SECTION TEN: The Mission to Poland
Her Serene Highness, the queen of Poland, moved by an earnest desire to obtain the spiritual good of her people, and to have Jesus Christ reign in their hearts, saw the great need they had of receiving instruction and help in their spiritual development. As a result, in 1651 she requested Monsieur Vincent to send priests of the Mission to her country. This good servant of God wanted to correspond to the designs of this virtuous princess. Since he knew the great need which the vast reaches of her realm had of the type of help his missionaries had produced in other places, he decided to send some of his priests for this work. Among those he sent was the late Monsieur Lambert, his assistant at Saint Lazare.1 He was his right arm in the administration of the Congregation, a man of good health, energy, and sound judgment, and one for whom Monsieur Vincent had a special esteem and affection.
Nevertheless, by a heroic act of virtue and by an entire detachment from all created goods, even from him to whom he was so closely attached for the welfare of the community, he willingly surrendered this faithful collaborator together with all the help he might expect from him. In doing so, Monsieur Vincent offered a perfect sacrifice of all things, including himself, to our Lord. He sent this worthy missionary as superior of the new venture.2 By the grace of God he arrived safely with his little band in Poland. He found not only enough to do there, but also, in imitation of the patriarch Isaac, enough to suffer in carrying out the will of God in perfect obedience. From the time he and his band of missionaries arrived there, God allowed the kingdom to be afflicted by war, plague, or famine, sometimes even by all three of these scourges together. This is what the queen of Poland herself wrote to Monsieur Vincent in September 1652:
Monsieur Vincent, I am obliged to you for so many signs of your regard, especially the joy you had to hear good news of the king’s health and mine, for which I thank you.
That good priest, Monsieur Lambert, saw the dread the Polish people had of the plague, and wanted to go to Warsaw to reorganize the relief for the poor. I gave orders to house him in the castle, in king’s own rooms. Every day I had news of him, and every day I urged him not to expose himself to contagion. He has everything he needs to return here as soon as the arrangements he had made in Warsaw are on a sound footing. I have urged him to return here as soon as possible. Except for this illness, which has upset our plans, we would have completed them in Warsaw. Two days ago the Daughters of Charity arrived, with whom I am very satisfied. They seem like good women.3
One of the first tests God had prepared for the virtue and zeal of Monsieur Lambert and his confreres was to tend to the spiritual and corporal relief of the poor of the great city of Warsaw, in desperate condition because of the plague which ravaged the region. This is what Monsieur Vincent wrote to the superior of one of the missions, relating what he had heard from there:
The missionaries in Poland have worked with great blessings. I do not have the time to tell you everything in detail, but will tell you simply that the plague has gripped the city of Warsaw, where the king ordinarily lives. All the inhabitants who can, have fled the city, so that just as in other stricken places, there is almost no semblance of order, but only complete disarray. Even the dead are not buried. They are left in the streets, and dogs feed on the corpses. As soon as a person is stricken by this disease, the others put him into the streets to die, for no one brings them anything to eat. The poor artisans, men and women servants, the poor widows and orphans are entirely abandoned. They can find no work, nor can they even beg their bread, for all the wealthy have fled the city.
Monsieur Lambert was sent this sad situation to bring relief to all these miseries. By God’s grace, he has managed to bury the dead, bring the sick to places where they could be helped in both soul and body, and he has even taken care of other sick people who do not have a contagious disease. He has found three or four different houses, separated one from the other, to be used as hospices or hospitals. There he has gathered the poor who are not sick, men to one side, women and children to the other, all helped by alms and other benefits from the queen.4
This is the short sketch of great works accomplished by this virtuous priest with his confreres in that country, where his zeal found new persons and new opportunities to help every day. Divine Providence, however, seeing his past services and the ardent desire to continue in his service, judged his course completed and his crown prepared. In January, 1653, while reaping a harvest of souls, God called him from this life to give him eternal rest in the next. Monsieur Vincent spoke of him in the circular letter he sent to the houses of the Congregation in the following March, in which he revealed his sense of loss of such a missionary.
May the consolation of our Lord be with us all, to accept with love the huge loss the Company has suffered in the person of the late Monsieur Lambert, who died on January 31 of this year. He was sick only three days, but of such a painful illness that despite his great patience he said himself he could not long endure the pain. He died after receiving the sacraments from the hands of one of our priests of the Congregation. The confessor of the queen of Poland wrote to tell me he is universally lamented. According to the people it would be hard to find a priest more gifted and devoted to the service of God. He added that he should be called Dilectus Deo et hominibus, cujus memoria in benedictione est [“Dear to God and men, his memory is held in benediction.”]5 He was, he told me, a person wholly given to God, and never was anyone seen to rise so quickly in the favor and esteem of the king and queen as he. Neither was there anyone who gained such universal approval, for wherever he went he left the remembrance of his virtues. These are the thoughts of the chaplain of the queen. His Majesty himself wrote a long letter in his own hand in which he expressed his appreciation of Monsieur Lambert’s contributions, and the regret he felt at his loss. He concluded by the words, “if you do not send us another Monsieur Lambert, I do not know what we shall do.”
I have no doubt, gentlemen, that this loss which has saddened the entire Company has touched each of you individually. But consider: the hand of God in human affairs is adorable, and we must accept it with love. That is what we must do in this situation, persuaded that the dear departed will be more useful to us in heaven than he was on earth. We will consider someone to take his place, to continue our efforts in support of that kingdom where the needs are so pressing. The priests there need a strong personality to help them. May God be pleased to give us such a person.6
The one whom Monsieur Vincent chose to send to Poland as a replacement was Monsieur Ozenne, an older priest of the Company and a respected missionary. He worked for several years, blessed by God, and finally succumbed to the difficulties of the work, dying in that distant mission.7
The plague continued to afflict the city of Warsaw, and to add to its woes, war broke out against the Poles. The Swedes invaded from the one side, and the Russians from the other. When the queen realized the city of Warsaw was suffering these two scourges of war and pestilence, she ordered all but two of the missionaries to leave for safer regions.8 The two who remained suffered much from their dedication to the poor, particularly to the most abandoned. They remained steadfast at their post during several years, despite the troubles brought on by the war and the plague. They persevered in their service of the poor, administering the sacraments to both the healthy and the sick, providing all sorts of help with a courage and charity which deeply touched Monsieur Vincent’s heart. One evening, at the end of a conference he had given the house, he recommended these two priests to the prayers of the community, and encouraged them by the example of their constancy in their sufferings.
One of them had a serious stomach problem, brought on from the poorly treated illness of the plague.9 I was told that he was treated by having fire applied to the putrefied flesh of his side, but his patience was so great he did not complain. He suffered the treatment with peace and tranquility of spirit. Another person there might have complained at being sick three or four hundred leagues from his own country. “Why did they send me so far away? When will they call me back? What, are they forgetting me entirely? Others are at their ease in France, and I am left to die in a strange land.”
This is a sensual man speaking. He is moved by purely natural reasonings, and does not enter into the sufferings of our Lord, who found happiness in his sufferings. This is a good lesson for us, to love what divine Providence sends us. Look at the first man, who has worked so long in peace of mind and with wonderful confidence, not deterred by his long stay or the difficulties he encounters, nor concerned by its dangers.
Both our priests were indifferent to death or to life, humbly resigned to whatever God ordained for them. They gave no sign of impatience or of murmuring. On the contrary, they seemed ready for even more sufferings. And what of ourselves, gentlemen and my brothers? Are we ready to accept what God sends, repress the movements of nature, to live only the life of Jesus Christ in us? Are we ready to go to Poland, Barbary, the Indies, to sacrifice our own satisfaction and our very lives? If so, let us bless God. If on the contrary we fear any inconvenience, or complain at any item that may be lacking, or wish to be changed from house to house because the climate is not good, or the food is poor, or because we are not free enough to come and go as we please, if in a word, gentlemen, if we are still slaves of nature, given to sensual pleasures like this miserable sinner who speaks to you, who at the age of seventy is still so worldly, let us see ourselves as unworthy of the apostolic vocation to which God has called us. We should be ashamed at seeing our brothers fulfill this ministry so worthily, while we remain so far from their courageous spirit.
What do our men have to bear in that country? Famine? Yes. The plague? Yes, both, and more than once. War? They are surrounded by armies, and have experienced living amid enemy soldiers. God has tried them by all these scourges. And we live here like shut-ins, without heart and with little zeal. We see others braving dangers in the service of God, while we are as timid as wet hens. O misery! O wretchedness! Look at twenty thousand soldiers who go to war and suffer all sorts of ills. One will lose an arm, another a leg, and some their very lives, all for uncertain hopes. Yet they have no fear, and set off as though they were going after a treasure. To gain heaven, gentlemen, scarcely anyone will lift a finger, and those who say they are seeking to gain heaven, lead a life so lazy and sensual it is unworthy not only of a priest or a Christian, but even of a rational man. If there are any such among us they would be merely the corpse of a missionary. O God, be forever blessed and glorified for the graces you have given to those who abandon themselves to you. Praise be to you for giving your grace to these two priests of ours in Poland.
Let us give ourselves to God, gentlemen, to go to the whole world to carry his holy Gospel. Wherever he leads us, let us remain at our post, faithful to our customs, until we are recalled, at his good pleasure. May difficulties not deter us when there is question of the glory of the Eternal Father, the fruitfulness of his word, or the passion of his Son. The salvation of peoples, and our own, is a good of such magnitude it deserves to be bought no matter what the price. It matters not if we die in the fight. Only let us die with our weapons in our hands, and happy, for by our death the Company will not be the poorer, because, Sanguis martyrum, semen est Christianorum [“The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”].10 For one missionary who gives his life out of charity, God will raise up others who will do the work he left behind. May each of us resolve to resist the world and its maxims, to mortify our flesh and its passions, to submit to God’s orders, and to spend ourselves in the duties of our state and in the accomplishment of his holy will, wherever in the world he wills. Let us now together take this resolution, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, with perfect confidence that he will help us in our needs. Do you not wish to do so, my brothers in the seminary? Do you, my brothers, students, wish to do so? I do not ask this of the priests, for without doubt they already have this disposition of heart.
Yes, my God, we all wish to cooperate with the designs you have for us. This is what we together, and each of us in particular, propose to do with the help of your grace. We will not be so much in love with our lives, our health, our comfort, and our ease, for one relationship over another, nor for anything else, not for anything in the world which might hinder you, O gracious God, from granting us this grace we all ask, one for another.
I do not know, gentlemen, how I came to say all this, for I did not think of it before. What I had heard of our two priests in Poland and the graces God had given them so moved me that I could not resist sharing my feelings with you.11
We can judge the spirit that motivated Monsieur Vincent from these words, and from how he strove to influence others. We can appreciate the joy he felt when he saw the priests of the Congregation of the Mission ready and disposed to undertake any mission, courageous in the face of danger, and ready to embrace confidently the suffering of the cross, to further the kingdom of God and the salvation of souls. Among these, the ones for whom he had a particular concern were the most afflicted and the most abandoned. He strove to bring them as much aid as was in his power, as was evidenced in the great kingdom of Poland, stricken by war and pestilence, and subject to both ancient and modern heresies. He was not satisfied to send laborers from his Company, but had recourse to prayers and frequent reminders of the sufferings of these people, both inside and outside the house. Here is how he spoke to his community of Saint Lazare, in August 1655:
The queen of Poland has such good will for our Company that she has requested in all her letters that we should pray to God for her poor suffering kingdom. May God have pity on it, for it is under attack from all sides.12
In September 1656, he said:
We must humble ourselves before God, since he has allowed (if rumors are true) the good we have prayed for so to be delayed. Undoubtedly our sins have caused this. There is unconfirmed word that not only have the troubles of the kingdom not come to an end, but that the king, with an army of one hundred thousand men has given battle, and has been defeated.13 A nobleman of the court of Poland wrote me that the queen has gone to find the king, and has come within two days travel of the army. Her letter is dated July 28, and the battle took place on the thirtieth. This means she herself was in danger. O gentlemen and my brothers, how concerned we should be that our sins have moved God to delay answering our prayers. We must grieve that this vast and great kingdom is so grievously attacked, and is on the point of being lost, if the news we have is true. We must grieve for the Church which will be lost in that country if the king is defeated. Religion cannot endure unless the king is saved, for the Church will fall into the hands of its enemies.
The Russians already occupy a hundred or a hundred and twenty leagues, and the Swedes threaten the rest. This gives me much reason to fear the outcome predicted by Pope Clement VIII, a holy man, esteemed not only by Catholics but by heretics as well. They recognize him as a man of God and of peace, and even his enemies praise him. I have heard that even Lutherans praise and admire his virtue. This holy pope received two ambassadors from some ruler of the Orient where the faith had begun to grow. Wishing to thank God publicly, he offered mass in their presence for the intentions of this new Church. While at the altar, during his Memento he began to cry, sob, and weep, to their enormous astonishment. Afterward they asked why, on an occasion which should have been a joyous one, he had shown such distress. He said, yes, he had begun the mass with much satisfaction and contentment, because of the progress of the Catholic faith, but soon afterward all this turned into sadness because of the losses and harm which come upon the Church every day from the hands of heretics, so much so that there was reason to fear God willed to remove the Church to other lands. We ought, gentlemen and my brothers, to join in his concern and fear that the kingdom of God will be taken from our midst. We see this deplorable situation enacted before our very eyes, where six kingdoms have expelled the Church, that is, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland and Ireland. Besides, there is Holland and large parts of Germany, and several of the larger Hanseatic cities. O Lord, what a loss! And now we are on the verge of seeing this great kingdom of Poland lost, if God in his mercy does not save it.
Indeed, God has promised to be with his Church until the end of time, but he has not promised his Church would last in France, Spain, or any other specific country. He has said he will never leave his Church, and that it will endure till the end of time, wherever it might be, but not here or not there. If there ever was a country where you would have thought the Church would endure, surely it would be the Holy Land where he was born, where he began the Church, and where he worked so many of his miracles. And yet it was from this land, for which he had done so much, that he took the Church to bestow it upon the Gentiles. Formerly, the children of this same land lost the Ark. God allowed it to be taken by their enemies, the Philistines, as though God preferred to live a prisoner in the Ark among his enemies than to remain with his own people who continued their evil ways. This is how God acted, and continues to act, towards those upon whom he has bestowed so many graces, and yet continue to offend him, as we do ourselves, miserable creatures that we are.
What a curse to those people to whom God says, “I will have nothing to do with you. Your sacrifices and offerings, your devotions and your fasts no longer please me, I want nothing to do with them. You have soiled everything by your sins. I abandon you. Go, you shall have no part with me.”14 Alas, gentlemen, what unhappiness! But, O Lord, what happiness to be among those God uses to bring his blessings and his Church! Think of this comparison of an unfortunate nobleman who sees himself pressed on every side by war, by the plague, the burning of his houses, and by the shame of seeing the desertion of a prince. Amid this desolation he sees some come to his help, offering to serve him and to help him salvage what he can save. What a consolation and happiness for this gentleman in his misfortune! Then, gentlemen and my brothers, what joy will God experience in seeing amid the ravages of his Church made by heresy, or by the fires of concupiscence, some few persons who will offer themselves to carry off the remains of the Church, if I may speak this way, or to preserve it where it remains? O Lord, what joy to see such servants, either to preserve what is good on the spot, or to go anywhere to gain new lands for you!
O Lord, what joy will be yours to see such zealous servants defend for you what remains here, while others go off to gain new grounds for you! O gentlemen, what a reason for rejoicing. You are aware that conquerors leave a portion of their troops to guard what they already have gained, while they send off others to win new territory for their empire. This is what we must do, maintaining courageously the goods of the Church and the interests of Jesus Christ, and still working for new victories, and making him known even to the most distant peoples.
One day a heretical author said to me:15 “God has finally grown weary of the sins of all these countries, and his anger has withdrawn the faith of which they are unworthy. Would it not be rash to oppose the designs of God, and to seek to defend the Church which he has resolved to destroy? As for myself, I would prefer to further God’s design by working for this plan of destruction.”
Alas, gentlemen, perhaps what he said is true, that God might wish to destroy the Church because of our sins. Yet this author of heresy is wrong in saying it is an act of rashness to work against this decree, to use one’s energies to conserve and to defend the Church. God asks this of us, and we must do it. It is not rash to fast, to suffer, to pray, to appease his anger and fight to the death to sustain and defend the Church wherever it is found. If our efforts up to the present seem to be fruitless because of our sins, or at least it seems this way, we must not stop because of that. We must rather humble ourselves profoundly, and continue our fasts, communions, our mental prayer in union with all other faithful servants of God who pray unceasingly for this same intention. We must hope that God in his mercy will relent and hear our prayer. As much as we can, let us humble ourselves then, because of our sins. But we must have confidence, great confidence, in God who wills that we continue in prayer for this poor kingdom of Poland which is so tried, all the while acknowledging that all depends on him and his grace.16
Up to this point we have seen by the words of Monsieur Vincent his ardent zeal and his desire that his confreres share this same virtue. It seemed this faithful servant of God was so moved by a holy confidence in his infinite mercy that he sought at any price to gain what he sought, that is, the protection of God for the kingdom of Poland and the preservation of the Catholic religion threatened with imminent peril. Therefore he urged his confreres to humble themselves, to offer to God their prayers, communions, and penances. For several years, and at almost every community gathering after mental prayer or his conferences, that is, two or three times a week, he would speak on this topic, never growing weary of repeating the same thoughts. Who can say how many were his sighs and tears before God, the mortifications he practiced, and the recommendations he made in any gathering he attended to obtain this grace from God. After his death a virtuous priest recounted that he was present at an assembly at which Monsieur Vincent spoke. He described the misery of this poor kingdom of Poland with such feeling, to urge his hearers to pray for this intention, that he drew tears from all eyes.
A little before his death it pleased God to give him the consolation of seeing the king of Poland re-established in all the provinces of his realm. The Swedes and the Russians were driven out, and most powerful enemies were obliged to sue for peace. The Church and the Catholic religion were preserved, despite all the efforts of those who sought to destroy them.
- Lambert aux Couteaux, who zealously worked for twenty-two years, and died January 31, 1653.
- Four confreres accompanied Monsieur Lambert to Poland: Father Guillaume Desdames, the subdeacon Nicolas Guillot, a cleric, Stanislaus Zelazewski, and Brother Jacques Posny.
- CED IV:487.
- CED IV:533-34.
- Based on Sir 45:1.
- CED IV:560-61.
- August 14, 1658.
- Guillaume Desdames and Nicolas Duperroy.
- Nicolas Duperroy.
- This famous statement is found in various ancient authors, among whom is Tertullian; PL 1.1:535.
- CED XI:410-14.
- CED I:303-04.
- King Karl Gustav of Sweden, had invaded Poland with an army of 60,000 men. At the end of July 1656, aided by the elector of Brandenburg, he marched against Warsaw. The king, John Casimir, remained with his troops. The queen was separated from him and the enemy by the Vistula river. Warsaw fell to the Swedes on August 1.
- Based on such passages as Isa 1:13.
- The Abbe de Saint Cyran.
- CED XI:351-56.