St Vincent, the Common Rules and the Individual Confrère

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Thomas Davitt · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

(Revised version of paper read to Vincentian Study Group, 3 October 1983)


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Much effort has gone into research, discussion and writing about Vincent’s thinking on the evangelisation of the poor and on the forma­tion of the clergy. A proportionate amount of effort does not seem to have gone into research, discussion and writing about his thinking on the spiritual life of the individual confrère who is to implement these, and allied, ministries. Yet he told the community in St Lazare on 21 February 1659: “The spiritual life is essential; it must be our goal; if we fail there we fail in everything” (XII 131). His well-known phrase about Carthusians at home, when put back into its context, is seen to be much more than a mere aphorism:

Men in pastoral ministries have a special need to make up for the damage sustained in their everyday activity by being careful about their interior recollection. In this context Fr Vincent used to say some­times that the life of a missioner should be like that of a Carthusian when in the house and like that of an apostle when down the country, and that his ministry and work for the spiritual welfare of others will be either more or less successful in proportion to the care with which he looks after his own spiritual life (Abelly 2:1:1:3).

An undervaluing of Vincent’s teaching on the spiritual life of the individual confrère stems from two characteristics of the Common Rules. The first is the fact that they suffer from a not-too-successful attempt to put together in one book guidelines on spirituality for the individual and guidelines on administration for the community. Many of the administrative guidelines are now recognised as having been condi­tioned by social and other factors of 17th century France and are rightly set aside today. But setting these aside has somehow tended to give the impression that the entire book, including the guidelines on spirituality, is out of date; it is not.

The second characteristic of the Common Rules which has contrib­uted to an undervaluing of Vincent’s teaching on the spiritual life of the individual confrère is the fact that the book contains merely concen­trated encapsulations of his thinking; by 1658 he himself, in this matter, had become “a sovereign extractor of quintessences”. These encapsula­tions must therefore be seen as the arrival-point of Vincent’s thinking; to understand this thinking we must go back and see the wider material which he is summarising. Sometimes confrères at retreats or confer­ences have tended to take a paragraph from the Common Rules and use it as a departure-point for an exposition of their own interpretation of it, instead of taking it as the arrival-point of Vincent’s thinking and unpacking what he had compacted.

The Common Rules were not the only set of rules which Vincent composed, and before describing how the final version evolved it is worth briefly looking at his approach to the rules of the various confra­ternities of charity and to those of the Daughters of Charity.

Rules of the confraternities of charity

Vincent arrived in Châtillon-les-Dombes at the end of July 1617 and was installed as Parish Priest on 1 August. The incident about the sick family and the disorganised help for them seems to have taken place on Sunday 20 August. To obviate such lack of organisation on any subse­quent occasion Vincent drew up a set of rules (XIII 423ff). It is undated but it must have been drawn up early on because it had been in use for some time when it was decided that for practical reasons some items needed to be modified; the changes are dated 12 December of the same year.

Vincent resigned the parish of Châtillon on 31 January 1618 and returned to the De Gondi household, but on a new footing; he was no longer just tutor to the children but also chaplain to the tenantry on the various family estates. There were about 8,000 tenants. He set up confraternities on the Châtillon model in place after place and gave each of them a set of rules. These rules have, for the most part, survived (XIII417-537). In 1618 he gave rules to the women’s confraternities in Joigny and Montmirail; in 1620 to Folleville; in 1621 to the mixed confraternity in Joigny and to Mâcon; 1622 Courboin; 1627 Montreuil; 1629 Paris, St Sauveur; 1630 Paris, St Nicolas du Chardonnet; 1634 Argenteuil. Vincent drew up rules for each of these groups almost immediately after its foundation.

Rules of the Daughters of Charity

The first group of girls started living in community with Louise on 28 November 1633 and preliminary rules were drawn up very soon (Genèse de la Compagnie, 1968, p 5). The earliest preserved conference of Vincent to the Daughters is dated 31 July 1634 and it is on the rules. As with confraternities Vincent had given the Daughters a set of rules very early on in their existence.

Rules for the Congregation of the Mission

When it came to the question of rules for his own Congregation Vincent took a different approach; he did not give it a set of rules right at the start.

The act of foundation of the Congregation is dated 17 April 1625 and it contains the following clause:

That those who hereafter shall be admitted to the aforementioned work shall be obliged to have the intention of serving God in it in the abovementioned manner and to observe the rule which shall for this purpose be drawn up among them (XIII 201).

The foundation was approved by the archbishop of Paris on 24 April 1626, which was Vincent’s forty-fifth birthday; there is no mention of a rule in this document (XIII 202). On 4 September of the same year Vincent, Antoine Portail, François du Coudray and Jean de la Salle signed a notarised Act of Association in which they promise to “observe the aforementioned foundation and the special rule which shall be drawn up to suit the work” (XIII 204). A year and five months after the founda­tion the rule was still to be drawn up, a significant departure on the part of Vincent from his way of acting with regard to previous rules.

On 22 August 1628 Vincent petitioned the Sacred Congregation de propaganda fide about several matters, including the drawing up of statutes and constitutions and the right to alter them. Whoever dealt with this in Rome made a note that “the Mission of the Count and Countess of Joigny” should be limited to twenty or twenty-five priests and should not be permanent, because once missions have been preached around the estates there will be no further need for the Congregation (XIII 222­ 224).

It should be noted at this stage that in many of the references to rules in connection with the Congregation one has to understand not just the Common Rules but also what are now called the Constitutions and Statutes; this is particularly so in much of Vincent’s correspondence with his man in Rome. He sent Francois du Coudray there in 1631 and he remained till 1635. In 1639 a house was founded in the city and was always headed by one of the outstanding early confrères. In his first year in Rome du Coudray received a letter from Vincent in which he was told that the wording of the rules was not the most important thing provided the substance remained unchanged (1116).

Although nothing formal had been promulgated by 1632 there was some sort of rule being followed, because a confrère noted that during the community retreat in St Lazare that year Vincent told them that they “should have great affection for all the regulations, looking on them as the means which God gives us so that we can perfect ourselves in our vocation…” (XI 101). That last bit could be taken as Vincent’s basic point about the Common Rules: they are a God-given means for the individual confrère to perfect himself in his vocation.

Papal approval of the Congregation of the Mission came with Urban VIII’s bull Salvatoris nostri on 12 January 1633. (It should be noted that the date on the bull itself is 1632, but in the usage of the time that referred to the Year of Our Lord which did not end till 24 March 1633; the year started on 25 March). A paragraph in this bull gives the basic rules of the spiritual life of the members: daily mass, weekly confes­sion and communion for students and lay-brothers, a full hour’s mental prayer each day for everyone, and examination of conscience (XIII 261).

By 1635 there were still no definitive rules. Abelly quotes part of a letter written by Vincent to an un-named confrère:

Two or three days ago I fell dangerously ill, which made me think of death. By God’s grace I adore his will and submit to it with all my heart, and on examining myself about what would trouble me somewhat I found that there was not anything apart from the fact that we have not yet drawn up our rules (1291).

In the following year, 1636, Vincent drew up some rules for con­frères who were acting as army chaplains. They are to “observe as fully as possible the little regulations of the Congregation, especially with regard to the hours of rising and going to bed, prayer, the divine office, spiritual reading and examens” (XIII 281).

In 1642 the first General Assembly of the Congregation met. starting on 13 October. Vincent told the Assembly that the most important task before it was to draw up the rules for the Congregation. The rules were necessary, he said, if the Congregation was to achieve its purpose. He gave to each confrère present (there were only ten besides himself) copies of the proposed rules and asked each to read them and to “note what needed to be corrected, shortened or completely removed”; the comments of each confrère were to be studied afterwards. The next day, the 14th, they worked at this from 7 till 9 in the morning and from 4 till 6 in the afternoon; on the 15th and 16th they continued, for the same periods, though on the 16th they did not end till 10. On the 17th they met at 8 in the morning and decided that since there were so many sug­gestions about the rules it would be impossible to discuss them all in the Assembly. So a commission was appointed to study the matter and to report back to the Superior General. Antoine Portail and Jean Dehorgny were the permanent members and Francois du Coudray and Lambert aux Couteaux were to work with them as long as these two latter were in St Lazare; in their absence Rene Almeras would be a substitute.

It is not clear what rules were in question but it would seem most likely that it was an early draft of the Common Rules because after the decision to set up the commission the Assembly then went on to discuss the office of the Superior General, the vows, the division of the Congregation into provinces, triennial assemblies, the resignation of Vincent as Superior General and the election of two Assistants. Vincent’s resignation was not accepted and Portail and Dehorgny were elected Assistants. The Assembly closed on 23 October (XIII 287ff).

In May 1646 Boniface nouelly and Jean Barreau, a lay-brother, were appointed to Algiers. Before their departure Vincent gave them some advice: they were to be faithful to the rules, customs and maxims of the Congregation, which were those of the gospel; they were to try to be always zealous, humble, mortified and obedient (XIII 306).

A letter to Antoine Portail dated 14 February 1648 deals with rules for the galleyslaves’ hospital in Marseille and in it Vincent remarks that a good maxim for those called by God to establish new works is to put off as long as possible the drawing up of rules “because experience shows that what is feasible at the start is counter-productive later on or brings about annoying complications”. The Carthusians, he said, did not draw up their rules for a hundred years and St Ignatius drew up merely a sketch of his; Francis de Sales drew up the Visitation rules in too much of a hurry and so he had to issue an interpretative guide to them later on (III 272).

Later that year he wrote to Almeras in Rome that he was to start trying to have the rules approved by the Holy See, especially those about the vows and that the Superior General was to be elected for life; if there were problems the others could be reduced to headings but those two points must stay (III 381).

On 1 July 1651 the second General Assembly began and it went until 11 August; this time there were thirteen confrères as well as Vincent. There was much discussion about the rules and when towards the end it was asked whether the agreed draft was to be revised the reply was that only two or three confrères would make the revision “Quia with rules it is as with hands the more you wash them the more they need to be washed, or it is like hens which always find something to peck at in a spot they have already been over a hundred times”. The final acta of the Assembly say that the rules are in in conformity with the Congregation’s actual way of living, with its purpose and with its foun­dation aim, and they meet everything demanded by Salvatoris nostri and are, in fact, what had been done for the previous twenty-five years or so (XIII 326ff).

Two years later, in 1653, Jean le Vacher and Martin Husson, a lay lawyer, were leaving for Tunis and Vincent gave them some advice: They (sic) were to keep the rules of the Congregation, they were to try to practise the same virtues listed for those going to Algiers seven years earlier, namely zeal, humility, mortification and obedience; simplicity, which had not been in the previous list, is also added (XIII 363).

Two years later again, in 1655, Vincent wrote to Charles Ozenne in Warsaw that the Common Rules had at last been printed but that they had had so many mis-prints that they would have to be reprinted (V 337)

In the following year, 1656, Antoine Durand, aged twenty-seven, was appointed superior of the seminary in Agde. Vincent usually took new appointees to his room for a private session on the eve of their departure. The notes which Durand made of this session have survived (XI 342-351). It is very interesting to note the order in which Vincent made his points:

  1. Durand is going to a seminary as superior; ars artium regimen animarum and this is the work of the Son of God;
  2. Therefore he must empty himself of himself so that our Lord can make his mark on him;
  3. Therefore prayer is essential;
  4. So is humility, and especially the elimination of foolish self-congratulation;
  5. His speaking is to be based on the New Testament;
  6. In carrying out his work as superior he is to take Jesus Christ as his model;
  7. In carrying out his work he is not to aim at making a personal reputation for himself, but to carry out the rules and customs of the Congregation.

In July of the following year, 1657, he wrote to Edme Jolly in Rome that he had seen the latter’s letter to Portail with suggestions about the rules, and he said that far from its being wrong to make suggestions it would have been wrong to have kept silent about the ideas which God had given him on the matter. Jolly was to think about Portail’s reply and to report back to Vincent on it (VI 364); on 5 October Vincent thanks him for his suggestions, but we do not have Jolly’s letter (VI 507).

On 17 May the next year, 1658, Vincent distributed copies of the newly-printed Latin version of the Common Rules to the community in St Lazare during the weekly conference. This was to have been the final and definitive version but at a conference on 7 March 1659 he referred to the necessity of one further change. He said that in chapter II, §3, “a printer’s error had slipped in” (XII 151). An intriguing point arises here. Is it likely that a printer, even in 17th century Paris, would set up in type the words aequaliter grata vel non grata if the copy in front of him had the words quae nee sunt grata nee ingrata? The more likely explanation would seem to be that Vincent wrote the former phrase but when he saw it in print realised that it did not catch the nuance he intended. It is refresh­ing to think that even in his 78th year Vincent could fall into that human failing of putting the blame on someone else! Coste too seems to have adverted to this; in his Monsieur Vincent, when he recounts this incident, he says merely that “an error slipped into the text” (Vol. II, p 13).

On 3 June 1658 Vincent wrote to Louis Rivet, superior in Saintes, that he would be sending on copies of the Common Rules “in which we find our complete sanctification, in so far as they contain what our Lord did and what he wants us to do” (VIII 168).

In August of the following year, 1659, he wrote to Jacques Pesnelle, superior in Genoa: “We have not included in the rules many little things which are done in the Company and which one should do” (VIII 71).

Most of the quotations cited have been about getting the rules drawn up and approved, but scattered among them are some insights into Vincent’s thinking on what the rules were supposed to mean for the individual confrère, and also his indications of what were the really fundamental elements in the rules.

In the notes of the anonymous confrère about the 1632 retreat Vincent spoke of the rules as means given by God to the individual confrère to enable him to reach spiritual perfection. Twenty-six years later, in a letter announcing that the rules had at last been printed and would be sent on, he wrote: “In them we find our complete sanctification in so far as they contain what our Lord did and what he wants us to do” (VIII 71). The perfection, or sanctification, of the individual confrère is the main purpose of the rules.

In the above-cited extracts from letters and other sources certain points are picked out for emphasis: In Salvatoris nostri (1633), mass, weekly confession and communion for those who are not priests, a full hour of mental prayer each day for everyone, and examination of con­science.

In the guidelines for army chaplains (1636) the points mentioned are prayer, the divine office, spiritual reading and examination of con­science.

In the guidelines for those going to Algiers (1646) the points are the keeping of the rules, customs and maxims of the Congregation because they are those of the gospel, and the practice of the virtues of zeal, humility, mortification and obedience. The confrères going to Tunis (1653) were given the same advice, with the addition of simplicity.

The advice to Antoine Durand (1656) contained the following points, and in this order: prayer, humility, what Durand says is to be grounded in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is to be his model and he is to follow the rules of the Congregation.

Conclusions from the above

Two points stand out very clearly: first, Vincent never said that the rules were to be kept just for the sake of keeping them; with him it is never a question of “This is what the rule says, therefore you must do it”, or even “This is what the leader says, therefore you must do it”. What Vincent puts before us is “These rules are the means of develop­ing and deepening your spiritual life”; that, therefore, is the meaning of the expression in the introductory letter to the rules “If you keep them they will keep you”. At first sight this could seem to indicate a sort of mechanical cause-and-effect situation but, as in other cases in this overall context, when we go back and trace out the thinking which led to the wording we see that such an initial impression is wrong.

The second point which stands out is that not everything in the rules was regarded as being of equal importance; that perhaps does not really need saying, except that the obvious sometimes tends to get overlooked. When for any reason Vincent had to pick out some points for emphasis he picked ones which have always been regarded as basic to a person’s spiritual life: prayer, the New Testament, Jesus as a model, spiritual reading, examination of conscience, and certain key virtues. He never singled out what what might be called the regulation-type of rule, the ones which dealt with the administrative running of the community.

What Vincent meant by “perfection”

In the 1632 retreat Vincent spoke of the rules as God-given means to help a confrère towards perfection. This is a word frequently used by Vincent. In the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Common Rules he put propriae perfectioni studere as the first end of the Congregation. In the Chambers-Murray Latin Dictionary (1976) studere is translated as “To be eager, keen or zealous; to busy oneself with; to take pains with; to apply oneself to”. Now if Vincent put as the first end of the Congregation, and therefore of the individual confrère, “to busy oneself with, to apply oneself to” something, it is important that we know exactly what that something is. The expression was used by Vincent, therefore it is to him that we must go for its meaning and not fall into the trap of giving it our own meaning.

He dealt with this in a conference on 6 December 1658. He quoted Mt 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, and then said “That’s aiming high!” and went on to explain what he meant.

Perfection consists in doing well everything we do: First, as reason­able men we get on well with others and respect their rights; second, as Christians we practise the virtues of which our Lord has given us examples; finally, as members of the Congregation we do well the work which he did and in the same spirit as far as our weakness, which God knows, will allow; that’s what we have to set our sights on” (XII 76-78).

At a conference on 14 February 1659 he said:

Up to now you have been told about the end of the Company, which is to work first and foremost for one’s own perfection, for one’s own perfection, and we do this by imitating the virtues which Jesus Christ taught us by his example and his words. We must therefore keep this divine image before our eyes (XII 114).

The confrère who kept notes of this conference noted that Vincent repeated “for one’s own perfection” and said it in a grave and solemn tone of voice in order to emphasise it.

At a conference a week later, on the 21st, he was dealing with the expression “seek first the kingdom of God” and said that although “seek” was only a single word it conveyed a multitude of ideas:

Seek, seek; that indicates activity. Seek God within yourself for St Augustine admits that when he sought him outside himself he failed to find him. Seek him in your soul, which is where he is pleased to dwell. That’s the base on which his servants ground the virtues which they are trying to put into practice (XII 131).

Further on he said:

Our Lord wants us above all else to seek his glory, his kingdom, his justice, and that in order to achieve this we must subordinate every­thing else to our spiritual life … (XII 132).

And a bit further on again:

When we read the rule we find that it recommends us first of all to strive for our own perfection; that means to bring it about that God reigns in you and in me; in the second place, to co-operate with him in the extension of his kingdom (XII 138).

The 1984 Constitutions

When explaining what he meant by perfection Vincent mentioned the practice of virtues of which Jesus had given examples. In the Common Rules, chapter II §14, he refers to five virtues which are “more suitable for us”. In the Constitutions approved in 1984 §§7 and 8 read:

The Congregation, furthermore, seeks to express its spirit by five virtues which are drawn from its special way of looking at Christ, namely simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal for souls. Speaking of these five virtues St Vincent said: “The Congregation shall apply itself most diligently to the cultivation and practice of them so that these five virtues may become, so to speak, the faculties of the soul of the whole Congregation, and so that all the actions of each of its members may always be animated by them”. Each confrère will aim at a continually developing understanding of this spirit by re-examining the gospel, St. Vincent’s teaching and his example, remembering that our spirit and our ministry should each strengthen the other.

So, one result of all the self-examination which the Congregation has undergone since Vatican II is the re-discovery of the enduring worth of the basic points of Vincent’s teaching on the spiritual life of the indi­vidual confrère.

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