The Church in France at the Time of the Birth of Vincent de Paul
God’s wisdom and power in guiding his Church are never so admirable as when he uses the very sufferings she endures to exercise his mercy. These turn her losses into gains, her humiliations to his glory and her sterility into his abundance. This reflects what a prophet had said earlier, that when it seems God has abandoned us, it is only to have us experience more forcefully his mercy and love. 1 When he seems to have turned away his face and forgotten us, it is to prepare us for new blessings and to favor us with his special graces.
The writings of Saint Hilary about the Arians express this thought. In their day they held truth captive in injustice: “The Church of Jesus Christ triumphs when she is struck down. She becomes best known when she is the more disfigured by calumnies. She receives the greatest help from God at the very moment she seems bereft of his protection.” 2
This may be verified by a study of Church history. It speaks of this mystic vessel the Church, seemingly about to founder afloat on the stormy sea of this world, threatened by a thousand perils. She is often within a hair’s breadth of disaster. Always, however, the hand of God is with her, often using the very storms or adverse winds to bring her safely to port. Not to be overwhelmed by such a vast area of consideration, it would be enough to reflect on the deplorable state of the Church in France towards the middle of the last century. This would show the Lord’s paternal care, not only to preserve the Church but also to see to its growth and development. It appeared at times as though he had abandoned her. In the same way we must study the Providence of God in guiding his faithful servant, Vincent de Paul, the great things he wrought in him and by him for the benefit of his holy Church, for his service and for his greater honor and glory. The servant of God was born towards the end of the sixteenth century, when France was caught in several mighty storms. These were the heresies of Luther and Calvin, which had separated a part of the kingdom from the union all Catholics owe to the head of the Church. Soon afterwards an open rebellion took place against the authority of the king. As a holy apostle remarks, heretics reject all submission, even the respect they owe their lawful sovereign. 3
The terrible scourge of the two evils, heresy and civil war, cannot be described. These lasted many years. They left the once prosperous French nation, until recently among the most flourishing monarchies of the world, almost like a theater of the absurd, where violence and impiety played tragic roles. Churches everywhere were destroyed, altars abused, sacred objects profaned, priests slain, and above all these ills was an almost total rejection of all ecclesiastical order and discipline. In the greater part of the kingdom people were like scattered sheep, without spiritual pasturage, sacraments, instruction, or almost any other external help towards their own salvation.
When the invincible courage and wise direction of Henry the Great 4 of glorious memory had restored peace to France, the bishops received the opportunity to put an end to confusion and restore religion to its true place in the nation. They called various provincial councils, and the bishops applied their wise and salutary laws in their local synods. It proved no easy task to overcome the contagion of heresy and the license of the armies. In fact, the remedies proved inadequate to root out the evils of the times.
Although the authorities in the Church worked strenuously to fulfill their duties, cases of gross scandals continued among the clergy. As a result, the priesthood fell into disrepute. In some places this was so marked that members of the nobility would be ordained simply to have a considerable benefice attached to certain positions. It became a sort of insult to say that an upper-class cleric had become a priest.
Another evil developed from the lack of concern and discipline among the clergy, especially in the countryside. The poor people were not instructed in their spiritual duties, and catechizing was almost unknown. For the most part the village pastors, like the shepherds mentioned by the prophet, were content to take the wool and milk from the sheep but did little to provide decent pasturage. 5 Everywhere Christians passed their entire lives in profound ignorance of what was required for eternal salvation. They were unaware of God’s existence, the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, or the incarnation of the Son of God: things which should be known explicitly by all Christians. In what concerned the sacraments it was even worse: which ones should they receive, what dispositions they should bring to their reception, and so on. God alone knows the state of their conscience, living in such complete ignorance of what leads to salvation or what they should know about their faith. Almost no one was available to help them in learning what they were obliged to believe.
Those living in the cities had the advantage of preaching given in the parishes and other churches. Assuredly there was greater knowledge and light there, but unfortunately the knowledge remained sterile and the light was often without warmth. Charity, which is known by its works, was practically unheard of. The spiritual works of mercy in favor of one’s neighbor were little known among the laity. Alms were usually but a pittance. Even wealthy people believed they did enough in giving a small coin to a beggar. On some special occasion they considered a larger alms a major act of charity.
Such was the state of the Church in France when God, rich in mercy and mindful of the great needs of the Church in one of the main regions of the world, raised up his faithful servant Vincent de Paul, among several other great and saintly persons. Filled with his Spirit and strengthened by his grace, he began with untiring zeal to repair the damages and apply the proper remedies.
He first set himself to make sure that the Church was served by good priests who would work diligently and faithfully in the Lord’s vineyard. He developed special activities for ordinands, seminaries, retreats for the clergy, spiritual conferences, and other similar enterprises to further this goal. He either founded these projects or at least promoted them with extraordinary success, as we shall see later in this book.
He combined this zeal for the reformation of the clergy with an ardent charity which moved him to provide instruction and spiritual help to souls in need. He was devoted to the poor country people more than to others, for he judged them to be the most abandoned, and he had a special tenderness for them. It is impossible to describe how hard he labored to deliver them from sin and ignorance by catechizing and helping them to make a general confession. He was not satisfied with the heroic efforts he made for their relief but elicited the support of others to help in the cause as well. His love for the poor was not satisfied until he had founded a new congregation of virtuous missionary priests. They carried on his work not only in France but in many other areas, such as Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides, Poland, Italy, Barbary, and even in the tropics, on the island of Madagascar. Several of these Gospel messengers even gave their lives there in the service of charity.
Neither was Vincent de Paul satisfied to work simply for the spiritual welfare of the poor. He thought of their bodily needs as well. Having made himself poor for the love of Jesus Christ and having left all to follow him, he had no more worldly goods to give. His heart was so much on fire with that heavenly flame which the divine Savior had come to enkindle upon the earth that he was most successful in awakening this same spirit in some well-disposed persons he encountered.
We shall see in his life some marvelous examples which will show the graces which God had poured forth on this faithful servant. Even amid the corruption of this present age he was able to arouse in many souls the spirit and charity of the first Christians. This happened although it has never been more true, as the apostle says, that everyone looks out for his own interests and not those of Jesus Christ. 6 The example and words of Vincent de Paul sufficed to remove this root of all evil from the hearts of a great number of virtuous persons. The result was that their greatest joy and satisfaction became, and remains even today, not only to give a notable share of their worldly goods to help the poor, but more remarkably to give themselves, their health, and even their lives in the most demanding tasks of Christian charity.
Paris was not the only place to benefit from his efforts in favor of an innumerable multitude of needy of men and women of all classes, ages. Because of the extreme misery accompanying wars and other public calamities, their charity extended to the remote provinces, even to the French frontier, which felt the effects of the war most severely. His practical help reached to Lorraine, the Hebrides, Barbary, and several other remote regions, as we shall see later in this book.