St Vincent De Paul — A Guide for Priests Today

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Jerome Twomey · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 9.

A talk given to the students of All Hallows College, 27 September 1976. What is given here is a transcript of JT’s manuscript; in deliv­ering the talk he probably did not adhere rigidly to his text. I have added a few notes.

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Some 45 years ago now, (English translation in 1932), a French diocesan priest the Abbe A’rnaud d’Agnel wrote a book entitled St Vincent de Paul a Guide for Priests, from which I have borrowed most of my title, adding only the word “today”1. I take most of what I have to say tonight, however, from the spoken and written words of Vincent himself, more than three thousand still extant letters of his and many hundreds of conferences, sermons, addresses and other documents of various kinds given by him to all sorts of gatherings and people, carefully preserved by the recipients and still available to us today in printed form.

One of the things that I think you can not complain of in this college is that there has never been the slightest attempt on the part either the Vincentian or the diocesan priest-members of its faculty or administration to force Vincentianism down your throats. In fact, in my ten years on its staff I cannot ever remember having heard even one sermon or homily or conference being given, or heard of one being given, to the student body in the house by any member of the staff on this topic. And this is rather a pity, because any history of priestly training and formation in the Catholic Church will single out the seventeenth century in France as one of its greatest and most influential periods, and Vincent de Paul, with M Olier the founder of the Sulpicians, the body to which Adolphe Tanquerey before the Council and Ray Brown today belong, as one of the greatest and most influential names in that history. And of that, you know as much about Vincent de Paul as you do about the Nabob of Rawalpindi, so making a short sketch of his life and times necessary before going on to the main point of my paper, his uncanny anticipation of the documents of Vatican II, and so his relevance for us today.

Vincent de Paul was born to a small-farmer family in a rather desolate region of the Landes in the south of France, in a village named Pouy. His father spotted that the young boy was above average in intelligence and decided that he should become a priest — no great compliment to either of them, in the way in which we think of of the priesthood today, but not so uncomplimentary to the priesthood in the Church generally at that time, and perhaps it was worst of all in France in the second half of the sixteenth century, into which Vincent was born in 1581. Vincent himself, when he was far from his beginnings and well on the way to sanctity, had some very scathing things to say of the clergy of the timeout perhaps there was some excuse for them in the system. The decree of the Council of Trent ordering the setting up of seminaries for the formation — by which it really meant re-formation — of the clergy, passed on 15 July 1563, was still a dead-letter in France. Apart from any other consideration, one of the difficulties was finding people fit to run them. A French writer, Jacques Duquesne, in a book Les Pretres, “The Clergy”, published in 1965, sums up the scene well, even if not nearly as strongly as it was described in the seventeenth century itself by Vincent de Paul, Jean-Jacques Olier, Bourdoise, Francis de Sales and many others: “Up to the time of Trent” he writes “the formation of future priests was somewhat chaotic and haphazard . . . The intellectual elite of the clergy came from the universities, of which there were 25 in France, the main one being the Sorbonne… The morals of the young man destined for the priesthood, who attended these universities, left much to be desired. Those who came from the presbyteral schools, conducted by a local priest to provide successors for himself and his neighbours, didn’t know much at the end of their time there. Their ignorance was at times so crass that some of them did not even know the formula of absolution and instead recited over their penitents an Ave Maria . . . The Bishop of Comminges, for instance, quite a pious man himself, demanded of candidates presenting themselves to him for ordination that they should turn up at his residence the night before ordination and listen to a sermon, and that they should avoid gambling and all forms of debauchery for that one night in their lodgings”. It was no wonder that Vincent’s friend Bourdoise even many years later wrote that “If tailors and shoemakers were no better at their jobs than the vast majority of clergy at theirs we should be exceedingly badly shod and clothed”. No wonder that Vincent himself, long after those early days when he was no great shakes himself, exclaimed that “priests who live as the vast majority do today are the greatest enemies of the church of God”. A few half-hearted attempts to start seminaries were, indeed, made, but were short-lived. The seminary at Rouen produced six priests in twenty years, that of Limoges in the same time not even one. Francis de Sales wrote: “After having striven seventeen years to train merely three priests to assist me in the ref­ormation of the clergy of my diocese, I was able to/produce only one and a half”. And no wonder! Whether they learned much theology at the university or not is a moot point, as you may infer from Vincent’s own BD later on, but there is nothing moot about the fact that most of the rest of what they learned there was anything but suitable prepa­ration for the priesthood, and there was no question whatever of their learning anything other than speculative theology, la scholastique, not even most elementary ideas of pastoral practice or liturgical per­formance. Vincent himself mentions once being present in a church where several priests were saying mass simultaneously, no two of them in the same way, and one of them commencing with the Pater Noster; and the picture is amply confirmed from contemporary sources. Arnaud d’Agnel sums it all up succinctly in connection with Vincent’s father’s decision to make his son a priest: “They became priests because it was the easiest of all professions, one that offered a peasant who had picked up a little Latin a better living than he could obtain on his father’s farm, and to those with a university diploma, or powerful friends to push their fortunes, fat somnolent benefices”.

So, Vincent after a scratch secondary education, if you could call it that, in a Franciscan school in a nearby town, Dax, armed with the money his father got from selling two oxen, betook himself after two years schooling, aged about fourteen, to the university of Toulouse where he graduated BD about four years later2. He supported himself while at the university by giving private tuition on the side. When he was about eighteen and a half years of age he was given permission by the bishop of Dax on 13 September 1599, to be ordained priest. With commendable piety, however, he decided he was too young for ordination, so he put it off for a year, and was ordained priest in 1600, aged 19-plus. The Council of Trent had put the minimum age at 24, but the Council of Trent didn’t cut much ice in France in those days and, in fact, if I remember aright, its decrees were not promulgated until 1613 anyway. Partly, possibly, from a desire for further learning, partly because of a shrewd calculation that a bit more education would not hurt in getting “a fat somnolent benefice” he spent four more years in the university, supporting himself by conducting a small private school at Buzetabout fifteen miles from Toulouse, later transferred to Toulouse itself. These were the inaus­picious beginnings of the man who, with one or two others, notably Olier of St Sulpice, was to initiate a generation of priests who for three hundred years served the church, whatever else their faults, as it had never before been so universally well served by its priests, and inaugurated with this a period of missionary expansion of the church unparalleled in her history.

How did he do this? I would try to summarise in one phrase: By anticipating in the seventeenth century, even if the heavy hand of institutionalism in time choked the original spontaneity somewhat, the mind of Presbyterorum ordinis and Optatam totius of Vatican II, the decrees on priestly life and ministry and on the training of priests, respectively. A big claim? Yes, indeed, but I think I can substantiate it item by item, and there are many other modern ideas, especially in the line of pastoral practice and training which, even if the heavy hand of a more rigid formalism came to overlay them for a while, were nevertheless started by Vincent three hundred years ago and more — he died in 1660. Perhaps I might just list them briefly first, not in any particular order:

  1. The need for theoretical training and practical experience in priestly courses apart from purely speculative theology.
  2. The separation of what later came to be known as Minor from Major Seminaries, and the express stipulation that the Minor Seminaries, or Colleges as he called his, were not, contrary to later custom, to be confined to boys intending to be priests but were also to educate what would become good Christian laymen.
  3. The idea of what we call “In-service Training” in his famous Tuesday Conferences.
  4. The idea of “Team Ministry” as we call it today, which was why he founded his community of secular priests living in common and working in groups. He used the Tuesday Conference members in the same way.
  5. The notion of “Secular Institutes” which is what he
    Daughters of Charity were and are, despite the overlay of subsequent centuries; women who are not religious but bind themselves together by yearly vows to work for God in the neighbour, “leaving God for God” as he phrased it when someone suggested they should be continually at their prayers3.
  6. The notion of “Adaptability”. While each of his two com­munities had paramount aims, missions to the abandoned country people and work for the clergy for his priests, service of the materially poor for his sisters, he would have neither absolutely tied to any one line of work but always open to the needs of the times as indicated by “the signs of the times” and the call of the church.
  7. The need for organised backing if charitable work was to be
    really effective, and the involvement of the laity, especially women, in this. Hence his detailed rules for the Ladies of Charity, who were the fore-runners in many ways of our “Meals on Wheels” notion, and for the Confraternities of Charity which after the French Revolution became the model of the St Vincent de Paul Conferences established by Ozanam. Also his support for the Company of the Blessed Sacrament for men in the same work.
  8. The large-scale involvement of women in active apos­tolic work. As Boudignon remarks of him: “He created in Catholic society a new kind of apostolate well adapted to modern needs, the apostolate of women”.
  9. The awareness of the close connection between social evils
    on the material and spiritual planes, the idea that there was little use in trying to convert a starving stomach or to expect anything but large-scale crime where there was great dis­parity in the distribution of wealth.
  10. His realisation that the mission of the Christian was to the whole man and to the whole world, whence his diverse interests: abandoned children; unmarried mothers; the poor in general and specifically the criminal poor as we would tend to call them today; displaced persons, refugees from the wars of the Fronde in France or the religious persecu­tion in the British Isles; the need of men everywhere to hear the word of Christ preached to them, or continued to be preached to them, whence his foreign missions in Madagascar and North Africa as well as behind “the Iron Curtain” drawn around the British Isles by the Penal Laws and especially their Cromwellian implementation.
  11. His realisation that social justice demanded socially con­scious people in charge of government, hence his list of friends and acquaintances ranging from the Queen Mother and the King down, and reading like a Who’s Who of every­body who was anybody in the France of his day.
  12. His instituting the practice of enclosed retreats for laymen and laywomen, as well as clerics, in the houses of his two communities.
  13. His instruction to his sisters that while working for the immediate relief of the abandoned poor in country areas they should also set up schools and there teach the children skills that would enable them to help themselves better thereafter, the three R’s and Home Economics as we call it today.

One could go on endlessly about this really remarkable man, but to conclude this talk perhaps you will allow me to expand a little on those aspects of priestly life and formation in which he most obvi­ously anticipated much that we tend to think — even perhaps want to think — only came into Christian and priestly consciousness in our own day.

1. The need for theoretical training and practical experience in priestly formation courses.

Opatam totius, the Decree on Training of Priests, opens with the principle that priestly training must always answer the pastoral requirements of the particular area in which the ministry is to be exercised”, and we are inclined to take it for granted that because this is so obviously true it was in fact always done, or at least attempted. But the brute fact is that for a long time in the Western Church it was neither done nor attempted. What we have seen to have happened in Vincent’s own case was true throughout Europe in his day and for centuries before his day so that, as the great French Academician Daniel-Rops put it “There was a saying current in Provence: ‘If you want to go to Hell make yourself a priest’”, and while there may have been a certain exaggeration in this the vox populi was, as it usually is, not too wide of the mark. Vincent himself is on record: “Priests living in the way most of them do today are the greatest enemies of the church of God; the depravity of the ecclesiastical state is the principal cause of the ruin of the Church”. Many men, of course, had seen this. Trent had seen it, but when Vincent was ordained at the age of 19, forty years after Trent, Trent was still a dead letter. Many had attempted to do something about it but with no success except for two, Vincent de Paul and Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians. Vincent saw clearly that a few years in one’s youth studying speculative theology in a university was no preparation for the priesthood. A knowledge of theology was, of course, necessary but it was far from enough. It might produce good scholars, which he conceded freely, but it had no chance whatever of producing a good pastoral clergy, dedicated, zealous, competent in pastoral practice. For this one needed also both the theory and practice of moral theology, pastoral theology and practice, some idea of how and what to preach in the pulpit, a practical knowledge of the liturgy of the church, as a bare minimum. He began, as he had to begin, in a very small way. In July 1628 the bishop of Beauvais invited him to prepare a “crash course” in these subjects for men who, after their university studies, presented themselves for ordination. They would come to the bishop’s residence in groups, spend about three weeks there on this course, and then be ordained. It was a small begin­ning but one had to begin somewhere and with what one had got. It produced such extraordinary results, so bad were things at the time, that it soon spread to other dioceses. Paris made it compulsory in Vincent’s own College des Bans Enfants for all ordinands in 1631. Alexander VII made it compulsory in the Vincentian house of Montecitorio for all priests being ordained in the diocese of Rome. It wasn’t much; it was a mustard seed, and side by side with it went the setting up of seminaries where priests rather than students at first came to be formed in pastoral theory and practice, at first for some months and then gradually lengthened to a few years. Both on the retreats and in the somewhat longer training in the seminar­ies the ideas were roughly the same and, making some allowance for changed times, have a curiously modern ring about them. Each morning there was a lecture on moral principles, each afternoon a lecture on priestly practice, especially liturgical and pastoral. After each lecture the group broke up into smaller groups of twelve to fifteen and the priests of the house conducted seminars on the topic with these. As well, in Vincent’s own words, “they visit hospitals and prisons where they catechise, preach, hear confessions, as they also do in the colleges”. This make-shift arrangement lasted about fifteen years until about 1643 when the more wide-spread establish­ment of seminaries as we know them and as Trent envisaged them, with modifications introduced in the light of experience, began to make them unnecessary.

2. In-service Training

Out of these modest beginnings developed a form of “in-service training” as we should call it today that was soon also to become a wide-spread form of continuing pastoral formation, in France especially. The young men who went through these short Retreats for Ordinands as they were called were among the first to realise how much there was to be learned and how little one could learn in three weeks, so they approached Vincent, in Paris at first but this idea also gradually spread all over France and beyond it, and asked him to bring them together regularly “to hold discussions regarding the virtues and functions proper to the life and ministry of priests”. Vincent agreed, and so on 16 July 1633 began the famous Tuesday Conferences. One enrolled and one attended regularly or was expelled. A topic was set a week in advance. Each man present spoke for a quarter of an hour on the set topic; then there was a general discussion; the whole session lasted two hours. In time, one could say, every good priest in Paris, and especially those engaged in priestly formation, came to the Conferences and their influence became very considerable, mainly in two ways:

(a) The Conferences themselves were attended by such outstand­ing men as professors of theology at the Sorbonne like Duval, founders of congregations like Olier, renowned preachers and future bishops like Bossuet, reformers like de Ranee (founder of the Trappist reform of the Cistercians), and through their influence had an effect on the French clergy far beyond the confines of member­ship of the Conferences itself.

(b) In time the members became a kind of loosely-associated society and started “team ministries” as we would call them in areas where they were needed. While Vincent’s own priests largely confined their parish mission work to the neglected areas of the country where there were no, or few, or very ill-educated priests, the members of the Tuesday Conferences made themselves up into small teams and, as occasion offered or seemed to demand, did similar work in the cities or bigger towns.

All these in time became the norm of priestly formation and are things still commended to us today. Sometimes they appear as new discoveries, and in a sense they are because over the centuries they tended to become formalised and lose their freshness, but it is as well to appreciate that they are re-discoveries and not new discover­ies. If only because it is the plain truth we may forgive the patriotic fervour of two modern French biographers of Vincent: Jean Calvet when he writes of these works of Vincent that “it was indeed from France that we got the dawn of a new age, the great reform of the Church wished for by the Council of Trent”; and Daniel-Rops when he writes that “from these Vincentian seminaries — as also from the seminaries of the Sulpicians and the Eudists — there issued an elite of priests such as France had not known for three centuries and who were long unrivalled by the priests of any other country”. We Vincentians were very choosy in those days; we sacked from one of our seminaries, as not having brains to be a priest, a young man named Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

3. Pastoral Practice as well as Theory

I mentioned his insistence on pastoral practice as well as theory. Today, especially since the Council, we have revived it in a big way. But it is worth noting that it is a revival. It was not only for the priests in his early Retreats for Ordinands and Tuesday Conferences that he insisted on this. When his seminaries proper got under way, institutions more in line with what we understand by the word today, he used his students as well as his faculty- members and other priests to go out on parish missions which, in those days, often lasted several months in the one parish. He used them for catechesis of both the young and the adult in an age when ignorance of religion, especially in country areas, was almost total. He used them for showing young and old again what Christian worship was all about and how they should take part in it. He even sent them on the foreign missions and the missions “behind the Iron Curtain” of the day. With one batch of eight missioners he sent to Cromwellian Ireland he included two students, one French and one Irish; the latter, Thady Lee, was martyred before his mother’s eyes by Cromwell’s troops when they caught him after the siege of Limerick4. He sent them to teach the catechism and the chant. He was very strong on the need for teaching the chant, though what opportunities he saw for putting it into practice in Cromwellian Ireland is not quite clear! But our “apostolic works” as an integral part of priestly formation were not invented, even if they were restored, by Vatican II; they were an essential part of priestly training in theory and practice for Vincent de Paul three hundred years ago.

4. Theory also important

For Vincent the theory, on spiritual, theological, pastoral and practical levels was as important as the practice, and so we find him constantly inculcating the need for the future priest to know in prin­ciple, in order to carry out in practice, what he was doing, why he was doing it and how could do it in the given set of circumstances. He was anything but the kindly, slightly foolish-looking old man with an abandoned child in his arms and two more hanging on to his soutane, with which traditional statuary and bon-dieuserie art have made us familiar. We have “Communication Courses” today in our seminaries, calling on the help of actors. Vincent started them when they were even more badly needed than they are now, warning his men repeatedly and almost ad nauseam against lengthy sermons florid in style, couched in language no ordinary person ever used and which ordinary people wouldn’t understand, illustrated, if illustrated at all, with far-fetched imagery from classical literature instead of — like the Lord’s own sermons — with imagery from their own everyday lives, set out in the simplest and most strik­ingly clear language^and concentrating on three principal aspects of one main point; “Why we should want to practise the virtue or understand the truth being put before us; precisely outlining the nature of that virtue or truth; dealing practically and briefly with the means best adapted to the capacity of the particular audience for putting that virtue, or the consequences of that truth, into practice in their daily lives. Motives, nature, means — the essential con­stituents of “the little method” on which he harped so constantly in teaching “Communication”, and the microphone and the TV camera have only accentuated these basic factors, as well as accentuating abstention from elaborate and meaningless gestures and posturings, against which he inveighed equally strongly. His whole teaching on priestly activity in all its aspects was best summed up for me in a little book published in 1921 by the American Bishop Kelly, founder of the missionary Extension Society, when he wrote that “Zeal is no excuse for opening your mouth before you know what is going to come out of it”.

5. Solid organisation needed behind charitable effort.

Vincent learned this lesson early. While still a young priest he was actually in the pulpit in a small country village one Sunday when a man approached him and whispered that there was a family on the outskirts of the village literally dying of starvation. Vincent preached on the topic and appealed for help so successfully that the whole village streamed out to the house with gifts of food and clothing sufficient to feed and clothe the entire village. Vincent learned the lesson; solid organisation was needed behind charitable effort. This was the beginning of his parochial Confraternities of Charity, for which he laid down the most minutely detailed procedures covering all foreseeable possibilities. These were the predecessors, as I already mentioned, of Ozanam’s Conferences of St Vincent de Paul after the Revolution. And even there the similarity doesn’t end because, oddly enough, Vincent’s Confraternities of Charity were composed of women which was a new and brave venture in his day, lately copied by the St Vincent de Paul Society. His main male support was the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, the membership of which was mainly middle to upper class interested in their fellowmen, just as Ozanam’s first helpers were University students like himself.

6. Three brief items.

Vincent was no bookworm, as might be suspected, yet his words to the young philosophers of his own community in 1658 concerning their studies are worth reading today.

Among his still extant letters is one to the superior of the first band of his missionaries departing for Madagascar giving a list of books he was to take with him as a library on which the missionaries among the pagan people could fall back for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, without which their priestly lives would become insup­portable and evangelisation impossible.

We have talks on the priest and the mentally ill in our modern seminaries, but Vincent housed a collection of them in the garden of his HQ at Saint-Lazare, and his sermons to his community on how to treat them, while not exactly a model of 20th century psychiatry, show a humanity and an insight rare in that day.


I shall finish by saying that rarely has the church of God seen a priest who was so much to so many as Vincent de Paul, and by sug­gesting (and as a priest like Vincent himself and not as a Vincentian, which he would be the first to proclaim gives me no additional qualification greater than that greatest of all gifts which I received at my ordination) that you will learn more about what being a priest means in the 20th century than you will from all your courses and apostolic activities, necessary though these are, by reading and studying prayerfully a good life of that great priest, le grand saint du grand siècle, the great priest of that great century of French history, Vincent de Paul, Monsieur Vincent. In no man I know is the presen­tation of the vertical and the horizontal dimension of Christianity, and especially Christian priesthood, so clearly portrayed and so easily recognisable as applicable to our times as in Vincent de Paul, Man of God, Patron of all Charitable Works in God’s Church.

May I finish with a quotation from one of his conferences which might even be regarded as slightly left-wing, Latin American, Liberation Theology today if we did not know that it came from a conference to his priests on 6 December 1658:

If any one of us should think that he has joined us in order to preach the gospel to the poor but not to help them, to bring them spiritual remedies but not temporal, I would reply to such a man by saying that we are bound to bring them every help we can and to try to see to it that similar help is brought to them by others, if we want to hear the consoling words of the Supreme Judge of the living and the dead: “Come you blessed of my Father…, for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, naked and you clothed me”. To do this is to preach the gospel by word and deed; it is to carry on the most perfect work there is; it is to carry on the work the Lord himself did on earth, which they are bound to carry on who on earth bear his character and his function as their own, that is, priests.

  1. It is worth noting, for the record, that on the title-page and cover of the English translation the author’s name appears incorrectly as d’Angel.
  2. JT is not correct here. Vincent received his degree in 1604 at the age of 23 after seven years of study for it.
  3. This expression, so much associated with Vincent, seems to have origi­nated with Benet of Canfield. Cf Optat de Veghel: Benoît de Canfield, Rome 1949, p 128.
  4. On whether there were eight or nine in this group see the article in COLLOQUE 3.

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