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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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SECTION EIGHT: The Missions in Ireland

In 1646 our Holy Father, Pope Innocent X, advised Monsieur Vincent that the danger to religion in Ireland had come to his attention, because of the people’s lack of instruction and the efforts of heretics.1 He wished him to send some priests of his Congregation to do what they could to remedy this. At once this humble servant of God took steps to obey him whom he recognized as the head of the Church, and vicar of Jesus Christ upon earth. He chose eight missionaries of his Congregation, among whom were five priests of Irish extraction, all trained in the giving of missions. He instructed them before their departure:

Be united, and God will bless you, but this union must be the love of Jesus Christ within you. Any other source of harmony, not being cemented by the blood of Jesus Christ, will not endure. It is in Jesus Christ, by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ that you must be united with one another. The spirit of Jesus Christ is a spirit of union and peace. How could you expect to attract other souls to Jesus Christ if you were not united among yourselves? This cannot happen. Have the same sentiments, therefore, the same will, or else you will be like those horses pulling a plow who pull in opposite directions. They spoil everything. God calls you to work in this vineyard. Go therefore, having but a single heart and a single intention, and in this way you will bear much fruit.2

He also encouraged them to enter into a spirit of obedience towards the sovereign pontiff, the vicar of Jesus Christ. They were going to a country where some of the clergy were negligent on this point, and were not giving good example to the other Catholics of the country. He advised them how to act on their journey there, and what to do once they arrived. He suggested several ways to ensure the success of their mission, so that later they attributed much of their success, after God, to the wise counsels and the appropriate advice Monsieur Vincent had given.

After they received his blessing, they left Paris in 1646 for Nantes, but had to wait for a ship bound for Ireland. They used this time in visiting and serving the sick in the hospitals, teaching the poor, and similar good works, all done with the authorization of the appropriate officials. They also gave a series of spiritual conferences to the Ladies of Charity of the parishes on how to visit and help the sick, in the spirit of our lord Jesus Christ.

From Nantes, the missionaries went to Saint Nazaire, which is near the mouth of the Loire, for the ship was to sail from there. They found several other passengers waiting, like themselves. They were able to offer a sort of mission to them, until the Dutch ship they were scheduled to travel on was ready. Among the passengers they found an English gentleman, who chose to embrace our holy religion. This was seen as a singular example of the mercy of God, for three days later he suffered a mortal wound. Seeing himself about to die he did not cease to thank God for having called him to the way of salvation before it was too late. His sentiments of thanks for this grace were so moving, as was his regret for the sins of his past life, that it drew tears from his hearers and edified them greatly.

The devil was enraged at losing his prey, and foresaw the missionaries would steal many another from his grasp. He did all he could to hinder their passage, raising up persecutions and tempests, on land and on sea, but the missionaries escaped them all by God’s special protection. They were delivered from several situations which seemed inevitably destined to cause their deaths.

Once arrived in Ireland, they separated to begin their work. Some went to the diocese of Limerick, others to Cashel. They began by catechisms lessons, then added simple clear and moving exhortations, for Monsieur Vincent had recommended that they use these familiar instructions to teach the people the truths of the faith and the obligations of Christianity, and then to urge them to live in keeping with these, renouncing sin by penance, and embracing the practice of the virtues proper to their state of life. This way of teaching and preaching attracted people from all the surrounding countryside, and was greatly approved by the bishops. When the nuncio to Ireland heard of the fruit of the missions, he congratulated the missionaries, urged them to continue, and even urged the clergy and religious of the country to adopt the same manner of teaching and preaching.

It is difficult to tell how great were the fruits of the mission, whose exercises were almost unknown in that country, and how great was the devotion of all the Catholics who came from the surrounding region. Some even came from far away to attend the catechism lessons and to make their general confession. They had, at times, to wait and entire week for a confessor, so great was the crowd. Even more remarkably, the pastors and other priests of the places where the missions were given were usually the first in line to make their general confession. They were anxious to learn the new method of catechizing and preaching, so that they could maintain the good already accomplished in their parishes by the missions.

The effects of the missions became evident during the bloody persecution Cromwell raised against the Catholics of this poor kingdom.3 Not a single pastor in the places where the missions had been given abandoned his flock. They all remained to help and defend them until they were either put to death or banished for their confession of the Catholic faith, as happened to them all. In one case about one of the bravest of the pastors, he sought out the priests of the Mission who were living in a hut at the base of a mountain, to make his annual confession. He was delayed because he administered the sacraments to a sick person, arriving only the following night. The soldiers of the heretical party captured him and put him to death. His glorious death crowned an innocent life, and fulfilled his desire of suffering for our Lord, as he had expressed a year before during a retreat he had made at Limerick with the priests of the Mission.

Since the persecution of the heretics continued to increase, it became necessary to stop giving the missions, and by orders of Monsieur Vincent several of the priests returned to France. Before leaving they called upon the archbishop of Cashel, on August 16, 1658. He gave them a letter addressed to Monsieur Vincent, written in Latin, but given here in translation:

The departure of your missionaries gives me the opportunity to render my humble thanks and appreciation for what you in your charity have done for the flock entrusted to my charge, through your priests. Not only was the time ripe for this service, the occasion was most appropriate. By their efforts and their example they have aroused the devotion of the people, which increases day by day. Even though your good priests have suffered much inconvenience since arriving in our country, they have not ceased to apply themselves to the work of the missions as tireless laborers. Aided by the grace of God, they have gloriously extended and augmented the worship and glory of God. I hope this same God, who is all good and all powerful, will himself be your recompense and theirs. For myself, I shall pray that you will be preserved for a long time, for you have been chosen for the good and for the service of his holy Church.4

The bishop of Limerick wrote a letter at the same time to Monsieur Vincent:

It is only proper, Monsieur, for me to thank you with all my heart for the good I have received from your priests. I must also tell you of the great need we have of them in this country. I may confidently assure you that they have produced more fruit and converted more souls than all the rest of the clergy put together. What is more, most of the upper class, men and women alike, by the good example and efforts of your priests have become models of devotion and virtue. This did not happen before your missionaries arrived among us. The troubles of the times and the army have hindered their work. Nevertheless the memory of spiritual things and salvation are so imprinted on the hearts of the people of the cities and country that they bless God in adversity as well as in prosperity. I hope, through their help, to work out my own salvation.5

The violence of the persecution increased more and more in the country, forcing Monsieur Vincent to recall all but three of his missionaries. These continued to work for the salvation of the people with great success and blessing, by the help of the grace of God, notwithstanding the difficulties and dangers they encountered. They experienced that having but two or three gathered in the name of the Lord was enough to feel the effects of his divine presence. They undertook a task far exceeding their own strength, but succeeded by a special gift of divine goodness. The mission in Limerick continued, as the bishop wished, but it was no longer possible to go to the country, since the heretics controlled it. Also, poor Catholic villagers had taken refuge in the city. The missionaries were greatly encouraged that the bishop himself wanted to help in the work of the mission. There were nearly twenty thousand communicants in the city, and they all made their general confession. Some were in grave sin, but gave all the signs of a true conversion. The entire city took on a penitential atmosphere to attract the grace of divine mercy. The magistrates of the city also contributed their part. Besides the good example they gave in attending the various exercises of the mission, they used their authority to root out all vice, and exterminate scandals and public offenses. Among other things, they legislated against swearing and blasphemy, with the happy result that these detestable vices were entirely eliminated from the city and surrounding areas.

God himself seemed to confirm these measures by two incidents that occurred. The first was at Thurles, where in the open market a butcher blasphemed the holy name of God. A priest of the Mission who happened to be passing by, admonished him. The correction had such a good effect upon him that he came to himself to say to the missionary that he deserved and was willing to be put in chains for his sin, but asked the missionary to accompany him to the place of punishment. On the way, he met one of his relatives who attempted to dissuade him, out of respect for the family honor, but the missionary insisted he should go through with his plan to satisfy the justice of God and to repair the scandal he had given. This relative them went into a rage, and picking up some stones threatened to harm the priest if he did not persuade his relative not to go through with his act of penance. On the spot, God struck this miserable man with a strange malady which left his tongue so black and swollen, that he could not withdraw it into his mouth. This lasted until prayers were said for him and holy water was sprinkled upon his tongue, which then returned to normal. He recognized his fault, begged pardon of the missionary, and joined the butcher in prison in doing penance for his sin.

The other incident happened at Rathkeale when a gentleman in company of some friends cursed and swore in the public streets. One of his friends suggested he ought to kiss the ground at the very place the oaths had been uttered, but he was mocked for his efforts. In turn, he took to his knees on the spot, and as reparation, kissed the muddy road on behalf of his friend, who continued to mock him. When he returned home, God allowed him to fall from his horse, and so injure himself. He came to his senses, and recognized the sin he had committed. With great remorse of conscience he resolved to make a general confession of his whole life to one of the priests of the Mission, and afterward he lived so virtuously and gave such good example that he was the cause of several other conversions.

While the missionaries worked in Limerick, the bishop wrote the following letter to Monsieur Vincent, by which we can see the great blessing God showered upon this mission:

I have often written to Your Reverence about your missionaries in this kingdom. To speak the truth as it is before God, I must tell you that never in the memory of man have we seen such great progress and advancement of the Catholic faith as we have lately seen by the industry, piety, and faithfulness of your priests, especially at the beginning of this present year when we began a mission in this city of more than twenty thousand believers. This has been done with such fruit, and such appreciation by all the inhabitants that I have no doubt most have been delivered from the clutches of Satan by the remedies brought for so many invalid confessions, drunkenness, blasphemies, adulteries, and other disorders which have been abolished completely. The city has changed complexion. It was brought to penance by the plague, famine, war, and other dangers from all sides, which we receive as manifest signs of the anger of God. Although we are his unworthy servants, his goodness has granted us the favor of being engaged in this work. It was indeed most difficult at the beginning and for some beyond our hopes, but God used the weak to confound the strong of this world. The authorities of the city have been so assiduous at the preachings, sermons, and other exercises of the mission that the cathedral itself was hardly able to hold the people. We know of no better way to appease the anger of God than to eradicate sin, the cause of the evils which have befallen us. We of ourselves are finished, if God does not offer his hand. We look to him to have mercy and to pardon.

Father, I acknowledge that I owe the salvation of my soul to your confreres. Send them some few words of consolation. I know of no other mission under heaven more useful than that of Ireland, for if a hundred be given elsewhere there will be none that accomplish so much with so few laborers. Our sins are grievous. Who knows if God will not uproot us from this kingdom, and give the Bread of Angels to the dogs, to our blame and shame.6

We join to this letter of the bishop, one written by Monsieur Vincent in April of 1650 to the superior of the missions at Limerick, to encourage him in the possible difficulties he might have to endure:

Your letter has greatly edified us, seeing two excellent fruits of the grace of God. By the first, you give yourself completely to God, remaining in the country despite the dangers, exposing yourself to the threat of death rather than fail in your help to the neighbor. The second grace is your care of your confreres, in returning them to France to escape the perils in which they live. The spirit of martyrdom moves you to the former, prudence to the latter. In both you follow the example of our Lord, who was willing to suffer the torments of the cross for the salvation of men, but protected his disciples by saying, “let these go away, and do not harm them.”7 You have acted like a true child of this true Father. I thank him for the infinite graces he has given you, to enable you to act with such charity, the summit of all virtues. I pray that you may be filled with this, everywhere and always, to share it with those who lack it. Since the other priests with you are in the same disposition to remain, despite the dangers of war and pestilence, we agree they should be allowed to do so. Who knows what God has in store for them? He truly did not inspire such a holy resolution in vain.

O God, how inscrutable are your ways! Here we have a mission as successful and necessary as any we have ever seen. Yet it seems you withdrew your mercy towards a penitent city, to allow the scourges of war and pestilence to fall upon it. This is to reap the harvest of souls, and to collect the good grain into your eternal barns. We adore your holy will, O Lord.8

Monsieur Vincent spoke correctly, as if he foresaw the future. The mission which accomplished so much was providentially to prepare the people for two great afflictions, to try their patience and their faith. The first of these was the plague which struck the country, especially in the city of Limerick, where over eight thousand people died, including the bishop’s brother. He had joined the missionaries in visiting the sick, consoling them, and looking after their needs. It was marvelous to see how these poor people supported this trial, not only with patience, but even with peace and tranquility of spirit. They said they died content because they had left the burden of their sins in the sacrament of penance during their general confession. Others said they did not complain, because God had sent the holy priests (so they referred to the priests of the Mission) to purify their souls. Others in their sickness asked for nothing except to share in the prayers of their confessors, whom they felt were, after God, responsible for their salvation. In a word, both the healthy and the sick expressed their thanks and their praiseworthy dispositions. When their bishop heard and saw this, he could scarcely restrain his tears, nor refrain from repeating often, “Alas, if Monsieur Vincent had never done anything else for the glory of God but what he has done for these poor people, he would have to be regarded as blessed.”

As a further trial and a new affliction, this poor city of Limerick was besieged and finally taken by the heretics.9 They cruelly put to death many of the inhabitants, because of the Catholic faith they professed, notably four of the leading men of the town. These men showed on this occasion how much they had benefited from the instructions and exhortations of the missionaries, and from the spiritual retreats made in their house. They displayed an invincible zeal for the defense of the Catholic faith, especially Sir Thomas Strick, who at the end of his retreat was elected mayor of the city. He openly declared himself opposed to all enemies of the Church. When he received the keys of the city he immediately placed them at the feet of the most holy Virgin, whom he implored to take this city under her protection. Afterward, he led a procession of the people to the church, where many religious ceremonies were carried out. Next the mayor addressed the people to encourage them to have an inviolable fidelity to God, to the Church and to the king, offering to give his own life for such a just cause.

God accepted this offer, for shortly afterward the enemy captured the city, and conferred martyrdom upon him and the three other leading men of the town, who had lately shared the spiritual retreat with him. All four endured their suffering not merely with constancy but even with joy, dressing themselves in their best clothes to show this externally. Before being executed they spoke to the people, and drew tears from the eyes of all, even the heretics. They testified before heaven and earth that they died for the confession and defense of the Catholic religion. This greatly strengthened the other Catholics to persevere in the faith, and to suffer any torture rather than fail in the fidelity they owed to God.

One of the three missionaries remaining in Ireland gloriously finished his life in his labors for the mission. The other two remained during the plague and siege, but left after the city was captured. In disguise and at great risk, they were finally obliged to return to France in 1652, after serving in Ireland for six years.10 They and their companions had worked ceaselessly at giving missions, always at the expense of the house of Saint Lazare, and supported by the limitless charity of Monsieur Vincent. He did not want to impose this charge on anyone else, but he did have some help from the generosity of the Duchess d’Aiguillon to cover the cost of the voyage of the priests, and of some necessary vestments for the church.

We are aware there were more than eighty thousand general confessions in these missions in Ireland, and other benefits beyond measure, but we cannot speak of them in detail for, out of humility, Monsieur Vincent wished to keep them under the cloak of silence. When the superior of the mission returned, he asked the superior general if he might compose a short account of the mission to Ireland. He replied:

It suffices that God knows all that has been done. The humility of our Lord requires that the little Company of the Mission hide itself in God to honor the hidden life of Jesus Christ. The blood of martyrs will not be forgotten by God, and sooner or later will bring about a new generation of Catholics.

  1. This request from Innocent X was communicated to Vincent by Cardinal Francis Barberini, the pope’s nephew and prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. CED II:505.
  2. CED III:82-83.
  3. Charles I of England was executed on February 9, 1649. Ireland proclaimed his son, the Prince of Wales, as King Charles II. Irish Catholics were persecuted by Cromwell with particular ferocity because of both their religion and their support of the Stuart cause.
  4. CED III:357.
  5. CED III:356-57.
  6. CED III:420-21.
  7. John 18:8.
  8. CED IV:15-16.
  9. November 19, 1651.
  10. These two missionaries were Gerard Brin and Edmund Barry. After the fall of Limerick to Cromwell’s forces, they left the city in disguise together with over a hundred other priests and religious. They mixed with the retreating soldiers who had been allowed to withdraw from the city by the terms of the surrender. The night before they had prepared themselves for death since it was well known that Cromwell showed no mercy to captured Catholic priests. Fortunately they were not recognized the next day, and their escape was successful. The two confreres separated to increase their chances of escape from the country. Brin fled the country with the vicar general of Cashel. Barry took to the mountains where he was hidden by a charitable woman for two months. Eventually he managed to get on board a ship bound for France and arrived at Nantes. Vincent was overjoyed at their escape since he believed that they had been killed in the Limerick massacre. A lay-brother, Thady Lee, was not so fortunate. Cromwell’s troops discovered him, and horribly massacred him in front of his mother. He became the Congregation’s first martyr. Why Abelly omitted this account is unknown.

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