He is Chosen by the Blessed Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and by Mother de Chantal as the First Spiritual Father and Superior of the Religious of the Visitation of Saint Mary in Paris
It had been several years since God had brought into being the saintly order of religious of the Visitation as a new flower spreading the odor of sanctity in the garden of the Church. God used Blessed Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, to begin and to cultivate this mystical plant, which he did with all the care suggested by his incomparable charity.1 Mother de Chantal, whose memory is held in benediction, had been sent to Paris by Blessed Francis to found a monastery of the order.2 She worked with such zeal and prudence that despite opposition, contradictions, and persecutions, the walls of this new Jerusalem and home of peace were raised.3 Several souls, mindful of their salvation and their perfection, came to seek a refuge against the vanity and temptations of the world. Modesty, meekness, patience, obedience, charity, and all the other virtues of these spiritual daughters of Jesus Christ were the admiration of all who came to know of them or who heard of them.
It now became a question of finding a spiritual father and superior for this religious community, that is, a visible guardian angel. By his charity and prudent conduct, and by his vigilance and fidelity, he would preserve the primitive spirit which Jesus Christ had given them, through the ministry of their holy founder. He would have to be able to render all help necessary to have the sisters pass from virtue to virtue along the way of perfection.
As this holy prelate had said in his book Philothea [Introduction to the Devout Life]4 speaking of a spiritual director for an individual, “He must be chosen from ten thousand. Even then you will find fewer than you would like who are capable of this office.” This being so, we can imagine how difficult it would be to find a true spiritual father and a worthy superior for a whole congregation. Each day it was growing in numbers and in virtue. It demanded more light and grace in the one charged with its direction since the religious life is the more sublime. Its life of perfection is more important, and its failure would be more disastrous for the Church. For these reasons the holy founder required qualities beyond those needed for personal direction. He looked for a man of great virtue and great charity joined to learning and experience. This meant, in a word, a man endowed with all the virtues, capable of leading souls called by God to the highest perfection.
With these desirable qualities in mind, it is a tribute to the high virtue and the other gifts of mind and heart of Monsieur Vincent that he should be chosen from among all his learned and pious contemporaries. Blessed Francis de Sales had a singular gift of discerning spirits, and Mother de Chantal a clear understanding mind. They judged Monsieur Vincent to be the best qualified and most capable person for this responsibility, to assume charge of those they held most dear and most precious in all the world.
In Paris there were persons of learning and piety older than Monsieur Vincent: pastors accomplished in their work, noted doctors of the colleges of Sorbonne, Navarre, and the other colleges of the noted university of the first city of the kingdom. There were also renowned spiritual directors. Despite all this, after long consideration, prayer, and consultation with the saintly superior the blessed bishop felt he could not make a better choice for this important position than Vincent de Paul. He found in him all the qualities so necessary for the first spiritual father and superior of this religious congregation at its birth.5
If what was said by an ancient author be true, “It is a special grace to be praised by one himself worthy of praise;6 the excellence of virtue in the one who speaks gives weight to what he says in honor of the other,”7 we must admit that Monsieur Vincent could not have received a more significant endorsement than he did from the saintly bishop of Geneva. We know from the results that the bishop’s judgment was correct.
From this time on, Monsieur Vincent served as superior of the sisters, under the authority of Cardinal de Retz, then bishop of Paris,8 and of his successors. In Book Two9 we shall see the way this wise superior guided the houses established in Paris and elsewhere as well. God’s blessing remained upon his leadership, which lasted thirty-eight years, until the end of his life, despite his efforts to resign several times because of the pressure of other work. Besides, he doubted that as a member of the Congregation of the Mission, committed to the direct service of the most abandoned poor, especially those in the countryside, he should be involved in this sort of work.
- Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, was born on August 21, 1567 near Annecy, and died in Lyons, December 28, 1622. Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul admired one another greatly. Vincent spoke at the beatification process of his friend.
- Jane Frances Fremiot, born in Dijon, January 23, 1572, had four children from her marriage to the Baron de Chantal. After his death, she placed herself under the guidance of Francis de Sales, and with him established the Order of the Visitation. She lived in Paris from 1619 to 1622, where she became acquainted with Vincent de Paul, whom she requested from Jean Francois de Gondi, archbishop of Paris, as ecclesiastical superior of her daughters. Until her death, December 13, 1641, she kept in close contact with Monsieur Vincent, whom she consulted both as a spiritual director and as an advisor in the business matters of the monastery of the Visitation.
- On May 1, 1619, the first house opened.
- Part I, Ch. 4.
- He became superior of the Visitation sometime before December 22, 1622. He was not the first but the second superior, succeeding Charles de la Saussaye who died September 21, 1621. Saint Vincent, however, made the first regular visitation of the convent and was noteworthy for his care of the nuns.
- Cicero, Letters, Book 5, 12.
- Panegyric of the emperor Julian, by Claudius Mamertinus.
- Henri de Gondi, the first Cardinal de Retz, and uncle of Jean Francois Paul de Gondi, the second Cardinal de Retz.
- Ch. 7. The original edition reads Book Three, clearly an error.