SECTION FIVE: The Company of Clergy Who Met at Saint Lazare Fostered Similar Companies in Other Dioceses
Since it is a quality of charity to diffuse itself, these good ecclesiastics were so animated with this virtue wherever they happened to find themselves, that they were moved to extend the same sentiments God had inspired in them, through Monsieur Vincent, to others whom they met. Several among their number had gone to other dioceses on personal business, or to work on one of the missions, or to fulfill some charge or benefice. They were anxious on all occasions to have the local clergy meet, with the permission and approval of their bishop, in assemblies like their own of Paris. These were to be formed to discuss the virtues and everything else about the duties proper to their calling. Some bishops were already aware of the great advantages these conferences might contribute in their own diocese. They established them not only in the episcopal city, but in various other places in their diocese for the pastors and vicars of the country places.
To have a brief sketch of the fruits these assemblies and conferences produced outside of Paris where they were established, we will give here some extracts from several letters written on this matter.
The late Father Olier, one of the first members of the conference at Saint Lazare, went to give missions in the regions depending upon his abbey of Pebrac, in Auvergne, together with several priests of the Congregation of the Mission and other members of the company in 1636 and with others of the company of priests. He convinced the canons of the cathedral church of Le Puy to form a similar company, and gave them the same regulations as those of Paris, but modified to suit their role as canons. He wrote of this to the company at Paris, telling the priests of the abbot of Pebrac learning of their company at Paris, and wishing to form a similar one for the priests of his area. The regulations of their association were modeled upon those of Paris, except for some modifications made necessary by their own conditions. He was sending along a copy which he asked the priests to read and to make appropriate changes, if they thought they were needed, and to associate this new group to their company, to share in their prayers and sacrifices.
The abbot of Pebrac wrote to the members of the Paris company about the newly-formed association in Le Puy:
Our Lord established you in Paris, as a light set upon a lampstand to enlighten all the clergy of France. You will be encouraged to learn the great fruit and spiritual profit the new company of clergy of Le Puy has produced. The members display virtues which edify the entire province. They give catechism lessons throughout the city, frequently visit the prisons and hospitals, and prepare missions for all the regions depending on this chapter. I am humbled by their zeal, especially in their asking me to open their mission, who am so poorly gifted to do so.
The canons of the cathedral church of Noyon also formed a similar company through the efforts of Monsieur Bourdin, doctor of theology and archdeacon of this church, and a member of the Paris company. They wrote to the Paris group in November of 1637, as follows:
Gentlemen, here is a little stream returning to its source. We take the liberty to speak thus, for our tiny assembly owes its birth, after God, to no other source or being except your venerable company. Its renown, practice of charity and piety, the gifts you have given to the Church, and the incomparable benefits enjoyed by the priests fortunate enough to be its members, have led us to establish a similar association among ourselves. We have met several times, and have drawn up the regulations we now send you. We have attempted to model them after yours, as closely as we could, taking into account our obligations as canons, or our other duties. We would humbly ask you do us the charity to examine these, to add, subtract, or modify what you think proper. When it meets with your approval, we shall follow it with greater assurance and security.
We do not know how to thank sufficiently the divine goodness for inspiring us with such a helpful wish, and you, gentlemen, for having provided us with such a beautiful example, and cleared the way so favorably to enable us to fulfill the duties of our calling. We shall bless his eternal Providence, with the help of God, and attempt to recognize by our prayers the singular blessings we have received from you. Permit us, gentlemen, to take the liberty of asking you for a written report of one of your conferences, especially on the spirit of your company, so that we might be clothed with this same spirit, without which we surely will not succeed in our undertaking. We ask one thing more of your charity to assure us of your union with us, and to make us part of your holy prayers and sacrifices, ut qui coepit in nobis opus bonum, ipse perficiat solidetque [“that he who has begun the good work in us, will bring it to perfection and make it firm”],1 for which we will ever be much obliged.
The priests of the town of Pontoise organized a similar association. One of their principal members wrote to Monsieur Vincent, in May of 1642, as follows:
The assembly of the priests of Pontoise has asked me to write to you, to tell you of our satisfaction with our little group. I must confess that at first we did not appreciate fully what was involved, but now we realize more and more each day the grace and blessing God has poured upon us. We see clearly all the good that can come to each of us, and to the whole body of the Church. It is to you, Monsieur, after God, that we are obliged for all we have gained by our association with your good and virtuous company of Paris. Our company received its first instructions from you, a seed which has continued to grow, and to which God has given his blessings. We would ask one more favor, since we are as children in virtue and do not have enough strength to direct ourselves. Please allow some of your priests of Paris to visit us, to help us walk with greater surety in the path we have begun with such courage. We expose our weakness to you to encourage you to help us.2
A similar company was begun in the city of Angouleme. One of its members wrote to Monsieur Vincent in 1644, in the name of all the others:
Our company feels we must not long delay in paying our respects, and in telling you it recognizes itself as unworthy of the honor you have done us in all that concerns our growth and development. This company begs you most humbly, Monsieur, that it may regard you as its grandfather, since it was one of your sons whom God used to bring us into existence. You would add another obligation of gratitude to the first, by looking upon us not as strangers, but as your grandchild. You have allowed the beautiful and illustrious company of Paris, which is like your elder daughter, to accept us as her sister, although we are so far beneath her in every respect.3
We will not quote from similar letters from Angers, Bordeaux, and other cities of the kingdom,4 and even from Italy, where similar associations and conferences were formed according to the example of the one in Paris. We will finish this chapter by relating the sentiments of Monsieur Godeau, then bishop of Grasse, now of Vence, which he wrote in 1637, shortly before he left his see:5
Gentlemen, I had hoped even today to visit you to say adieu, but the press of business prevented my having this satisfaction. Please remember me in your sacrifices, for I regard it as a singular blessing to have been received among you. The memory of the good example I saw, and the excellent things I heard, will rekindle my zeal when it shall fade, and you shall be the model upon which I shall strive to form good priests. Continue, then, your activities in this same spirit, and respond faithfully to the designs of Jesus Christ upon you. He surely wills to renew the grace of the priesthood in his Church through you.
- Based on Phil 1:6.
- CED II:252.
- CED II:455.
- For example, Bossuet wrote from Metz to Saint Vincent telling him of the establishment of a Conference there. See CED VII:155-56.
- Antoine Godeau, named bishop of Grasse in 1636, moved to the diocese of Vence in 1638. He was known both for his learning and piety. He died April 17, 1672.