The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book II, Chapter I, Section VI

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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SECTION SIX:  The Missions Given in Piedmont

A mission was given in April 1656, in a large town called Scalenghe, near Pignerol. The superior of the Mission of Turin, described it to Monsieur Vincent:1

Four or five thousand people attended. What edified me the most is the universal affection displayed for the word of God. Ordinarily fifty or so priests would help us at all the exercises of the mission. All the nobility of the region have taken part with extraordinary devotion. The common people showed such eagerness during the whole mission, which lasted about six weeks, that there is no doubt they wanted to profit from it. A number brought little with them, but remained eight whole days and nights in the church or nearby, to assure their having an opportunity to go to confession. All this shows the good disposition of these people, and the great good to be expected, even though we are so few, so poor, and so wretched, since God’s goodness uses us to effect so much good. I say poor and wretched for I never cease to marvel how these good people put up with me, seeing I am more capable of repelling them than attracting them. God alone works purely by his goodness, and would do even more if I did not put obstacles in the way by my lack of learning, my lack of spirit, and my other deficiencies.2

In another letter, of June 24 following, he said:

We have just finished a mission near Lucerne, where there were eight or nine thousand people at the general communion. We had to preach in the open air, in the public square. An accident occurred there which shows the effect of the word of God and the power of his grace. One of the guards, armed like most people of the region, with three or four pistols and several daggers besides his sword, was listening attentively to the sermon while leaning against a wall. A stone, dislodged from the wall, fell on his head, and caused a deep gash and much blood. The only words out of his mouth were, “O just God, what a time for this to happen!” To those who expressed surprise at his patience he remarked that his sins deserved this and more. Then, with his head bandaged, he returned for the rest of the sermon as though nothing had happened. This is extraordinary for someone of this region, for the people are lively, quick to anger, and much inclined to violence.

At the end of our mission here, they earnestly requested us to go to a nearby town about a league and a half from here. It had been deeply divided for the past ten or twelve years, and had experienced the murders of more than thirty people during that time. The town had become an armed camp, one faction against the other, so that they were in danger of exterminating each other. I feared our visit there would not be successful, for we had no possibility of giving a complete mission. We were so strongly urged to go we felt we must, leaving the outcome completely in the hands of divine Providence.

We stayed two days in the town. During that time it pleased God so to move hearts that after our sermons, and particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi before the blessed sacrament exposed, a general reconciliation of great solemnity took place. The leading parties on either side came to the altar, and on the Gospels swore they pardoned their adversaries. As a sign of this conversion they offered the greeting of peace before all the people, and signed a formal peace treaty drawn up by the public notary. Afterward, we sang the Te Deum in thanksgiving. All this greatly consoled the people, who, for many years had seen the murders and blood of so many of their relatives in this undeclared war.3

In another letter, of February 3, 1657, this same priest wrote of the success of an important mission:

By the mercy of God we have completed the mission of Raconi. It pleased his goodness to allow us to finish six weeks of continuous effort there, despite our being completely worn out by another mission immediately before. We would never have dared undertake the second of these missions in the most populated part of Piedmont were it not that the archbishop of Turin had requested it, at the earnest solicitation of his clergy and people. Even though we were helped by four good priests of the city and by several religious who worked with us, we could not totally respond to the devotion of these people whose demands left us not a moment of rest. The press of people at the sermons and catechism lessons continued, and their desire for confession was so great that they came at midnight to awaken us for this service. Some remained in church several days and nights even in this severe time of winter to have an opportunity to go to confession. The good effects and the fruits of the mission correspond, by the grace of God, to their good dispositions, as we may judge from their good resolutions and reconciliations they made. The clergy themselves, consisting of around forty priests and clerics, gave the example to the people. We gave a special conference to them every week, a practice they decided to continue for themselves. We established a Confraternity of Charity for the sick poor. Those who joined have already begun to carry out their ministry with great devotion.4

In June of the same year, while on the mission at Savigliano, he wrote:

We are now busy on this mission, which is one of the most difficult we have yet experienced in this country. God has given it his special blessing, despite the poverty of its preachers and their small numbers. We are charged with a large region where the inhabitants are taken up with penance and conversion. What is even more astounding to me is that the religious of five or six monasteries come to the sermons, and all the priests have made their general confessions. The many nobility think of nothing else but acquiring a true spirit of penance. We have been obliged to ask the religious of the locality to help us in the confessional. We even had to call on those from Turin to help out.

The Providence of God brought us here when the soldiers, quartered here for the winter, are returning to the army. We have had the opportunity before their leaving, particularly for several captains and French soldiers, to have them at our sermons and catechism lessons for an entire week. A number made their general confession with great devotion, seeing they are off to the dangers of the war. I must say I cannot remember ever having received such consolation in my life as I have had in seeing men of their profession, away from the sacraments for years, dissolve in tears at the feet of their confessor, and take truly Christian resolutions for their lives. For soldiers, they are extraordinary. This is surely the effect of the mercy of God, whom I pray you to have the goodness to join us in thanking.5

At the conclusion of this mission, this same priest wrote:

I told you earlier how at the beginning of our mission God had moved the hearts of many soldiers. Since then we have continued our sermons, catechism lessons and other usual exercises at which we have had such a large crowd the church could barely hold them all, even though it is so large. This was true even during times which custom dictated were to be given over to domestic chores. By order of the authorities the stores closed at the hour of the sermons and the longer catechism instructions. On market days, all trading was suspended during these same hours to give everyone an opportunity to hear the word of God. Both religious and priests attended the mission in large numbers, and most of them have made their general confession, even though they had to confess to one another. They have made restitutions and reconciliations as elsewhere. The conclusion of the mission was held on the public square before twelve thousand persons. Also, during the whole mission, we gave spiritual conferences to the clergy. About a hundred of them attended each session.

One of the priests, a very good ecclesiastic, whom we had invited from Turin to help us, worked several days in the confessional. He then fell sick, and finally died, with extraordinarily pious sentiments. His refrain, in dying, was, “humility, humility, without humility I am lost.” Hardly had he breathed his last when crowds of people came to offer their condolences, and to show their affection and thanks. They wanted to celebrate the funeral solemnly, with torches and candles. All the religious were there and the burial was among the most honorable ever in this place.

When they saw what good we had been able to do for them, the people wanted to have the priests of our Congregation stay here permanently. For this purpose they made as generous a proposal as could be hoped for. When we excused ourselves because of our small numbers, the people proposed establishing a foundation to support four or five priests, and further, they sought the intervention of the Marquis de Pianezze.6 They argued their case so persuasively that on our return he strongly urged our accepting this foundation. We had to tell him, with all due respect, that we would not be able to do so.7

Toward the end of that same year a mission was given in Bra, which God greatly blessed. We know no better way to convey this than by citing extracts of three letters this same superior sent to Monsieur Vincent. They tell of conditions before the mission, and its effects, produced through the grace of God.

In the first of these, written on October 27, 1657, he said:

I believe it will be necessary to put off to another time the mission which the Madame Royale has asked us to give in Bra, a town which depends upon her, because of the divisions which exist there.8 They have developed to such a degree that the streets are barricaded, soldiers and other armed men fill the houses. They attack each other even in the church, and are so embittered they even attack others’ homes to enter by force. Each one fortifies his home as though resisting a siege. It is worth their life to leave the house.

It was hoped a sort of armistice could be worked out for the time of the mission, and that by the sermons, exhortations, and remonstrances, some relief could be brought to the tense situation, and even some reconciliations effected. The people were so severely divided that not even the leading ministers of the state, sent by the Madame Royale, could bring this about. It seemed to us that not only was it useless to have a mission in a place where no one could come to the services, but it would be dangerous for those few who would dare to attend. We have enough other places where we can give our services.9

Despite this, the superior wrote another letter from same place, on February 6, 1658:

It has been a month since we began working in Bra, where it has pleased God to inspire the people to become reconciled with each other. This came about mainly by His Highness expressing his displeasure at their animosity, and then by the mission which sought to change their attitudes. Persons from both camps came to our sermons and other exercises of the mission in the same church, which at first seemed difficult to achieve, if not hazardous. As soon as the people were together in church, they were persuaded to lay aside their arms, which they always carried with them everywhere. Their faithfulness to the sermons and catechism lessons, coupled with the good sentiments inspired in them by the grace of God, brought about their complete reunion. They even exchanged greetings of peace in the presence of the blessed sacrament, while mutually asking pardon. Some of the leading persons of the town were publicly reconciled in the public square. They showed such happiness at this turn of events it gives great hope this reunion of hearts will endure.

The people are consoled at seeing former enemies, who shortly before were seeking ways to kill each other, now walking and talking together as if there had never been trouble between them. Before, the streets were filled with armed men, but now we see none. All seem preoccupied in how best to be reconciled to the majesty of God by a worthy spirit of penance. When the Madame Royale heard the good news of these events, she deigned to write to us of her satisfaction. The Marquis de Pianezze also wrote to tell us of his enormous consolation at the way things have turned out. We are busy now with confessions. Although we have asked all the priests and religious of the area to help us, the crowd of penitents is so great I do not know when we will finish.10

Lastly, in his third letter, of March 9th of the same year, he wrote:

We have finished our mission at Bra where God showered his graces in such abundance upon the poor souls there, who for such a long time lived in the deplorable state I described in my earlier letters to you. We spent seven weeks there during the time when the carnival is usually celebrated, but for the inhabitants of Bra it was time for penance, a time of one continuous feastday, celebrated with great devotion. There were around nine or ten thousand general confessions, with such evident fervor in the people that several passed the entire day and a good part of the night in the church, despite the cold of this time of the year, to be sure to have an opportunity to get to confession. It pleased God to diffuse peace and charity in their hearts so abundantly, that the residents there were astonished to see such complete reconciliations. They cannot recall seeing such union and cordiality. They reported all this to the Madame Royale, to whom I went yesterday to report on all that had occurred, and on the hope I had for total perseverance among the people. She was so happy and consoled, and her heart so moved, I noticed tears in her eyes. To crown all this good news and to erase all memory of the unhappy past, she issued a general pardon for all wrongs of the past, and for all excesses committed during the time of contention.

As the mercy of God and one grace is usually followed by still another coming from his goodness, it pleased him to extend the same blessings he had given the people of Bra to another nearby town. For the past forty years or so, discord and division had made such a mark there that the place was nearly destroyed. A large number of people of either party had been killed, some houses destroyed or damaged, and many had to go elsewhere to live. The senate of Piedmont had several times sought to end the disputes, but without success, and all other efforts to heal the divisions had ended the same way.

Lastly, when the lord of the place, one of the leading men of Piedmont, and a most wise and virtuous person, had considered the mission held at Bra at which some of his people had attended, he thought it proper to summon all parties to a meeting. He wanted to see if some way might not exist to bring peace to the town, as had been accomplished with their neighbors. For just three or four days we gave some of the sermons and exercises of our mission. It pleased God to move hearts so that in the presence of the blessed sacrament a large number of people of the region offered a gesture of peace to one another. They pardoned each other, and swore on the holy Gospels they would live in eternal peace. As a sign of this union, they invited one another to join in a meal, at which they showed such union and charity as befitted brothers. Her Highness had the goodness to grant the same grace and absolution as she had done for Bra, so all could return to their homes, and cultivate their lands in peace.11

On the following March 26, another mission was given in Caval Maggiore, a village of four or five thousand inhabitants. Although there were not the same serious disorders as in the previous places the missions had been given, several disagreements and resulting lawsuits left us not a minute of peace. The divine-inspired confidence these people had in us led them to put all disputes, whether civil or criminal, into our hands for settlement. We have hopes of bringing them all to an end during Lent.12

In still another letter, of July 6, he wrote:

We are leaving Fossano, a small but densely populated town, where we have just finished a mission. It pleased God to bestow many blessings on this work, in keeping with the needs we discovered there. The crowds at the exercises were so large that the church, large as it is, could not hold all the people who came to the sermons and other services. Not only were the lay people in attendance, but the clergy and religious were also present.

Besides the usual blessings of the missions, in which evil practices are ended and hatreds resolved, we were able to introduce several practices for the future: (1) the evening prayers we began will be continued in the church of the fathers of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, which many people attend each evening; (2) the canons have agreed to hold a general communion every three months, to help preserve the present sentiments of piety in the people; (3) these same canons and all the clergy are to continue the spiritual conferences we began for ecclesiastics. We hope, with God’s blessing, these will be most helpful in re-establishing and preserving among them a true priestly spirit, to which several among them seem much inclined. This region now seems to be totally renewed in its Christian life, which we trust will be continued through the continuing growth of the grace of God.13

In a letter of March 12, 1659, he spoke of several missions given near the city of Mondovi of which the main result was the cessation of many murders and homicides. In just one of these small places, forty bandits repented their crimes like the others. In the presence of the blessed sacrament they gave abundant signs of their conversion of heart immediately before receiving holy communion.14

Lastly, in a letter of July 12 of the same year, 1659, he wrote:

We have come back from our mission at Cherasco, which lasted a bit longer than the others because of the crowds which come from surrounding regions. To satisfy the people completely we would have needed twenty priests, and they would have been kept busy for two whole months or more. It pleased God to bestow as many blessings as anyone could hope for. Many quarrels and differences have been resolved. Among the blessings I must mention is a large neighboring village where the people were so divided one against the other that on the eve of the very day we arrived, four people had been killed. Nevertheless, by God’s mercy, peace has been re-established. This did not take place without difficulty, however, for it took forty days of preaching and negotiations. At the end all worked out for the consolation of the people and with much edification, in the presence of the blessed sacrament which had been exposed expressly for this purpose. Most importantly, after their reconciliation these people came to confession in excellent disposition.15

These are the extracts of letters written to Monsieur Vincent. If we were to report in detail all the similar results of missions in Piedmont, bestowed by God’s grace, we would need another whole book, and we would be forced to repeat ourselves many times. We have given enough to allow the readers to judge for themselves the rest, and to suggest a reason for thanking God for all the graces he gave these people. We should remark that in this service of his divine Majesty, in the conversion of so many, in the reconciliations and other great and admirable works, we are speaking of only four priests of the Congregation of the Mission, for Monsieur Vincent could not send more for the missions in this country. God showed his power in that the instruments he used seemed so inadequate to the task before them. He pitted a group of men, small and weak in the eyes of hell, to oppose the prince of darkness and to vanquish him in the lives of so many where sin had long reigned, and to establish the empire of his Son, Jesus Christ, to whom alone forever be the praise and blessing.

  1. Jean Martin was superior of the house at Turin from 1655 to 1665. He was born in Paris in 1620. He was received into the Congregation in 1638 and was sent with another student to take part in the celebrated mission given to the court at Saint Germain en Laye at the request of Louis XIII. His catechetical teaching so impressed the queen that she asked him to teach catechism to the dauphin, the future Louis XIV, who was still an infant. In 1642 he went to Rome to work on the missions there. He came to speak Italian fluently. In 1645, Saint Vincent sent him to Genoa, where he worked for several years. He accompanied Cardinal Durazzo on his pastoral visitations. In 1652 he was one of the seven missionaries sent to Corsica. In 1655 he was named superior of the Turin house. He died February 17, 1694 in Rome, where he was also superior.
  2. CED V:586.
  3. CED V:641-42.
  4. CED VII:174.
  5. CED VI:212-13.
  6. Philippe de Simiane, the prime minister of Piedmont, became a correspondent of Saint Vincent, and founded a community house in Turin, where he lived in his retirement.
  7. CED VI:395-96.
  8. Christine of France, duchess of Savoy. She governed the state during the minority of her son, Charles Emmanuel.
  9. CED VI:568.
  10. CED VII:73-74.
  11. CED VII:101-02.
  12. CED VII:113-14.
  13. CED VII:198-99.
  14. CED VII:468.
  15. CED VIII:22-23; see also 568.

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