The Beatification of Vincent De Paul: John White’s Evidence

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Thomas Davitt · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 9.
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The Cause

The Sixth General Assembly, 1697, decided unanimously that steps should be taken to secure the beatification of Vincent, and Nicolas Pierron, newly-elected fourth Superior General, in a circular letter of 26 October 1697 asked superiors to begin gathering material which could be useful.

The Ordinary (i.e. diocesan) Informative (i.e. fact-finding) Process began in Paris in early 1705. The Presiding Judge was François Vivant, Parish Priest of St Leu-St Gilles in the city and Vicar General. Most of the Paris witnesses gave evidence at sessions of the Tribunal held in St Teresa’s chapel in this church.

The Promotor Fiscal was Mgr Achille Thomassin, rector of St Nicolas-du-Louvre . He was the diocesan equivalent of the Promotor of the Faith at the Apostolic (i. e. Roman) Process, usually called the Devil’s Advocate. He was appointed by the Archbishop of Paris.

The Procurator of the Cause was Pierre-Casimir de Cès CM, aged forty-three, who had been Superior of the Seminary in Tout before being appointed to this full-time office by the fifth Superior General François Wattel. The Procurator drew up a series of’ Articles”; these were factual statements about the life and work of Vincent. He submitted these to the Promotor Fiscal who then drew up an “Interrogatory”, which was a set of questions based on the Articles. JW was asked all the questions in the Interrogatory but was questioned on only those points in the Articles on which he was expected to have personal knowledge; this explains the gaps in the numbering in his evidence.

The Witness

John White was from Limerick. When he entered the Congregation in Paris on 4 May 1658 it was noted in the Register of Entries that he was about twenty-eight; that would put his birth about 1630. In his evidence he said he was eighty, in 1705, which would put it five years earlier. He took his vows on 7 May 1660 and was ordained in 1661, which indicates that he had completed most of his studies before entry. It is not possible to be certain about what appointments he held because of the notorious difficulty of knowing whether a reference to Monsieur Le Blanc, without first name, means George, Francis or John White, or the Frenchman Charles Le Blanc. At the time of his evidence he was stationed in Les Invalides, Paris; the chaplaincy duties in this hospital were undertaken by the Congregation only as a result of direct pressure from Louis XIV in 1686. At the start there were fifteen priests and some students there. JW died there on 27 November 1705, eight months after giving his evidence.

The evidence

JW gave his evidence in French; this was then translated into Italian for the Apostolic Process. It has a Latin preamble, down as far as the first question; there is a short Latin paragraph between the Interrogatory and the questions on the Articles, and there is a Latin conclusion. It is this Latin and Italian manuscript which is in the CM archives in Paris. It is bound with all the other manuscript evidence into an unwieldy volume about eight inches thick which is very difficult to put on a photocopying machine; for this reason I made a transcript for our archives.

The Notary-Actuary did not record the wording of the questions. As the session progressed he altered his method of recording reported speech by inserting, not always felicitously, the words “this Witness”. He also had to use the same third person singular pronouns for both White and Vincent, but the context usually makes it clear to whom the pronoun refers. For clarity I have inserted brackets in one place, and have also used more punctuation than is found in the original.

JW’s evidence does not, by itself, contribute much to proving the heroicity of Vincent’s virtues. There were, however, 330 other witnesses and 33 of these were examined twice. What his evidence does give us is some fascinating glimpses of Vincent recalled after nearly fifty years by someone who had lived in the same house with him for a period of two and a half years.

TD

In the same year, indiction and pontificate as above1, but on the ninth of March, a feria, at eight o’clock in the morning, in the oratory for sick priests in the Royal home for Sick Soldiers in Paris.

Before us, francois Vivant, Doctor of Theology, delegated as Judge in this cause, together with the aforementioned fathers lagrené and De Buna, in the presence of Mgr achille Thomassin, delegated Promotor fiscal, who participated in the proceedings, and also of father Pierre de combes, delegated notary-actuary.

There appeared father John White, a priest of the congregation of the Mission, who lives in the aforementioned royal foundation.

The witness was introduced and sworn by father Pierre-casimir de cès, Procurator of the cause, and he showed the summons, served on him the previous day by the cursor Mongin, in which he was cited by order of the said Procurator, father Pierre-casimir de cès. and now thus introduced the Witness, with his two hands on the most holy gospels of God in front of him, again took the oath saying exactly the following words

I the undersigned, touching the holy gospels of God here in front of me, swear that i will tell the truth as regards both the interrogatory and the articles on which i will be examined, and also that i will observe secrecy and not reveal to anybody whomsoever, under pain of perjury, the content of either questions and answers or of the depositions made by myself in the cause for the beatification and canonisation of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, and thus i promise and may God, and these his holy gospels, help me.

And being examined and questioned first according to the interrogatory prepared on behalf of and by order of the said Promotor fiscal, which was produced at the session still closed and under seal and now opened by him; and subsequently on the other articles introduced to the session in the name of the said Pierre-casimir de ces, Procurator of this cause, he stated and deposed as herunder, namely

On the first point in the said Interrogatory

He answered that he was fully aware of the importance of the oath he had taken.

On the second

He answered that his name was John White, son of Stephen White and felicia fox2; that he was eighty years old, born in limerick; that he was a priest of the congregation, at present living in the house of the said congregation in the Royal Palace of Les Invalides.

Questioned on the third

He answered that he usually went to confession once a week and said mass every day. he had done so not more than four days previously; after saying mass in the oratory of the said Palace he had gone to confession to fr. hardis, a priest of the said congregation.

Questioned on the fourth and fifth

He answered that he had never been accused of, nor sentenced for, any misdeed; nor had he ever incurred any censure, by the grace of God.

On the sixth

He answered that no one had suggested to him what he should say, and that he would speak according to his lights and his conscience.

On the seventh

He answered that he entered the said congregation two years and five months before the death of the Venerable Servant of God, Vincent de Paul, who received him and who often spoken to him in public and private.

On the eighth

He answered that he honoured and respected the memory of the said Servant of God, Vincent de Paul, and that he wanted very much to see him beatified and canonised.

On the ninth

He answered that he knew the said Servant of God lived in Paris over a long period in the said St lazare and that he had a great reputation for holiness.

On the tenth

He answered that this Witness was in Paris in St lazare when the said Servant of God died there, and that he departed this world in that completely spiritual and religious frame of mind which makes the death of the just precious in the sight of God; that he died more from natural weakness than sickness, and that everyone in the house, as well as others, considered his death a happy and a holy one, and this Witness considered himself fortunate to have been one of those present at the recommendation of his soul, and also to have been one of those who carried his body to burial.

On the eleventh

He answered that after his death there was a continuous, wide-spread and well-founded opinion that the said Servant of God had lived and died the way saints live and die; and this Witness does not know of this reputation ever being stained, but rather on the contrary he is witness that many people, including bishops and other wise, holy and disinterested persons, as well as persons of great authority, have always spoken of him in this way.

On the twelfth

He answered that he knew, and that it was common knowledge, that credit should be given to the said Servant of God for the results which have been, and continue to be, achieved by the said congregation of the Mission of which he was the originator, founder and first superior, as well as of the confraternities and companies of the ladies of charity in the various parishes in Paris and outside of Paris, the foundation and good running of which he had established.

On the thirteenth

He answered that he knew and that it was generally known that the said Servant of God had worked so hard at missions, retreats for ordinands and other retreats that they are still being carried on at present by the priests of the said congregation.

That the Witness knows that in the final years of his life the Servant of God was no longer able to go on missions both because of his advanced age and his huge work-load, but that he had very frequently noticed the great desire which he had to go, and that being unable to do so himself he did so by means of the priests of the congregation, sending them to give missions, to establish houses and to direct seminaries, to conduct ordination and other retreats, to organise conferences for priests and similar functions; this was the sort of work he himself had done as long as he had the strength and the time to do so.

On the fourteenth

He answered that he never noticed in the said Servant of God anything other than evidence of a most perfect holiness, and that he was graced with both the theological and cardinal virtues, and moreover that he was ready to talk about this when we question him on each of them in particular.

On the fifteenth

He answered, and he convinced us that he knew, that miracles happen, and he told us that he did not doubt that God has worked some by means of his said Servant, and that he is ready to tell us what he knows.

The interrogatory of the said Promoter fiscal being completed the session continued with the articles produced on behalf of and by order of the said father Pierre-casimir de cès, specially appointed as Procurator in this cause.

Questioned on the first and subsequent articles he answered both this and the subsequent ones (which deal with the various activities and circumstances of the life of the said Servant of God up to the time when the said Witness entered the said congregation) by saying that he had no first-hand knowledge, but only what he had been told, and what was common knowledge, and what he had read in his Life, but that he was ready to tell us all that he personally knew of the life of the said Servant of God from the time that this Witness entered the said congregation.

On the fortieth Article, concerning faith

This Witness answered that he had been present when the said Servant of God showed evidence of his devotion to the passion of our lord, Jesus christ, and to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

That one Good friday in the refectory while saying grace out loud the said Servant of God, during the prayer Respice, wept very emotionally and caused many others present to do the same, when pronouncing the words Pro quibus Dominus noster Jesus Christus non dubitavit manibus tradi nocentium et crucis subire tormentum.

That on another day, in the church, the said Servant of God during a conference on prayer which he was giving to the whole community gave an admonition never to pass in front of the Blessed Sacrament without genuflecting; he himself was greatly hindered by trouble which he had in his knees and legs, and he said in a devotional and emotional voice “fathers and Brothers, i urge you to have the greatest respect for Jesus christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar; as for myself, with all the problems which you see i have, when i pass in front of the divine Sacrament, being unable to genuflect easily i will put my hands on the floor and bend my knees to the best of my ability rather than fail in my duty and in the respect which i owe to Jesus christ who is present”

Then the said Servant of God asked for forgiveness for all the bad example which he might have given in this matter, making as it were public restitution of honour to the Blessed Sacrament for all the lack of respect of which everyone else might have been guilty; and he kissed the floor, though only with great effort. These two indications of the faith of the said Servant of God the said Witness vouches for, having been an eyewitness of them.

Questioned on the forty-second, concerning love for God

He answered that this was apparent especially in how warmly, tenderly and with great feeling the said Servant of God used to speak about matters relating to salvation; this Witness was present the day the said Servant of God distributed the common Rules and constitutions and he listened to the conference which he gave on this subject to the said community, a conference which seemed to him more divine than human and which touched and deeply affected the hearts of all present.

That he was present at the last sermon preached by the said Servant of God to the members of his community. This took place in accordance with a custom in the congregation; when priests return from missions one of the missioners preaches a short sermon in the refectory during the evening meal. When one of the missioners, one of the most senior, was experiencing great difficulty in fulfilling this one friday, the said Servant of God, in order to set him an example, preached the sermon himself, taking as his theme the words of Jesus christ Nescitis cujus spiritus estis. and old and all as he was he spoke with a vigour and spirit which amazed everyone and many wept.

This Witness believes that the real devotion with which the Servant of God celebrated mass must be attributed to the love which he had for God; that this Witness served his mass every day for three months in the oratory of the infirmary, since he could no longer go to the church, and he noticed that the said Servant of God had such devotion and concentration while saying mass that his face reflected the warmth of his heart and this evoked a response in those present.

On the forty-fifth, concerning love for others

He answered that he would give three examples, of which he himself was a witness.

First, that this Witness was in St lazare when the said Servant of God gave a conference every friday for eight weeks on the sin of malicious gossip, saying that he was determined to root out this in all forms from St lazare and the whole company, if possible, because of the great horror which he had of this wretched and widespread vice3.

Second, that in sixteen fifty-nine when there was a great shortage in Paris, with the neglected poor dying of starvation, three thousand were kept fed by the said Servant of God over a period of three months; he had bread baked for them and soup distributed to them in the house of the Daughters of charity opposite St lazare, and the said Witness was one of those who used to teach catechism to the said poor children before the bread and soup were given out.

Third, that having lost St. lazare and all its contents in a law-suit, in which he had thought his side of the case absolutely just and with counsel convinced his side was right and advising that the Servant of God should appeal, and offering to conduct the appeal at his own expense, the said Servant of God replied: “There’s no need to think any more about it; God preserve us from that. The judges have already decided once; we should let things go their way and not give an impression of disagreement, or of ill-will towards those judges who gave the decision”4.

And the said Witness heard the said Servant of God say to the said community on the occasion of the loss of this law-suit: “let us thank God for the loss we have suffered. God has conferred this benefit on us; he has taken it from us; blessed be his holy name; let us accept this sentence as pronounced by the mouth of God and let us not blame either the judges or our opponents”.

On the fifty-second, concerning humility

He answered that he was present when the said Servant of God spoke in this way about the said congregation when he was announcing the death of father de chandenier, abbé de Tournon, who died in a house of the congregation and in its habit: “father de chandenier, abbe de Tournon, died in our house in chambéry where he was taken ill on his way back from Rome; for a long time he had been asking to be received into our poor company but i always postponed granting his request, believing that the poor company was not worthy to have someone of his rank. however, when he saw that he was in danger of death he persuaded father Berthe, who had been with him all during his journey, to accept him as a missioner; this was granted to him, and so he died a missioner, wanting to appear before God in our rags”5.

Questioned on the fifty-fourth, concerning chastity

He answered that he had always considered a great example, and a lesson in the precautions which a priest should take to preserve chastity, the care which the said Servant of God took never to be alone with any lady or unmarried woman, and always to be within view of some member of his congregation; the said Witness fulfilled this role many times when he used to go to speak to the ladies of charity of Paris, being placed by the said Servant of God close to the door and being told: “Brother, don’t move from here; keep your eyes on me the whole time; never let me out of your sight”.6

On this matter the said Witness noticed that the said Servant of God never looked at these women in the face but always kept his eyes somewhat lowered, and the said Witness said that he had noticed the same thing about the said Servant of God when he used to speak to the Daughters of charity.

On the second-last Article, concerning miracles

He answered

First, that he has always regarded as a miracle and as a special favour granted to him by God through the said Servant of God something which happened to him shortly after the death of the said Servant of God, although he had judged it prudent never to have spoken about it to anyone up to the present. his superiors were urging him to accept holy orders and he himself was equally reluctant to present himself for them after passing his examination. The said Servant of God, who had died six months previously, appeared to him in a dream, saying: “Brother, don’t be in bad form or depressed because they want you to receive orders”7. and the said Witness woke up, suddenly free from the reluctance and gloom with which he had gone to sleep and ready to do all that they wanted.

Second, that Father Le Goust, at that time still a student in the congregtion of St lazare and who later left and became a Parish Priest in the diocese of Poitiers, told our Witness that having a most violent headache for three months went into the room of the said Servant of God, who had heard from him about this complaint; he made the sign of the cross on his forehead and then placed his hand on his head. he immediately felt himself free from the said pain in the head and left the room cured. This was told to the Witness several times after the death of the said Servant of God by the said father le Goust, who is now dead.

On the last Article

He answered as in the answers which he gave to the above interrogatory.

And the examination being ended all his evidence was read back to him and he confirmed and ratified it to us together with the assessors, the Promotor fiscal and notary-actuary as undersigned.

  1. In the preamble to the evidence of the first witness the year 1705 is referred to as the thirteenth of the indiction (i.e. a fifteen year administrative period) and the fifth of the pontificate of clement XI.
  2. The manuscript has retained the french translation of the surname White but used the italian form of the first names.
  3. Here JW’s memory is not quite correct; there were five such conferences, not eight, on 11, 18,25 october and 8 and 15 november 1658 (XII 481).
  4. The lawsuit was about the St lazare farm at orsigny, not about the main property. it happened about twelve years before JW entered the congregation but he could have read about it in abelly as well as hearing about it from others. Some years after Vincent’s death the farm came back into St lazare ownership.
  5. Again JW is inaccurate in a detail: de chandenier died in chambéry but there was no CM house there. for references to nine members of this family and Vincent’s relations with them see pp 99-100 of Vol XIV.
  6. In French usage seminarists and students were referred to and addressed as “Brother”.
  7. In french usage seminarists and students were referred to and addressed as “Brother”.

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