Monsieur Vincent in Service to the King and Kingdom during the Troubled Times Beginning in 1652
In dealing with wrongs, it is not enough to be concerned with effects, the causes must be addressed. All the charitable efforts of Monsieur Vincent during the war certainly alleviated much of the suffering of the poor. Yet, to deliver them permanently from this scourge and to avoid the unspeakable disorders and enormous sins committed during such times of trouble and division this great servant of God saw that a more fundamental remedy was necessary. Filled with prudence and zeal as he was, he understood that there would be no hope for success unless the root of the evils, that is, division and war, were attacked. An assured peace was the remedy, and this could come about only by the complete submission and obedience of subjects to their sovereign. The union of head and members, established by God for the body politic as well as in nature, was the path to order, and this to peace, which according to Saint Augustine, is simply the tranquility of order. 1
Monsieur Vincent realized that the conflagration was spreading to every region of the kingdom. He foresaw the enormous ills in store for the state and for religion itself should this evil go unchecked. He resolved, then, to use all his efforts to extinguish this unholy fire. First he had recourse to God. He invited all well-intentioned people he knew to do the same. He hoped that by their prayers, alms, fasts and other works of penance they might appease the divine justice, make reparation for the sins committed against his divine majesty, draw down his mercy, and gain peace. At the house of Saint Lazare he established the practice that every day three of his missionaries fasted for this intention–a priest, a cleric, and a brother. The priest celebrated mass on this occasion, at which the other two received communion. He himself took his turn at this devotion, although he was over seventy years of age at the time. 2
Once, when leaving the chapel after reflecting on the horrors of war not only in France but in several other Christian countries, and having just finished his mental prayer on the subject of the utility of suffering, he was moved to speak to his entire community:
Once again I repeat the recommendation I have so often made to pray for peace. May it please him to bring together the hearts of Christian rulers. Alas! we see war on all sides and everywhere: war in France, war in Spain, in Italy, Germany, Sweden, in Poland, where they are invaded from three directions, in Ireland where the poor people are driven from their lands into the mountains and nearly inaccessible rocky regions. Scotland has fared no better, and everyone knows how bad things are in England. War everywhere and misery everywhere! In France such a multitude of people in such a deplorable state! O Savior, O Savior, how many suffer? If for the four months we have experienced the war here we have seen it bring such misery to the people who have flocked from all parts of the kingdom to Paris, the heart of France where we have provisions in abundance, what shall we say of those poor people who live in the frontier provinces, and over the space of twenty years have felt the scourge of war? If they sow, who knows who will reap? The armies come to harvest, to pillage and take away all. Anything the soldiers do not take the officers pick up. How can anyone go on? They are left to die. If any real virtue exists, it is found mainly among the poor. They have a lively faith, they believe simply, they are submissive to God’s will, they have an extraordinary patience in their sufferings, and they endure all that the war brings upon them. Even in their ordinary occupation they work hard, exposed to the sun and all kinds of weather. These poor farmers and vine dressers live by the sweat of their brow, expecting that at least we others will pray to God for them.
Alas my brothers, while they wear themselves out in their labor, we seek the shade and take our rest. In our missions we are protected from the weather by our churches. We are not exposed to the wind, to the rain, nor to the rigors of the seasons. We who live off the labor of these poor people and with the patrimony of Jesus Christ ought to think each time we go to the refectory for our meals whether we have really earned the bread we are about to eat. For myself this thought has often given me much consternation, and I have said to myself, you poor creature, have you earned your bread today? This bread which comes from the work of the poor? At least, my brothers, if we have not earned it as they do, pray for them. Let no day pass that we do not beseech him to bestow the grace upon them that they will profit from their sufferings.
As we have said these past days, God is particularly attentive to the priests to stop the course of his anger. He waits for them to do as Aaron did, to take the censer in hand interposing themselves between these poor people and his own wrath. Like Moses they should become the intermediaries before God to avert the consequences of their sin and ignorance which perhaps could have been avoided if they were better instructed or had worked more towards their own conversion. We owe to these poor the exercise of charity, both to fulfill our office as priests and to thank them for what we receive from their labor. While they suffer and work hard against so many obstacles it is our duty, like Moses, to have our arms raised continually in prayer for them. If they suffer for their ignorance and sin, we ought to intercede for them before the mercy of God. Charity obliges us to do this. If we do not spend ourselves to teach them and aid them in this perfect conversion to God, even at the cost of our life, we are in some way the cause of all the ills they suffer. 3
This is how Monsieur Vincent urged his own family to pray, work, and suffer to banish ignorance and sin, as the chief causes of all the evils they experienced. In this way they would obtain from God a true and lasting peace. This was the surest remedy for all the evils of the times. He never stopped recommending to his community to continue their prayers to God for peace. He had the custom of praying the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus every morning. When he came to the words “Jesus, God of peace,” he pronounced them more piously and with more devotion, and always repeated the invocation. Besides, he took every occasion that presented itself to recommend to everyone he knew to offer their prayers, their alms, their pilgrimages, fasts and mortifications and penances to obtain from God the peace so necessary and so much desired.
An older priest associated with Monsieur Vincent at Saint Lazare gave the following testimony of him.
If his charity was so great in his help to the poor ruined by the war, his zeal was no less to remove the root cause of all this suffering. While the Ladies of Charity and other helpers worked so hard at collecting alms and other contributions in aid to the devastated provinces, we know with what zeal and tenderness of heart he recommended that they join these works of mercy to their vows, prayers, fasts, mortifications, and other exercises of penance, their devotions, their pilgrimages to Notre Dame, to Saint Genevieve, and other patrons of Paris and of France, their confessions and communions, masses and other sacrifices, to draw down God’s mercy and appease his anger. We know how some women of delicate constitution followed his advice to mortify their flesh by hair shirts and disciplines and other instruments of penance. In this way, they joined his own penances and those of his community to obtain the peace so much longed for and which we happily enjoy today. Who can express his distress at the disorders of the army? How he was moved at the outrages committed everywhere and against all sorts of people, and sacrileges and profanations of the blessed sacrament and churches, all brought about by the army. How often has he said, speaking to the clergy, “My friends, if the Lord is to receive fifty lashes, strive to save him from some of them. Do something to atone for the outrages committed against him so that he will have at least some to console him in these persecutions and sufferings.”
Besides his prayers and practices of penance, Monsieur Vincent felt it to be his duty to do all he could to influence those in power to work for peace. The way to this, he felt, was to have the authority of the king recognized by all subjects of the realm. There must be entire and perfect submission to his authority in all parts of the kingdom. This is the only way the civil war could end. Although he had always avoided political action, through either his humility or possibly his Christian prudence that suggested he concentrate his efforts on what concerned the service of God and the good of souls, in the present situation in which France would come to ruin if the wars continued, he felt it his duty to act otherwise. He was aware that love of country is a duty of charity and the service of the king is in some way service to God. As a result of these reflections he resolved to serve his country and his prince in this important and pressing matter.
His first efforts in this direction focused on bishops, several of whom were well disposed towards him. He wrote to persuade and encourage them to remain in their dioceses during these troubled times so that by their example and teaching they might confirm their people in their duty and oppose those who strove to weaken their allegiance to the king. 4 He wrote to several prelates in similar terms, to some to congratulate them for having refused to let the towns of their diocese welcome the rebels. To others he wrote in the hope of dissuading them from appearing at court to seek redress from damages suffered from the army. He thought that this was not the appropriate time. He suggested instead that they remain in their sees to console their people and to further the interests of the king, who would be mindful of their fidelity and make good any losses they may have sustained. We shall give here three extracts from such letters. One was addressed to the late bishop of Dax, 5 the diocese from which Monsieur Vincent originally came.
I must say, Your Lordship, that I was very pleased to see you in Paris. Yet I must also say with regret that I think your visit here will have no worthwhile outcome in these unhappy times, in which the troubles of which you complain are almost universal throughout the kingdom. Wherever the armies have passed, the same sacrileges, robberies, and indecencies have occurred as has happened in your diocese, not only in Guienne and in Perigord, but also in Saintonge, Poitou, Burgundy, Champagne, Picardy, and in many other places, not excluding the environs of Paris itself. As a rule the clergy as well as the people have suffered the same fate, so much so that they have been sent out of Paris to the provinces to look for clothes and to seek alms just to keep alive. Only enough priests have remained to administer the sacraments to the sick. It is fruitless to request a reduction in tithes from the clergy for the official reply will surely be given that most dioceses will ask for the same thing. Everyone feels the effects of the war, and upon whom could this tax be transferred? God has pleased to lay this universal scourge upon the whole kingdom. And so, Your Lordship, you can do no better than to submit to his justice, awaiting the time his mercy shall bring an end to such terrible sufferings. If you should be elected to the general assembly of 1655 you will then have an opportunity to obtain some relief for your clergy. Meanwhile they will be consoled by your presence which is of such benefit to them and even for the service of the king.
This letter shows the deplorable state to which France had sunk and the efforts being made to help save the clergy so that there would still be those committed to God’s service. Meanwhile the devil sought to bring the clergy to ruin. We can see the prudent efforts Monsieur Vincent was making to dissuade this prelate from coming to Paris and to convince him to remain in his see. He could be of greatest utility there to the service of his Church and his king.
He wrote another letter to Jacques Raoul, bishop of La Rochelle, on the same subject: 6
I received your letter as a blessing from God. It consoled me greatly in these troubled times. If those who threatened the peace of your diocese have not succeeded, I believe that after God the storm has been averted because of your wise direction in service of the king. I thank God for this and for the many other services you have rendered both in your episcopal city and elsewhere which have confirmed your people in their duty towards God, their Church, and their prince. Even the heretics observing your manner of acting cannot help recognizing the excellence of our holy religion and the importance and influence of the office of bishop when it is administered as it has been by your sacred person. I pray God, Your Excellency, to give us many prelates like yourself who work so hard for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the people. 7
It was Monsieur Vincent’s practice, in writing to those in authority, to proceed by way of encouragement and of congratulations rather than by exhortation. This was because of his great respect for them, but also because it was more effective in influencing their thinking.
A third letter written to a bishop who is still alive shows better than the other two the appreciation Monsieur Vincent had for the service of the king and the prudence with which he expressed himself in this regard.
I am really disturbed that our unhappy times have deprived you of the benefits of your abbey. I cannot tell you how pained I am not to be able to help you, because of our troubled times. However, Your Excellency, it seems to me that you ought to put off your visit to the court until things have clarified. You are not alone in the troubles you experience. Many bishops join you in this. Monsieur N., 8 for example, has not only lost his regular revenue but also the provisions he has been setting aside for a long time. Even though he was well regarded at court, he received no satisfaction when he appeared there. Bishop N., who remained in his see, had the happiness of seeing his episcopal city return to its obedience to the king, even though it had at first gone over to the other side. He has received great praise from the court and has opened the way for some recompense for his losses. Even though you may not have the occasion to render the same service to His Majesty, your presence will aid notably in calming your region because of the esteem and confidence people have in you. This is greatly to be desired and will surely not go unnoticed. I most humbly beg you to accept my sincerity and promise of obedience. 9
Monsieur Vincent wrote several other similar letters to other bishops.
Mindful that Saint Bernard and some other saintly persons who had led a life even more retired than his own had left their solitude and retreat to appear in the courts of emperors and kings when it was a question of healing division among princes, Monsieur Vincent resolved to do all in his power to bring about the reunion of the king and his nobles. He preferred the service of the king and the good of France to all personal advantage. He closed his mind to all mere human reasoning that might turn him from this course. What he actually did in this regard is not well known, for he acted in strictest secrecy. What is certain is that he appeared several times at court and conversed with the princes and delivered messages to them from the king. He also brought back their responses. After his death there was found the draft of a letter to Cardinal Mazarin, who at the time 10 was with the court at Saint Denis. We get some idea of his activities from this document.
I humbly beg Your Eminence’s pardon for not coming to see you yesterday evening, as you had requested. Unfortunately I was not well. I have just received word from the duke of Orleans that he will send Monsieur d’Ornano 11 who will give me an answer which he wanted me to deliver to the prince [de Conde]. I told the queen yesterday that I had met both separately, and that both were respectful and gracious. I told Her Royal Highness that if the king’s authority was to be recognized, a decree ending the civil strife would have to be issued. 12 This would satisfy both sides. 13 To bring these agreements about, it is difficult to negotiate through intermediaries. It must be done by those who have mutual respect and confidence, and who will discuss matters face to face. By word and gesture he assured me he was in agreement and assured me that he was going to discuss the matter with his council. Tomorrow morning, God willing, I hope to be able to bring his reply to Your Eminence. 14
The results of these negotiations are not known in detail, for nothing further was found in Monsieur Vincent’s papers about the outcome of these secret plans. God must have blessed the matter, however, for shortly afterward this important matter was settled. 15
The troubles in the kingdom were thus brought to a close through the mercy of God. At the house of Saint Lazare Monsieur Vincent continued to offer prayers, masses, communions, fasts and other penitential practices that he had previously ordained. Some tried to persuade him to bring them to a close for these practices wore heavily on the community. Besides, the civil war and public division which had occasioned the penances were ended. Monsieur Vincent replied, “No, no, we must not stop now, we must beseech God for His blessing of universal peace.” In fact these continued until this peace 16 so greatly desired was finally achieved in 1660, eight years after these prayers began and six or seven months before his own death. God willed to give him the great consolation of seeing the fruit of his prayers, his fasts, and of his perseverance.
- PL 41, 19, 13:640.
- CED XII:458 gives a different total: two priests or clerics, and two lay brothers.
- CED XI:200-05.
- A reference to Conde, a refugee in Guienne, who broke with the queen, and led the province into revolt.
- Jacques Desclaux, named bishop of Dax in 1639, consecrated that same year in the church at Saint Lazare. He died in Paris, August 4, 1658, at age sixty-five. CED V:90-91.
- Jacques Raoul de la Guibourgere was named bishop of Saintes in 1632. On the advice of Saint Vincent in 1646 he was transferred to the see of Maillezais, to arrange for the suppression of this see and to make way for the erection of the see of La Rochelle, formerly a Huguenot stronghold. That same year he became its first bishop. He died in 1661 at age seventy-two.
- CED IV:429.
- Nicolas Sevin, bishop of Sarlat; CED IV:429.
- CED IV:334-35.
- The beginning of July 1652.
- A secretary of the duke of Orleans.
- By Cardinal Mazarin.
- If Mazarin were to leave.
- CED IV:423.
- Mazarin left. Saint Vincent wrote an important letter to Mazarin on the subject, September 11, 1652, CED IV:473-78.
- The Peace of the Pyrenees.