The Founding of Several Seminaries for Clergy
Great rivers always flow towards the ocean, ever being swelled by the waters of brooks and streams along the way. So too with the charity of Monsieur Vincent. It was ever directed to God, but grew each day, not so much from what he received from others, as from what he gave away as divine Providence presented various opportunities to him.
We have seen in several preceding chapters how Monsieur Vincent’s zeal moved him to work for the revival of the priestly spirit among the clergy. He instituted the ordination retreats, the clergy conferences and retreats to further this ideal. Although all these were helpful, they still did not bring about in the clergy all the change desirable. He felt the remedy must go to the source of the clerical state, to the formation of young men, who showed signs of a true vocation, in the seminaries envisioned by the holy Council of Trent.
This is why, after moving to Saint Lazare about 1636, he used the College des Bons Enfants as a seminary to train young clerics in letters and morals to prepare them for the state to which they aspired. He realized, however, that it would take a good while before the fruits of this seminary would be seen because of the years it would require before the candidate would be of sufficient age and disposition to receive holy orders. 1 He was also aware of the pressing need the Church had of good priests who could be employed almost immediately in various clerical positions.
His zeal led to the desire that it would please God to supply this need, perhaps by the creation of seminaries for those who had already received holy orders or wished to. In them, the candidates could acquire the proper priestly spirit and be formed in the duties of their state. For him to think of himself as having a part to play in this holy enterprise was contrary to his personal humility. Divine Providence brought it about that he had occasion to mention his ideas to Cardinal Richelieu. Monsieur Vincent occasionally met with him and had spoken several times about how the glory of God might be furthered through reform of the clergy. Monsieur Vincent spoke to the cardinal about the ordination retreats and the clergy conferences already established in several places.
He then described his vision of seminaries in the various dioceses, not so much for young clerical students, as for those already ordained or about to be in the next ordination class. During one or two years these men would be trained in virtue, prayer, divine service, the rites of the Church, chant, the administration of the sacraments, the catechism, preaching and all other ecclesiastical functions, including cases of conscience or other necessary parts of theological studies. In a word, these men would be helped, not merely to develop their personal spiritual life, but to lead souls into the ways of justice and salvation. Unless something of this sort were done few priests would have the qualities needed to serve and edify the Church. Instead, it would be reasonable to expect that a large number of evil, ignorant, and scandalous priests would continue to be stumbling blocks for the people.
The cardinal heard this description with much appreciation, and urged Monsieur Vincent himself to set about this projected seminary. To help him begin, the cardinal assigned one thousand ecus to support the first group of priests received by Monsieur Vincent in the College des Bons Enfants in February 1642. 2 These men were housed and taught for two years in all things appropriate to their calling. Several other clerics came later, offering to pay their own board, to benefit from the spiritual and academic program. Thus it was that the seminary of the Bons Enfants began under the wise direction of Monsieur Vincent with the permission and encouragement of the late archbishop of Paris. 3 This good prelate had already allowed the priests of the community of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet to begin another such seminary. God showered many blessings upon it through these priests and especially by the incomparable zeal of Monsieur Bourdoise. Our Lord had conferred on him the true clerical spirit from his youth, joined with a great desire to extend this spirit to others. 4
Several years after the establishment of this seminary at the College des Bons Enfants the number of clerics increased to such an extent they all could not all be conveniently housed. Monsieur Vincent transferred the young people who had been studying the humanities to another house, located at the edge of the enclosure of Saint Lazare outside the city. He named it the seminary of Saint Charles. The priests of the Congregation of the Mission have continued to teach the humanities there and form in virtue those young men who show some sign of having a clerical vocation.
Since then, many prelates of the kingdom have considered forming similar seminaries in their own dioceses for their young priests. Some of them, in fact, have given over the direction of them to the priests of the Congregation of the Mission. This was the case at Cahors, Saintes, Saint Malo, Treguier, Agen, Montauban, Agde, Troyes, Amiens, Noyon, and several other places not only in France but also in Italy and other foreign provinces. Just as the success of the missions given by Monsieur Vincent and the priests of the Congregation led others to begin missions in their own territory, so the sight of these seminaries established by Monsieur Vincent, whose necessity, utility, and feasibility were shown, led to others in various dioceses of the kingdom. They have contributed greatly to the welfare of the clergy in France, and by God’s mercy, the kingdom has begun to regain its original splendor. It could be said this splendor had been tarnished a bit during these last few centuries.
- CED V:563-64.
- CED II:223-26.
- It was later called the seminary of Saint Firmin, and it continued until the French Revolution, when, on September 2, 1792, one of the bloodiest massacres of priests took place.
- Adrien Bourdoise, 1584-1655, one of the most zealous reformers of the clergy of his day. He founded a community of priests at the parish Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. He and Vincent de Paul shared a mutual esteem.