SECTION THREE: Further Discussion of the Fruit of the Missions Given in Italy
PART ONE: In Various Places Near Rome
We now move from France into Italy, accompanying the missionaries sent by Monsieur Vincent to establish themselves in the first city of Christendom. Since the sovereign pontiff, Urban VIII of happy memory, received them favorably, they were able with their usual zeal to fulfill the orders given them by His Holiness, by the ordination retreats, spiritual conferences, retreats, and other services offered to priests, especially in Rome. They were able, also, in various other places near the city and elsewhere in Italy, to present missions for the people.
We will speak first of an extraordinary form of mission which was as difficult as it was charitable. They began it more than twenty years ago and still maintain it today, that is, the missions for the shepherds and cowherds of the countryside.
So that those who have not been to Rome will better understand what we are describing, it should be pointed out that this great city lies in a sort of desert, so that within four or five leagues there are neither villages nor towns. This is not because the soil is not arable, but because the quality of the air is poor. It is difficult to find people willing to live in the area and to till the soil since they cannot survive there. Since the ground is not cultivated, there is abundant pasturage for cattle. Flocks and herds from everywhere are brought here to spend the winter, after which they are led back to the kingdom of Naples, or wherever else they came from.
The shepherds and cowherds remain five or six months in this deserted countryside. They almost never attend mass or receive the sacraments, and they do not regret it, because for the most part these are rough people, poorly instructed in their Christian duties. During the day each one goes his separate way to pasture the animals. At night they come together in a common area where they set up portable huts for themselves which sleep ten or twelve persons and sometimes even more.
Monsieur Vincent was always particularly concerned about the souls of the most neglected poor. Knowing of the condition in which these shepherds passed the better part of their lives, he directed the priests he sent to Italy to relieve and help the poor to minister to these poor people while they were caring for their flocks. He had great compassion for them and wanted to help them. He devoutly honored their work as shepherds. Though it was abject and base in the sight of men, it was nevertheless one of the greatest attributes of the Savior of the world. In the gospel, Jesus calls himself above all the Good Shepherd. He transmitted this attribute to those to whom he confided the care of his flock, the Church, particularly in him who is the first and the head of the faithful, that is, the sovereign pontiff.
These good missionaries received this commission from their spiritual father, and moved by their own zeal, thought of how best to instruct these poor shepherds. It was obvious that they could not be brought together in a church for sermons and catechism lessons, as was done in other missions, since they could not leave their flocks unattended. It was unreasonable to expect them to come together, in view of the difficulties of the situation. Charity suggested that the best course of action would be to meet these poor shepherds in their huts. They would pass the night with them, taking whatever opportunity presented itself to speak with them and teach them as best they could. It seemed that Lent would be the most appropriate and fruitful time to begin. Following this plan, the missionaries went out, one to a hut, awaiting the return of the shepherds in the evening. There they first attempted to win over their hosts by pointing out that they did not come to ask for anything, but only to offer their help. At first they asked only to pass the night with them in their humble quarters.
While the shepherds prepared their evening meal, the missionaries spoke with them about what was necessary and useful for their salvation, of the main truths of faith, and of the proper dispositions for worthily receiving the sacraments, particularly penance and the eucharist. They also spoke of how a person ought to live as a good Christian, and how to fulfill the obligations of this calling. When the hour for sleep came, they helped them pray to God, then took their rest on a sheepskin or upon the bare ground.
They continued these instructions at irregular intervals. When they saw that the shepherds were sufficiently prepared, they administered the sacrament of penance, and helped them in their general confessions, either in the evening or during the day, as was most convenient for them. When they had ministered in this way to all the huts in the area, they had all the shepherds assemble on a feastday, or a Sunday, in the nearest chapel, if there were one in the open countryside. There they celebrated mass, gave a sermon, and distributed holy communion to all. Afterward, these poor shepherds, in imitation of those who came to adore Jesus Christ in his crib, returned, praising and glorifying God, thanking him for the graces his mercy had given them through the ministry of the good missionaries. They continued from time to time to render this charitable service to them.1
Although these charitable efforts in favor of the poor shepherds, together with all their other work in the city of Rome, took up most of their time, they still managed to exercise their zeal in all the surrounding area, in neighboring dioceses, and even in several more distant ones. They gave missions in these places, with no fewer blessings than those given in France. We do not intend to speak of all of them here, nor even of the twentieth part of them, but rather only of a few of the more remarkable ones. We hope to give the reader some idea of the spiritual advantages which the people of these regions received and continue to receive up to our own time, by the grace of God, and the zeal of Monsieur Vincent, and the efforts of his spiritual sons.
In 1642 the superior of the missionaries of Rome wrote to Monsieur Vincent:
We gave a mission in a place which I will not name, a walled town of about three thousand souls, on the road between Rome and Naples. During the month the mission lasted we had our share of troubles and encountered terrible disorders. Most of the men and women know neither the Our Father or the Creed, much less the other things necessary for salvation. There were many profound enmities among them. Blasphemies were not only common, but they were such as to make your hair stand on end. Some people of every class live in concubinage. Prostitutes openly seduced the young. Along with all these disorders, we ran into much opposition and resistance, with the evil spirit leveling violent attacks against us, even from those who should have been supporting us. In short, this mission has been almost a constant source of grief for us.
There seemed no way to win over the hearts of these people. They considered it a point of honor not to allow themselves to be taught or converted. The only way to make peace with them was to stop preaching or hearing confessions. However, after two weeks of patience and perseverance in the ordinary exercises of the mission, the people began to open their eyes and recognize their condition. In the end God’s grace won out. Many reconciliations were effected, enmities ended, and blasphemies stopped. Four street women have been converted. One of the most obstinate mistresses has been converted. She had lived fourteen years in public adultery and caused much difficulty in the family involved, not to mention scandal in the town. She gave up her life of sin, and has removed herself from the scene.
Another completely unexpected fruit of the mission was that they gave up an abominable sin which shall not even be mentioned, to which they were much given. They made a general communion in good dispositions, and all were touched to hear their weeping, and groaning and to see their tears. This mission was finally brought to a close with great blessings, despite all the efforts of the evil one to undermine it.2
Another priest of the Mission of Rome, wrote to Monsieur Vincent in 1654 of several missions given in the diocese of Sarsina in Romagna. After telling him of all the most interesting aspects of these missions, he continued:
In the last mission, which took place in the high mountain regions of the Apennines, we found a general state of disorder. This is common enough in Romagna, but is much worse in these isolated places. The young men and women interact with much familiarity, even when they have no intention of marrying. They never confess these faults, much less the dangerous consequences which follow, since they spend a good part of the night together. This happens especially on the eve of feastdays. Because of their wicked attraction for each other, they have little respect for the churches. They often go only to be seen, or to leer at the others and make immodest gestures. Besides the bad thoughts and other interior ills, this conduct sometimes results in scandalous affairs. This still does not restrain the others, or make their parents more careful to prevent such things.
When we became aware of these abuses and their dangerous and sorry consequences, we spoke in our sermons as strongly as possible in attempts to stop them, but with little success. They used all sorts of sophistries to justify their conduct, to our great chagrin. At length, by God’s grace, we were able to bring a remedy to this evil by refusing absolution to those not firmly resolved to renounce absolutely this amorous behavior. This had the desired effect, for almost all changed their ways.
I had read to them in Italian a chapter of the book Philothea,3 which treats of this matter. They heard their behavior described as though the author had written it expressly for them. Several tearfully resolved to repent the past and improve in the future. May God give them perseverance in their good dispositions.
Lastly, Monsieur, although the pastors of the locality at first took us for spies, and had put it into the minds of the people that we were suspect, they too eventually came around. When they saw the simplicity with which we acted, how we deferred to them and behaved during the missions, and above all else, when they saw that we had no selfish interest, they came to appreciate us. I might say that we carried away their hearts, as some told us with tears.
I should not fail to mention here another extraordinary event. An evil priest had publicly boasted that he would never come to any of our services. Shortly after, by God’s just judgment, on the very spot he had made this boast, another evil priest killed him. The victim had told me in fine words that he was about to change his life, but this had no effect.4
- The first of these missionaries was Louis le Breton, sent by Saint Vincent from France in 1638. Also sent was Jean-Baptiste Taoni, a priest of the diocese of Nice, who had entered the Congregation. What these missionaries did for the shepherds in the Roman countryside they also did for the poor sailors and fishermen of the Italian coastal dioceses. Urban VIII was pleased with their efforts and authorized the Congregation to establish a house in Rome in 1641. Louis le Breton died from an illness while evangelizing the diocese of Ostia on October 17, 1641.
- CED II:319-20.
- Introduction to the Devout Life by Saint Francis de Sales.
- CED V:133-34.