The Ordination Retreats for the Benefit of Those Wishing to Receive Holy Orders
Saint Paul’s advice to the bishop Saint Timothy, not to impose his hands lightly on those seeking to receive holy orders, 1 is important not only to the bishop who must not share in the sins of others, as the apostle says, but to the whole Church. According to a Father of the Church, it ordinarily is threatened more by its own ministers than by outsiders. We may truly say that the persecutions of tyrants have not caused so much difficulty to the salvation of souls as the scandalous lives and pernicious conduct of bad priests.
This concerned many bishops who wanted to fulfill worthily the responsibilities of their office. On the one hand, given the large extent of their dioceses and the large number of parishioners they saw the necessity of having a large number of priests and other ministers. On the other hand it was practically impossible to know who among their many candidates would have the requisite qualities and virtues for such a holy ministry. No matter how carefully the bishop examined the candidates and considered their moral qualities, it was difficult to be sure who among them would make a good priest. The bishops were often deceived.
The late Augustine Potier, bishop of Beauvais, whose memory is held in benediction because of his zeal, pastoral vigilance, and his other virtues, often considered this situation and its possible remedies.
He recognized that God had conferred his Spirit upon Monsieur Vincent to minister to the spiritual needs of the people by the missions he had given in most of the parishes of the diocese and by the Confraternities of Charity he had established. He thought this holy priest would have the light and grace to help him reform his clergy. Because he appreciated Monsieur Vincent’s virtue and especially his charity, the bishop opened his heart to him, telling him how worried he was in regard to this matter. He often called Monsieur Vincent to Beauvais or came himself to Paris to discuss what best might be done.
One day this good prelate asked Monsieur Vincent what could possibly be done to put an end to disorders among the clergy and bring them to appreciate their sacred calling properly. This wise and experienced missionary responded that it was practically impossible to reform bad priests who had grown old in their faults, or to redirect pastors who had begun poorly. To have any hope of success in working to reform the clergy it was absolutely necessary to go to the root of the problem and apply the remedy there. Since changing the older priests was so difficult, the proper plan must be to see to the formation of good ones for the future. In the first place, only those should be admitted to orders who had the requisite knowledge and other signs of a true vocation. Second, those who wished to become priests must be trained in their obligations and taught a true priestly spirit which they could then bring to the parishes.
The bishop of Beauvais was pleased with these reflections. One day in July of 1628, while traveling, he was conversing with Monsieur Vincent in his carriage, when he abruptly closed his eyes and said nothing, turning over something in his mind. Those with him remained quiet, thinking perhaps he was dozing. He opened his eyes to say he was not sleeping but only thinking what could be the quickest and most effective way of preparing candidates for holy orders. He further said that he had resolved to bring the candidates into his own house for several days. During that time he would arrange some suitable exercises to instruct them in what they should know and the virtues they should practice in their calling. Then Monsieur Vincent, who previously had spoken to him in general of the necessity for such preparation, wholeheartedly approved of his initiative and said, “Oh, Your Excellency, surely this is a thought come from God. This is an excellent means for bringing order, step by step, to all the clergy of your diocese.”
Encouraged thus to put the plan into immediate execution, this virtuous prelate resolved to do so at once. Before leaving Monsieur Vincent he said he would begin preparations, but asked him to think over what would be appropriate for such a conference and the timetable for the retreat to follow. He invited Monsieur Vincent to come to Beauvais fifteen or twenty days before the next scheduled ordination, which was to be the coming September. Monsieur Vincent was careful to fulfill the bishop’s request. As he said, “I was more convinced that God wished this service of me, asked for by the mouth of a bishop, than if it had been delivered by an angel from heaven.”
Upon his return to Beauvais, the bishop examined the ordinands, and himself opened the retreat and the conferences. Monsieur Vincent and two doctors of the faculty of Paris, Fathers Messier 2 and Duchesne, 3 then continued the program. It was similar to that which later was followed in the ordination retreats, and which remain in usage up to the present. Monsieur Vincent undertook to speak on the decalogue. He did it so clearly and with such feeling that many of the ordinands were moved to make a general confession. Even one of the doctors, Monsieur Duchesne, was one of the lecturers. He was so moved that he asked to make a general confession of his entire life to Monsieur Vincent, much to the edification of all the ordinands.
Later, the bishop of Beauvais came to Paris to meet with the archbishop. He told him of the great fruit these retreats had begun to effect in his diocese and pointed out their importance, their usefulness, and even their necessity. He was so convincing that from the beginning of 1631 this good prelate ordered all candidates for ordination in the archdiocese of Paris to report first to the priests of the Congregation of the Mission ten days before ordination. They would learn from them the dispositions required in the priesthood, and, he hoped, would begin to acquire them.
In keeping with this decree, Monsieur Vincent began in the following Lent to receive the ordinands into the College des Bons Enfants, for he had not yet moved to Saint Lazare. The retreats were conducted as prescribed, and this arrangement has continued until the present. From this first house of the Congregation of the Mission, this holy practice of providing a retreat and spiritual exercises for the ordinands has, through the zeal of Monsieur Vincent. They spread to several other dioceses in France and Italy, and even to Rome itself, with a fruit and blessing better observed in its effects than attempted in words. We have reserved for Book Two a detailed account of the order of the retreats, the fruits they have produced, and the main reasons why these ordination retreats were so important and necessary for the good of the Church.