PART THREE: The Order Which Monsieur Vincent Observed and Wanted to be Observed by the Members of his Congregation
Since all things coming from God are done with order, as the apostle teaches,1 and since order leads us to God, according to Saint Augustine,2 it is not surprising that the missions were well organized and regulated. The missions were works of divine grace helping souls return to God when they had been estranged by sin. Each group of missionaries was like a company of well-trained troops, or like a small army, whose organization and efficiency made it terrifying and formidable to the enemies of Jesus Christ.
From the beginning Monsieur Vincent prescribed a definite order for the missions, which he wanted all his priests to observe in the following manner. First, the missionaries were never to begin a mission unless the bishop of the diocese had invited them, and they had then presented themselves to the pastors before beginning any service in their parishes. They sought their blessing on their work, or that of their vicar if they were absent. If they were refused the missionaries simply retired. They would humbly take their leave in imitation of the acceptance of the rebuffs our Lord had received in similar situations, as reported in the Gospel.
After the invitation of the bishop and the consent of the pastor of the parish where the mission was to be given, a priest would give the opening sermon on a feastday or a Sunday to alert the people to the coming of the missionaries. The services they hoped to render the people were explained, then they were exhorted to penance, and to dispose themselves to making a good confession. On the same day, after vespers, a second sermon would be given. This one discussed how to make their confession, especially on how to examine their conscience. It explained briefly the more common sins committed against the commandments of God, or other serious sins, to move them to sorrow for offending God.
Several days later, when the other priests who were to work on the mission had arrived, they began the usual functions and exercises of the mission. These consisted mainly in preaching, hearing confessions, the longer and shorter catechetical instructions, reconciling those estranged from one another, visiting and consoling the sick, admonishing hardened sinners, remedying abuses and public disorders. It general they devoted themselves to all the works of mercy and charity possible to them, and which providence brought to their attention. Meanwhile, the priests attended to their own spiritual exercises, such as mental prayer, the divine office said in common, the holy sacrifice of the mass, examens, both general and particular, and other similar spiritual practices.
All their activities were regulated, the hour for rising, retiring, meals, meditation, mass, divine office, and the other exercises of which we have spoken, such as preaching, catechism lessons, confessions and the other aspects of the mission, all done with great attention and devotion.
Ordinarily each day there were three public functions. The missionaries preached early so that the poor country people might attend, then a short catechism lesson around midday, and lastly a more extended catechizing in the evening, after the peasants had returned from their work.
The usual subjects of the sermons, besides the two we have already spoken of at the opening of the mission, were the various aspects of the sacrament of penance, the last things, the enormity of sin, the rigors of divine justice, hardness of heart, final impenitence, false shame, relapse into sin, slander, envy, hatred and enmity, swearing and blasphemy, intemperance in eating and drinking, and other similar sins most often committed by country people. Also, the topics chosen might include patience, the good use of adversity and poverty, charity, the good use of time, how to pray well, how to receive the sacraments and how to assist devoutly at the holy sacrifice of the mass, the imitation of our Lord, devotion to his most blessed mother, perseverance and other virtues and good works appropriate to people in their state of life.
The order and topics of preaching were changed according to circumstance and needs. Sermons were added or curtailed depending on the length of the mission, which in turn depended on the number and disposition of the people. Ordinarily the mission continued until all the people of the region were sufficiently instructed and put on the road to salvation through their general confession, to which they were encouraged by all possible means.
The evening catechism lessons ordinarily took as subject the principal mysteries of religion, the Trinity, the incarnation of our Savior, and the blessed sacrament of the altar. Then the commandments of God and of the Church, the articles of the creed, the Lord’s prayer and the Hail Mary. All this was done in consideration of the length of the mission, as explained above. If the mission did not last long enough to cover all these matters, only the most important and necessary were treated, according to the capacity of the hearers.
This longer lesson ordinarily took place in the pulpit for the benefit of the hearers. It normally began with a short repetition of the previous lesson, on which the instructor asked the children questions for about a quarter of an hour. Following that, he explained the main topic. At the end the instructor made some applications to daily life, to join instruction with edification of his hearers.
The shorter catechism lesson was held at one in the afternoon for the instruction of the children. The first day began with a short exhortation in a familiar style to urge them to attend, and to behave well. On the following days they gave instruction on the faith, the main mysteries of religion, on the commandments of God and other topics covered in the principal catechetical instruction of the evening, but presented in a more familiar style and suited to the mentality of the children. This catechism lesson was given with the instructor moving among the children instead of mounting the pulpit. He had the children sing the commandments of God to impress them more firmly on their minds.
Towards the end of the mission, those children capable of doing so, but who had not yet made their first communion, were carefully prepared to do so. Besides the other instructions given during the mission, an exhortation was given on the eve of their communion to dispose them better for receiving the sacrament. Immediately before receiving, another talk was given in the presence of the blessed sacrament to excite the children to greater devotion and reverence towards this adorable mystery. After vespers a solemn procession was held, in which the blessed sacrament was carried. The children who had made their first communion walked two by two before the blessed sacrament, each carrying a candle, followed by the clergy and people. Following the procession another brief exhortation was delivered to children and adults, and finally a Te Deum was sung to thank God for his graces.
On occasion a mass would be sung early the next morning to thank God for his gifts, and a sermon given on perseverance, if one had not been given the previous day. Monsieur Vincent also had the practice of looking into the establishment of a Confraternity of Charity, composed of the women and girls of the region to look after the spiritual and corporal needs of the sick poor. Towards the end of the mission, sermons were preached on the subject of charity towards the poor, and on the rules and practices of this confraternity.
Towards the end of the mission, when most of the work was done, the missionaries saw to hearing the confessions of the children not yet old enough to receive communion, but with enough discernment to commit sin and offend God. To dispose the children to respect this sacrament, and to teach them how to confess well, some instructions were given suited to their situation. They sought to remedy two abuses which had crept into most of the country parishes. In some places, the children made their confession publicly, in front of everyone. In other places no confession at all was practiced, or at least not until the children were at an age to receive communion.
During the mission the sick, and especially the poor, were visited and helped as much as possible, both spiritually and corporally. They were urged to make a good general confession as an assurance for their salvation.
The missionaries visited schoolteachers and gave them advice and instruction on how best to fulfill their ministry of cultivating virtue in the children, and inspiring them to piety.
Monsieur Vincent himself observed one more practice, and took care that his priests did also. All the instruction and services of which we have spoken were to be given free of charge. They accepted lodging and the use of those utensils which could not conveniently be carried. The priests of his Congregation have scrupulously observed this practice up to our own time.
Besides all these services given to laity, Monsieur Vincent was anxious that his missionaries do what they could for any clergy in the area. He used spiritual conferences for this purpose. In them he discussed with them the obligations of their state, the faults they should guard against, the virtues they should practice as most fitting their state, and other similar topics.
As we said in another place, Monsieur Vincent was most assiduous in giving missions because he recognized their necessity and the good reception they had among the people. When he had to return to Paris, it seemed to him, as he said several times, “that the gates of the city would fall upon him” for turning to other duties when the salvation of so many poor people depended upon his help.
He soon recognized by his own experience that this type of activity was most tiring, and took a toll on even the strongest. It was impossible to continue without some relaxation, which he proposed to give his priests each year. It appeared the best time for this would be the harvest and vintage time, when the peasants were so taken up with their harvest they could not participate in the exercises of the mission without great inconvenience. Monsieur Vincent gave his missionaries this time to study and prepare the sermons and catechism lessons they were to give in future missions. After they spent themselves completely for others they were now to take time for themselves. They were to give themselves with greater leisure and tranquility to recollection and prayer, just as our Lord did with his apostles when they returned from their preaching, and reported to him all they had done. He said “Come apart to a solitary place, to spend some time in rest and tranquility.”3 This is what Monsieur Vincent hoped to provide his missionaries. During this time they made their annual retreat, their annual confession, and looked to the renewal of their interior life.
It happens often enough that those who work for the salvation of others, and are concerned with apostolic undertakings, themselves need to be restored by interior recollection, after so much exterior dissipation, just as the great clocks which serve the public need periodic repair. In this connection Monsieur Vincent said several times, “The life of a missionary ought to be the life of a Carthusian in the house, and an apostle in the countryside. The more he cares for his own interior development the more his labors for the spiritual good of others will prosper.”4
In a letter he wrote in 1631 to one of his priests, on this same question, he said:
At Paris we lead a life almost as solitary as the Carthusians. We neither preach, nor catechize, nor do we go to the city for confessions, and almost no one comes here on business. We, in turn, have no business of our own. This solitude makes us long for work in the country, and the work makes us long for this solitude.5