SECTION TWO: The Beginning of the Ordination Retreats
We read in Book One1 how Monsieur Vincent began the ordination retreats at Beauvais in September 1628, under Bishop Augustine Potier. These proved beneficial not only to this devoted prelate, who, with the help of Monsieur Vincent, continued them to the advantage of his clergy, but also to many other bishops of the kingdom and elsewhere. They established these retreats in these various dioceses with most happy results.
First, His Excellency Jean Francois de Gondi learned of what Monsieur Vincent had done in Beauvais, and decided to imitate it in Paris. For many years he had recognized Monsieur Vincent as a gift of God to the whole Church. The archbishop invited him to begin these same retreats for the candidates to the priesthood. They started in Lent of 1631, in the College des Bons Enfants, where his small Congregation was then housed. These ordination retreats were a tiny spring whose waters were destined to irrigate the whole field of the Church. Paris was the source from which several bishops and some other influential clergymen learned of the value and utility of the ordination retreats. This led them to have them introduced into their localities.
Monsieur Vincent wrote two years later about this:
The archbishop, following the ancient practice of the Church in which the bishop confers with those who wish to receive orders, decided that henceforth in his diocese the candidates had to come to the priests of the Mission ten days before each of the orders to make a spiritual retreat. They would also learn the art of meditation so necessary to the clergy, make a general confession of all their past life, review their moral theology, especially in what related to the sacraments, and learn all the rites and functions proper to the clergy. They receive room and board during this time. This happens with such fruit, by God’s grace, that those who have made the ordination retreats continue to lead an exemplary life, and for the most part have committed themselves publicly to works of Christian charity.2
On another occasion he spoke to his community about how their various services did not come from their own planning but from the direct intervention of divine Providence: “Did we plan to give the ordination retreats, the richest source of grace the Church has put into our hands? No, that never came into our thoughts.”3
In 1631 there were six ordination ceremonies in Paris. On each occasion Monsieur Vincent received the candidates into his house to have them make their retreats. Things continued this way until 1643, when the archbishop thought it best to stop the mid-Lent ordination, for his council thought time was too short between each ordination for the candidates to bring to the next one the proper dispositions. It should be noted that up to 1638 only candidates from Paris attended the ordination retreats. At that period some pious women, noting the remarkable changes brought about among the clergy of Paris, thought to suggest to Monsieur Vincent that he might admit candidates from other dioceses as well, from among those who already had come to Paris for ordination.
To cover the expense of such a program, a pious woman, the wife of the President de Herse, offered to provide a thousand livres for each group for five years. Since then, she and others among the Ladies of Charity of Paris have continued to support this enterprise. The marquise de Maignelay, sister of the archbishop of Paris, a woman of great piety and virtue, had a particular esteem for Monsieur Vincent.4 She contributed to Saint Lazare to defray the great expenses of the candidates. The queen mother herself, at the beginning of the regency, attended a lecture in the church of the College des Bons Enfants, given by Monsieur Perrochel, the bishop-elect of Boulogne.5 She was convinced of the usefulness of this practice for the Church. Several ladies encouraged her to support it with a royal grant, which she did after the five-year subsidy from Madame de Herse had run out. She contributed financial help for two or three years. However, for the next eighteen years, the entire cost of this service fell upon the house of Saint Lazare which had no source of funds to support the large number of persons attending the ordination retreats. This was accomplished only at the cost of much inconvenience, especially since 1646 even those receiving the four minor orders were obliged to follow the exercises. The purpose was that before advancing to sacred orders they might have the light to discern if God had truly called them, and if he had, to prepare themselves more thoroughly.
Much as the financial obligations surpassed the resources of Saint Lazare, Monsieur Vincent never uttered a single word of complaint about the great expense of continuing the ordination retreats. He remained silent, abandoned to God’s good pleasure, and preferred always the glory of his name and the good of his Church to any temporal interest of his Congregation.
The number of those at each session of these exercises was seventy, eighty, or ninety or more, and they all lived at Saint Lazare for the eleven days of each meeting, making fifty-five days each year. Not a sou was asked in payment, so that they would more willingly come, seeing that nothing was being spared to prepare them better for serving the Church.
We recall here the testimony of a priest of great reputation on this question:
It is impossible to express adequately the care taken by Monsieur Vincent to assure that everything be well done during the ordination retreats. The expense did not seem to matter, although it was far beyond the resources of Saint Lazare, which must have run into great debt because of this. I recall that during the troubled times in Paris, several important persons, well aware of how difficult it was for Monsieur Vincent to continue to support the ordination retreats, suggested that he no longer subsidize these programs. He refused to listen to this advice, despite the shortages of both food and money. He continued to spend freely for the upkeep of the candidates during their eleven-day stay, and thought little of the temporal when it was a question of spiritual good. He looked upon perishable goods as useful only to the extent they contributed to the glory of God.
He often spoke to the members of his community as the time for one of these ordination retreats approached, of the excellence of the priesthood, exhorting them to render whatever service or help they could to the candidates. He exhorted them to use all the strength of body and soul to encourage the growth of the clergy in holiness. His words were like burning darts, penetrating the heart. They are worthy of preservation, even in writing. If not, it would be an incomparable loss.
- Ch. 25.
- CED I:179-80.
- CED XII:9.
- Charlotte-Marguerite de Gondi, the wife of Florimond d’Halluin, the marquis of Maignelay. After her husband’s death, she dedicated her life and great fortune to charity. She died in 1650.
- Francois Perrochel, a cousin of Jean-Jacques Olier, and a student and companion of Vincent in the work of the missions, was ordained a bishop June 11, 1645, in the church of Saint Lazare. He was bishop of Boulogne for thirty-two years. He resigned his see in 1677 and died five years later at age eighty.