CHAPTER THREE: The Spiritual Conferences for Priests
SECTION ONE: The Beginning of the Spiritual Conferences for Priests Established at Saint Lazare
A bond among the virtues not only causes one virtue to lead to another, but in those rightly disposed, attracts other entirely new virtues as well. The same thing may be said of grace, the source of the virtues and generally of all God’s gifts. These always increase beyond measure in those who do not resist nor put any obstacle to God’s sovereign goodness, its source.
God had wished to inspire Monsieur Vincent to begin his work with the missions, and with them the ordination retreats, both of which were everywhere successful. Then in his divine goodness he moved Monsieur Vincent to begin another service for the Church. This not only preserved and confirmed the grace received in ordination, but helped priests to exercise all the functions of their sacred ministry with dignity and fruit. This is how this came about.
This great servant of God witnessed the good effects of the ordination retreats. This filled him with joy and led him to give continuous thanks to God. Aware of the weakness and inconstancy of the human heart, he feared that the priests at the conclusion of these retreats would return to their worldly ways. Since, as the apostle says, they were obliged to live among a wicked and perverse generation, they were in danger of little by little losing their first fervor and perhaps the graces they had received. This led him to reflect on what might be done to warn and strengthen them in such a way that their own weakness or the wickedness of the world would not trouble or lessen the saintly resolutions they had taken.
Despite his insights on the problem, his humility always made him hesitant of his own lights. One of his maxims was never to push himself ahead of the designs of God. He felt, therefore, the best course of action was to invoke the Holy Spirit, awaiting a manifestation of his holy will. During this wait, a virtuous priest who had attended the ordination retreat at Paris came to see him. He proposed the formation of some sort of group for priests. They had already come to Saint Lazare to prepare for ordination, and now wished to meet there periodically to discuss among themselves matters pertaining to their sacred ministry.
Monsieur Vincent looked upon this proposal as coming from God himself. He recognized the good effect such spiritual conferences had among the fathers of the Egyptian desert in former times. They defended them against the attacks of their hidden enemy, and helped their progress in the way of perfection. As a result, he judged it would be no less helpful to the clergy of his own time in their life amidst the dangers of the world. After mature reflection and prayer to the Lord, and after receiving the approval of the archbishop of Paris, he looked around to find the right ones to begin this project. The providence of God provided just such an opportunity, as we shall see.
Several priests who had attended the ordination retreat realized their debt to Monsieur Vincent for the good dispositions God had given them through his help. As a result, they came to offer themselves to him to work at whatever ecclesiastical function he might judge most useful. Monsieur Vincent responded by asking them to organize a mission to the masons, carpenters, and others who were building the church, near the Saint Antoine gate in Paris, of the Visitation of Saint Mary, whose superior and spiritual father he was. At the beginning of June 1633, these good priests began their work with great affection and ingenious charity in such a way they did not interfere with the progress of the construction.1 They found a way to give the usual instructions and exhortations every day, and prepared the workers to make a general confession and to lead a good Christian life, according to their particular state.
While the priests were working on this mission, Monsieur Vincent observed the zeal for the salvation of souls which motivated them, and the union of hearts which reigned among them. He thought it appropriate to begin what he had in mind. On the eleventh of that same month, the feast of Saint Barnabas, he went to speak to each one privately of his thought of bringing them together for mutual support. He found them receptive to his plan, leaving all in his hands as he might think best for their own advantage and for the greater glory of God. He asked all to come to Saint Lazare on a particular day, when he outlined in more detail what he had in mind. He spoke of the need of persevering and cultivating the holy dispositions God had inspired in them and the graces they had received in their ordination. He then exhorted them strongly to give themselves completely to his divine Majesty, to continue for their entire life what they had begun so well. In this way, he said, they would meet the obligations of the state in life they had embraced, and so it would never be said of any of them that he had begun well, but failed in courage to complete the building. Since they had been honored with the sacred character of the priesthood and raised to a truly holy state, they should give themselves entirely to the service of God. It should never be said of them what the prophet Jeremiah deplored in his day, that the gold had become dim, had lost its shine and beauty, and that the precious jewels of the sanctuary had been scattered among the stones on the streets.2 All this happens when those whom Jesus Christ has chosen as his ministers in the Church begin to fail in the charity and perfection which should mark their state in life. Those who are closest to the sanctuary and who are the dispensers of its mysteries allow themselves to walk the highways of the world, and become blameworthy by their dissolute life.
He explained to the assembled priests that he did not expect them to separate themselves from the world, to live together in the same house. This would give rise to many difficulties. They were to continue to live in their own homes or possibly with their relatives. They should be united by a special bond of charity, a life of virtue, and ecclesiastical dedication. He proposed to draw up a rule of life whose observance would preserve them from worldly corruption and help them fulfill perfectly the obligations of their calling. In short, what one of the prophets said could be said of them: Stellae dederunt lumen in custodiis suis, et vocatae dixerunt, adsumus; et luxerunt illi cum jucunditate, qui fecit illas [“Before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice; When he calls them, they answer, ‘Here we are!’ shining with joy for their Maker”].3 They would be in the Church as so many brilliant stars, spreading the light of their good example in their families. They would be always ready to go wherever and work at whatever they were called to, so that Jesus Christ, the author of the priesthood, would be honored in their service.
The priest who had first proposed this assembly to Monsieur Vincent was not present on this occasion, since he was working on a mission away from Paris. For that reason Monsieur Vincent wrote this letter to him:
God be blessed, Monsieur, for all the graces and blessings he showers upon your mission. Does it not occur to you that so many idle workers could be well employed in the great harvest at which you are working? Those who know the need of the master of the harvest for workers are guilty of the blood of his Son, which remains without effect if it is not applied. How well the clergy have received the plan you did me the honor of explaining a while ago, all as a group, and each one in particular. We met two weeks ago, and agreed to all you had suggested to me, with a union of spirit which can come only from God. I began my talk to them by what you had said to me, but without mentioning your name until I had to name you to save a place among them. They are to meet again today. How much good we can anticipate from this company! You are the mover, and you are interested in its success. Please pray for it, Monsieur, and especially for me.4
These priests came together once more, on the ninth of July, to organize this conference, choose their officers, and set the Tuesday of each week as the most convenient day to assemble to discuss the virtues and functions of their ministry. Monsieur Vincent chose as the subject of the first of his conferences with them, on July 16, the spirit of the ecclesiastical state.5 He divided it into three parts: first, the reasons and motives which priests and other sacred ministers have to acquire the ecclesiastical spirit; second, what this spirit consists in; and third, the means to acquire and preserve it, and to bring it to its full development. One of the members of the Company took notes of this first conference, as well as later ones. These notes are the source of much of what we have written.
The members have continued to meet every week, and take as their topic of conference the matters suggested by Monsieur Vincent. These were always on the virtues or functions proper to their calling. Their manner of speaking in these conferences was humble, simple, and familiar, in keeping with the spirit of their director, his suggestions, and his example. He had a special grace which was effective and grace-filled when speaking of the virtues or other pious topics. His language was simple and without display, but vigorous and from the heart.
Ordinarily he did not prepare himself by any special study, but used his time in prayer in God’s presence. He shared the lights he received in prayer with his hearers. His talks were founded on principles derived from Holy Scripture, particularly the examples and words of the Son of God found in the Gospels, whose intent he penetrated in a way all his own. Often he added little or nothing to what had already been said by someone else. He was satisfied to share a good thought, or to comment on what had been said. In so doing he added a new force to it, for he had an extraordinary way of treating the most common and ordinary things. He used expressions which moved people, often producing good results, showing that our Lord Jesus Christ spoke with his lips, and inspired his words and his heart.
Among the other good results he had on his hearers, was that of leading others to speak the same way as himself, with humility, simplicity, and sincerity. In the meetings no one strove to present learned discourses or to be admired for his erudition. The honor and glory of God, the spiritual welfare of the audience, and their own humiliation was the sole motive of the speakers. He advised the clerics to prepare themselves for their talks, but by way of prayer rather than by study, if the subject did not demand a more detailed treatment, or did not require the reading of some good book, as for example when it was question of ecclesiastical offices or positions, or other similar topics.
To draw down greater blessings upon this ecclesiastical company, Monsieur Vincent thought it proper to set down a series of regulations for it. It began by a formal statement of its foundation:
To preserve the good dispositions it pleased God to give them during their ordination retreats, the priests concerned have resolved, with the blessing and approval of the archbishop of Paris, to come together, to attend conferences at the house of Saint Lazare, to honor the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, his eternal priesthood, his holy family, and his love for the poor. They propose to model their lives upon his, and to procure the glory of God in the ecclesiastical state, in their families, and among the poor, not only in the cities but in the countryside as well, as dictated by the devotion of each of them.
This company shall be composed only of clergy raised to sacred orders, who shall be received only after long scrutiny of their life and morals, and after a spiritual retreat, which they shall strive to make annually if possible.
They will gather on Tuesday of each week to confer on topics which shall be assigned, which ordinarily shall be the virtues, functions, and works proper to their ministry.
They shall recognize that our Lord has gathered them together with a new bond of love, to keep them perfectly united in himself, and for this purpose they shall cherish one another, visit and console each other in their difficulties and illnesses. They shall attend the funeral services of any of the members who die. The priests among them shall each offer three masses for the departed, while the others will offer their communions.6
Besides this document, he drew up a brief daily schedule, which prescribed the following, among other things:
They should set the time for rising daily after enough sleep. Each morning they should spend a half hour in mental prayer. They should celebrate mass, and then read a chapter of the New Testament, while kneeling and with head uncovered, all the while making three internal acts: (1) adoration of the truths contained in the chapter which had been read; (2) entering into the spirit of these same truths; and (3) the application in practice of the things taught by the passage. Next, they were to study something in keeping with their duties. Before dinner they were to make a particular examination of their conduct, and after dinner they were to read some good spiritual book. The time remaining was to be used in study or in other exercises suitable for their state.7
- See CED I:204.
- Lam 4:1.
- Bar 3:24-25.
- CED I:202-03.
- Since July 16 was a Saturday that year, the probable date is July 19, the mistake caused by an inverted letter.
- CED XIII:128-32; the manuscript edition of this document differs in many details from that quoted by Abelly and it is much longer.
- CED XIII:129-30.