PART FOUR: The Dioceses of Geneva and Marseilles
We cannot better show the fruits the missionaries from Annecy achieved, through the grace of God, than by calling upon His Excellency Juste Guerin, bishop of Geneva, who wrote to Monsieur Vincent in June 1640.
Would to God you could look into my heart, for I truly love and honor you with all my affection. I acknowledge myself obligated to your charity more than to any human being in the whole world. I cannot express the blessings and fruits your missionaries, your dear children in the Lord, have produced in our diocese. They would not be believed by anyone unless he had witnessed it for himself. I saw these results with my own eyes on the occasion of the visit I made after Easter.
The people love the missionaries, they cherish them without exception and speak their praises. Certainly, Monsieur, their doctrine is holy, as is their conversation. They are very edifying in their manner of living. When they finish their work in one village to go to another, the people weep and say as they accompany them, “O good God, what will become of us, now that our priests have gone?” For several days they go to the other village to see them once more. Persons from other dioceses come to confess to them, and many admirable conversions have been attributed to their ministry. Their superior has great gifts from God, and has a marvelous zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. He preaches with much fervor and fruit.1 We are much obliged to Commander de Sillery for underwriting this mission. How admirable divine Providence is to have so gently inspired the heart of this noble person to provide these evangelical missionaries for us! The good God has done this without any human intervention but simply because of our great need, situated as we are in the shadow of that wicked city, Geneva.2
In a letter of October 1641, he said:
I must tell you I am ever obliged to you and to your dear sons, the priests of the Mission. You have continued to succeed, and have won more and more souls for heaven. Indeed, Monsieur, I never cease to admire the care divine Providence has taken of this diocese in sending us these good workers from your great community. I never cease to thank him, and you too, for I would be truly remiss if I did not do so. Alas, we have to our great regret lost Commander de Sillery, our great benefactor.3
This same prelate wrote again, in August 1644:
Your missionaries continue to enrich paradise with souls set on the path of salvation. They showed them the way through instruction, catechism lessons, exhortations, preaching, and the administration of the sacraments. Add to this the good example of their exemplary lives wherever they give the mission. The only regret I have is that they are so few compared with the vast extent of our diocese, which has five hundred eighty parishes. Alas, if our Lord would give me the grace of seeing the mission given in every locale, I would say with all my heart, and with great consolation: Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace [“Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word”].4
The missions given at Marseilles and in Provence are of two kinds, one given at sea, the other on land. The first has to do with the convicts of the galleys, and the second with the peasants in the countryside, both blessed by God.5
The mission for the galleys began in 1643, to the great satisfaction of Jean-Baptiste Gault, the worthy bishop of Marseilles, who died soon after in the odor of sanctity. He wrote on March 6 to the Duchess d’Aiguillon, who took an interest in this mission because her nephew, the Duc de Richelieu, was the general of the galleys.6 She had earlier asked Monsieur Vincent to assign some of his priests to this work.
Although it has not been long since I wrote you about the arrival of the missionaries whom you caused to be sent to work in the galleys, I must tell you of what has happened since, and of the satisfaction all experienced who work at this difficult task.7 I, too, rejoice with them at their success, and I know you will share this happiness. We began the mission in the galleys with eight priests from Provence, two to a ship.8 The priests who came directly from Paris have gone to the other three ships. I have tried to help out where I could, especially in regard to the many Italians in the galleys. The results of the missions surpass anything we could have hoped for. It is true that at first not only were persons ignorant of their religion found there, but many who were hardened in their sin. They did not want to hear things of God spoken of, being hardened to the highest degree by the miserable condition in which they were. Little by little, by the grace of God and the work of these missionaries, their hearts were softened to such a degree that they show contrition equal to their previous defiance.
You would be astonished, Madame, if you could see the number of those who had passed three or four years or even ten without going to confession. Some who had been away for twenty-five years even said they would not do anything about it as long as they remained in their cruel punishment. Finally our Lord conquered and chased Satan from these souls over whom he had exerted such power. I praise God for inspiring you to make it possible for these missionaries to come. Since their arrival I have resolved to work at this mission, which before I might have hesitated to do. It is to be feared that some among them will die in the unhappy state in which they are. I hope we will be able to reap the same fruit in the other galleys. I cannot tell you, Madame, how deeply these poor convicts appreciate the aid they have received, and which has proved so helpful for the good of their souls. I am looking for a way to perpetuate the good dispositions in which they now are. I am on my way to give absolution to four heretics who were converted while serving in the galleys. Others plan to return, for the extraordinary events of the mission have moved them deeply.
Two or three months later Monsieur Vincent received a letter from the superior of the missionaries at Marseilles, telling him the sad news of the death of this holy bishop. He reported plans for further work:
We still have one more mission to give on one of the galleys, but that will finish up for this year. The work is trying, but what helps us bear it is the completely satisfactory change we perceive in these convicts. Yesterday I taught catechism to seven Moslems from various galleys whom I had brought here. God in his mercy has blessed this enterprise, which I recommend to your prayers. Another Moslem was baptized on board a galley, since he was gravely ill. Besides this man, about thirty heretics made their abjuration.9
This same priest wrote to Monsieur Vincent again on June 1 of the same year:
Yesterday the feast of the most holy Trinity, nine Moslems were baptized in the cathedral church, in a public ceremony before the people of Marseilles. The streets were filled with people blessing God. We chose to make such a display to encourage some other Moslems who seemed unsure of themselves. Today two new ones came to tell me they would like to become Christians. They came with another who had been baptized ten days before. We teach them catechism in Italian twice a day, to strengthen and affirm them as much as in our power. Otherwise they would be in danger of relapsing into Islam.10
Since that time Monsieur Vincent continued to support the mission at Marseilles, which occasionally offered its services to the galleys, even when the home port of the galleys was transferred to Toulon. These missions continued to do much good for the salvation of the souls of these unfortunate convicts.
Besides these services to the convicts, these missionaries gave their missions in the countryside with equal success. This is what one of them wrote in 1647:
We have just finished a five-week mission. It has kept us chained to the confessional and the pulpit and to the settlement of disputes. It has been so successful that I can say without exaggeration that we could not have hoped for anything better. We have rectified nine or ten marriages, and have settled twenty-five or thirty disputes involving either large sums, affairs of honor or other matters. Most of these were settled face-to-face, without anyone else involved. Some were arranged publicly in the church, even during the sermon, with such tearful feeling that the preaching was interrupted.
It happened also that a man of some modest standing had angrily replied to one of our priests, and had even publicly blasphemed at the door of the church. Some two weeks later he came to his senses, and as a penance imposed upon himself, gave a hundred ecus for the repair of the church that had witnessed his blasphemy.11
- Bernard Codoing, superior at Annecy, 1639-42.
- CED II:52.
- CED II:199.
- Luke 2:29.
- CED II:473.
- Armand de Wignerod. At the death of the cardinal, he inherited his title of Duc de Richelieu. He also became the general of the galleys from his father, Francois de Wignerod de Pontcourlai, who in turn had succeeded Emmanuel de Gondi when he retired to the Oratory.
- Vincent sent five missionaries, led by Francois du Coudray.
- These were the missionaries founded by Christophe d’Authier.
- CED II:395.
- CED II:398.
- CED III:159-60.