The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book I, Chapter XXXV

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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Monsieur Vincent Devotes Himself to the Poor of Lorraine during the War and Takes Particular Care of Some Gentlemen and Ladies, Refugees in Paris

Saint Augustine says rightly that God is so good he allows no evil from which he cannot draw a greater good. We could appeal to an almost infinite number of examples to illustrate this truth. We do not have to go farther afield than the last war in Lorraine, when it seemed that God permitted the extreme sufferings of this formerly blessed province to draw forth greater spiritual good. The war provided the opportunity for many virtuous persons, among them Monsieur Vincent, to show heroic charity in the service of the needy. He showed these poor suffering people to what degree charity can rise in this last age, when, according to the prediction of Jesus Christ, because of the iniquity which has abounded on all sides, charity has grown cold. 1

When Monsieur Vincent was alerted in 1639 to the deplorable state to which Lorraine had been reduced by war, 2 he immediately resolved to offer help. He took some alms at his disposal, added some of his own, and gave them to his confreres to distribute. These alms were soon exhausted. Those who had gone to distribute them returned with almost unbelievable stories of what they had seen with their own eyes. This so affected Monsieur Vincent and several other persons in Paris to whom he related the sad story that all resolved to aid these unfortunate people at whatever cost. These good people donated great sums to the cause which Monsieur Vincent sent by one of his religious to be distributed to those in the greatest need. He did so not only in the villages but also in the larger cities. One would think them nearly untouched by war, such as Metz, Toul, Verdun, Nancy, Bar-le-Duc, Pont-a-Mousson, Saint Michel, and others, yet in these deplorable times people of all classes were reduced to direst necessity. Mothers reportedly crazed by hunger ate their own children. Girls and young women were ready to give themselves in prostitution to avoid death. Even reformed religious broke their cloister to seek bread, to the peril of their virtue and the scandal of the Church.

The enormous number of people of all classes and of both sexes, reduced to extreme necessity, soon exhausted even the abundant alms sent to them. A charity less than what Monsieur Vincent had would have lost heart and judged the situation hopeless, especially because of the other pressing problems in Paris and in the rest of France. But what can a heart not do which loves God and trusts in him completely? “I can do all things in him who strengthens me,” says the apostle. 3 Monsieur Vincent could say the same. God so blessed his efforts in coordinating the contributions of many that he sent at various times nearly 1.6 million livres to Lorraine. The queen mother gave a part, and the Ladies of Charity in Paris had contributed significantly to this sum. 4

During the nine or ten years of this sad state of affairs, people knew that a brother of the Mission had made fifty-three trips to Lorraine to bring the money collected to the needy. 5 He carried at least twenty thousand livres each time, and sometimes twenty-five or thirty thousand livres or even more. What is miraculous is that by God’s protection he passed through regions occupied by the army and through places threatened by soldiers and exposed to their pillaging. Yet he was never robbed or searched, but always arrived safely at the place destined to receive the alms.

To be of even greater service to the poor and to stretch out what he was providing, Monsieur Vincent instructed the missionaries serving in Lorraine to provide a daily distribution of bread and soup and to be mindful of the sick as well. At the same time as the distribution of food, the fathers were not to forget spiritual blessings as well, by instruction, consolation, and encouragement so that the care of souls would accompany concern for bodily needs.

Who can count the number of persons this faithful provider had helped in body and soul through the urgings of his immense charity? How many did he rescue from the depths of despair? He was well aware that God was the prime author of all these benefactions and we will see more particularly in Book Two more of what was involved in this marvelous undertaking. 6

Even this is not the whole story. The providence of God provided a new opportunity for this father of the poor to show the extent of his charity. The continued misery in Lorraine and the war obliged a group of inhabitants of the region to leave to seek refuge in Paris. There they found themselves under Monsieur Vincent’s care as the assured refuge of the poor and needy. He found housing, food, and clothing for them in various places. When he found some among them who had not received the sacraments for a long time, because of the troubled times or because of the absence of their pastors through death or flight, he organized two missions for them. These were held during the Easter season for two consecutive years 7 in a village church about half a league from Paris called La Chapelle. Many distinguished people came from Paris, either to attend the mission or to help out in some way. The exiles received the spiritual help of the exercises, as well as the corporal help they so badly needed. The former group served the latter, and these latter were enabled to make their way in the world.

Among the refugees from Lorraine were several noble men and women forced to come to Paris by the events of their homeland. They gradually sold all they could rescue from their belongings and were reduced to a sad state made worse by their shame at having fallen so far from their former condition. They seemed to prefer to suffer silently rather than advertise their extreme poverty.

A person of some standing alerted Monsieur Vincent to this situation and suggested the thought that some way should be found to help these people. Monsieur Vincent responded, “What joy you give me, Monsieur. Yes, it is right to help these poor nobles, to honor our Lord, at once most noble and yet so poor.” He then recommended this undertaking to God, considering within himself how he might secure some help for these poor unfortunate people. He felt this particular project might appeal to some more fortunate noble persons. He contacted seven or eight such people, among them the late Baron de Renty, whose saintly life has been written and published since his death as a perfect model of those souls whose virtues truly ennoble them. 8

Monsieur Vincent called these gentlemen together and he spoke so effectively of the importance and merit of this work of charity that they resolved to band together to help these distressed members of the nobility. Several were appointed to visit the refugees in their lodgings so as to form a clearer picture of their needs, to take their names, and to find out the exact number in each family. This information was presented to their next gathering, where these gentlemen arranged to provide subsistence for the next month. They continued on the first Sunday of each month to meet at Saint Lazare, where they again arranged to support these poor refugees for the following period. Monsieur Vincent was among the contributors, sometimes doing more than he should have. Once the collection of alms was two hundred livres short of what was necessary. He called the procurator of the house and taking him aside, asked him quietly what money was available. The response was that just enough remained for the expenses of the community for the next day. “And how much is that,” asked Monsieur Vincent. “Fifty ecus,” was the reply. “Is there nothing else in the house?” asked Monsieur Vincent. “No, Monsieur, we have only fifty ecus.” “Please bring them to me, Monsieur.” With that he gave this to make up, almost, what was lacking to maintain the refugee nobility for a month. He preferred to deprive himself and to be forced to borrow to feed his own household rather than allow these people to suffer want.

One of the nobles present heard the reply of the procurator and so admired the generosity of Monsieur Vincent that he reported it to the others present. The following morning one of them brought a small bag with one thousand francs to Saint Lazare as an alms for the community.

This service to the displaced nobility of Lorraine continued for almost seven years. During that time they were supported in their temporal needs, but in addition they were visited regularly, shown all marks of respect, consoled, and helped in their business affairs as much as was feasible. After Lorraine returned to some semblance of normality, some of the refugees returned home. Monsieur Vincent provided funds for their trip and gave them something to tide them over until they could re-establish themselves in their old surroundings. He continued to assist those remaining in Paris.

No activity of the virtue of charity so completely filled the heart of Monsieur Vincent that he was not open to something new. As he was helping the nobility of Lorraine, he found out about some English and Scottish gentlemen forced by their Catholic faith to take refuge in Paris. He spoke to the same group of gentlemen helping the Lorraine nobility and had them help this new group of noblemen as well. He continued this aid up to the time of his death. The following is an extract from what one of the gentlemen wrote of these events:

Monsieur Vincent always was the first to give. He opened his heart as well as his purse. If anything was lacking he contributed what he had, depriving himself of what was necessary to achieve his goal. On one occasion, to reach a certain sum, three hundred livres was needed. He gave it at once, but it was known that he had just been given this money to buy a horse better than the one he had, which was old and feeble and had fallen under him several times. He preferred to run the risk of injury rather than to leave those in need unassisted.

This assembly of nobility continued for about twenty years. It should be ranked among the major works associated with Monsieur Vincent. As author and promoter, together with the charity and zeal of the illustrious people who composed it, he brought relief to an great number of ills and provided a great number of benefactions to many.

We must not omit here an episode about Monsieur Vincent at this time. He was so aware of the evils of war, the horrible sins, sacrileges, blasphemies, profanation of sacred things, murders, and all the violence and cruelty against even innocent persons, not to mention the devastation of entire provinces, and the ruin of many families, that his heart was torn with sorrow. He decided on a step contrary to all hope and opposed to what human prudence might suggest, to attempt what at best would be considered doubtful and possibly prejudicial to his own interests.

We have discussed in another place the high regard Cardinal Richelieu had for him. Monsieur Vincent decided to approach him not for personal gain, but for the public good. He paid a visit one day and spoke with great respect of the extreme suffering of the poor, and the other disorders and sins caused by the war. He then threw himself at the cardinal’s feet and said: “My lord, give us peace. Have pity on us: give peace to France.” He repeated this with such feeling the cardinal was moved. He accepted the appeal willingly, but stated that he was working for peace and that peace did not depend upon him alone. It depended on many others, both within and outside the kingdom. 9

Had he consulted some prudent person living in society he would certainly have been advised against this manner of speaking to the prime minister. He ran the risk of being shut out from any more contact with the cardinal. Charity removed his fear and closed his eyes to all human respect, to all except the service of God and the good of the Christian people. 10

Once he spoke on a similar topic:

Once I went to see Cardinal Richelieu to help poor Ireland at the time England was at war with the king. He said to me, “I am sorry, Monsieur Vincent, the king has too much to do now.” I reminded him the pope urged this and had promised one hundred thousand ecus. He replied, “One hundred thousand ecus, is nothing for an army. You would need one hundred thousand soldiers, equipment, arms, and convoys to transport them. An army is a big machine! It doesn’t move too easily!”

Although his prayers were not heard then, and what he proposed was not done, we can nevertheless see how his affection and zeal were always prepared to further religion and the true good of Catholics.

  1. Matt 24:12.
  2. The last period of the Thirty-Years War. In this period, Charles V, the duke of Lorraine, was defeated by Richelieu’s political and military strategy.
  3. Phil 4:13.
  4. King Louis XIII, a few days before his death, also contributed from his personal funds. Coste, Life, II:371.
  5. Matthieu Renard, 1592-1669.
  6. Ch. 11.
  7. 1641, 1642.
  8. Gaston de Renty, 1611-1649, who left the military life for one of religious and charitable work in Paris. He had frequent contact with Saint Vincent, and was his principal help in providing assistance to the nobles of Lorraine who had fled to Paris. See also Book Two, ch. 4, sect. 4.
  9. This event can be dated only between 1639 and 1642; no more definite date is known.
  10. Saint Vincent had favored turning armed French intervention from Catholic Austria to the English puritans. He intervened in the two incidents described above, even though they opposed the foreign policy of Cardinal Richelieu. This opposition was shared by the dévot party, scandalized that Catholic France was supporting Protestant nations, and opposing Catholic ones.

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