SECTION SIX: The Ordination Retreats in Italy, and the Great Results Produced by Them
Since the nature goodness is to communicate and diffuse itself, we should not be surprised that the ordination retreats, which were so effective and beneficial, expanded readily outside of France to other countries, including Italy. They had the same blessing and success there as they did in France. We will recount here the events in only two of the leading cities in Italy, as characteristic of what happened in many others.
The first is Genoa, where Cardinal Durazzo, the archbishop, had established a house of the priests of the Congregation of the Mission for the instruction of his people and the reform of his clergy.1 He determined that every ordination in his diocese be preceded by the candidates’ making the ordination retreats. This produced marvelous results in the clergy who took part in this grace. The superior of the Mission at Genoa wrote to Monsieur Vincent on this subject, and we can suppose the same fruits were reaped in other places as well.2
Our ordination retreat was small in number, but rich in blessings. God was generous in the gift of his grace. They followed the regulations faithfully, and the silence and modesty of the ordinands especially during meal times was so evident it seemed they had been formed in one of our own houses. The grace of God was even more evident during mental prayer and the discussions which followed. I don’t think it possible these exercises could be attended to with greater fervor than these gentlemen brought to them. During the time of mental prayer and even during the discussions some were in tears. Others publicly thanked God for the grace of participating in the ordination retreats, with its insights of knowing well the state they were about to embrace, and how to live in keeping with God’s designs upon them as true priests.
Among others, one was making his farewells at the end of the retreat, and told me with great emotion that he had prayed to God to send him a thousand deaths rather than let him offend his goodness. When this was repeated yesterday to Cardinal Durazzo, the archbishop, he wept with joy and appreciation. His heart could not contain the emotion he felt at the blessings God had bestowed upon this ordination retreat.3
The second city we speak of is Rome, where the sovereign pontiff, Urban VIII of happy memory, had received the priests of the Congregation of the Mission in 1642. The following year they began to receive in their house those who came on their own initiative to prepare themselves to receive holy orders. The success of these first efforts was reported after several years to His Holiness, who in November 1659, directed the cardinal vicar of Rome to order that all who aspired to sacred orders should make the ordination retreats with the priests of the Congregation of the Mission. This was done under the authority of our holy father, Pope Alexander VII.
When this order was first given, the superior of the Mission in Rome wrote to Monsieur Vincent, as follows:
In our weakness we are preparing ourselves to serve the candidates for ordination. Our confidence is in God, who shows himself ever more the author of this good work, seeing that we do not know how this order came about, nor who promoted it. I can rightfully say: a Domino factum est istud [“By the Lord has this been done”],4 and so there is reason to hope that qui coepit ipse perficiet5 [“He who has begun the good work, will carry it through to completion”].6
If Monsieur Vincent was pleased to see used in the Church in his lifetime the ordination retreats to which God willed that he give himself from the beginning and which he began, he was especially gratified to see them established in the mother city of all Christendom. What is more, his own priests were charged with giving these retreats in Italy, although they had done nothing to promote them outside of France.
This first ordination retreat was given in December 1659. Divine Providence arranged that the Fathers de Chandenier, nephews of Cardinal de la Rochefoucault, had gone to Rome at the time, and were housed with the priests of the Mission when the ordinands were received.7 God so disposed it that these two virtuous priests contributed by their saintly deportment to the edification of all who saw them, for it would be impossible to find two models of modesty better suited to show the ordinands what their exterior behavior should be. The older of the two brothers daily celebrated high mass daily in the chapel of the Mission, at which all the ordinands attended. He displayed his usual gravity, devotion, and recollection, while his brother humbly filled the role of acolyte and thurifer. Two Italian priests of the Congregation of the Mission gave the conferences in the morning and evening, and all went so well that a favorable report was given to His Holiness, the pope. He referred to this in a consistory held soon after, in which he stated that he was most pleased with the ordination retreats. Cardinal Santacroce8 informed the superior of the Mission of this, and he in turn wrote to Monsieur Vincent, who asked for some additional details. His reply to Monsieur Vincent was as follows:
Monsieur, you requested information about the ordination retreats, and whether there seems to have been a carryover for the ordinands. As to the retreats themselves, and to all the particulars of the rule observed in France, we have tried and are still trying to have them observed in the same way as in Paris. We schedule each day and hour according to the memorandum we received from Saint Lazare. The ordinands declared they were very pleased, and not only ourselves, but some outsiders have reported the fruits some of them have taken by God’s grace from the retreats. We even have some taking part in a second program in which we are now involved, in this first one for this Lent. These men are giving good example to the others. It seems that God in his infinite goodness wishes to bestow his blessing upon these retreats, and to confer his graces upon the priests of this country as he has done elsewhere.9
At the end of each session this superior informed Monsieur Vincent of how things had gone. We report here only a few extracts from his letters.
By the mercy of God, the fruits of previous retreats are in evidence. Several of these gentlemen who have made the retreats come here to visit us from time to time, telling us of their perseverance in their good resolutions. One of them, a person of some standing, who has attended three of these sessions, came here yesterday to celebrate his first mass, after making a short retreat to prepare himself for this occasion.10
In another letter the same superior told Monsieur Vincent that “some cardinals and other prelates had come to hear the conferences. Among the ordinands were several from highly placed families, among others a canon of Saint John Lateran and nephew of Cardinal Mancini, a canon of Saint Peter’s named Count Marescotti, and others of high standing. The pope was firm in insisting that no one was to be exempt from attending the ordination retreats.”11
He said in another letter:
The ordinands we had at the beginning of Lent and those we have at the moment have been faithful to the retreats. Their devotion has astonished us. I might say, in regard to modesty and silence, that they could not have done better. Our Lord makes us realize by this that he alone is the source of all the good done here.12
In still another letter, he said:
We had in the last ordination retreats a Spanish gentleman, a doctor from the diocese of Piacenza, whose bishop is now the ambassador extraordinary of the king of Spain. This good gentleman had planned to receive holy orders, and so came with great sentiment to take part in the retreat. However, after hearing the conferences, he recognized the importance of not receiving holy orders unless one were called by God. In addition, he realized the great obligations assumed by the one who does take orders. These considerations raised great fear in him, and left him in a confused state of mind. At length, he resolved his uncertainties, and received orders with fine dispositions. The changed style of life in himself and in many others after the ordination retreats gives reason to hope he made a good decision.
After the retreat, he told his bishop of his experiences. The bishop in turn asked to speak to us, and we went to see him this morning. We found a zealous prelate who had arranged several missions in his own diocese much like the ones we of the Company give, except they are somewhat briefer. He himself preaches, hears confession, and catechizes, but this emphasis on forming good priests delights him. He asked if he might come here to our next session, to observe what we do, and asked if, on his return to Spain, we might give him one of our priests. While awaiting these developments, he would like to alert his diocese to what we do in the ordination retreats, so they might be introduced there.13
This good prelate came to the following session not simply to learn about the ordination retreats in theory, but to follow all the exercises, so he could bring the practices back to his own diocese.
After Monsieur Vincent received this news, he felt that the priests in Rome were moving too quickly on the question of sending a priest of the Company to Spain. He was ever on his guard about any human activity which would lead to the extension of his Congregation. He alerted them by letter, the tenor of which we can gather by the reply the Roman superior sent him.
As to the bishop of Piacenza, ambassador of Spain, God has given us the grace, according to your wishes, not to return to his house to speak further about the ordination retreats. According to your orders we will do nothing, God willing, to seek new jobs or to push ourselves. Even if we are pressed we will always refer everything to you for decision. We hope to be faithful in this.14
Since the best and holiest activities are the ones most open to jealousy and contradiction, the fruits of the ordination retreats and the comments heard in the city of Rome led some religious persons, convinced they were rendering service to God, to attempt to remove the priests of the Mission and substitute their own community in the direction of these retreats. This is an account of these events, written by this same superior to Monsieur Vincent in May 1660.
I must alert you, Monsieur, to some opposition that has recently arisen about the continuation of the ordination retreats. First, a while ago the cardinal vicar told me that another religious community had asked to be put in charge of the ordination retreats, and that the ordinands should be sent to them and not to us. The cardinal absolutely refused the request. I had previously been informed of this move, and told which community was involved.
Second, I was advised that on the occasion of the examination for sacred orders, Father N. had said that since so many distinguished people came to Rome to be ordained, it was not proper to oblige them to keep attending the ordination retreats, and that he would speak to the pope about this. I have learned that he did speak to him, and tried his best to persuade the pope not to oblige the ordinands to come to us. His Holiness is well informed of what is done in the ordination retreats, and paying no attention to the remonstrances, remains firm in his commitment. You see, Monsieur, how we are under the special protection of our Lord and of his holy Mother.15
Since that time many attempts have been made to abolish the ordination retreats. Both the pope and cardinals were appealed to in complaints that the retreats had to be made with the priests of the Mission rather than elsewhere. They seemed to be of the opinion they could not be well made except in their own houses. All this made no impression on the mind of the pope. He remained persuaded that all should observe the brief he had published earlier. He also published a second one in 1662 on his own authority.16 It approved and confirmed all he had said on the question, but added the obligation not only that every person of whatever nation or class who was to be ordained in Rome should make the ordination retreats, but that those of the six suffragan dioceses should do so likewise. He was so convinced of the efficacy of the ordination retreats in the formation of the clergy that he reserved to himself the power of dispensing from this obligation. Even those who were dispensed, to receive orders extra tempora [“outside the canonical time”], he obliged to make a spiritual retreat with the priests of the Mission before ordination.
All these graces and favors could rightly be attributed to the protection of God and to the great purity of intention that motivated Monsieur Vincent. Because of this he was not overly disturbed by all the storms raised against the retreats. He recognized that God had originally given them to the missionaries, and that God was good and powerful enough to look after them, as long as the priests of the Mission would be faithful to their obligations. He was aware that failing in this, they would deserve to be deprived of them.
It would seem that so many efforts against the ordination retreats would surely reduce their success, but the contrary was the case. These attacks seemed to attract new blessings, or to publicize the retreats. For example, a single ordinand from the kingdom of Naples who had attended one of the sessions returned home and persuaded his archbishop to have all the ordinands of the archdiocese attend the retreats before receiving holy orders.
Cardinal Barbarigo heard about the happy fruit of the ordination retreats, and called the priests of the Mission of Rome to his city of Bergamo, in the state of Venice, of which he was the bishop.17 Recognizing the importance of the ordination retreats, he began them with the intention of continuing them in future. When he returned to Rome the following year, 1663, he attended one of the conferences, at which several other cardinals happened to be present as well. His presence visibly impressed the ordinands and greatly edified the other cardinals.
Several other cardinals attended the following session, that is, Cardinal Albizzi,18 and Cardinal Santacroce, to the great approval of the other cardinals, bishops, prelates, generals of orders and other notables in attendance.
The same superior remarked in several of his later letters that by God’s grace the good effects of the retreats on the clergy were evident. This good result extended even beyond Rome itself, for among the ordinands there were, besides those from Italy, some from other countries.
These are some examples of the happy fruits of this enterprise established in the Church by the all-encompassing zeal of Monsieur Vincent, and by the blessing of God given for his own greater honor and glory.
- Stefano Durazzo, archbishop of Genoa from 1635 to 1664. He died in 1667. He was always devoted to Saint Vincent and to his community.
- CED VIII:294.
- CED II:601-02.
- Ps 118:23.
- Phil 1:6.
- CED VIII:183.
- Claude-Charles de Chandenier and his brother Louis were both devoted to Saint Vincent.
- Cardinal de Sainte Croix, in Abelly’s text. Marcello Santacroce, 1619-1674, was the cardinal protector of Poland.
- CED VIII:244-45.
- CED VIII:302.
- CED VIII:294.
- CED VIII:275.
- CED VIII:269.
- CED VIII:285.
- CED VIII:290-91.
- Alexander VII, “Apostolica sollicitudo,” August 7, 1662.
- Gregory Barbarigo, 1625-1697, was canonized by Pope John XXIII in 1960.
- Francesco Albizzi, called Abbici in Abelly’s text, died in 1684.