Saint Vincent de Paul, a biography 06 – From Rome to Paris, a change of scene

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: José María Román, C.M. · Translator: Joyce Howard, D.C.. · Year of first publication: 1981.
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Chapter VI: From Rome to Paris, a change of scene

Third project: third failure.

Once again we are back in Rome with our Vincent de Paul in the palace of Mgr. Montorio. Vincent has embarked on his third project to find a secure position in life. This time it is the generous prelate who thought up the idea, not Vincent. And once again it is a purely human undertaking. Over and over again Montorio had promised him a benefice; a good benefice, an excellent benefice. Vincent waits hopefully. Meanwhile, he tries to put his time to good use. He does some study and gets in touch with some pastoral initiatives in the Eternal City. For instance, he gets to know the Confraternity of Charity in the Hospital of the Holy Spirit and this organisation will later serve as a model for the first charitable association that he founds1.

He probably comes into contact, also, with the parish charity of San Lorenzo in Damaso, a church near the Montorio palace. Their rules show a surprising similarity to those that Vincent will set down for his own associations2. Vincent is an excellent pupil in the school of life. He is living out his years of pilgrimage and apprenticeship. None of the lessons learnt during these years will be wasted.

During the two or three months he stayed in Avignon, Vincent had had the occasion to come in contact with the missions organised by the Vice Legate for the conversion of the Huguenots3. Charity and mission ‑ almost without realising it, he is accumulating experiences which will one day help him to fulfil his own mission in the church. For the moment he hasn’t the faintest idea what this might be. He is still firmly wedded to his own project ‑ that desirable benefice promised by Monsignor. But this project, too, comes to nothing; we do not know for certain when or how this happened. One thing we do know is that two years later, on 17th February, 1610, he writes to his mother from Paris. This is the only letter he wrote to her that has been preserved. It contains a humble admission of failure which is a far cry from the arrogant confidence of his letters to Comet. Vincent is learning a lot about life.

“I would like one of my brothers to send his son to study. My misfortunes and the little help that I have been to the family so far, might discourage him from doing this.”4

What misfortunes is he referring to here? To those now distant troubles of his capture and slavery at the hands of Barbary pirates? To more recent mishaps which caused him to lose favour with Monsignor Montorio? It is significant that for the rest of his life Vincent will have no further dealings with the former Legate of Avignon, whose death did not occur, however, until 1643. It is clear, too, that the Monsignor fell out of favour when the pro‑French Pope, Urban VIII, ascended the pontifical throne in 1623, and that before that date very few of Vincent’s letters were preserved5. So Vincent left Rome without any tangible outcome to all Montorio’s promises.

Paris: “The time I have left in this city.”

Contrary to what we might have expected, Vincent didn’t return to Toulouse, or to his native region, Dax, after he left Rome. Towards the end of 1608 he left the Eternal City for Paris. Abelly attributes Vincent’s journey here to motives which are as honourable as they are improbable! The French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal D’Ossat, must have entrusted the young priest with a secret mission to the King, Henry IV; this mission being so confidential and of such a delicate nature that it was too dangerous to commit it to writing. It could only be transmitted verbally6. Such a theory is highly improbable and that for a very simple reason. Cardinal d’Ossat had died in 1604 so he could hardly have confided a mission to somebody four years later! Later biographers than Abelly who knew more about secular history than he did, repeat the story of this mission, but they say Vincent was sent, not by d’Ossat, but by no less a commission than the three Ministers who were accredited to Rome by the French monarchy in 1608. These were the Marquis de Savary de Brèves, (the same man who two years earlier had been sent to Turkey and to Tunis to procure the release of French captives) the Papal Legate of La Rota, Denis de Marquemont and the Duke of Nevers, Charles Gonzaga7. It is a pity that this information about Vincent’s mission should have such little foundation. Vincent only made his entrance on to the historical scene during the reign of the next monarch. So writers who are fond of making historical comparisons have been deprived of the opportunity to describe for us an interview between the jovial, exuberant Béarnese monarch, and the up and coming young priest from Gascony.

Vincent’s reason for going to Paris was not simply that he felt attracted to the capital. After his recent failure in Rome, Paris was the only place where he could try once more to win the benefice he so desperately wanted, and which was so necessary for the stabilisation of his finances. Besides, he only expected to stay in the capital for a short time. He indicates this in a letter to his mother:

“The time I have left in this city to try and better myself (advancement that has been thwarted by my misfortunes) makes me unhappy because I cannot leave here to render you the services I owe you.”8

Vincent’s affairs had become complicated and this was to continue; so much so that his brief stay lasted till the end of his life.

“God knows the truth.”

Then came the biggest complication of all but Vincent was in no way responsible for it. When he arrived in Paris he took up residence in the “faubourg” St. Germain, an unpretentious district on the left bank of the Seine. He chose this place, not because it was the University and student area, as it still is today, but for the more practical reason that it was the Gascon quarter. Vincent was too poor to own his own house. He hired a room and shared it with a man from his own part of the country; a minor judge in the Bordeaux area of Sore. Shared accommodation has its drawbacks as Vincent was soon to find out.

One day Vincent felt unwell and he had to stay in bed. His companion, the judge, left early to attend to some business in the city. Vincent sent to a nearby apothecary for the medicines he needed. The apothecary’s assistant was looking in the cupboard for a glass when he discovered the judge’s purse containing 400 crowns. The temptation proved too strong for the lad. As he rummaged about for the glass, he stealthily pocketed the fortune, and as soon as he had attended to the sick man, he left the house and was never seen again.

Who should come back soon afterwards but the judge, and almost immediately he discovered his money was missing. Who could have stolen it? It must surely have been this fellow who had pretended to be ill and stayed in bed as though nothing had happened. He swore he hadn’t taken it and that he hadn’t seen anybody else take it. The judge was a hasty and a violent man. Shouting at the top of his voice, he accused Vincent of the theft, threw him out of the house, and denounced him to his friends and acquaintances. He even caused the ecclesiastical authorities to issue a monition9. Poor Vincent, who was just beginning to lift his head up again after those earlier disasters, felt that adversity was dogging his steps yet again.

At that time Vincent had got to know some very influential people in Paris. He had just made the acquaintance of Pierre de Bérulle, the future Cardinal, who was to have such a decisive influence on his life. The exasperated judge could not contain his anger even in the presence of the Cardinal and he accused Vincent of being a thief. Vincent’s reaction was exemplary, and here we come across one of his characteristics that presaged the mettle of his sanctity. It didn’t even occur to him to throw suspicion of the crime on to the apothecary’s assistant. He contented himself with the meek reply, “God knows the truth”. Six years were to pass before men discovered the truth because this incident unfolded in a manner worthy of some byzantine fiction where all is made clear at the end.

If the story hadn’t been told by Vincent, himself, Coste would have dismissed it as fiction. But it so happened that six years later, the guilty party was arrested in Bordeaux for some other crime. Overcome by remorse, he asked the judge from Sore to come to the prison and he confessed his misdeed. The judge was no less ardent in his apologies than he had been in his accusations. He wrote to Vincent and begged his pardon, assuring him that if he did not receive this in writing, he would go to Paris and publicly ask pardon on his knees and with a halter round his neck. This wasn’t necessary. Vincent generously granted him the pardon he asked10.

All this happened in 1609. When wrote to his mother early in the following year the letter we have already mentioned, he could rightly complain about his disasters and misfortunes. Pierre Debongnie has seen the false accusation of theft to be the key event in Vincent’s conversion11. This is too simplistic a view. Vincent’s conversion is much more complex and the process takes far longer. Over the years he will be touched by a whole series of events and influences; this accusation of theft is only the first step.

However, there can be no doubt that Vincent’s reaction on that occasion marks a significant turning point in his standards and in his conduct. “Are you going to justify yourself?” They are accusing you of something that they cannot prove. “No”, he said to himself, raising his mind to God, “you must suffer it patiently” ‑and that is what he did.”12 He tells the story in the third person and adds, “Let us leave it to God to reveal the secrets of men’s consciences.”13

In spite of this, in February, 1610, Vincent still seems entrenched in attitudes we have noticed earlier; he wants to direct his own life and he trusts in fortune and in human resources. He is still waiting for “an opportunity for promotion”, his horizons and hopes are still limited to the prospect of a confortable “retirement” and his mind is still set on devoting the rest his days (he is now thirty!) to looking after his mother and helping his brothers and nephews. He still clings to the philosophy expressed in the letters of his captivity, that “present misfortune heralds future success.”

But this disillusionment aside, we can already read between the lines and see a subtle change in outlook. “I trust in God that he will bless my work and quickly grant me the means of securing a decent retirement.”14 “Raise your heart to God” ‑ “hope in God” ‑ this is the lesson he has learnt from his captivity, from the calumny, and from other misfortunes that he doesn’t name. He will soon have occasion to put this very much into practice. The life he thought was over, was just about to begin. Ten years of planning and of sounding out human resources were to be followed by seven or eight years when he would slowly and gradually discover the real plan; the divine plan which would shape his conversion process and at the same time, would clearly spell out his vocation.

  1. S.V.P. XIII p.423.
  2. A. ARMANDI, “Une étrange coïncidence: Saint Vincent de Paul à Rome et les conférences dites de Saint Vincent de Paul”: M. et Ch. n.10 (1963) p.224‑226.
  3. R. CHALUMEAU, “Annales” (1943‑1944) p.225ss.
  4. S.V.P. I p.19: ES I p.89.
  5. R. CHALUMEAU, “Annales” (1943) p.228.
  6. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.5 p.20.
  7. “Ristretto cronologico…” p.14; COLLET, op. cit., Vol.1 p.25.
  8. S.V.P. I p.18: ES p.83.
  9. A monition was an order from the ecclesiastical authorities, granted at the request of a secular judge. It required people to declare everything they knew about a given offence, and this under pain of excommunication. The monitories were read out by the parish priest during Mass on 3 consecutive Sundays. The ease with which monitories were granted constituted a serious abuse which was deplored by the clergy. Cf. M. MARION, “Dictionnaire des Institutions de la France aux XVII et XVIII siècles” (Paris, J. Picard, 1969): R. MOUSNIER, “Les institutions de la France sous la monarchie absolue” Vol.2 p.391.
  10. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.5 p.21‑23; COLLET, op. cit., Vol.1 p.27‑28.
  11. P. DEBONGNIE, “La conversion de Saint Vincent de Paul”: RHE 32 (1936) p.313‑339.
  12. S.V.P. XI p.337: ES p.230.
  13. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.5 p.23.
  14. S.V.P. I p.18‑20: ES p.88‑90.

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