Hilaire Belloc says somewhere that one of the great faults in history writing is simplifying a complex problem. Gibbon tells us that sitting near the ruins of the Capitol he heard the monks chanting Vespers and decided Catholicism was the cause of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; he certainly was simplifying a complex problem. In the same way, to sum up St Vincent de Paul as a simple, kind, old man, of no great intellectual acumen, is misleading. Certainly he was a kind old man, as his pictures portray him, searching the Paris streets at night for abandoned children. And most certainly he was a father to the poor, but he was also a father to both the rich and poor of the whole of France, and by his double family a benefactor of the whole church, clergy and laity, for over three hundred years. “Father of the Poor” doesn’t begin to coverall this.
Saint-Cyran in a moment of exasperation called him a great ignoramus, and said he wondered how the Vincentians bore with him; Vincent said he wondered at it too. The great Condé did NOT wonder, or agree at all. He said in front of Queen and Cardinal: “Fr Vincent, you are for ever harping on your ignorance, but I notice that in a few words you settle the most complicated canonical difficulties. You seem to have been most judiciously chosen by Her Majesty”. Cardinal Richelieu would have been surprised if the Vincentians couldn’t bear with Fr Vincent. He consulted him when he wished to fill an episcopal see. Cardinal Mazarin had experience of the saint’s ability when for ten years he had to outwit him to make political church appointments. It was Vincent who succeeded in giving Saint Sulpice to Fr Olier against Mazarin’s wish.
The Jansenists were clearly showing spite when they treated Vincent as an ignoramus. Wasn’t he the man who persuaded the majority of the bishops to sign a letter to the Pope against Jansenius? It was a pitched battle. Eighty-five of them signed, eleven refused, a few abstained. Didn’t he write several memoranda against their doctrine, to influence two bishops and his wavering confrère Fr Dehorgny? Didn’t he send to Rome papers which influenced the Holy Father in condemning Arnauld? Didn’t he oppose them inside the four high-class Visitation convents he ruled in Paris? Didn’t they call him one of the most dangerous enemies of the disciples of St Augustine? Didn’t one of them have a vision of a coming persecution in which Fr Vincent would be one of their cruellest persecutors? Didn’t people say that as St Ignatius was raised up against the Protestants so was Fr Vincent raised up against the Jansenists?
How could the Jansenists be expected to forbear calling him an ignoramus when he dared oppose such lights as Saint-Cyran, of whom his friends said: “What a pity he died; the Scriptures were clearer in his brain than even in the sacred text”, and Arnauld, the great Arnauld, who despised the priests of St Lazare where, he said, everyone pretends to be a director of souls without knowing the first rule on the subject, and against whom Fr Vincent dared even to be sarcastic, as Pascal had been against the Jesuits. The shoe was decidedly on the other foot when people were told, not by the witty Pascal but by the ignoramus Vincent: “Is there anyone who would dare receive Communion? Certainly not. Except Fr Arnauld who, after putting conditions so high that not even St Paul would dare approach, then calmly tells us that he, Fr Arnauld, says Mass every day. In this his humility is admirable when you consider the good opinion he has of many directors and people who dare go, and against whom he is never finished inveighing”.
The very astute and terrible cardinal met his match in Fr Vincent whom he tried to browbeat in a judicial process, the object of which was to try to procure the death sentence against Saint-Cyran. The cardinal had letters between the two and only needed Fr Vincent’s admission of the subject matter. This is what he got: “As to whether or not the Abbe had said he meant to ruin the Church, Fr Vincent dis-remembered anything like that, but what he did know was that the Abbe had invited the Vincentians to give a mission when he knew we gave absolution immediately, whether it was true or not that the Abbe refused absolution till penance had been actually done”. Another statement was: “He is one of the best men I ever met”. Maybe Richelieu should have asked Cardinal de Bérulle’s opinion on Vincent. The great Oratorian had a personal knowledge of, and a singular respect for, Vincent’s depth and resourcefulness.
St Francis de Sales and St Chantal, who preferred Fr Vincent to the famous Oratorians as director of the four Paris Visitations, and the Archbishop of Paris who obliged him to withdraw his resignation in 1646 and remain at their head for thirty-eight years, undoubtedly hadn’t been told what an ignoramus he was in the eyes of Port Royal.
The Company of the Blessed Sacrament, all powerful secret society, approved of by the Pope. King, Nuncio and Richelieu, though not by the Archbishop and Mazarin, broke their rule against having any Community man in their ranks to profit by the accession of Vincent de Paul, who thus took his place with de Bérulle, Bossuet, Olier and the most distinguished figures of French society of the day. The intellectual Fr Condren, who didn’t think much of the priests of St Lazare, grudgingly admitted: “Fr Vincent has the character of prudence; the whole country consults him”. The Queen of France for five years obeyed him as her director.
For ten years Vincent de Paul was a member of the Council of Conscience. He ruled the Church of France for the spiritual, and Mazarin for the temporal. He surprised the great Condé by his grip of affairs, he withstood Mazarin to his face. A furious duchess breaking a chair over his head didn’t even budge him. The Tuesday Conferences —the elite of the French Church— were held under his direction, and if there was a clash of wills or ideas he won, as when he wanted a mission in Saint Germain and they didn’t. He insisted, and they grew angry, so he knelt down and said: “I am a foolish old man; 1 thought God would be honoured: forgive me”. This was too clever for them; they gave the mission. Which reminds one of the other “foolish one for Christ” who said: “We are stupid, you are wise”, and “I know nothing but Christ crucified”. The King of France said: “Ah, Fr Vincent, if I recover, all the bishops of France will have to pass three years with you”. And at his deathbed a place had to be found for Vincent beside two bishops and Fr Binet, SJ.
I don’t know what species exactly of ignoramus he was who founded the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. Take the former: although he says: “It is pitiable the aversion all have for the religious state, from the Pope down; they will not allow vows”, through a maze of projects for vows, solemn or simple, oaths, fulminations of excommunication in chapter etc., he brought his project to reality after thirty years of fighting. And .the same for the latter, though they were to have no religious habit, only modesty for a veil, the street for a cloister, the Parish Priest as chaplain, and a Sister Servant instead of a Superior. And he also had his system of retreats for ordinands imposed on all France and accepted in Rome by the Holy Father, over-riding all opposition. Of course, though he didn’t go around shouting it, he was a Bachelor of Theology and had a Licentiate in Canon Law; he himself said he was a fourth grade scholar, and the Jansenists said he was a great ignoramus; that was spite. The facts mentioned here speak for themselves. It’s up to the candid reader.
As he walked down the Louvre in an old patched soutane the courtiers may have smiled at the simple old man, never dreaming what may have been going on in the Council Chamber. And as he trudged along the dusty Saint Denis road and was seen by Condé and a group of horsemen who said: “Let’s have a joke on Fr Vincent”; galloping along firing their pistols and shouting, they meant to force him into seeking the first church in sight to thank God for his safety; to them he may have appeared a simple old man.
And Cardinal de Retz may have thought he had the laugh on Fr Vincent when, as he said, he “acted the devotee and went to the Tuesday Conferences”. But did he? He quotes Vincent as having said: “He (de Retz) hasn’t enough piety, but he isn’t too far from the Kingdom of God”. Now it is to be remembered that the saint knew de Retz from a baby and refused to have any part in his education and when we hear him say de Retz hadn’t enough piety, doesn’t that dispose of the idea he was duped by de Retz appearing at the Conferences? And when he said de Retz was not too far from the Kingdom of God, instead of a fool he was simply being a prophet; the cardinal ended up as an abbot, and pious. If either of them had the laugh on the other, who laughs best? Very different in his complexity is the Vincent who wrote his 30,000 letters. They would have very much surprised the courtier, the galloping horsemen and the masquerading devotee, de Ritz.
They would have seen Fr Codoing out-generalled in his brilliant, hasty, obstinate projects; Fr Dehorgny and Fr Du Coudray receiving dogmatic instruction on Scripture and St Augustine where they thought they excelled; Fr Lambert, the saint’s right hand, being taught humility for neglecting to stay in bed when told to; the scrupulous being tenderly coaxed through countless interviews, four in the hour if necessary. The obtuse confrère being handled as he needed: “My God, sir, is it the missions you must have? Why! we find it hard to understand you here in the house”1. And delicate situations handled in masterly fashion: “The letter I wrote to you is conceived so as not to make Madame X angry, nor allow her to ask you the questions you fear. Show it to her; it is composed purposely for this; watch her reactions, which you will tell me. If she does ask you something you can’t answer, say you must write to me. Act simply with her. Your fear is from a good source. I thank God for the wisdom he has given you” (V 230).
Or this: “I am sending a sister to replace Sister Marguerite who is so high and mighty and obstinate. If will be difficult to announce the new one as superior; it is to he feared the other would not submit. But after a month or two, seeing the humility, gentleness and true submission of the other, she (Sister Marguerite) will be betrayed into some extravagance against her will which will necessitate her being recalled” (V 359).
And when Fr le Vazeux in Rome took action against Fr Authier who wanted to assume the name “Priests of the Mission”. Vincent wrote to him that he should leave these things to Providence: and then the saint took the matter up himself in Paris with the Duke de Ventadour who was behind the whole thing: Fr le Vazeux was the simple one in this case; it was deeper than he knew. It involved the man who had founded the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, as Vincent de Paul, that “simple old man”, knew very well; he was a member.
Who ever heard that Gascons are supposed to be simple? In France they stand for finesse (Dictionary: shrewdness, ingenuity). We have seen Vincent fencing with three cardinals who were of the cleverest. There was a fourth, de la Rochefoucauld, who could have done great injury in the matter of St Lazare. Vincent argued with him, and when that failed he knelt down at his feet and won his case. Goldsmith said of Dr Johnson that if his musket mis-fired he clubbed you with the butt. Vincent de Paul knelt down simply; and while the Doctor only won his argument by being rude and shouting, the Saint gained his point, edified his adversary and remained on good terms with him. Surely there is genius in such simplicity.
Fr Coste tells us that when Vincent was canonised his old enemies the Jansenists were annoyed. Some professed to be scandalised at a man being canonised for “giving a house to madmen and incorrigibles, and his missions for the ‘soup-pot’ Sisters”. Such callous understatement of the Saint’s work didn’t even get by with the Jansenists, and we have another Jansenist replying for him: “20,000 missions is some thing; 5,000 poor cared for every day is no bagatelle, and if all you can think of to say is ‘soup-pot’ Sisters you might as well try to sum him up as ‘The Bonhomme Vincent who raised brats and gave clean hay to galley-slaves’ ”. This seems to have made the offenders look very ridiculous, and when the “simple” Fr Vincent achieved that through the help of a Jansenist of common sense, nothing remains to be said.