Saint Vincent de Paul, a biography 08 – The discovery of a vocation

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: José María Román, C.M. · Translator: Joyce Howard, D.C.. · Year of first publication: 1981.
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Chapter VIII: The discovery of a vocation

A breed of captains

On Bérulle’s instructions, M. Vincent left his parish in Clichy towards the end of 1613 and settled with his few belongings in the Paris house of the de Gondi family, in the rue de Petits Champs in the parish of St. Eustace. This was the second time he was to live in a palace. This one was rather less luxurious than that of Queen Marguerite but it was still very grand. After all, the de Gondis were one of the leading families in the country and had inherited, along with their Florentine blood, a renaissance taste for luxury and refinement.

The first de Gondi to settle in France was Antoine. He was a banker by profession and his financial interests had brought him to Lyons at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the city of Rodano he had married a noble lady of Piedmontese origin, Marie Cathérine de Pierre Vive. His business affairs didn’t flourish but the couple found other ways of making a fortune. When Cathérine de Medici had occasion to visit Lyons they managed to gain the sympathy of their royal compatriot. Antoine was appointed steward to the Dauphin, Henry III, and Marie Catherine became governess to the royal children. It was rapid promotion.

Later on we will discuss their two sons’ success. The elder son, Albert, became Marquis of Belle Isle and theGolden Islands, a Peer and Marshal of France, General‑in‑ Chief of the royal armed forces, General of the Galleys, Governor of Provence, Metz, and Nantes, and, through his marriage to Catherine de Clermont, Duke of Retz.

With his Florentine genius for intrigue, he was one of the chief instigators of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day and this massacre, in his opinion, should also have included the King of Navarre who later became Henry IV. This didn’t prevent him from becoming an ardent supporter of the Huguenot Pretender and retaining all his titles and privileges when Henry became king.

In a different area, the Church, his brother Pierre had a career that was no less meteoric. At thirty two years of age he was bishop of Langres, and at thirty five, bishop of Paris. Charles IX named him as his confessor and appointed him head of his Council of Conscience. Henry IV entrusted to his care the thorny problem of negotiating with Pope Clement VIII his pardon for heresy, and later on, the annulment of his marriage with Marguerite de Valois. In reward for his services he was made Cardinal.

Albert de Gondi and Catherine de Clermont had four sons. Two of them, Henri and Jean François, succeeded in turn to their uncle Pierre’s episcopal see in Paris. Henri, coadjutor bishop with right of succession from 1596, governed the diocese during the last eight years of his uncle’s life and he succeeded him in 1616. This was the man to whom Vincent had said he was happier in his parish than the Pope. He died of “army fever” while he was accompanying King Louis XIII at Béziers. He, too, was a Cardinal, the first Cardinal de Retz. Jean François had earlier joined the Capuchins. Then he became Dean of Notre Dame and coadjutor to his brother, and was consecrated bishop in 1623. He didn’t become a Cardinal but he did have the satisfaction of seeing his spiscopal see raised from being suffragen diocese to Sens, to the status of archbishopric. So he was the first Archbishop of Paris and he held this office for more than thirty years. We will refer to this man many times as our story unfolds.

Two of Albert de Gondi’s daughters were religious in the Abbey of Poissy. In this family noted for its intrigues and wranglings, another daughter was outstanding for her holiness. This was Charlotte de Gondi, better known as the Marquise de Maignalais through her marriage to Florimund d’Halwin. Left a widow at the age of twenty, she dedicated her life and her fortune to every kind of religious and charitable work.

The other two male children, who were the third generation of the French de Gondi family, were called Charles and Philippe Emmanuel. They both followed a military career. Charles succeeded his father as Duke of Retz and inherited other titles. He married Antoinette d’Orleans of the Frenchroyal house and lived a fairly peaceful existance. Philippe Emmanuel inherited the titles of General of the Galleys, Marquis of the Golden Isles, Count de Joigny and Baron de Montmirail, Dampierre and Villepreux. He was a gallant and distinguished gentleman, pleasant‑mannered and resourceful. He was brave to the point of recklessness but basically he was an upright and sincerely pious man. In 1600 he married a lady from Folléville, Marguerite de Silly who emulated her sister‑in‑law, Charlotte, in her piety and penances.

As well as owning the family castle of Montmirail and other country residences, the de Gondis had a house in Paris, first of all in the rue de Petits Champs, and later on in the rue Pavée. It was this house that Vincent de Paul came to in 1613 when he was at the height of his fortune. The de Gondi couple had asked Father Bérulle for a priest because they needed a tutor for their children. Bérulle couldn’t release any of his companions from the small, infant community of Oratorians but he thought of Vincent. He knew that Vincent had been tutor to the de Gondi family when he was a young man and that he had earlier directed a boarding school in Toulouse. These facts weighed in Vincent’s favour. It shouldn’t be difficult for the said parish priest of Clichy to resume his former occupation. Vincent obeyed.

The General of the Galleys had two sons, Pierre who was twelve and Henri who was then three. The elder boy, who inherited the family titles, succeeded his father as General of the Galleys. He liked meddling in politics and was always on the side of the opposition, first against Richelieu whose murder he managed to contrive, and then against Mazarín. The second son was destined for the Church but at the age of twelve he died after being thrown from his horse. A third offspring, destined to be the most illustrious son of the family, was born that same year, 1613, and was baptised on 20th September, just a few days before or after Vincent entered that household. He was given the names Jean, François, Paul, but history was to know him as Cardinal de Retz, the terrible Cardinal de Retz of the turbulent years of the Fronde, the scandalous memory of which is the most cynical testimony to the greatness and to the misery of a whole epoch.1

A flood of benefices

Vincent silently prepared to discharge his duties. Silently, because he still had to live with the spiritual trial that was tormenting him. Besides this, in 1615 a serious illness affected his legs and this made him withdraw from company even more. It was an illness that would trouble him all through his life.2 This may be the reason that he lived in this house which was frequented by all manner of people, “like a Carthusian, and his room was like a monastic cell.”3 Grace continued its mysterious work of purification. The de Gondis were quick to recognise the worth of their discreet guest and they made great efforts on his behalf, heaping benefices upon him.

In 1614 they procured for him the parish of Gamaches in the diocese of Rouen. The right to nominate priests for this benefice was vested in the Count de Joigny.4 In 1615 Vincent was made canon in charge of relics and treasures in the Collegiate church of Ecouis which was also under the patronage of Emanuelle de Gondi. It was probably for reasons of ill health that Vincent only took up this last duty of Proctor on 27th May. Four months later, on 18th of September, he made his appearance at the Collegiate church to swear his oath of allegiance and to receive the “osculum pacis” from his companions. The next day, in accordance with the customs of the Collegiate Chapter, he invited them to dine “pro suo iucundo adventu.”5

The benefices he had worked so hard to obtain over the past years were now being showered on him. By early 1616 the tutor to the de Gondi family was simultaneously parish priest of Clichy, abbot of Saint Laurent de Chaumes, parish priest of Gamaches and Treasurer‑Canon of Ecouis. He had now achieved the career goals he had dreamed of all those years ago in Dax and Toulouse. If Vincent de Paul had been satisfied with these aims then that would have been an end to him as far as history was concerned. Fortunately, the decisive turning point he had reached some months earlier, was about to be ratified. Vincent may not have known St. Teresa’s witty dictum but he was soon to give the lie to her words “They begin by wanting to be saints and they end up as Canons.”

As regards the parish of Gamaches, we don’t even know if he ever took posession of it. The only relevant document to be preserved is concerned with his appointment to the benefice. We know that he got rid of the Abbey of Saint Laurent during the year 1616.6 Still preserved are the canonical documents relating to Ecouis and these state he had to answer the charge of not residing in the parish, something “which threatens to completely wreck the foundation.”7 A letter from the General of the Galleys and another from the Duke de Retz, the General’s brother and co‑patron of the church, persuaded the Canons to extend to a fortnight the time granted to M. “de Paoul” (this is the first time we see this spelling of his surname) to justify his absence.8 Lack of documentation prevents us from learning the outcome of the conflict. The fact that there is no further mention of the canonship of Ecouis leads us to suppose that Vincent eventually disposed of the honour.

Vincent’s silent and self‑imposed withdrawal did not prevent him from scrupulously carrying out his duties as chaplain and tutor. Obviously he would not be required to do anything for the new baby, Jean‑Paul. He initiated the two elder boys into the mysteries of Latin and tried to inculcate in them high standards of Christian living. But this didn’t satisfy him. Like all their Italian and French ancestors, these passionate and high‑born boys were less biddable than the humble provincial lads of Toulouse. Vincent came to experience a painful sense of failure. Basically, he felt that he was being idle, like the famous judge in the household of Marguerite de Valois.

Vincent began to do things on his own initiative. His duties as chaplain obliged him to accompany the family as they moved around Joigny, Montmirail, Villepreux and other places that were part of their considerable estates. More and more Vincent devoted himself to looking after the spiritual needs of his master’s servants and dependents. Within the household he would instruct the servants, visit them when they were ill, console them in their troubles and on the eve of solemn feasts would prepare them to receive the sacraments. When they went to country places he would instruct the peasants, preach to them, and exhort them to go to confession.9

We still have one of his letters, dated 1616, in which he asks the Vicar General of Sens for permission to give absolution for “reserved sins” because, “sometimes you meet good people who would like to make a general confession and it makes you sad to see them go away” because of their reserved sins.10 Little by little he was sounding the depths of the spiritual abandonment suffered by these poor country people. His loving heart was touched by so much misery. No other reason could explain the pity he felt for those who could not receive absolution. Unknown to himself, he was being prepared for the revelation of his mission. It is a pity that Abelly’s vague estimate of “three or four years” as the time that Vincent’s temptations against faith lasted, doesn’t allow us to pinpoint the exact moment when Vincent took the resolution to devote his life to the service of the poor and found himself delivered from the nightmare. This evidently coincides with the time he spent wandering about the de Gondi estates. It is not by chance that the first of his sermons to be preserved was that of 1616, and its theme was the importance of knowing the catechism well.11

From Chaplain to Director of Conscience

Almost without realising it, Vincent began to have an influence on his patrons, too. When he entered their service he had made up his mind to view this situation in a spirit of faith. He explains this on several occasions.

“When it pleased God to call me to the house of the General of the Galleys I looked on the General as somebody in the place of God, and his wife as being in the place of Our Lady. I don’t remember ever receiving an order from the General of the Galleys without thinking that it came from God, or that it came from the Blessed Virgin if his wife requested it. By the grace of God, I don’t know that I ever acted in any other way. I make bold to say that if God has been pleased to grant his blessing to the Company of the Mission, I think this must be on account of the obedience I always showed to the General and his lady, and for the spirit of submission with which I entered his household. To God be the glory for all this, and to me confusion!”12

For once M. Vincent was not talking about his sins, but about his virtues, and this allows us to recognise the profound changes at work in his soul. It was not long before the situation was reversed. Monsieur and Mde. de Gondi began to look on their chaplain as a man sent by Providence, someone truly sent by God for the salvation of their family. It was the wife who first realised this. Marguerite de Silly was a troubled, complex soul. She was beautiful and she was delicate. Her fragile beauty was like that of the lady of Ghirlandaio and she was so pious that she told Father Bérulle she would rather her sons be saints in heaven than great lords on earth.13

God, to her, was more of a judge than a father. She tormented herself, and her confessors too, with her unfounded scruples. Before Vincent had been two years in the house, she thought of taking him as her spiritual director. When the chaplain resisted this suggestion she had recourse to Bérulle and once more Vincent abeyed. He began to direct this soul with an energy that combined gentleness and respect. She wanted to keep him at her side always and was fearful that some accident or illness might carry him off. Vincent made her go to other confessors, especially a certain Recollect Father, who was a master in spiritual direction. He was gently trying to detach her from himself and teach her to be dependent only on God.14 Using the remedy he had tried out on himself, he firmly pointed her in the direction of charitable works. He encouraged her natural generosity and almsgiving, trained her to visit the poor in person and to serve them with her own hands, and got her to ensure that her stewards administered justice fairly and without delay.15 Even so, there would come a time when Vincent would feel obliged to go away so that he could be free of her, and also to help her overcome the excessive attachment she had for her director. But before this happened they would have made together the most important discovery of Vincent’s life.

M. de Gondi was equally appreciative of his children’s tutor but he was more reserved. Vincent won him over one day when, with an unusual display of independence, he dared to intervene in his affairs. M. de Gondi was about to fight a duel, something that was customary at that time. One of his relations had been killed and de Gondi felt himself responsible for avenging the family honour, so he challenged the killer who was a nobleman at Court. Before he left for the duel he wanted to fulfil his duty as a Christian gentleman and hear Mass. A strange piety that would try to make God act in accordance with human passions! Vincent was on hand to set things right. When Mass was over and the servants and the family had left, Vincent bent low before the master of the house who remained kneeling in the chapel for a few minutes.

“My lord”, he said, “allow me in all humility to tell you from God whom I have just held up before you and whom you have just adored, that if you don’t turn away from this evil design he will pass judgment on you and on all your posterity.” Having said this, the chaplain withdrew.16

This courageous admonition had its effect. M. de Gondi gave up the duel. To calm his anger he set off for a tour of his estates. The aggressor was sentenced to exile.17 Vincent had gained his new lord’s confidence.

In the eight years that had gone by since he first arrived in Paris, Vincent was a transformed character. He was now a man of distinction, in full possession of the rich resources of nature and of grace given him by God. He was eloquent and persuasive in speech, and was able to speak convincingly to men’s minds and to move their hearts. These were “par excellence” the gifts of an apostle. With these qualities he had stifled the evil seed of vengeful hatred and murder in the heart of the General. He used these gifts to enlighten and console the poor country people who were prey to the same ills as their masters. With these gifts he channelled Madame de Gondi’s morbid sensibilities towards charitable goals. He was now rid of the burden of his unworthy ambition for honours and comfortable benefices. He had widened his horizons to embrace the infinite. He was now ripe for the discovery of his vocation. God would soon reveal this to him.

Folléville: “It was here that the first sermon of the Mission was preached”

The revelation came through one of those unforeseen events by which Vincent was to develop spiritually and discover the will of God. Providence worked in the guise of fate.

One day in January, 1617, we find Vincent accompanying Mde. de Gondi to her castle in Folléville, in Picardy. From nearby Gannes, two leagues away, came the news that a dying peasant wished to see M. Vincent. Immediately, he hurried to the sick man’s bedside. In that humble dwelling he sat down by the sick man’s bed to hear his confession. He urged the man to make a general confession of all the sins of his life. The peasant began to recite the sad rosary of his sins. It was worse than Vincent expected.

The man had a reputation for being honourable and virtuous but buried in his conscience were burdens that he had never revealed. Year after year, and confession after confession, he had kept silent, ‑through ignorance, shame or hypocrisy‑ about the most serious sins he had committed. Vincent had the feeling that in a final moment of grace he was dragging a soul from the clutches of the devil. The peasant felt the same. Remorse for a whole lifetime of sin lifted the guilt from his soul. He felt liberated. If it hadn’t been for that general confession he would have been damned for eternity. He was filled with unrestrainable joy. He had his family brought to his home, together with the neighbours and Mde. de Gondi herself. He told them his story. In the three days left before he died, he publicly confessed the sins which previously he had not dared to reveal even in secret. He gave thanks to God who had saved him through that general confession.

M. de. de Gondi trembled in terror.

“Monsieur Vincent, what is this we have just heard? The same thing must be happening with most of these people. If this man who was supposed to be good was near to damnation, what will happen to the rest of them who lead such bad lives? Oh, Monsieur Vincent, how many souls are going to be lost! What can we do about it?”18

By common consent Vincent and the lady found a solution. The following week Vincent would preach in the church at Folléville on the subject of how to make a good general confession. He chose to do this on Wednesday, 25th January, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. Vincent went up into the pulpit. In front of him were humble country folk from every corner of France. He saw men similar to those he had known in his distant country home of Pouy ‑men whose crushing labours had made then brutish. He saw a similar type of women who were both ignorant and pious. Similar young men and similar children whose faces were still innocent but whose eyes already reflected the secret bite of the serpent. Vincent had nothing but his words; his words and a burning compassion for these abandoned brothers of him.

This sermon was powerful and easily understood. He instructed them, he moved their hearts and encouraged them. “God was pleased to bless my words”, he says simply, and attributes their success to Madame’s faith and trust, saying that his own sins would have rendered the sermon fruitless.

The people, that poor good people came to confession in droves. Vincent and his assistant priest couldn’t cope. They would have to ask the Jesuits of Amiens to help. Mde. de Gondi undertook to arrange this. The rector himself came and was later replaced by one of his companions Father Fourché. Even so, they were swamped by the number of penitents. They repeated the sermon and exhortations in the neighbouring villages and always had the same resounding success.19

It was a revelation. Vincent decided this must be his mission; this was what God was calling him to, he was to take the gospel to these poor country people. He didn’t found any congregation that day. Perhaps the idea of forming one never entered his head. He just preached a sermon, “the first sermon of the Mission.”20 Eight years were to pass before he set up the Cngregation of the Mission and yet througout his life he would have his missionaries celebrate January 25th as the birthday of the Company.

Vincent used to tell story of that mission over and over again, with some variations in the telling. In the second version dated 25th January, 1655, and still preserved, Vincent discloses another fact that he hadn’t dared to mention earlier because some of the people concerned were still alive. We will leave him to tell the story.

“One day, while she was still a young girl, the wife of the General of the Galleys went to confession to her parish priest. She realised that he was not giving her absolution but was murmuring something between his teeth and that he did this on other accasions when she went to confession. This worried her somewhat, so one day she asked a religious who was visiting her if he would write down for her the formula for absolution. He did this and that good lady, when she went to confession the next time, asked the aforementioned parish priest to pronounce over her the words that were written on the paper. He read them aloud. She continued to do this every time she went to confession to him, handing him that piece of paper because he was so ignorant he didn’t know the words he should have been saying. When she told me this I took note of it and I paid more attention to the priests who heard my confession. I discovered that all this was true and that some of them did not know the words of absolution.”21

We now see Vincent in possession of two basic elements of his profound religious experience ‑ the spiritual misery of a Christian people without the gospel, and the frightening lack of training for the clergy who were ignorant of even the most elementary rules for the exercise of their ministry. These were two evils vigorously denounced by the Council of Trent which suggested catechetical work should be undertaken and centres set up for the training of priests. As we have seen, France had only come to accept the Tridentine decrees in 1615. From the year 1609, or the following year, Vincent had had close ties with those groups of people most committed to reforming the Church along Conciliar lines. He had generously worked at his own personal renewal. Providence was pointing out to him the great collective task that was coming along. He was happy to take it on. The events that followed would complete the revelation just made to him, and clarify the third, and perhaps the most important aspect of that revelation, his own vocation.

  1. Cf. J. CORBINELLI, “Histoire généalogique de la maison des Gondi” (Paris, J.‑B. Coignard, 1705) 2 vols; RÉGIS DE CHANTELAUZE, “Saint Vincent de Paul et les Gondi” (Paris 1882) p.83‑89.
  2. RISTRETTO, p.20‑21; COLLET, op. cit., Vol.1 p.46.
  3. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.7 p.28.
  4. M. et Ch. 8 (1961) p.495.
  5. S.V.P. XIII p.19‑22.
  6. S.V.P. XIII p.37‑39.
  7. S.V.P. XIII p.22‑24.
  8. S.V.P. XIII p.25.
  9. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.7 p.28.
  10. S.V.P. I 20: ES p.90.
  11. S.V.P. XIII p.25‑30.
  12. S.V.P. IX p.9; X p.387: ES IX p.27 and 958.
  13. R. CHANTELAUZE, op. cit., p.85.
  14. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.9 p.36‑37.
  15. ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.8 p.31.
  16. S.V.P. XI p.28: ES p.720‑721.
  17. COSTE, M. V. Vol.1 p.84.
  18. S.V.P. XI p.4: ES p.699.
  19. S.V.P. XI p.2‑5: ES p.698‑700; ABELLY, op. cit., 1.1 c.8 p.31‑35; COLLET, op. cit., Vol.1 p.46‑48.
  20. S.V.P. XI p.5: ES p.700.
  21. S.V.P. XI p.170: ES p.95.

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