SECTION TWO: The Progress of This Company, and the Successes It Enjoyed
This Company, begun so well under the wise guidance of Monsieur Vincent, continued to enjoy new blessings, which God conferred upon it through the hands of his faithful servant. Among the first fruits was the growth of the Company, which happened quickly, for more than two-hundred and fifty priests became members during the lifetime of Monsieur Vincent. Among the members were some notable persons, distinguished by their birth or by their learning, for there were more than forty doctors of the faculty of Paris. All this occurred contrary to the wish of Monsieur Vincent and its members not to make this happen, but rather to honor the hidden life of our Lord. They sought to remain unknown as much as possible. They worked humbly in the least esteemed positions, yet in those most useful and advantageous to the salvation of souls, particularly among the poor, catechizing and hearing confessions in the hospitals, prisons, and villages. God did not allow this little city, built on the mountain of charity by the hand of his servant, to remain hidden for long. On several occasions, as we shall see, he brought to light the works it accomplished. Besides, his Providence allowed twenty-two prelates to be members, both archbishops and bishops, for the benefit of their dioceses. We should add that the membership included vicars general, canonical judges of the dioceses, archdeacons, pastors, canons, seminary directors, superiors, and visitators and confessors of religious, all of whom as members of the Company spread everywhere the good odor of Jesus Christ through the example of their virtues.
It should be remarked that it was due chiefly to the head of their Company, Monsieur Vincent himself, that must be attributed many of the blessings upon its members, for they shared in the salutary influence he exercised over his own Congregation. From the beginning he had introduced this same practice of holding periodic conferences to discuss the virtues and the duties of the ecclesiastical life. After he had seen for himself the success these spiritual conferences had for the interior advancement of the members of his Congregation, he felt the same sort of conferences would be equally beneficial for priests from elsewhere. This led him to establish the conferences, as we have indicated above in Section One.
One day, speaking to his community at Saint Lazare, he said:
If anyone ought to attend and appreciate spiritual conferences, surely it ought to be the priest of the Congregation of the Mission. God has entrusted to this Congregation the introduction of such conferences among clergy, in which the practice of virtue is discussed. When I came to Paris, I never saw such conferences, in which the virtues proper to one’s state in life were discussed, and how to live well in one’s own vocation. In the academies, of course, points of doctrine were presented, and sometimes cases of conscience were thrashed out. About fifty years ago, Cardinal de Sourdis introduced into his diocese of Bordeaux this way of handling some points of moral theology.1 He would assemble his pastors and other priests to instruct them better on these points, and he was quite successful at it. But concerning the virtues proper to their state in life, for ecclesiastics or clergy like ourselves, nothing was available at all, at least as far as I was aware, or had ever heard of.
Some religious have this practice, just as the monks of former times did. In our times, however, God has been pleased to entrust to this miserable Congregation these conferences for priests, who in their service to souls must live amid the corruption of the world. We must help them to become better equipped for their ministry. God has inspired the Congregation of the Mission with much appreciation to begin these conferences which contribute to the growth of virtue. In them we treat of the motives for acquiring them, their nature, their practice, and the particular acts which relate to them. We treat also of the obligations of our state in life, towards God and the neighbor. There you see the point of these conferences. What do you think, if we were to be the first to neglect them? What account would we give to God if we neglect such useful and efficacious means used so assiduously by the ancient fathers and anchorites, as reported in the book written by the monk Cassian?2 I must say from my personal experience nothing so touching, so moving, of all that I have heard, read, or seen, equals these conferences.3
Besides these first results of the spiritual conferences, which were limited to the clergy who gathered at Saint Lazare, others became evident in a wider sphere. Chief among these was the effect of the good example of the priests of the Company that began to be noticed among others, for the members of the Company were significant in their positions, whether by their learning, or by the responsibilities and benefices they occupied in the Church. Their example influenced others greatly, leading them to imitation, either by their modesty in dress or in the way of wearing their hair, or in their avoidance of worldly gatherings and mannerisms. On the positive side, their devotion to works of charity or other functions proper to their calling attracted many to do and act the same, which in many places was a source of much edification.
As a second result of the Company, Monsieur Vincent often asked the ablest and most pious of the priests to address the ordinands following the exercises at Saint Lazare. Their exhortations, joined to the example of their lives, were powerful influences on the ordinands, gathered in Paris from all the dioceses of France. On the one hand they saw the perfect models of what they should become, and on the other, heard from their own lips what they must know and do to imitate them. In this Monsieur Vincent imitated the God of nature, who uses the fruit of a tree to produce new trees of the same species, or like the children of their father who become in their turn fathers of other children. This Company of clergy was the result of the first ordination retreats, and now, in their turn, they were helping the participants in these same exercises.
As a third result of the Company of priests, they were often sent or called to other dioceses to help in the ordination retreats, or in spiritual retreats which the bishops had organized for their pastors, vicars, and other clergy of their dioceses. When some had to go into the country on business, they took the occasion to gather the priests of the region to help them organize conferences among themselves touching on their functions and duties, or to urge them to mental prayer, or to the practice of the virtues proper to their calling. Since one of the aims of their Company was to do what they could for the spiritual good of priests, they often contributed to the education of poor priests, or those who were not fulfilling their office worthily. Many were helped to a true conversion, and so removed a source of scandal in the Church.
- Francois d’Escoubleau, Cardinal de Sourdis, archbishop of Bordeaux from 1598 to 1625. Saint Vincent saw him and appreciated his work on his first trip to Bordeaux in 1605, and then in 1623 when he returned there to evangelize prisoners. The cardinal was considered one of the holiest and most courageous prelates of his time.
- John Cassian, Conferences, PL 49-50.
- CED XI:13-14.