Monsieur Vincent Gives the Rules to his Congregation. What He Said on this Occasion
In 1658 Monsieur Vincent finished his work on the rules and constitutions for his Congregation. His advancing years and nearly uninterrupted infirmities had made him realize that in all likelihood he would not have too much time remaining to complete this task. Just as he was ever moved by love for his fellow priests in life, he hoped before his death that he might give them a token of his affection by leaving his spirit embodied in his rules and constitutions.
On Friday evening, May 17, 1658, Monsieur Vincent assembled his community of Saint Lazare and spoke most paternally and affectively on the matter of obedience to the rules.
Several of those present recalled his words on that occasion. We give a few extracts to show the spirit that animated Monsieur Vincent and the prudence, moderation, charity, and zeal with which he had prepared the rules of the Congregation.
He began by speaking of the reasons why his Congregation should appreciate and observe the rules.
It seems to me, that by the grace of God the rules of the Congregation of the Mission preserve us from sin and even from imperfections. They help us to procure the salvation of souls, to serve the Church, and to give glory to God. Whoever observes them as they should be observed avoids sin and all vices. He puts himself thereby in a state as required by God to be useful to the Church and to render to our Savior the glory due Him. What motives, gentlemen and my brothers, to avoid vice and sin, as much as human frailty will allow, to glorify God, and contribute to having Him loved and served upon earth. O Savior, what happiness! Words fail me.
Our rules appear ordinary, but they will bring him who observes them to a high degree of perfection. Not only that, this observance will help destroy sin and imperfections in others as well, just as it has done in ourselves. If the Congregation has progressed at all in virtue, or if anyone has been freed from sin or advanced along the road to perfection, has it not been because of its observance of the rules? If by the mercy of God the Congregation has produced any good in the Church through giving missions and by service to the ordinands, is it not because we have followed the customs inspired by God and now formalized in these rules? What motives do we not have to observe them scrupulously, and how happy the Congregation of the Mission will be if we are faithful to them.
Another reason to live faithfully according to the rules is that they are drawn almost completely from the Gospel, as you can see. It will help us to conform our lives to the life our Savior led on earth. It is said that our divine Savior came and was sent by his Father to preach the Gospel to the poor: Pauperibus evangelizare misit me. 1 Pauperibus: to announce the gospel to the poor, just as by the grace of God our humble Congregation attempts to do. It is a great subject of humiliation and confusion that we have never had any other purpose than to announce the gospel to the poor, and the most neglected of the poor. Pauperibus evangelizare misit me. Yes, that is what we were founded for. Yes, gentlemen and my brothers, our portion is the poor. What happiness for us, to do just what our Savior said he had come from heaven to earth to do, and through which we hope some day to find our way from earth to heaven. To fulfill our ministry is to continue the work of the Son of God, who went out to the countryside to seek out the poor. Our institute attempts to do the same, to serve and help the poor, whom we must recognize as our lords and masters. Our simple but blessed rules oblige us to leave the major cities to imitate the action of Christ by going out to the villages and towns in search of the poor. See the happiness of those who observe these rules and so conform their lives and all their actions to those of the Son of God. O Lord, what motives do we not have to observe our rules faithfully, which leads us to such a holy and desirable end.
You have awaited these rules for a long while, gentlemen and my brothers, and we have deferred long in giving them to you, in part to imitate our Savior who began to do and then to teach: Coepit Jesus facere et docere. 2 He lived virtuously during the first thirty years of his life and spent only the last three in preaching and teaching. So also the community has striven to imitate him, not only in what he did but also in the manner in which he did it. The Congregation could say that it first had done and then had taught: coepit facere et docere. It has been a good thirty-three years or thereabouts since we began, by God’s help. All during that time, by God’s grace, the same rules have been observed as those we give you today. You will find nothing new in them which you have not already been observing, with much edification. If you were given rules you have not already been observing you might expect great difficulty, but as it is you will find only what you have already been doing, with much fruit and consolation, for many years. For the future you will find the rules equally useful and helpful. We must imitate the Rechabites spoken of in Holy Scripture. They were so faithful to the traditions handed down by their fathers, even though nothing was actually written. Now that we have a written and published text, the Congregation has only to continue what it has observed for many years and bring the same fidelity to the future as it has displayed in the past.
If we had been given these rules right from the start, before we had a chance to practice what they prescribed, it would have been said they were more human than divine, more the fruit of human design than a work of divine Providence. Gentlemen and my brothers, these rules and constitutions have come, I don’t know how, little by little, without plan or forethought. Saint Augustine’s maxim was that if you couldn’t trace the origin of a good thing you ought to ascribe it to God, recognizing him as the source and author. According to this, should not God be considered as the originator of all our rules, which came into being, I know not how, nor can we say when or why? O Lord, what rules! From whence do they come? Have I thought them up? Never, I assure you, gentlemen and my brothers; I never thought of our Company, nor even of the word ‘Mission.’ The Lord has done all that; men have had no part in it. For my part, when I consider the way it has pleased God to form our Congregation in the Church, I am beside myself. It all seems like a dream.
No it does not come from us. There is nothing human in it, but it comes exclusively from God. Would you call man-made what never entered into the mind of man to conceive, or what was never planned in any way whatsoever? Our first missionaries thought no more of this than did I. In fact, it turned out differently from our expectations and hopes. Yes, when I think of all the various occupations of the Congregation of the Mission, I think it all a dream.
When an angel took the prophet Habakkuk to the far-off lion’s den to console Daniel, and then brought him back to the place he originally was, did Daniel not think that it all had been a dream? If you ask me how the various practices of the community have started, or how the exercises and commitments have come about, I have to say that I do not know and cannot understand. Monsieur Portail, like myself, has seen the beginning of the Congregation. He can testify that we never thought of these things. Everything came about of itself little by little, one thing after another. Our numbers began to increase, and as they did, each new member strove to live a life of virtue. Gradually pious practices were introduced into our common life, and we began to observe a certain uniformity in our ministry. These practices were honored by all, and even to this day are respected, by the grace of God.
Finally, it was considered appropriate to put these matters down in writing, to become our rules. I hope the Congregation will regard them as coming from the Spirit of God, a quo bona cuncta procedunt [“from whom all good things come”], 3 and without whom non sumus sufficientes cogitare aliquid a nobis, quasi ex nobis [“It is not that we are entitled of ourselves to take credit for anything.” 1 Cor 3:5.]
Gentlemen and my brothers, I am so astonished at seeing myself here giving you the rules when I don’t know what has led me here. I seem to myself to be back at the beginning. The more I think of the rules the more they seem to me foreign to all human intervention, and the clearer it is that God alone inspired them for the Congregation. If anything at all comes from me, I fear that it will be just those items that will not be observed in future, nor will they produce the fruit we hope for.
After all this, gentlemen, what remains for me? I must imitate Moses, who gave the law of God to the people and then promised all sorts of blessings for those who observed it: blessings in their bodies, souls, goods, everything. Just so, gentlemen and my brothers, we must hope for all sorts of graces and blessings for those who observe these rules which he has given you: blessings on your person, in your thoughts, on your projects, in your ministry, in your guidance of others, in your comings and goings. In a word, blessings in all things. I hope that the fidelity with which you have observed these rules and your patience while awaiting its written form will obtain from God’s goodness the grace to observe them more easily and more perfectly in the future. O Lord, give your blessing to this small volume. Bestow on us the unction of your Holy Spirit so that all those who read it will be kept far from sin, detached from the world, committed to virtue, and united to you. 4
When he finished speaking, Monsieur Vincent had the priests come up to receive from his hand a small printed copy of the rules. Out of devotion they accepted the book on their knees. He preferred to put off until the next day distributing copies to the other members of the community, for it was already late.
When the distribution was completed, the assistant superior of the house 5 once more knelt and begged his blessing upon the entire Congregation. Monsieur Vincent in turn knelt and said in an affecting tone of voice the following words, revealing the depth of his concern for those present:
O Lord, you are eternal and unchangeable law. You govern the universe by your infinite wisdom. You are the only true source of all guidance, laws, and rules of right living. O Lord, bless those who have accepted them as coming from you. Give them, O Lord, the grace to follow them always and inviolably, even till death. In full confidence in your help and in your name, despite my total unworthiness as a poor sinner, I pronounce the words of blessing over our entire Congregation.
These, in part, were Monsieur Vincent’s remarks on this occasion. He spoke them in a moderate voice, humbly, gently, and devoutly, but they touched the hearts of all who heard him. It seemed to them that they were with the apostles listening to the last discourse of Our Lord on the eve of his passion, at which he too gave a rule–the great commandment to love perfectly.
It is easy to gather from what was said, and ever more so by reading the rules of the Congregation of the Mission, that it began from three chief motives: first, to work at one’s own sanctification by practicing the virtues taught us by the words and example of Our Lord; second, to preach the Gospel to the poor, particularly to the most abandoned country people; third, to help the clergy acquire the knowledge and virtues appropriate to their calling. These are the goals of the Congregation of the Mission, expressed in the rules which Monsieur Vincent rightly said came from God, since they prescribed only what already was in the Gospel. Monsieur Vincent insisted that he could not explain how the rules came into being, but the member of his Congregation were well aware that Monsieur Vincent himself was a sort of living rule, for they saw in him a true reflection of Jesus Christ and of his precepts. They strove to imitate his example and walk in his footsteps. The rules had been observed long before they were written down, for he practiced them before committing them to paper, and his goodness and example led others to imitate him.