of young priest that a present-day provincial would probably ask to see for “a wee chat”! He certainly wasn’t a saint.

The missing years, 1605-1608

Levinson says that early-adulthood begins about 22 and ends when a man is 45 or so. During that time he can expect to experience one or more marker events, periods of transition that will challenge his values and sense of self. For Vincent one of these crises took place between the ages of 24 and 27, when he went missing. We are not sure where he was. In letters to M. De Comet he said that he had been a captive in Tunisia, having been captured by pirates during a sea voyage. While its certain that Vincent wrote the letters, doubt has been cast on their contents. Stafford Poole says that there are three possibilities.5 Firstly, the letters are completely true. Grandchamps has shown that this is not viable from the historical point of view. Secondly, the letters could be dismissed as completely false. Thirdly, parts of the letters could be accepted as true, other parts rejected as false. After weighing all the evidence Poole concludes that the letters are probably false. This would explain why Vincent never once mentioned his captivity. Both Br Ducournau and Abelly testify to his life-long silence about it. It would also explain why Vincent made such frantic efforts to have the letters destroyed when they were discovered 50 years after their composition. At the age of 79 he wrote these words to Canon De St Martin; “I entreat you by all the favours that God has been pleased to give you, to do me the favour of sending me THAT WRETCHED LETTER that makes mention of Turkey. I speak of the one that was discovered among the papers of the late M De Comet. I beg you again by the heart of Jesus Christ Our Lord to do me this favour that I ask you, as quickly as possible”.6 Was Vincent’s silence about his captiv­ity, his desire to have the letters destroyed, motivated by the same embarassment he felt about his ordination?

If Vincent wasn’t in North Africa where was he? There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps he was in debtors’ prison on account of the large sums he owed. Or he may have taken refuge from his creditors in the papal enclave of Avignon. Wherever he was, I believe it was a time of passage and crisis for Vincent.

Having looked at it from an historical point of view we will switch now to a psychological perspective.

The Whiteheads say that there are three phases in the experience of passage:1

1. Separation: A time when our usual accommodation with life is disrupted. Old securities are challenged. There is a feeling of having been hi-jacked, of being a helpless victim in a sort of no­man’s-land. This would be the symbolic meaning of Vincent’s disappearance from society.

2. Transition: A time of increased vulnerability, questioning and doubt. As illusions are challenged, the person begins to ask basic questions about his identity and values. As defence mech­anisms break down, chronos becomes kairos as God begins to reveal Himself in a way that invites the person to change his values and sense of self. The experience of this kind of conver­sion would be the symbolic meaning of Vincent’s absence from society.

3. Incorporation: As a person lets go of old ways of perception, he enters into a new stage of maturity and stability. This would be the symbolic implication of Vincent’s re-emergence into society.

Some time ago it occurred to me that Vincent’s captivity letters had a dreamlike quality. Could they be interpreted in a Jungian way as symbols of un-conscious conflicts? I think they can, so I’d like to propose a tentative interpretation. The journey by sea, followed by years in a strange land, represents a movement from the person con­stituted by its various roles to the real, but largely un-conscious, self. This movement from the phenomenal to the real self is implicit in the accounts of Vincent’s slave owners. Each one seems to symbolise some aspect of his conflict about priestly identity. Firstly, there is the fisher­man. A priest is called to be a fisher of men, but Vincent writes: “I was sold to a fisherman, but I have always been A VERY BAD SAILOR; he was obliged to get rid of me”.8 In other words, he had no stomach for the demands of priestly mission. Secondly, he was sold to an alchemist. This is fascinating from a symbolic point of view; indeed Jung wrote no less than three books on the psychological implications of alchemy.9 I’d like to draw attention to points mentioned by Vincent. He refers to the practice of trying to turn base metal into gold by human efforts. Surely this is symbolic of a Faustian desire to be like God. It is implicit in the reference to the philosopher’s stone as well. As one author had written, “If the Alchemist could impregnate the Stone with his own life, then he had discovered the secret of the Creator”.10 Was Vincent becoming aware of his spiritual pride? Then he refers to the alchemist’s talking skull. By means of ventriloquism he made it appear that he was receiv­ing oracles from God. Symbolically, this means to suggest that Vincent saw himself as a false prophet, a priest who failed to speak God’s word. Thirdly, he was sold to a renegade priest. Is this a symbol of Vincent’s alter-ego, the priest who is no longer faithful to his vocation? The women in the story are very interesting. There are three wives, one Greek Orthodox and two Moslems. From a Jungian point of view they would seem to be projections of different aspects of the Anima, i.e. the feminine aspects of the un-conscious mind. They are reminiscent of the three graces, wisdom, joy and festivity in classical mythology.” The Greek woman would be Sophia, or wisdom. She liked Vincent and treated him with kindness. But it was one of the pagan women who was to be his source of joy. It was she who persuaded her husband to return to the excercise of his priesthood. In other words, through the benevolent power of the Anima, Vincent was led to a new sense of God, self and vocation. The soul is feminine in relation to a Father God. So Vincent personifies his spiritual deliverance in feminine terms by attributing it to Our Lady. As he let go of his old persona, with its false sense of self and values, Vincent was able to make his exodus journey back to a new sense of priestly identity. This coincided with his re-appearance in society as a changed man. As I have said, the Jungian interpretation is tentative. We are on firmer ground when we suspect that Vincent went through a spiritual trial in which his pride as the root of sin was revealed. I suspect that during the missing year he saw through his worldliness, his desire for money, status and advancement. Perhaps he began to see that it is by these desires that pride insinuates itself into the heart. It would seem that during this period he began to be attracted to Jesus in his poverty and humble dependence on God. He wanted to be united to him in this way, content to labour with Him for the salvation of souls even if it meant insult and injury. We can infer that this dynamic was at work in Vincent’s life from the way he lived when he returned to Paris in 1608. As the Lord says, “by your fruits you shall be known” (Mt. 7:16).

Purification and transformation 1608-1614

Vincent was 27 when he surfaced in the capital. As we look at three significant events we will see how much he had changed. The first concerns the way he handled a threat to his good name. He was sharing an appartment with a judge at the time. One day while he was sick in bed, a thief made off with the judge’s money. Vincent describes what happened next: “A member of the community was once accused of having robbed his companion, and that before the house where he was staying. The charge was not true. Finding himself falsely accused, although he never meant to justify himself, the thought nevertheless did occur to him: ‘See here; you are going to justify yourself, are you not? You are being falsely accused you know!’ ‘Oh no’ he said, as he lifted his mind to God, ‘it is necessary that I suffer this patiently’ “.’2 What a change. At 24 years of age Vincent demanded his rights, now he was willing to renounce them even if it meant the loss of his good name.

His attitude to money had also changed. In 1611 he received a gift of 15,000 livres from John Latanne, master of the Paris mint. He immedi­ately gave it to the Charity Hospital “to tend and nurse the sick poor”. Gone was his earlier preoccupation with cash. In its place is evidence of a growing sensitivity to the poor. However there is evidence too that Vincent was tempted to resist his growing attraction to a life lived in total commitment to the poor. For example in 1610 he wrote to his mother “I put great hope in God’s grace, that he will bless my efforts, and soon give me the means of an honourable retirement so that I may spend the rest of my days near you”.13 Retirement at the age of 29! Vincent still had mixed desires, his purification was not yet complete.

The year 1610 inaugurated another marker event. Vincent knew a priest who was experiencing terrible temptations against faith. He prayed that God would allow him to accept this man’s burden in return for his peace of mind. As a result the theologian’s trial ended while Vincent entered the period of interior struggle. Later he was to say “God often wishes to establish, upon the patience of those who undertake them, the good works that are to endure, and for that reason he allows such people to suffer many trials”.14 Well, Vincent battled with doubt for about three years. During this time he learned to die to the last vestiges of his pride. Finally, as Bill Purcell wrote, “he made up his mind to devote himself wholly and irrevocably to the service of the poor out of love for his Divine Master and in order to imitate him more perfectly”.15 When his doubts disappeared at this time, Vincent’s faith was as strong as his commitment to the poor was complete. Faith and commitment found a united focus in the person of Jesus poor and humble.


Over thirteen years or so Vincent had gone through a remarkable interior change. Instead of making him bitter his many trials had made him better. During his times of passage he had discovered “the potency of disorder”. Bit by bit he had become disillusioned with his youthful sense of identity and value. He had tried to escape from the implica­tions of material and spiritual poverty, as from an enemy. But between the ages of 20 and 33 he learned to love his enemy. When he finally embraced and kissed him in 1614, he found it was Jesus he was loving. He discovered the truth of the words “As often as you did it for one of these the least of my brothers, you did it for Me” (Mt 25:44). Vincent was about to become the apostle of charity. Surely the dynamics of his gradual conversion are also our God-given route to sanctity.


  1. Levinson: The Seasons of a Man’s Life (Ballantine).
  2. Whitehead & Whitehead: Christian Life Patterns (Doubleday)
  3. Fleming (ed): The Spiritual Exercises (Institute of Jesuit Resources); Rahner: Meditations on Priestly Life, ch 16 “The Two Standards” (Sheed & Ward).
  4. Coste: The Life and Labours of St Vincent de Paul, vol. 1 p 26 (Burns & Oates)
  5. Poole: Tunisian Captivity: A survey of the controversy p 71 (St John’s Seminary, California).
  6. Coste, op. cit p 40.
  7. op. cit. pp 62-64.
  8. Calvet: St Vincent de Paul, p 24 (Burns & Oates)
  9. Volumes 12, 13 and 14 of the collected works: Psychology and Alchemy, Alchemical Studies and Mysterium Coniunctionis.
  10. Chetwynd: A Dictionary of Symbols, p 7 (Paladin).
  11. Chetwynd, op. cit p 23.
  12. 12.     All Hallows Annual 1959-1961 p 55, Purcell: “St Vincent de Paul: Spiritual Life”.
  13. Coste: op. cit. p44.
  14. Purcell: op. cit. p 74
  15. Purcell: op, cit. p 55.

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