The historical context of the Founders: an introduction

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Fr. Jean Pierre Renouard, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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Like every other human being, Saint Vincent was born into a particular society and a specific political context. He was marked by the setting of his childhood, his youth and his adulthood, and we must emphasize that he was shaped and influenced by all of this. We are always women and men of our times.

Saint Vincent lived in an epoch in which the monarchy was of divine right. Royal power came from God and nothing, not even the Pope, could avoid this. To do so would be a sin against God. This orientation was approved and decided on by the Pope, thanks to the founder of the Carolingian dynasty, Pepin Le Bref: in the year 751, the Pope declared that beginning from his (Pepin le Bref) second coro­nation, the person of the king was sacred and inviolable. He was raised to a superior rank and all his subjects owed him obedience.

This universal recognition — especially in France — applied to all the royal dynasties: the Capetians from 987 to 1328, the Valois from 1328 to 1589, and the Bourbons from 1589 to 1793.

Saint Vincent was born during the reign of the last king of the Valois dynasty, Henri III, third son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. The wars of religion that had begun under the reign of his eldest brother Francois II and his other brother Charles IX continued during the reign of Henri III. The young Vincent would have heard about these wars between the Catholics and the Protestants and perhaps he saw the damage caused by them in the region near Pouy, his birthplace.

Henri III was assassinated by a fanatical monk named Jacques Clement and left no male descendants. At that time there was a law in France that forbade any woman from taking the throne: it was the Salique law begun in 1328 of Frankish origin. From that time on, this law would be associated with another law that stated that only the eldest son could inherit the kingdom.

This is why Henri IV was the successor of Henri III who died without a male heir, and why the dynasty of the Bourbons was begun. Henri IV was the son of Robert, the count of Clermont, the sixth son of Saint Louis. This king, who was always greatly loved by the French people, was known by Saint Vincent because he grew up in Pau, not far from Pouy. Henri IV’s mother was Protestant and so was he. He was the King of Navarre, a region which bordered the entire south­west region of France at that time. He thus became the King of France in 1589 while remaining the King of Navarre. In 1572, he married Marguerite de Valois who would become Queen Margot, and who played a role in the early years of Saint Vincent’s time in Paris.

King Henri IV converted to Catholicism because it was un­thinkable for a Protestant to reign over a population of subjects that had a Catholic majority. He reigned with great competence and his reign would be known as a time of bringing peace to the hearts and spirit of many. He ended the use of weapons, and in fact, in 1598, he brought an end to the wars of religion by the Edict of Nantes. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by Ravaillac on May 14, 1610.

As his son had not yet reached the age of majority, a regency rule of governance was established with the Queen Mother Marie de Medici, the second wife of Henri IV. Louis XIII, the son of Henri IV, assumed power as king when he reached the age of majority in 1614. The nobility of the kingdom had begun to become agitated in 1612 and were contesting the royal authority.

It must be noted that at this time, Vincent de Paul was already in Paris, as he had arrived in 1608:

  • he spent time with others from the Landes region (his region of origin) living in Paris;
  • he was assisted by Berulle;
  • he read the works of Francis de Sales;
  • he underwent two successive trials: the false accusation by the judge of Sore and the temptation against the faith;
  • he spent time living with the Oratorian community but did not become a member.

In other words, Vincent began his life in Paris in the context of much agitation, and in response, he would have taken the side of the King because of the divine authority the king represented. He entered smoothly into the life of the de Gondi household who was part of the nobility who supported the king. Later, he became involved in public affairs, notably in expressing disapproval for the policies developed by the Prime Minister Mazarin, but he would never dispute the abso­lute authority of the King.

You need to understand that this concept of authority of the king also applied to the way of understanding authority in general. For Vincent, all authority came from on high and had to be under­stood as such: the authority of the superior or the Sister Servant was never disputed. They transmitted something from God, and we can understand how it could be written in the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission that: “the confreres should also obey the superior general promptly, without complaining, and unwaveringly…. This obedience is, to some extent, blind. It implies giving up our own opinion and wishes… like a file in the hands of a carpenter” (C.R. V, 2). We have here a very pyramidal concept, an Ignatian concept very much influenced by the royal structure of the times.

This royal authority would be reinforced and absolute power would take shape especially under the reign of King Louis XIV, whose reign Vincent would not know. Louis XIV came to power through a famous overthrow of the State (coup d’etat) in 1661, just one year after the death of our Founder.

During the missionary life of Saint Vincent, there were two prime ministers, both of whom were Cardinals, Richelieu and Mazarin. They governed in the name of the king and followed a policy with several requirements:

  • unity of the kingdom (political and religious unity according to the slogan: “united region, united religion, one religion”);
  • submission of all to the king (submission of Protestants and of the nobility);
  • influence of the kingdom in Europe.

This policy led to a return of the wars of religion culminating in a reversal of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, a continual struggle against the nobility leading to the Fronde in which much of the population suffered greatly under Mazarin, and the Thirty Years War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, five years after the death of Louis XIII.

All of this creates the background scene of a country in a constant state of war with large-scale devastation and starvation. Saint Vincent would try to rebuild peace by confronting Mazarin and taking great risks (he would be dismissed from the Council of Conscience) but his political intervention will be occasional since he will intervene more skillfully in the social and religious domains:

  • in assistance to devastated Provinces (Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy, etc.);
  • in social assistance to populations (soup kitchens);
  • in the frequent correspondence he had with those in positions of leadership;
  • and finally in the creation of numerous Confraternities of Charity.

He would become the apostle of charity and mercy working in Paris but especially in the countryside areas since France was pre­dominantly rural and was organized around the land. This charity was well-received by a population of about 20 million inhabitants, 40 persons per square kilometer, with an average lifespan of 35 years, always threatened by three dangers: war, plague and famine. Note well that Saint Vincent would face great population and economic crises in 1630 and from 1648 to 1653. But that is another story!

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