SECTION NINE: On the Mission to the Isle of Saint Lawrence, Otherwise Known as Madagascar
PART ONE: Letter from Monsieur Vincent to Monsieur Nacquart, Priest of the Congregation of the Mission, About This Mission
We know of no better way to begin our discussion of this important mission than by quoting from a letter written by Monsieur Vincent to the late Monsieur Charles Nacquart.1 He was a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, a native of the diocese of Soissons, and the first one chosen for this mission. He happily spent his life in the service of the Lord, working for the conversion of these poor infidels. Monsieur Vincent wrote to him in April of 1648, from Richelieu where he was at the time.
For a long time our Lord has given you the desire of doing something special for him. When at the meetings at Richelieu, the proposal was made to open missions among the pagans, it seemed to me that the Lord made you feel you were being called, as you wrote me, together with several others of the community at Richelieu. This seed of divine vocation has begun to grow. In speaking for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, of which the Holy Father is the head, the nuncio has chosen our Company to serve God in the isle of Saint Lawrence, also called Madagascar.
Our Company, in turn, has turned to you as the most precious offering it can make, as homage to our sovereign Creator, to go there with another priest of our Company. O dearest Monsieur! How does your heart respond to this news? Is it filled with shame and confusion at receiving such a grace from heaven? This is a vocation equal to that of the greatest apostles and the greatest saints in the Church of God! An eternal design of divine Providence, accomplished now in you! Only humility, Monsieur, is capable of accepting such a grace. You have only to abandon all you are or could be with overwhelming confidence in our sovereign Creator. Generosity and great courage are essential for you. You must have faith as profound as Abraham’s, charity as complete as Saint Paul’s, and the zeal, patience, deference, love of poverty and solitude, discretion, probity of life, and the same desire to consume yourself completely for God that inspired the renowned Saint Francis Xavier.
This island lies under Capricorn. It is 400 leagues in length, and about 160 leagues wide. Its poor inhabitants live in ignorance of God, but they are simple, of good disposition, and quite capable. You must cross the equator to reach the island.
The first thing you must do is to model yourself on the great saint, Francis Xavier, in his trip to the East. You must serve and edify the ship’s company, arranging public prayers if possible. Have regard for the inconveniences of others, and put yourself out as much as you can to accommodate yourself to the others. Make this voyage, which may last for five or six months, a happy one by your prayers and the practice of all the virtues, just as the sailors do by the performance of their duties. Always show the officers a great respect.2 Come what may, remain faithful to God and his interests, never betraying his trust in you for any consideration whatsoever. However, take care not to spoil by too great haste the designs of the good God, who takes his time and knows how to wait for the right moment.
Once you have arrived at this island, you must adapt yourself as best you can. It might be necessary to separate, to serve in different locations, but even then you must arrange to meet as often as you can for mutual support and consolation. In regard to the French colonists and any of the natives who shall be converted you must keep all the parish records. Follow the directives of the Council of Trent in all things, and make use of the Roman Ritual, not allowing anyone to introduce any other. If it should be that another ritual is already in vogue, strive gently to replace it by the Roman Rite. You will need at least two copies of the Roman Ritual.
Your main concern, once you see to your own maintenance, must be to live in gentleness and in good example among the people you have come to serve. Make these poor people, born in darkness and in ignorance of their Creator, come to know the truths of our holy faith, not by arguments drawn from theology but by reflections taken from the world around them. You must begin this way, leading them to understand that you are simply developing the signs God has left in them of himself, which gradually have grown dim by reason of their sins. To accomplish all this, Monsieur, you must often invoke the Father of Lights, and repeat what you say every day in the office: Da mihi intellectum, ut sciam testimonia tua [“Give me discernment that I may know your decrees”].3 You will see all this by meditation on the insights he will give you.
You must prove the truth of a sovereign and first Being, and how this is related to the mystery of the Trinity, the necessity of the mystery of the Incarnation, wherein a new perfect man came to redeem us from the sin of the first man. You must make these people appreciate the weakness of human nature which they themselves recognize since they have laws and punishments. It would be good to have some books which treat of these questions, such as the Catechism of Granada, or some others which I will try to send you.4 I do not have to repeat, Monsieur, that meditation will be the best teacher: Accedite ad eum et illuminamini [“Look to him that you may be radiant with joy”].5 giving yourself over to the Spirit of God who will teach you in these encounters.
Ah, may it please his divine bounty to give you the grace of cultivating the seed of Christianity which is already there, and enabling them to live in true Christian charity. If you do that, I do not doubt, Monsieur, that our Lord will use you in these distant isles to prepare an abundant harvest for the Company. Go then, Monsieur, sent by God as his representative here below to these people. Cast the net boldly!
I am aware of how much you are devoted to purity of heart. You will need to make good use of this virtue, for the people there offend in many ways in this regard. The infallible grace of your vocation will be your safeguard. We will look forward to hearing news from you, and will send you news from home. We will send you a complete mass kit, two Roman Rituals, two small bibles, two Acts of the Council of Trent, two books of moral theology, and pictures of all the main mysteries which will help your people understand and which they will be pleased to see. We have a young man here from Madagascar, about twenty years of age, who will be baptized today by the nuncio. I used these pictures to teach him, and they seemed to serve the purpose well.
You will have to bring the irons for making the hosts for mass, and the holy oils for baptism and extreme unction. You will each need Busee’s book for your meditations,6 copies of the Introduction to a Devout Life, and lives of the saints. We will send a letter giving you full authority from us, and one from the nuncio, who has this project very much at heart. For the rest, I give myself entirely to you, if not to follow you, which I am unworthy to do, at least to offer prayers every day for you, should God continue my days upon earth. If it should please him to show his mercy to me in my seeing you only in eternity, I shall see you among those called apostles, by reason of your present calling. I finish this letter by throwing myself at your feet. I beg you to commend me to our common Lord that I may remain faithful, and that in his love I may walk the path that leads to eternity. I remain, Monsieur, yours in our Lord.
The one we are sending with you is Monsieur Gondree, whom perhaps you met in our community at Saintes while he was still a cleric.7 He is one of the best candidates of our Company, and has preserved the devotion he brought with him when he joined us. He is humble, charitable, cordial, exact, and zealous. In a word, he is someone I cannot say enough good things about.
Several merchants will leave here Wednesday or Thursday for La Rochelle. Monsieur Gondree will go with them to meet you at Richelieu, while they go on ahead where they will await you, around the fifteenth or twentieth of next month, before setting sail. Monsieur, please be ready. We will add to the books already mentioned the Life and Letters of the Apostle of the Indies. Don’t say anything about all this just yet. Wait until we have announced this from here.
One of the gentlemen engaged in trade with the Indies will join you on this voyage. He has paid your passage. We will send you something for your own expenses when you arrive. What more can I say, Monsieur, except that I pray that our Lord will give you some share in his charity, and his patience. There is nothing I desire more upon this earth, if it were permitted, than I might be your companion on this mission in place of Monsieur Gondree.8
- Charles Nacquart was born in 1617 at Trelon in the diocese of Soissons. He died in Madagascar May 29, 1650.
- The directors of the Company of the Indies.
- Ps 119:125, said at least on Sundays at Sext.
- Introducción al símbolo de la Fe.
- Ps 34:6.
- A volume of meditations, Enchiridion piarum meditationum, by the Jesuit Joannes Buys (or Busaeus), which Monsieur Portail had edited and translated for the use of the Congregation at Saint Vincent’s request.
- Nicolas Gondree was born in 1620 at Assigny in the diocese of Amiens. As a subdeacon he was stationed at Saintes. Saint Vincent recalled him to Paris for his ordination to the priesthood, and his assignment to the Madagascar mission. He died in Madagascar in May of 1649.
- CED III:278-85.