The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book II, Chapter IV, 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: The Opinions of Some Others Concerning These Retreats, and Several Examples of Happy Outcomes

A priest of Languedoc came to Paris in 1640 to make his retreat at Saint Lazare. Afterward he wrote to one of his priest friends:

I was welcomed with such graciousness in this house by all with whom I came in contact, that I was overwhelmed. Beyond all the others, Monsieur Vincent himself received me with such kindness that I was completely taken. My heart felt this, although I cannot find words to express what I experienced. What I can say is that during the retreat I was in paradise, and now that I am no longer there, Paris seems like a prison to me. Do not think I am saying this simply as a compliment; no, I speak of what I felt. I no longer know how to continue living in the world, so my resolve is to leave it, to give myself entirely to God.

Another priest, from Orleans, wrote to Monsieur Vincent on this same topic:

For the love of God and of the holy Virgin please allow me to make another retreat in your house. I sincerely desire this, and I hope when you realize why I ask this favor I will receive your permission by the mercy of God and your goodness. Certainly, Monsieur, when I think of the good sentiments I had at Saint Lazare, I am carried away. My only desire is that it would please God to have every priest attend these exercises. If that were to come about, we would no longer have the bad example that some give to the great scandal of the Church.1

A pastor of a country parish not far from Paris wrote to Monsieur Vincent in 1642:

The fruits which those who made their spiritual retreat with you spread such perfume wherever they went that they have aroused the desire in others to gather the same fruit for themselves. One of my close relatives feels this way. I can do him no greater favor than to ask you most humbly to please receive him in your house to follow the exercises of the spiritual retreat. He hopes to receive from it the light and grace for the guidance of the remainder of his life.2

The late Baron de Renty, as noble in virtue as he was in birth, had tried every way he knew to persuade a pastor of his acquaintance to mend his disastrous ways, but without success. He had the thought of writing to Monsieur Vincent in the hope that he would make a retreat at Saint Lazare. In the letter he wrote, he told Monsieur Vincent that he was confident that under his charitable guidance a retreat might convince this pastor to change the deplorable life he had led into one of blessing.

The superior of a reformed order in a house in Paris had the same thought about one of his religious, who held the office of pastor at a parish, but who had fallen into similar disorders in his personal life. He wrote the following letter to Monsieur Vincent:

This good religious has a great need, as he may tell you, to amend his life, which currently gives great scandal to the souls under his direction. He has been advised to make a retreat with you as a place where he can receive help and be directed back to the path of duty. I beg of you most earnestly to take him and do all in your power what you judge proper to regain him for God.3

Another religious of one of the more celebrated monasteries in Paris felt he could do nothing better for a servant boy who wished to be converted than to put him in Monsieur Vincent’s hands. He requested him to take the boy into his house for several days of spiritual retreat. In a letter he wrote in 1644, he said:

I pray that God will prolong your days and years for his glory and for the good of the neighbor, for whom you work so hard. I send you a person fit for your charity, a page of the Prince de Talmont, who has been raised in the false religion of Calvin but has come to me to ask for instruction leading to his conversion. I do not think of myself as capable of this good office. Therefore I take the liberty of writing to you as the one God has given his special grace for his glory and the salvation of those in sin or who have gone astray. Please have the charity, then, my most honored father in our Lord, to accept and welcome him as a poor straying sheep but who now seeks to return and be saved from the fangs of the wolf.4

If we had to recount here in detail all those who had recourse to the charity of this great servant of God and to list the infirmities, miseries, and spiritual necessities he was asked to attend to through the ministry of these spiritual retreats in the house of Saint Lazare alone, we would certainly need several volumes for this. We could in some sense say of the servant what the Gospel said of the Master, that people were brought to him from all sides, suffering from all illnesses and maladies, but that a power went out from him which delivered each one from his trouble and cured all.

Since it was not only in the house of Saint Lazare that the effects of the charity of Monsieur Vincent were felt but in several other places as well, we will report here the testimony and examples from some other of these spiritual retreats given by the sons of this father of missionaries.

A priest of Paris of some standing and virtue had worked on the missions with the priests of the Congregation of the Mission, and had made several retreats at Saint Lazare. He was eventually named a bishop. He immediately went into seclusion to prepare himself for his consecration and for all the various duties of his charge. Accompanied by some priests of the Mission, he then went to his own diocese. He began to put into practice there what he had observed of Monsieur Vincent and his confreres. Recognizing from his own experience the usefulness of the spiritual retreat, he convoked his pastors and other clergy to his episcopal palace, of which he consecrated a part for these exercises. In 1644 he wrote to Monsieur Vincent:

As to news, I must tell you we continue to assemble the priests of the diocese, together with some others from neighboring places who have asked us. About thirty priests here are following their spiritual retreat in the episcopal palace with much fruit and blessing.5 Another great prelate, an archbishop, had for several years visited the house of Saint Lazare, and taken part in the retreats given by the Congregation. He considered that he could do nothing better for his clergy than to have them come to his palace in groups to follow the exercises of a spiritual retreat, under the guidance of a priest of the Congregation of the Mission. This priest wrote to him to give an account of these events in the following letter:

At the beginning there was much fear and murmuring. The more timorous did not know what to think. But God, through your direction and mostly working in secret so changed hearts that they could all say: Vere Deus est in loco isto, et ego nesciebam [“Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it”];6 as time went on and the exercises unfolded, the dark and cold gradually dissipated. They then said: Quam bonum, et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum [“How good it is, and how pleasant, where brethren dwell at one”],7 and by the end of the retreat, faciamus hic tria tabernacula [“Let us erect three booths here”].8 These good gentlemen, some forty pastors and vicars, seemed not to have lived except these last ten days. They wept openly, remembering their past lives and the ignorance in which they lived. The oldest among them hastened to the exercises. I can assure you that I have never before seen such fervor, nor such tangible evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God. He holds in his hand not only the kings of this world, to bend to his will as he sees fit, but kings of heaven, and priests, whose hardness of heart often resists his grace.

Each one made his general confession, most of them of their entire past life, in the belief they had done little up to now. All took strong resolutions to work at their own salvation and that of their people, saying with the prophet-king: Dixi, nunc coepi, haec mutatio dexterae excelsi [“This is my sorrow, that the right hand of the Most High is changed”].9 To show you how grace changes hearts, one person came to tell me that the devil had blinded him to believe the retreat was an intolerable burden, a prison, and a kind of hell. Others told me: “Monsieur, how indebted we are to our bishop, and how we ought to pray for him and for his return. If we had the lights we now enjoy, we would never have done what we did.”

In a word, Monsieur, they acted as little children. I was astonished that people who could have been my grandparents put so much trust in such a feeble instrument. Vitulus et leo, lupus et ovis, simul accubabunt, puer parvulus minabit eos [“The calf and the lion, the wolf and the sheep, shall lie down together, with a little child to guide them”].10 These good retreatants have encouraged your entire city, not only by their words but more so by their modesty of demeanor. Priests who ridiculed these exercises have been surprised to see their friends and confreres change their way of speaking, and some of your chapter have asked when their turn would come. I hope, Your Excellency, that your prayers will obtain from God the fulfillment of so many holy resolutions and that in this way, your diocese will be transformed, your leaders influencing the rest of the body. We add here the extract of another letter written to the same archbishop. It discussed further the blessings God had bestowed upon the clergy of his diocese in other retreats. In this letter the same priest of the Mission wrote:

Neither place nor time make men holy, although both may contribute significantly. Grace has its time, just as nature does. The Church calls the days of Lent days of salvation and propitiation. The experiences of this last retreat do not let us doubt this. I can assure you, Your Excellency, that if God showed himself liberal with his graces in the preceding retreats, he has shown himself prodigal in this one, which finished on the eve of Palm Sunday. Besides noticing the influence of grace in the souls of these gentlemen which softened the hardest hearts and brought light to darkness, I often heard it said they were beginning to open their eyes to the eminent dignity of the priesthood. If they had fully understood it before, they would never have embraced it so casually.

Some offered their financial help for the continuation of these retreats each year, while others wished to resign their benefices to have greater freedom to attend similar retreats. Others wanted to spend some time in the seminary, as long as their parishes could be taken care of. Each one left with such regret they were in tears, but with a total dependence upon you and your vicars general, ready to do anything or go anywhere you would be pleased to send them. In this way, Your Excellency, you can have missionaries in each parish to water what the missions have planted.

The laity praise the divine goodness and appreciate in their pastor the heart of a father in both spiritual and temporal things. I can assure you that if you had seen the marvels of the mercy of God, your joy would have been as perfect as it ever can be in this world. I almost forgot to tell you, Your Excellency, about one of the retreatants, who has not lived as a priest for several years, although he lived in several places in the diocese. He came to the exercises only to mock and to save appearances, as he later admitted, but little by little his heart was touched. He still did not want to be caught in my net, preferring to make his confession to another priest in whom he would have greater confidence. God denied him the opportunity to do so, for the night before the general communion, bothered by his conscience, he could not sleep. Quis enim ei restitit et pacem habuit? [“Who has withstood him and remained unscathed?”]11 He broke out in a sweat, and a trembling in his whole body seized him. He heard an inner voice saying to him, “This is the hour of grace. You are about to die. You resist the grace of God.” He called to one of his confreres sleeping in the same room to say he was dying, and asking that I be summoned. I came at once, and between midnight and four o’clock in the morning I heard his confession. He made it tearfully and full of thanks to his divine bounty for his favors known to God alone. He communicated with the others, but with such remorse, I feared both that he might lose his mind, and that the devil might be transforming himself into an angel of light to deprive him of his senses. In fact, this good gentleman was beside himself for a time. When he gained possession of himself again, he told me it was a just judgment of God, who wished his reparation to be public, just as his faults had been known to all. He left satisfied, saying, Misericordia tua magna est super me, qui eruisti animam meam ex inferno inferiori [“Great has been your kindness toward me; you have rescued me from the depths of the nether world”].12

Let us now turn to Italy where these same retreats were given, and let us begin with Genoa. The superior of the Mission of that city wrote to Monsieur Vincent in 1646, as follows:

We wrote in the name of Cardinal Durazzo, archbishop of the city, to all the places where missions had been given to advise the clergy that the exercises of the spiritual retreat would be given on such a day in our mission. All those who wished to attend should present themselves at such an hour. Several came, and have now departed, after attending the retreat. I cannot tell you adequately of the consolation they received or the abundance of graces the Lord gave, or the modesty and silence they observed, or the humility and sincerity with which they reported on their mental prayer. The same can be said of the admirable, almost miraculous, conversions that took place. Among others, one pastor said, almost publicly, that he had come to mock, by hypocrisy rather than devotion, to get a higher stipend from the cardinal for his attendance. He told me the Congregation of the Mission had no greater enemy than himself. He spoke every kind of evil against it and against His Eminence. He was given to vice, he had obtained his benefice by simony, received orders only to have the benefice. He had performed clerical duties, administered the sacraments, served in the Curia, all for several years. He was a man of schemes and intrigue, but God touched his heart and touched it effectively. He was converted, he wept, he humbled himself, and gave every evidence of having changed. Those who saw him at the exercises, or heard about his altered attitude, were very edified. We were too, but no less so for the others who benefited from the exercises, each one according to his needs.

I must tell you, Monsieur, of the joy and consolation of His Eminence. The tears which filled his eyes as he heard his priests tell him of their feelings would give you a better understanding of this than my poor words. All this was so noised about the city, and even in the surrounding areas, that several other priests came to make their retreat with us.13

From time to time, this same superior wrote to Monsieur Vincent of the success of similar retreats, but it would take too much space to speak of them all. We will recount here the events of only this one retreat.

The pastors left here Friday, fervent and edified, marveling at the graces God had given them, which were great indeed. I must say I have never seen better disposed retreatants, nor have I seen more tears shed. I cannot even think of this without wonder and admiration. One said we were here in the Valley of Josaphat, because of the freedom each one showed in opening his heart, and as I said, this was done tearfully, in public and in private.

This was the result of God’s all-powerful grace, but what a marvel that God showed himself so generous towards those who were faithful to our simple rule for a retreat, especially silence. I have seen thirty gathered together in a room, awaiting my appearance, with no one daring to say a single word, one to another. We currently have four retreatants, one of whom is a Jew who wishes to become a Christian, and whom the cardinal sent to us from Pisa.

A senator here wants to prepare for a good general confession but cannot find time from his duties to make the exercises of the spiritual retreat. He has taken the three days of the feast to come twice a day to confer with me. He has begun with much fervor. I trust he will finish the same way.

We expect six or seven priests this evening to come for the retreat. They are planning to give a mission in the city such as we gave in the country. In your charity, please remember this intention in your prayers.14

The cardinal of Genoa himself made the spiritual exercises several times with the priests of the Mission, not with the pastors, but with the missionaries themselves, who make an annual retreat. The superior wrote about this in a letter to Monsieur Vincent, in 1649:

His Eminence the cardinal spent eight days with us in making the retreat with the ten priests of the Mission who are here. What a great servant of God! It is hard to believe the exactitude and punctuality with which he followed the order of the exercises, despite having a weak constitution. Although only fifty-six years of age, his spiritual and temporal concerns make him look older. He makes his mental prayer in the morning with the others, kneeling without moving from beginning to end, although some others sit down. For other meditations made in private in the sleeping rooms, he makes these kneeling or if he happens to be too fatigued, he comes for permission to sit, to have the merit of obedience, even though I have suggested that he remain seated when he feels tired.

When he reports on the thoughts and sentiments of his mental prayer, he does so with the simplicity, humility, and devotion of any one of us. No sooner does he hear the bell for the office or other exercises of the community, than he leaves all, and is the first in the chapel. At table he insists on being treated just like the others. After my insistence, he finally allowed some preference be shown him. He is pained to have his own bathroom, preferring to be treated like everyone else. At the end of the retreat I asked him to give us his blessing to ask perseverance of God. He refused, insisting instead that I give this blessing, but finally, after much entreaty, he relented. Oh, my dear father, what an example of virtue we have before our eyes.15

  1. CED IV:108.
  2. CED II:157.
  3. CED II:437.
  4. CED II:451.
  5. CED II:491. The writer was Nicolas Pavillon, bishop of Alet.
  6. Gen 28:16.
  7. Ps 133:1.
  8. Based on Matt 17:4.
  9. Ps 77:11.
  10. Based on Isa 11:6.
  11. Job 9:4.
  12. Ps 86:13.
  13. CED III:74-75.
  14. CED VI:591.
  15. CED III:505-06.

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