The Eloquence of Vincent De Paul

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Eamon Devlin · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 9.
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In the present climate of renewal the “eloquence” of Vincent de Paul may at best appear quaint; at worst it might seem heady and superfluous! I have adapted this article from a French thesis which I did as part of my university examination, hence the academic thrust of the subject.

The aim of the article is to discredit further the traditional view of Vincent as an ignorant man who was even hostile to learning and knowledge. Vincent himself is the greatest offender here and the error has long since been put right. Yet while I found that Vincent can and does attain to an eloquence which in his sermons, confer­ences and letters pleases by the use of all the techniques of rhetoric, I found too that all his learning and all his eloquence were at the service of his main aim, his haunting obsession with saving the poor. This is the relevance of the article for us


“In the letters of St Vincent de Paul all danger of rhetoric has disappeared. His deeds are eloquent, not his words…”

“…St Vincent de Paul has the gift of enlightening souls and not that of writing…”

The name of Vincent de Paul is synonymous with charity. He is the Apostle of Charity whose works have outlived him, and that is doubt­less how Vincent would have wanted it. Nearly all literary critics of the seventeenth century have tended to play off his charitable works against his achievement as a preacher and man of letters. While the letters themselves do allow for some such opposition there is, I feel, the risk of a very limited appreciation of the man Vincent de Paul and, by extension, of the scope of his work.

In speaking of Vincent’s eloquence as a preacher and writer I will use the word in its original and purest sense of speaking out to persuade and to touch, e-loquor. Eloquence with its modern connotations of pleasing through rhetorical technique is implied only in a secondary way. Vincent’s eloquence, then, has to do with his overriding desire to evangelise the poor and will be seen to consist chiefly in its facility to adapt itself according to circumstances and to the needs of his hearers or readers.

The background: seventeenth century rhetoric

The seventeenth century in France is called the great century because it witnessed the full flowering of literature and the arts. Humanism is the dominant philosophy and finds its way into society through the famous salons of the period. All the famous people of the period frequented these literary and religious salons and it is through their influence that the dechristianisation of the cultivated elite of Paris took place. Preaching was considered a literary genre and the upper classes thronged the churches of Paris to study the rhetoric and oratorical style of the sermons rather than listen to their message. As more and more priests conformed themselves to the demands of such an influential audience the medium became more important than the message and the great masses of the poor of Paris became more alienated.

The Council of Trent had delcared that all preaching should make use of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers only, but by the sev­enteenth century the protagonists of the counter-reformation found themselves in a different position. The Jesuits opted for an integra­tion of Christian truth and pagan literature and rhetoric in the hope of holding the attention of the cultured elite. Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva, felt that the Parisian elite with its humanist philosophy was at least fideist and he visualised a new Christian literature which would replace the pagan classics. His Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) and his Treatise on the Love of God (1616) are among the most success­ful of these Christian works. In a letter dating from about 1620 Francis de Sales justifies his humanist approach:

…we are fishers, fishers of men. In our fishing therefore not only must we be very careful, work very hard and give much time to it, but we must also set traps, lay down bait, yes even, if I may say so, we should use “holy tricks”. The world has become so tricky that henceforth we won’t be able to touch it except with fine gloves or dress its wounds except with delicate plasters; but what does it matter as long as men are cured and in the end saved? Charity, our Queen, does all things for her children.

It is with the successors of Francis de Sales, men like Camus the bishop of Belley, that the integration of Christian faith with classical humanism begins to give undue weight to the latter. Camus’ sermons consist of little more than exaggerated rhetoric. In one sermon alone he quotes fifty lines of Virgil and Lucretius. In another he begins by speaking of “quenching the thirst of the ears of his listeners by offering them the intoxicating cup of his words”. He proceeds to call on “the zephyrs of the Holy Spirit to carry the sails of his thoughts into the sea of his audience”.

Vincent de Paul: desirable Ignorance.

Vincent de Paul refuses any compromising with the securalising influences of classical literature. In preaching he is scornful of any attempt to please or delight the listeners. One must preach simply and familiarly. Vincent is always seen to adopt the more practical line of approach and in so doing he seems to despise learning and knowledge:

…the most learned do not usually produce the most fruit (IV 126)

Vincent counsels another scrupulous confrère to forget his study if only he can fulfil his other duties (VII 518). Vincent himself of course wanted to be considered ignorant. Abelly notes this as one of the two of the saint’s outstanding faults but it is important to consider the back­ground against which Vincent’s anti-intellectualism arises. It is the period of the Catholic counter-reformation which is marked by a strong emphasis on Church authority. Vincent’s letters suggest that he in particular had a deep distrust of what he calls des opinions nouvelles; he is for example chief among those who lobbied the French bishops to ask the Pope to condemn the Jansenists. Among his own confrères Vincent dreads the inordinate thirst for knowledge and he impresses time and again on confrères, and especially on the seminarists, that they are studying in “the school of our Lord” (IV125). This implies that confrères should study “soberly . . ., humbly . . ., and with love”. But if he is suspicious of knowledge Vincent can think of something which is worse still:

…We need knowledge… but let us fear, let us fear, confrères, for those who are wise have much to fear: scientia inflat; but as for those who have no knowledge it is worse still unless they humble themselves (XI128).

St Vincent and preaching

The perversity of the world has forced preachers, in an effort to combine the useful with the agreeable, to make use of fine words and subtle conceits, and all rhetorical devices to appease by any means and to stem as best they can the wickedness of the world (XI258).

Vincent felt that the medium had become the message and in his slightly sarcastic allusion to the Preface to the Introduction to the Devout Life we can sense the depth of his distrust. But we will have to consider Vincent’s eloquence in the light of the audience to which he speaks. Francis de Sales and most of the famous preachers of the time addressed themselves to the dechristianised elite of Paris; others devoted themselves to stemming the tide of Calvinism; Vincent was obsessed with the great majority of the poor people in town and country. He is always mindful not only of the vanity of rhetoric and the temptation to preach oneself, but also, and most important of all, of the needs of his people. Therefore he recommends simplicity and humility. To a priest who wrote to him in search of “a good preacher” Vincent replies:

You tell me that either I send a good preacher or else we should not get involved in preaching in the light of so many other mis­sioners who are excellent preachers. We have no such preachers. M Boussordec however speaks very usefully. And anyway if we aim to teach the poor in order to save them and not to win praise and commendation for ourselves, then we have all the skill we need for that (VIII208).

Vincent invented his petite méthode to guide the confrères in their preaching. His little method with its emphasis on motives, nature and means reflects a desire not only to explain but also to persuade so that Calvet can speak of it as “a popular, realistic and direct eloquence which served as a model to his missioners”. We must therefore assess Vincent’s rejection of what pleases in preaching in the context of his desire to touch and persuade:

How many people do we see converted by those other methods? We however have the evidence of our own; but of these new methods you have the very opposite experience; they are all up in the air, they only skim the surface — sound and fury signifying nothing! (XI280).

In a very real sense Vincent de Paul is in a tradition of sacred elo­quence which has its roots in the Council of Trent. He partakes of an ideal which sacrifices rhetoric to the word of God. Again, Vincent’s letters reveal that he considered himself part of a preaching tradition with stretches from Augustine (De doctrina Christiana) to Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales. Towards the end of the famous confer­ence of August 20 1655 “On the method to use in preaching” Vincent speaks of the scope of influence of his petite méthode:

Don’t believe, Gentlemen, that this method is only for the country, the poor people. It is indeed excellent for the people, but also for more learned people, for the towns, … for Paris, … for the Court itself.

This is his telling conclusion:

Gentlemen, there is no better or more efficacious method, for the best method is always that which uses everything necessary to win over the listeners (XI 281ff).

Here we see that Vincent is in fact ready to adapt his method of preaching to the needs of his audience provided that the aim be to move and persuade. Vincent’s own great innovation is his ability to modify the tradition of Christian eloquence to the needs of his poorly educated people.

Although Jeanmaire published The Sermons of St Vincent de Paul, his Contemporaries and Immediate Successors in 1859 most histori­ans are agreed that the manuscript he was following dates from only 1712 and contains none of Vincent’s sermons. We have, therefore, only two authentic sermons which date from early in Vincent’s ministry, probably 1616 and 1617. The first of these, on the importance of the catechism, was preached to the poor of Saint-Leorard-de-Chaume. Though he has not yet invented his petite methode Vincent uses it as a natural structure for his sermon. There are, he says, three kinds of sermon, one which teaches, one which exhorts and a third kind which does both. This sermon is basically doctrinal but it is also very persua­sive through the faith of the preacher himself rather than as the result of a studied eloquence. The second sermon, on Holy Communion, is important in that we have an early draft of it as well as the finished product. There are interesting developments from the early version to the later which, according to one commentator, prove that “Vincent’s anti-rhetorical stance does not exlcude the use of rhetorical devices”. The sermon is essentially inspirational and Vincent consciously adorns his phrases in order to emphasise the importance of his message. While in the early version Vincent dwells on the punishment incurred by those who partake of the Body of Christ unworthily, in the later sermon he adds to the reality of punishment a comparison which brings out a sense of the great gift being offered:

Anyone who is to receive a greater than himself takes many pains to receive him worthily. He tidies and cleans and fixes up his house, he rolls out the red carpet and makes sure everything is in order… To receive our Lord, however, none of this is necessary (XIII 37).

The periphrase by which, in the first sermon, he speaks of our Lady as “a place filled with everything that is perfect” is adorned even further in the second:

Since his only Son was to take flesh of a woman the Eternal Father ordained that this should be a woman worthy to receive him, a woman full of grace and holiness, free from all sin,… the most pure and immaculate virgin Mary… Therefore God planned from all eternity to prepare this dwelling for him, to adorn it with the rarest and worthiest gifts… so that it might be a temple worthy of God, a place worthy of his Son (XIII 35).

The Conferences of St Vincent

None of the three hundred or so conferences of Vincent which have come down to us were written in his hand but André Dodin claims that they do faithfully express his thoughts and “as far as possible, his turn of phrase”. Vincent’s ideas on the conference have played an impor­tant role in the development of what one commentator has called this “genre of religious literature”. While the sermons of Vincent were for the poor, his conferences were for an audience already imbued with religious ideas, his confrères and the Daughters of Charity. Vincent himself much preferred the conference form to that of the sermon; he tells the Daughters that while it is good to hear a sermon they must prefer the conference, which he frequently calls une assemblée or gath­ering together (IX 73). The reason for Vincent’s preference is a simple one which reflects the primary aim of his evangelical preaching, to teach and to persuade:

…everything said in our gatherings is pertinent for us as a group and as individuals, which is not the case with sermons (IX 73).

The great strength of the conference lies not only in the fact of its treating a topic which is relevant for all those assembled, but also in the sense of community and solidarity it can create by bringing together the members from their diverse works. Vincent realised this too and he said of the conference that what prayer is to the soul of the individual the conference is to the soul of the community (IX 401-2).

In one of his conferences Vincent digresses to speak of the evolu­tion of the genre. He notes that it existed before the sermon, having its origins in the beginnings of the Church:

It is certain that Jesus Christ himself instituted conferences and after his death all the teaching of the apostles and priests took the form of conferences. There was no sermon (IX 395).

As the number of the faithful grew the conference had to give way to the sermon but Vincent sees it as a salutary sign that the conference is becoming important again in his own time. There is in this clear distinction between the conference and the sermon an important con­demnation of the rhetoric which characterises the public sermon; the development of the conference also shows an increasingly anti-intel­lectual tendency. Vincent used his little way in the conference but as this often proved too laborious and complicated for the early Daughters he decided to suppress that part which describes the nature of a virtue. Yet the conferences are full of spontaneous eloquence issuing from the burning faith of Vincent himself, and of rhetorical techniques which spring forth naturally to meet the needs of his hearers. Thus for example the rhetorical figures which Vincent calls upon most often are the simple ones of repetition and exclamation.

Vincent’s use of exclamation, for example, makes for some of the most eloquent of his conferences. In the course of a conference with the confrères Vincent speaks of two priests who have suffered greatly in their apostolates, one in Algiers the other in Madagascar:

O Saviour! O my Saviour! What will become of these poor men? What are they to do? … what will our poor brother do, this man who has left his country, his homeland, his relatives, his place of birth when he might have had a peaceful life?…

Confrères, let us pray for M Bourdaise who is so far away and all alone, M Bourdaise who, as you know, has with great pain and care brought to Jesus Christ a multitude of the poor people of the country he is in. M Bourdaise, are you still alive, or not? If you are, may God preserve you! If you are in heaven, pray for us! (XII 69).

This passage made a great impression on commentators such as Bremond, Calvet, Chalumeau and Coste. Bremond has this to say about it:

We ought to know a passage like this very well, we ought to know it by heart from our schooldays! It is worthy of a place with the three great examples of the genre: David weeping for Jonathan, Monies Gelboe; Virgil, heu si qua fata; and St Bernard in the funeral oration for his brother.

Ever attentive to the needs of his audience Vincent was not slow to modify the genre of the conference. His great innovation was the intro­duction of a dialogue structure into the conference form. Where others had fallen back on all the embellishments of rhetoric to delight their audience while instructing, and so hold their attention, Vincent’s choice of a dialogue approach in which he asked questions and the Sisters gave answers seems to make up for the lack of rhetoric in his conferences. In this too however we see that Vincent does speak eloquently and that his eloquence is one which always seeks to teach and to persuade. One of the greatest preachers of the seventeenth century, Bossuet, was a disciple of Vincent and wrote this of Vincent’s eloquence in a letter to Pope Clement XI:

When we used to listen attentively to him giving a conference we felt that the words of the Apostle were being fulfilled in him: “If anyone is a preacher let his words be as the words of God”.

The Letters of St Vincent

As regards the letters of Vincent I think that they too illustrate by their simplicity and direct style this natural eloquence of Vincent which springs from the fire of his conviction. The other striking feature of this huge correspondence (fifty years after his death, 30,000 letters of his were still extant) is the variety of subject, style and correspon­dent. Though he writes to confrères, Daughters, the Pope, bishops and politicians about matters ranging from the provision of sufficient food for the confrères to the question of the Fronde war in Paris Vincent is always, directly or indirectly, taken up with the salvation of the poor. His letters speak of a kind of obsession and it is this which makes them eloquent. Calvet, too, senses this:

With a mind so obsessed and a heart so enflamed, how could Vincent de Paul not have been so eloquent?

Likewise Emile Trolliet, a literary critic:

Vincent is not concerned with making up striking comparisons but with helping the poor and saving sinners… He inspires in his double army of co-workers a passion for charity and a distrust of style… He writes to them letters which are plain as prosody but which are profoundly persuasive…

Vincent’s eloquence in all his letters is a product of an economy of words and a directness which is frequently firm but often humourous. There is, for example, a series of letters between Vincent and Louise de Marillac which pre-date the foundation of the Daughters of Charity and which trace the development of a close friendship between the two saints. Vincent is acting as Louise’s spiritual director but his efforts are dogged by her scrupulosity in even the smallest matters. Louise often brings out the most human in Vincent. In this undated letter we see Vinvent getting impatient with her but the tone of the letter is a combi­nation of firmness and charity:


Good evening to you; I wish you wouldn’t get worked up about your son Michael’s future … In God’s name, woman, Divine Providence is full of all riches and they honour our Lord most who abide by Providence and do not try to direct it themselves! “Yes”, you will tell me, “but I’m getting worked up on God’s behalf”. You are no longer serving God if to serve him you are getting yourself into a nervous state (I 68).

Sometimes Vincent’s resoluteness takes the form of a long involved letter in which he doggedly argues his stance allowing no point to escape his attention. In one such letter to Jean Dehorgny in Rome Vincent uses a style which is both to the point and yet full of detailed logical argument. It is 1648, the Jansenist question is to the fore in France and while a pronouncement from the Pope was awaited in France many leading figures took sides in an open and often bitter debate. Vincent opposed the Jansenists (their elitist tendencies would have been anathema to his desire to save especially the most deprived spiritually and materially) and took it on himself to persuade the bishops of France to write to the Pope asking him to condemn these nouvelles opinions. Not everyone in the Congregation agreed with his stance and Dehorgny wrote from Rome and told Vincent that he was making a great mistake. In his lengthy reply Vincent shows an intimate knowledge of the personalities involved and the opinions put forward. His reasons for condemning the Jansenists vary from the plain fact that Church authorities have already come out against them to the fact that he himself knows Saint-Cryan personally and can see the real aim of the opinions he holds, “…to destroy the present state of the Church and to gain power over it”. In the letter Vincent shows himself to be very conversant with Arnauld’s literary defence of Jansenism De la fréquente communion and he refutes the arguments of the book by quoting successive Popes and Fathers of the Church.

Letters such as I have already mentioned show us the truth of at least one commentator’s belief that Vincent’s eloquence springs from his lively mind and his impassioned heart. The literary critic Emile Trolliet adds to this that “often too the sublime passes from the content to the form itself”. When it is a matter of administration and he has to influence secular or religious authorities Vincent is capable of a style which has the diction and delicacy of diplomacy. In all his letters to the Vatican, whether it be to oppose the move to cloister his Daughters or to win approval for a new missionary adventure, Vincent combines an almost excessive deference with a practical tone which pleads its case. Thus, writing to the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda to get permission to send two Irish confrères to the Hebrides, Vincent concludes a very deferential opening with a very practical reason for his request. These priests, he says, are needed “non solum propter scientiam, probitatem et animarum zelum, quibus multum commendantur, sed etiam quia harum insularum incolae lingua ut plurimum utuntur hibernica, et ibi nulli alii sunt sacerdotes” (IV 92).

Hitherto it is evident that the stylistic aspects of Vincent’s letters have always played a secondary role to his practical aims. Yet I would like to conclude by suggesting that there was perhaps a time in Vincent’s life when the delectare element may have been more important than the persuadere. Unfortunately most of the surviving letters of Vincent date from 1640 until his death. There are only seven letters dating from the first twenty years of his priesthood (1600-1620) when it was a more secular Vincent who was writing. Among these are the two famous letters to M de Comet in which Vincent speaks of his time as a slave in North Africa. The style of the longer of these two letters is very differ­ent indeed from that of all the letters of his later life. The letter reads like an adventure story and Bremond compares it to the best chapter of the Thousand and One Nights. The fine literary style of this letter finds echoes throughout the other letters of Vincent, though in later years I think Vincent consciously suppressed it.

Here is one last example of a letter to Jane de Chantal in which Vincent seems to forget himself for a moment and to imitate the style of their common friend Francis de Sales:

I have received your letter…, and you can imagine with what reverence and devotion, my most honourable Mother, since it is a letter from my only mother and is full of sweet perfume of her spirit. O Lord, my dear Mother, how this letter has brought balm to my heart! Oh, indeed blessed be he for the love of whom your kindness has offered to receive us, to house us and to furnish us! (I 574).

Although he can produce an ornate style the letters of Vincent show that his eloquence is in fact the result of his desire to persuade his reader:

…to express his thought he has found a simple and direct form, a terse and racy style which does not win the distinction of a Bérulle or of an Olier but which is always close to reality; as a result of which he is a great writer precisely because he takes pains not to be a writer.


Vincent de Paul is eloquent in the true sense of the word. In his sermons, conferences and letters Vincent desires to touch and to persuade. I noted at the beginning of this article that Vincent’s personal gifts have been eclipsed by his numerous works of charity. That is how he would have wanted it and yet perhaps the present-day scope of his works is itself the most efficacious witness to the eloquence of the man who fired his priests and sisters with a passion for charity. Calvet’s phrase echoes in my mind:

With a mind so obsessed and a heart so enflamed how could Vincent de Paul not have been eloquent?

It is doubtless true that Vincent’s letters and conferences have an eloquence which is stylistically pleasing, but ultimately his eloquence wells up from the depth of his faith and his haunting obsession with the salvation of the poor. Calvet concludes:

He is not a thinker, a speculator like Bérulle or Condren; though he wrote much, Vincent wanted to situate himself outside the bounds of literature. But his spirit is so alive and his heart so warm that the gift of style is given him as a bonus so that there is not, in the fourteen volumes he has left us, one page which is dull and uninteresting.

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