Part two: The years of pilgrimage and apprenticeship (1600 ‑ 1617)
Chapter III: Plans and setbacks
The first project
No sooner is Vincent ordained than it seems he achieved the objective he had so much set his heart on: an ecclesiastical benefice. He was to devise many schemes between the years 1600 and 1617 but this was his first specific project. Vincent was a young man and he had his life to plan. It still hadn’t dawned on him that he should be relying on God and trying to discover the vocation to which he was being called.
Very soon after Vincent’s ordination (it might have been that same year, 1600) the Vicar General of Dax nominated him parish priest of Tilh, a good parish in that diocese. It is strange that this nomination should have come from the Vicar General and not the Bishop, because contrary to what Abelly believed, the see was not vacant at that time. And yet it was in similar circumstances that the Vicar General had authorised Vincent to proceed to the subdiaconate and diaconate1.
A powerful influence was at work in Vincent’s favour, that of Monsieur Comet. Thanks to Monsieur Comet’s introduction, the parish was granted to Vincent. In the background to all this, could there have been a secret struggle going on between the old authority and the new, between the Vicar General and the Bishop?
One thing was certain, this appointment would turn out to be his first failure. Two obstacles cropped up to prevent Vincent’s induction at Tilh. Firstly, this brand new parish priest continued to study at Toulouse and so could not reside in the parish. During a diocesan synod, the new Bishop had recommended all parish priests to be resident in their parishes. Secondly, a rival appeared on the scene in the person of a certain Monsieur Saint‑Soubé who had been appointed to the parish by the Curia in Rome.
If Vincent wanted to keep the parish he would have had to file a lawsuit so he gave up his claim. Early biographers have attributed this act of renunciation to Vincent’s repugnance for all forms of litigation, a repugnance based on the precepts of the gospel. But that would be to project on to the young man, the attitudes and maxims of a much more mature Vincent. There is probably a much more down‑to earth explanation. Vincent’s age was against him, as was the full weight of the Roman Curia, and there may have been opposition, too, from his own Bishop who had not been party to either his ordination or his appointment to the parish. Maybe it was at this period that the thought first entered his mind ‑ a thought he was to put in writing years later:
“How wretched are those who enter the ecclesiastical state by the window of personal choice and not by the door of a genuine vocation”2.
Vincent was now experiencing for himself something of the turmoil that was unsettling France as the Tridentine reforms came to be implemented. It was an experience he would never forget3.
In Rome “I was moved, even to tears”.
It might just be, though, that Vincent decided to go somewhere else to pursue his claim to the parish. The place in question was Rome and Vincent moved there sometime in 1601.
Early biographers knew nothing about Vincent’s first stay in the Eternal City (we will deal with his second stay there in due course.) We are aware of this first visit because Vincent says on several occasions, “I had the honour of seeing Pope Clement VIII.”4 Well, Clement VIII died in 1605. Another reference made by Vincent helps us to pinpoint more precisely the date of his visit. Writing on 20th July, 1631, to one of his early companions who had a high position in Rome at that time, Vincent says that he himself had been there “thirty years ago.”5 So that must have been in 1601. We have no information at all regarding his motives for making this journey. Was it, perhaps, to obtain a dispensation for his irregular ordination? The most likely conjecture, as we have suggested, is that he undertook this journey in the hope of obtaining the disputed parish of Tilh. He soon realised that he had no chance at all against his rival.
On the other hand, we have quite a good idea of Vincent’s religious dispositions during his first stay in Christendom’s main city. We need this knowledge if we are to reconstruct his spiritual itinerary. The letter we have just referred to lifts, for a few brief moments, the veil of secrecy with which Vincent always jealously guarded his spiritual life.
“At last you’ve arrived in Rome where you will find the visible Head of the Church on earth, where you will find the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul, and those of many other martyrs who in ages past shed their blood and spent their lives in the service of Jesus Christ. What a happiness it is, Lord, to be able to tread the same ground that so many great and holy people walked! This thought affected me so much when I was in Rome thirty years ago, that although I was weighed down by sin, I think the experience never ceased to move me, even to the point of tears.”6
So it was the Rome of 1601 that awakened his devotion to the Roman Pontiff, then Clement VIII, whom Vincent always regarded as a saint. We know that this Pope used to weep as he went up the “Scala Sancta”. Could it be that Vincent was performing this same act of devotion when he, too, burst into tears? Vincent loved to quote the sayings of this Pope whose handling of the thorny question of Henry IV’s absolution was presented to the confrères as a model of how to act in times of temptation7. All the indications are that this journey to Rome introduced Vincent to the mysterious world of holiness ‑ perhaps it was a first call. A good many years would have to pass before Vincent responded to it with his whole heart and soul. In the meantime he had his way to make; he had to complete his studies and find another benefice which would make up for losing the parish of Tilh and he had to enjoy all the benefits he could rightfully expect from his newly acquired priesthood. Even though he was pious, even though he could be moved to tears, Vincent was not yet a saint. He was a young man with a career ahead of him. Nobody could reproach him for this. Such aspirations were lawful and reasonable in his day… as they are in ours. It is just that they weren’t the aspirations of a saint.
“A project so rash that I dare not speak about it”
Once he is back in Toulouse, Vincent resumes the life he was leading before his journey to Rome and his ordination to the priesthood ‑ a life of teaching and of study. For the moment, the boarding school will provide an income sufficient to meet his needs; in the future, his studies will open doors which at present remain closed to him. Vincent never felt drawn to a purely academic career. He regarded study as a means, not an end. In 1604, when he was twenty four years old, he decided to finish his university studies for good. Three certificates crowned his academic career: one of these credited him with seven years study, the second was his degree in theology, and the third was a certificate authorising him to explain the second book of “Sentencias” by Pietro Lombardo8. Now, at last, he could seriously consider more lofty ambitions. He now has patrons who are even more influential than Comet. He can count on the patronage of no less a person than the Duke of Epernon who, from his magnificent castle in Cadillac on the borders of Bordeaux, exercised unofficial but none the less effective power, in the region of Gascony. Vincent returns to his dreams and these become more and more ambitious. No longer is it a question of some country parish, however important a one; Vincent has his sights set on a bishopric. This must have been the business “the rashness of which I dare not speak about” that Vincent referred to in a letter which we will study in more detail later on9. This second project of his crashed to the ground even more quickly than the first, because of a whirlwind of unforeseen events. It could be said that some invisible hand was taking delight in showing him the inadequacy of plans that are purely human.
“That wretched letter”
We need to pause here. All the information that we have about Vincent’s life during the next three years, 1605, 1606 and 1607, comes from two of his letters. One of these was dated 24th July, 1607, and the other 28th February, 1608. The first letter was written in Avignon and the second in Rome. It is obvious that these texts are autobiographical and their discovery should mean, that after so many calculations and conjectures, we must be on firm ground as we try to reconstruct the early stages of Vincent’s life. In actual fact we have the exact opposite happening. There is no way of evading the fact that a fierce controversy was to rage round these letters for nearly half a century.
The authenticity of the letters has never been questioned. The originals, written in Vincent’s own hand, have been preserved, and scholars have patiently reconstructed the history of their preservation. Both letters are addressed to Monsieur Comet, who was the brother of Vincent’s former benefactor, and the one who became the young priest’s new patron. The letters passed from the Comet family’s archives into the possession of his son‑in‑law, Louis de Saint Martin, the master of Agès and a lawyer at the presidial court of Dax. He was married to Catherine de Comet and was the brother of Canon Jean de Saint Martin who was been mentioned earlier.
The letters were then bequeathed to Caesar de Saint Martin d’Agès, who was the son of Louis and Catherine10. One day this man decided, out of curiosity, to look through his grandfather Comet’s old papers and he discovered the letters. This happened in 1685 and by this time Vincent was a person of high standing, with a reputation for sanctity. Young Saint Martin trembled with excitement. Here was the great man’s own account of his early life. How delighted he would be to read about the most exciting adventure of his long life! He lost no time in telling his uncle, the Canon. The good Canon, in his turn, wrote in haste to Monsieur Vincent, telling him of their unexpected find. But Vincent’s reaction was very different from the one they expected. He wrote back immediately, begging them to send him the originals and he obviously intended to destroy them.
At this point other people become involved. The Saint’s secretary brought the matter to the knowledge of the priests who were the assistants to the Superior General of the Mission. There was a council of war. At all costs these letters had to be rescued from the imminent threat of destruction, and to prevent this happening they had to make sure that the letters didn’t fall into the hands of the man who wrote them. They instructed the secretary to explain the situation to Canon Saint Martin and ask him to send the letters, not to Monsieur Vincent, but to somebody they could trust ‑ Fr. Watebled who was then Superior of the foundation house of the Congregation and who was out of Vincent’s reach. The Canon did as he was asked.
Meanwhile the poor old man was weary waiting for a reply. He saw death approaching and those letters were still in the hands of strangers and open to God knows what interpretation. On 18th March, 1660, he wrote again to Canon Saint Martin.
“In the name of all the graces that God has bestowed on you, I adjure you to send me that wretched letter about Turkey. I mean the one that Monsieur d’Agès found among his father’s papers. I earnestly beg you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord, to do me the favour I ask, as quickly as possible.”11
These are moving words but Canon Saint Martin cannot be touched by them now. The letters that Vincent so desperately wants back have been kept safe for two years in the hands of Monsieur Almerás, the Saint’s first assistant, and later his successor. Six months later, Saint Vincent would die without being able to lay his hands on what he had written as a young man. Thanks to the pious machinations of his secretary, the assistants, and the Canon, these papers had been preserved for posterity12.
- Abelly says, in fact, that it was the leading Vicars of Dax who appointed Vincent to the parish of Tilh because at that time the see of Dax was vacant (op. cit., 1.1 c.3 p.11). Coste realised that Abelly was mistaken about the see being vacant and so felt justified in saying that Vincent’s appointment came from the bishop. (M.V. Vol.1 p.40). The situation is by no means clear. It was the Vicar General who issued the letters dimissory even though the see was occupied. (S.V.P. XIII p.5 and 6). This was what caused Abelly’s mistake and there was confusion, too, about the letters dimissory for the subdiaconate.
- S.V.P. VII p.463: ES p.396.
- Cf. E. DIEBOLD, “Saint Vincent de Paul. Sa nomination à la cure de Tilh (Diocèse de Dax) en 1600”: Annales (1959) p.389‑397.
- S.V.P. IX p.316‑317 468; X p.365 593; XII p.347: ES IX p.294 426 987 1123; XI p.623.
- S.V.P. I p.114: ES p.176. We think, however, that there is no foundation for the theory that Vincent went to Rome to gain the jubilee indulgence for the year 1600. It is more likely that this journey took place in 1601.
- See texts quoted in note 4 to this chapter.
- ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.3 p.12; COLLET, Vol.1 p.11.
- S.V.P. I p.3: ES p.76. Cf. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.4 p.14; Collet thinks that the question of a bishopric is mere conjecture (op. cit., Vol.1 p.15) Coste casts doubt on the Duke of Epernon’s patronage (M.V. Vol.1 p.37 and 43).
- Coste is mistaken when he gives the name John to both the Saint Martin brothers, one of whom was a canon and the other a layman. (XIII p.539 and 540). In Saint Vincent’s will, 1630, he calls the latter Louis, and his son, whom Abelly refers to simply as Saint Martin d’Agès, is called Caesar. (Annales  .706).
- S.V.P. VIII p.271: ES p.260. Coste emphasises the fact that Collet was mistaken in thinking that it was after receiving this letter that Saint Martin sent the letters about the captivity to Fr. Watebled at the Bons Enfants. He did indeed, make a mistake, but this was only about the date the letter was sent, and not about the person to whom it was dispached.
- The story of the letters about Vincent’s captivity has been told many times. Note particularly the account given by Abelly (op. cit., 1.1 c.4 p.17‑18) and by Collet (op. cit., Vol.1 p.22‑23) The documents on which these are based are to be found in S.V.P. I p.1‑2; VIII p.271 513‑515: ES I p.75‑76; VIII p.260 537‑539.