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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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SECTION FOUR: Monsieur Vincent’s Thoughts on the Ordination Retreats

Before speaking of the development and the results of the ordination retreats, it would be appropriate to recall the way Monsieur Vincent looked upon them, and how he exhorted his confreres to devote themselves to them.

Once he said, “To devote yourself to fashioning good priests, as a secondary efficient and instrumental cause, is to do what Jesus Christ did. During his mortal life he strove to raise up twelve good priests, his apostles, by having them live with him, by instructing them, and by forming them to their divine ministry.”1

Another day, during a conference to his community on this same matter, after which he had invited others to comment, he ended by saying:

Blessed are you, Lord, for the good things which have been said, for you have inspired those who spoke. But, my Savior, all this will come to nothing, if you do not supply your helping hand. Your grace alone will bring about all that we have spoken of, and will bring us that Holy Spirit necessary for anything we do. How can we, miserable as we are, know what we should do? O Lord, give us the spirit of your priesthood which your apostles and the first priests who followed them had. Give us the true spirit of that sacred character that you conferred on poor fishermen, artisans, low-born, in those latter days. By your grace, you bestowed on them your divine Spirit. For, O Lord, we too are these wretched people, poor workmen, peasants. What comparison exists between our miserable selves and our holy, eminent, and heavenly calling? Gentlemen and my brothers, we ought to pray earnestly to God for this pressing need of the Church. In many places the Church teeters on the brink of disaster because of the evil lives of priests, and there are many who fit this description. It is only too true that the depravity of the clerical state is the chief cause of the ruin of the Church of God.

I attended a meeting recently at which seven bishops were present, to discuss the disorders that have become evident in the Church. It was publicly stated that the clergy were chiefly to blame.

It was the priests. Yes, we are the cause of this desolation which afflicts the Church in so many places. It has practically been destroyed in Asia, Africa and even in a large part of Europe, such as in Sweden, Denmark, England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, and the other United Provinces, and in large sections of Germany. How many heretics do we not see in France herself? Look at Poland, already deeply affected by heresy, and now threatened by the invasion of the king of Sweden, to be lost completely to the Church.

Does it not seem, gentlemen, that God is about to transport his Church to some other country? Yes, if we do not change radically we may fear that God will abandon us completely, as we see powerful enemies of the Church force their way in. In less than four months the notorious king of Sweden has invaded a good part of this great kingdom. He may be a scourge from God raised up to punish us for our sins. These people are the same whom God raised up in other times to afflict us: the Goths, the Visigoths, and the Vandals, all come from that same region. God used them, over twelve hundred years ago, to punish the Church of those times. What is happening now, as unusual as it has ever been, ought to put us on our guard. A kingdom as vast as ours, invaded out of nowhere, in the space of four months! O Lord, who knows if this powerful conqueror will stop there? Finally, Ab aquilone pandetur omne malum [“From the north evil will boil over”],2 from there came the evils our ancestors had to endure. That’s the region to fear.

Look to the restoration of the clerical state, for evil priests are the cause of all these woes, and bring such disasters upon the Church. These good bishops have recognized this from their own experience and have spoken out openly, in the sight of God. Yes, Lord, we are the ones who have provoked your anger. Our sins have brought about these calamities.

Yes, the clergy and those aspiring to that state, the subdeacons, deacons, and priests, yes, we priests, have brought about this desolation in the Church. What now, O Lord? What can we do, humbled before you, now that we have resolved to change our lives? Yes, my Savior, we desire to do all in our power in satisfaction for our past sins, and to restore the clerical state. We are assembled here for that purpose, and we implore your grace upon us. Ah, gentlemen! What can we not accomplish!

God has given us the grace to work for the rehabilitation of the clerical state. God has not confided this task to doctors of theology, nor to any other communities renowned for knowledge and holiness, but to this wretched, poor, and miserable Company, the last of all, and the most unworthy. What does God see in us for such a great task? Where are our great triumphs? Where are the mighty deeds we have done? What prospects do we offer? Nothing of all this. God has solely by his own will confided this task to a miserable group of men, to try to repair the breaches made in the walls of his kingdom, and to reform the ecclesiastical state.

O gentlemen and my brothers, let us preserve this grace God has conferred upon us in preference to so many learned and holy men more deserving than ourselves. If we fail by our negligence to carry out his purposes, God will take it from us to give to others, and punish us for our infidelity. Alas, which of us would want to be the cause of such a misfortune, and deprive the Church of such a blessing?

Could I ever be so awful? Let each of us look into his own conscience and say to himself, never could I be so deplorable. Unfortunately, it takes only one such as I am to turn the favors of heaven away from a whole community, and make the curse of God fall upon it. O Lord, who see me filled with sin, do not withhold your grace from this little Company! Grant that it may continue to serve you with humility and fidelity, and may cooperate with your will, so that by its ministry it may re-establish the honor of your Church.

But how can we do this? What shall we do for the success of the next ordination retreat? We must pray much, since we lack so much. We must offer our communions, our mortifications, our mental prayer and all other prayers for this intention. We must do everything for the edification of these candidates, treating them with respect and deference, never arguing with them, but serving them graciously and humbly. These must be the weapons we missionaries use. If we use them we will succeed. In humility we must truly look forward to our own self-effacement. Believe me, gentlemen and my brothers, believe me when I repeat the infallible maxim of Jesus Christ that a heart must be empty of itself to be filled with God. Then God will live and act in us, and this wish for self-effacement will empty our hearts. Humility, holy humility, will bring this about, and then it will no longer be ourselves who act but God in us, and all will go well.

Those of you working directly with the ordination retreats must have the spirit of the priesthood, and inspire those who do not. You who have these souls confided to you to receive this holy and sanctifying Spirit, look solely to the glory of God. Have simplicity of heart towards him, and great respect for the candidates. Be persuaded that by these means you will accomplish much. Any other course will be fruitless. Humility and the pure intention to please God have made these ordination retreats succeed up to now. I recommend also the ceremonies, and I pray that all the Company will observe them carefully. These ceremonies are but the shadow of the underlying truth, but they should be performed with as much care as possible, with religious silence, and much modesty and gravity. How will the candidates observe these practices if we ourselves do not do them well? Let us sing with moderation and recite the psalms with devotion. Alas, what shall we reply to God when we render an account, if we have done them poorly?3

On another occasion, Monsieur Vincent spoke as follows:

Gentlemen and my brothers, we are now on the eve of another of these days when we begin the ordination retreats. Tomorrow, O God, you providentially send us those whom you wish us to form to a better life. What! Gentlemen and my brothers, here is surely a large mouthful–to form clerics to a better way of life. Who could fully appreciate the significance of our task? What state is equal to the ecclesiastical state? Principalities and kingdoms do not compare with it. You are aware that kings cannot change bread into the body of our Lord, nor remit sin, nor perform the other services which are so far superior to temporal power. Yet these are the people being sent to us to sanctify. Could there be anything like this? O poor and wretched workmen, how unfitted we are for this task. But since God does us the honor to assign this responsibility to our small Congregation, the last of all and the poorest, we on our side must use all our energy to see that the retreats are fruitful. We must prepare our candidates for sacred orders, and inspire them to acquit themselves well of their duties. Some will be pastors, some canons, some provosts, abbots, bishops, yes bishops. These are the ones we will be receiving tomorrow.

This past week the bishops met to consider the problem of the drunkenness of priests in a certain province, a thing strictly forbidden. Holy doctors say that the first step for someone wishing to acquire virtue is to control the mouth. What shall be the result if a person gives in to his every desire? What disorder! They become servants, slaves, unable to control themselves. Nothing is so base, so deplorable as to see most of the priests of a certain province so given to this vice that bishops had to call a meeting to search for some remedy for it. What shall happen to the people?

What should we not do ourselves, gentlemen, to give ourselves to God to rescue his ministers and his spouse from this disorder, and the many others we are aware of? Not that all priests are guilty. No, O Savior! There are some holy men among the clergy whom we see here on retreat, pastors and others who come from far away to look to the state of their soul. And don’t forget the many good and saintly priests of Paris. Among the priests attending the Clergy Conferences here not a single one was not edifying in conduct. They all work with exceptional success.

There are evil clergymen in the world, and I happen to be the worst, the most unworthy, the greatest sinner of them all. On the other hand, some give great glory to God by the sanctity of their lives. What happiness for us that not only has God called such poor persons as ourselves, without learning or virtue, to help in the reformation of a fallen and disordered clergy, and even to contribute to the development of the virtuous, as we have seen happen. How happy you are, gentlemen, to further by your dedication, meekness, affability, modesty, and humility, the growth of the Spirit of God in the souls of these priests. You serve God in these great servants of God. How happy you are, you who give such good example at the conferences, the exercises, in choir, in the refectory, everywhere. How happy we shall all be if by our silence, discretion, and charity we fulfill the purpose for which God sent them to us. We must be on the lookout to notice anything they may need or want. We must be attentive to all their wishes. By serving them we will surely edify them. We must ask the grace from our Lord to do all this. I ask the priests to offer mass for this intention, and the brothers also to have this same intention when they attend mass.4

On another occasion, he said:

Now that we have an ordination retreat about to begin, we must pray that God give his Spirit to those who address the candidates in the conferences and the discussions. Above all, be attentive to act with humility and modesty. Our learning will not make us successful, nor will the brilliant things we say to them. They are much more learned than we are. Several have their bachelor’s degree, others have the licentiate in sacred theology, some are doctors in the law, and only a few do not know philosophy and perhaps theology as well. They are used to disputations. Practically nothing we could say to them is new or what they haven’t heard before. They themselves say that these things do not impress them here, but the virtues they see practiced. Be humble, gentlemen, considering such an honorable position as that of helping make good priests. What could be greater? Be humble at our own unworthiness, we who are unlearned, poor in understanding, poor in our position in society. Why has God chosen us for such a great service? Because God, as a rule, chooses only the basest things for the marvels of his grace. The sacraments bear witness to this, where he uses water and a few words to confer his greatest graces.

Pray for these candidates, yes, but pray, too, for ourselves so that God would turn away from us anything that might hinder the working of God’s Spirit, which he seems to want to send upon our Congregation. Have you ever been on pilgrimage to one of the holy shrines? Ordinarily upon entering the shrine some feel ecstatic, others are suddenly moved by devotion, others are filled with respect and reverence for the holy places, and still others feel other pious sentiments. Where does this come from? This comes about because God’s Spirit is there, who moves the hearts of those present. We must look forward to the same thing in regard to the candidates, if the Spirit of God abides in this house.

We must make our moral preaching practical, relating it to actual situations so that the principles will be well understood. We ought to aim at having the candidates carry away exactly what was said to them in the conferences. Be on your guard lest the evil spirit of vanity should show its face, urging us to speak of high and mighty things. This would only destroy rather than edify. They will carry away what has been spoken of in these conferences, if we speak simply after impressing this point upon them. We should speak only of this, and not of other things, for many good reasons.5

Once, when a brother spoke during repetition of prayer about his mental prayer, and how he prayed that God would send good priests to his Church, Monsieur Vincent used the occasion to say:

God bless you, brother, for asking God to provide good bishops, good pastors, and good priests. This is something we should all pray for. “Like priests, like people.” The officers of an army get either the credit or the blame in a war, and we can say the same thing in the Church. If the ministers of the Church are good and do their duty, all will go well. On the contrary, if they do not, they bring about all sorts of disorders. God calls us all, in the state which we have embraced, to work at producing a masterpiece. What greater masterpiece could there be than to form good priests, in comparison with which we can think of nothing greater or more important. Our brothers can contribute to this by their good example and by their temporal work. They can offer the divine office for the intention that God will be pleased to bestow his Spirit to these candidates for ordination.

Let each of us do the same, and be on the lookout to edify these gentlemen. We should anticipate their wishes as much as we conveniently can. Those with occasion to speak with them or to help at their discussions must raise their minds to God to know what to say to them. God is the unlimited source of wisdom, of light, and of love. We must draw inspiration from him for what we say to them.

We ought to deny our own spirit and our own personal feelings to be open to his grace, which alone enlightens and warms the heart. We must leave our own selves to enter into God’s designs, turning to him to learn his thoughts, and pray that he will speak in us and by us. In this way it will be his work, not spoiled by what we are or do. In conversing among men, Our Lord did not speak of himself, but as he himself said, “the words that I speak are not my own, but come from him who sent me.”6 This shows how much we must have recourse to God so that it is not we ourselves who speak and act but rather God in us.

God may possibly bless our work with some success. It could well be that this is attributable to the prayers of a brother who has not even talked to the candidates. He could be taken up with his ordinary work, but often raising his mind and heart to God, invoking his blessing upon these ordination retreats, and it might well be that God will answer his prayer because of the dispositions of his soul. There is an expression in the Psalms, Desiderium pauperum exaudivit Dominus [“The Lord hears the desire of the poor”].7

Monsieur Vincent stopped at this point, not remembering the rest of the verse. He asked how the rest of it went. His assistant completed it: Praeparationem cordis eorum audivit auris tua [“Strengthening their hearts, you pay heed.”] “God bless you, sir,” Monsieur Vincent said to him in a spirit of joy, being taken by its beauty, and having repeated it several times in a devout and touching manner, he then continued:

What a marvelous way of speaking, worthy of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has heard the sighs of the poor. He has understood the wishes of their heart to make us see that God responds to hearts well disposed even before they cry to him. This is a great consolation. It ought to encourage us in our service of God, despite our own wretchedness and poverty. Do you recall that fine reading we heard at table yesterday? We heard that God conceals from the humble the treasures of grace he has given them. A few days ago one of you asked me about the virtue of simplicity, although he already possessed this treasure. He did not think he even had this gift, although he is one of the most ingenuous of the Company.

It was reported to me that some have been in certain places where many clergy lived, but these were almost all ineffective. They did recite the breviary, celebrate mass, and administer the sacraments, however poorly, but that’s all. Even worse, they lived in vice and disorder. If it please God that we become thoughtful and recollected, we may hope that God will use us, wretched as we are, to effect some good, not only for the people generally but more importantly for the sake of the clergy. Even if you do not say a word you may touch hearts merely by your presence, if only you are wholly taken up by God. The two Fathers de Chandenier and others who came to give the mission in Metz in Lorraine, went in surplice from their house to the church, then back again without saying a word. Their recollection was so remarkable that it made a strong impression on those who saw them, never having experienced the like. Their modesty was a silent sermon so efficacious, I am told, that it may have contributed more than anything else to the success of this mission. What we see influences us much more than mere words, for we believe our eyes beyond what we merely hear. Even though faith comes by hearing, fides ex auditu,8 virtues we see in operation impress us more deeply than those we are taught.

All physical things are distinguished by their specific differences. Each animal and even man differs from each another, and can be told apart. Likewise, the servants of God are distinguished from sensual men by a certain exterior deportment, humble, recollected, devout, which comes from the grace within which influences the soul. There are those so filled with this grace that I can never look on them without being moved. The painters of the saints often depict them surrounded by rays of light, to represent to us the aura coming from the just who live such saintly lives.

Such grace and modesty marks the images of the holy Virgin that it strikes all who look on them with reverence and devotion. This appears even more noticeably in our Lord, and in due proportion with the saints. All this, gentlemen and my brothers, makes us aware that if we are committed to acquiring virtues, and if we are filled with divine things, and strive to perfect ourselves, each one in particular and without ceasing, even if we have no special talents to contribute, God will use our presence to enlighten the minds and strengthen the wills of the candidate for ordination, and so make them better.

May it please God to grant us this grace. This work is so difficult and so exalted that God alone can help us. That is why we must pray incessantly that he will bless the small services we render, and the words we say to them. Saint Teresa saw in her time the great need the Church had for worthy ministers. She besought God to inspire good priests, and counseled the sisters of her order to pray often for this intention. Perhaps the changes for the better in the condition of the clergy which we have begun to notice are due in part to the devotion of this great saint. God often uses the weakest instruments for carrying out his greatest designs.

Even in the beginning of the Church did he not choose poor and unlearned rustics? Yet our Lord used them to overthrow idolatry, subject to the Church the princes and powers of this world, and extend our holy religion throughout the whole world. He can use us, wretched as we are, for the progress of the clergy toward a life of virtue. In the name of our Savior, gentlemen and my brothers, let us give ourselves to him completely, by our service, our good example, our prayers, and our mortifications.9

These simple and touching exhortations are but samples of the many which Monsieur Vincent gave on this subject. On the one hand they serve to show the great need the Church had of good priests, and the absolute necessity of a worthy preparation for this office. On the other hand, they show his devotion to those who aspired to this vocation, and the care he took to inspire the same spirit in his Congregation, demonstrating the appropriate means to success, namely, humility, meekness, respect, penance, prayer, interior life, and purity of intention. He urged these virtues by his words, but still more by his example. He was a master at joining practice to persuasion. This is seen even in his talks where he humbled himself. Urging others to prayer, he lifted his own soul to God, and gently attracted others to do the same. Lastly, the correctness and purity of his own intentions inspired the same sentiments in the members of his Congregation.

  1. CED XI:8.
  2. Jer 1:14.
  3. CED XI:308-12.
  4. CED XI:8-11.
  5. CED XI:11-12.
  6. John 7:16.
  7. Ps 10:17. This psalm was used at Sunday Matins.
  8. Rom 10:17.
  9. CED XII:14-19.

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