The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book I, Chapter XIII

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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Different Works of Piety that Monsieur Vincent Was Involved with After His Return to the de Gondi Household

True charity is never content to sit idly by. Once it possesses one’s heart perfectly, it is ever on the alert to do all it can to further God’s glory and bring about the salvation and sanctification of souls. Since Monsieur Vincent was so endowed with this virtue, he showed its fruits wherever he was. No sooner had he returned to the de Gondi household than he undertook duties similar to those he had done in Chatillon and the other places he had lived. After the missions at Villepreux and its surrounding villages, which we spoke of in a previous chapter, he began other missions in all the villages which depended on the de Gondi family. These produced unbelievable fruits, often aided by Madame de Gondi who, though unwell, would go in person to distribute alms or help in other ways. She visited and consoled the sick living on her or her husband’s lands, healed long-standing arguments, and brought lawsuits to an end. She also supported by her own authority all the good that Monsieur Vincent and his team attempted to accomplish for the suppression of abuse and scandal and for the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Finally, after returning to Montmirail, Monsieur Vincent took up again his usual routine, teaching catechism to the poor and to children, promoting frequent confession, and visiting the sick poor. Once, speaking in one of his sermons of the special devotion all Christians ought to have for the Mother of God, he had the children begin a hymn in her honor on a Saturday. This practice continues still. The older people who survived Monsieur Vincent spoke after his death of how the people from that time on always thought of him as a saint.

During 1620, while Monsieur Vincent was so occupied at Montmirail, Madame de Gondi learned that three heretics lived in the vicinity. She requested that Monsieur Vincent undertake their conversion. She invited these gentlemen to her chateau, where Monsieur Vincent would spend two hours in instructing and in answering their various objections. This lasted for a week, after which God opened the eyes and touched the hearts of two of these men, but not the third. He was a bit conceited, given to dogmatizing, but not noted for the personal probity of his life. Although convinced of the truth presented by Monsieur Vincent, he was not yet persuaded. He looked for subtleties, and always had a few new doubts. Once, as Monsieur Vincent later recounted in one of his edifying talks, this person seemed on the verge of abjuring his errors but raised a final objection.

Monsieur, you have said that the Holy Spirit guides the Church of Rome, but I have trouble believing this. You see Catholics in the countryside abandoned by their evil and ignorant shepherds. They are not taught their duty and for the most part scarcely know what Christianity is all about. If, on the other hand, you look at the cities, you see them filled with do-nothing priests and monks. In Paris alone there are perhaps ten thousand who leave the peasants in lamentable ignorance, leading to their damnation. And yet you would have me persuaded that the Holy Spirit is behind all this? That I will never believe.

This objection raised by the heretic deeply impressed Monsieur Vincent. It renewed his conviction of the great spiritual needs of the people of the countryside, and the obligation of helping them, all of which he knew from personal experience. Without admitting this, he replied to the heretic:

You are mistaken in what you say. Many parishes have good pastors and vicars. Among the clergy and religious in the cities, many go into the country regions to catechize and preach. Some of these religious are given to prayer, chanting the office both day and night. Others serve the public good by writing books, teaching sound doctrine, or in administering the sacraments. If some do nothing, these are individual men subject to error and are not the Church. When we speak of the Church as being led by the Holy Spirit, we refer to the Church as a whole, when she is assembled in council. Also, the Holy Spirit is present in the faithful when they act by the light of faith and follow the path of Christian justice. Those who do not resist the Holy Spirit. While they are still members of the Church, they live (as Saint Paul put it) according to the flesh, and shall die. 1

Although this response should have been enough to answer this heretic, he remained obstinate in his error. His mind was so deeply impressed with the ignorance of the peasants and the little concern of the priests for their welfare that he regarded it as an infallible argument against the Church being led by the Holy Spirit.

The following year Monsieur Vincent returned to Montmirail together with several priests to present missions in this town and the surrounding villages. One was Monsieur Feron, then bachelor in theology and later doctor of the Sorbonne and archdeacon of Chartres. The second was Monsieur [Bernard] Duchesne, also doctor of the Sorbonne and archdeacon of Beauvais. Several other priests and religious who were his friends accompanied him. All the region benefited so much from these missions that the obstinate heretic of whom we spoke was moved by curiosity to investigate what was happening. He attended the catechetical instructions and sermons. He saw for himself the care being taken for the instruction of the peasants in what they needed to know for their salvation. He witnessed the way in which even the slowest and crudest were treated to help them understand what they must believe and do. He saw the effects in the hearts of even the most hardened sinners to bring them to conversion and penance. All these things impressed him so strongly that he sought out Monsieur Vincent to say to him: “Now I can see that the Holy Spirit truly guides the Church for I see how much care is taken for the instruction and salvation of these poor villagers. I am now ready to enter the Church, if you would be pleased to receive me.” When Monsieur Vincent asked him if any doubts still remained in his mind, he replied, “No, I believe all you told me. I am now prepared to renounce publicly all my past errors.”

Monsieur Vincent asked him several other questions on the main truths of faith to see if he remembered well what he had been taught. Since he was satisfied with the answers, he directed him to appear the following Sunday at the church in the village of Marchais, near Montmirail, where a mission was in progress. Here he would make his abjuration and receive absolution for his heresy.

He appeared as arranged. In the presence of the official witnesses who had been notified, Monsieur Vincent called him by name at the end of the morning sermon to come before the congregation. He was asked if he still wished to renounce his heresy and enter the sheepfold of the true Church. He replied, pointing to a statue, “Yes, I am still of this mind, but I still have one difficulty. I cannot believe that any power resides in this crudely fashioned stone statue of the Blessed Virgin here.”

Monsieur Vincent answered: “The Church teaches that no special power resides in material things, unless it be on those occasions that it pleases God to confer this power upon them. He did this, for example, with the rod of Moses, the source of so many miracles. Even children understand this.” Thereupon he called upon one of the better-instructed children to explain what we ought to believe about sacred images. The child replied, “They are good to have, and we respect them, not because of what they are made from, but because they represent our Lord Jesus Christ, his glorious Mother, or the other saints in paradise. They have triumphed over the world, and now these silent images urge us to follow in their faith and good works.”

This reply so pleased Monsieur Vincent that he repeated it. He pointed out to the heretic that there was no reason to delay at this difficulty, once he understood Catholic belief. The same was true of all the other points of doctrine. All the same, he thought he was not yet ready for his abjuration and put it off for another occasion. In fact, he later did present himself again, abjured his heresy before the whole parish, and publicly professed the Catholic faith to the edification of the entire region. He has persevered in this belief ever since.

These events surrounding the conversion of this heretic, and particularly the reason for leaving his error to embrace the Catholic faith, that is, the care taken in the education of the country poor, led to Monsieur Vincent’s speaking of it to his Congregation in a conference he once gave: “What happiness for us missionaries to witness to the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit, by our work for the instruction and sanctification of the poor!” 2

  1. Rom 8:13.
  2. CED XI:34-37.

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