SECTION FOUR: His Zeal in Combating Abuses in the Awarding of Benefices
We have to admit that we live in a time when we can repeat the lament of Saint Bernard against those who in his day sought benefices for unworthy motives.
Where can we find someone who seeks, or someone who is sought out, to have ecclesiastical charges and dignities for the sole and sincere intention of offering himself to God, to serve him in true holiness of body and soul, and to work with greater fervor at his own salvation and that of others, by prayer and the ministry of preaching? On the contrary, do we not see it is ambition or the hope of enriching themselves that leads to all sorts of schemes, and sometimes of unlawful or even shameful ways to gain access to the treasury of Jesus Christ? Mothers and fathers are busy seeking benefices for their children even from their earliest years, sometimes even before they are born. Solicitations and repeated requests are made until they are heard, and often those receiving the most are the least grateful. On occasion they are downright ingrates.
In his time, Monsieur Vincent saw these same abuses and disorders, and others worse still, which deeply wounded his heart. In imitation of this great saint he was not content to complain in the sight of God, but used all his energy to combat these abuses. He opposed these disorders with no regard to human respect, nor did he trouble himself with the resentment powerful people felt, or their threats to himself and his community. The interests of God were incomparably more significant to him than any other consideration.
He was not able to hide his displeasure at the insistence with which some tried to promote their nomination to the episcopacy. They used every conceivable stratagem, making large donations to abbeys, and going to great expense to secure their nomination. This faithful servant of God, usually so sparing in his use of words, could not refrain from saying to one of his friends that he greatly feared this damnable traffic in sacred offices would attract the curse of God upon the entire kingdom.
A chaplain to the king, a good man, was urged by his relatives to speak about his years of service and his willingness to accept a bishopric. He was inclined to follow this advice, thinking that if he did not speak up or have others petition for him, he would be passed over in forgetfulness. He realized this would be contrary to the humility and modesty suitable for a priest. He would be surer of his own salvation if he would leave himself in the hands of divine Providence. He was troubled in spirit over what course to follow, and in this perplexity wrote to Monsieur Vincent for advice. This great servant of God replied in these words:
Monsieur, I have received your letter with all the respect I owe you, and with the esteem and thanks for the grace God has put into your kindly heart. God alone, in face of the natural inclination of man to advance himself, has given you the thought of the opposite. He will give you the strength to carry out whatever is most agreeable to him. In this, Monsieur, you are following the rule of the Church, which does not allow anyone to push himself forward for ecclesiastical dignities, especially for the episcopacy. You imitate the Son of God. Though he was the eternal priest, he did not come to exercise this office on his own. He waited for his Father to send him, even though he had been awaited for such a long time as the “Desired of all the nations.”1
You give a great example to the present generation, in which few observe this rule or follow this example. You will have the consolation, Monsieur, should it please the Lord to call you to this ecclesiastical dignity, that it is truly a call from God, since it came about with no human intervention. You would be sustained with special graces of God, part of a true vocation, and if you fulfill the duties of an apostolic life, you can anticipate a blessed eternity. We see this in those prelates who have done nothing to push their own cause, and who honor God in themselves and in their work.
In closing, Monsieur, you will have no regrets at the hour of death in having taken upon yourself the cares of a diocese, which otherwise would seem unbearable. Indeed, I cannot write this except with thanks to God, to see you in no way seeking this burden, and for his having given you the disposition of not wanting to push yourself forward. This is a grace which cannot be prized and cherished enough.2
Not only in the seeking of bishoprics, but in all kinds of other benefices, some sought so earnestly that they went so far as to commit simony or to reveal confidences. Monsieur Vincent used an extraordinary vigilance to prevent this evil. When he came upon something of the sort he would first warn the offender. If this did no good he would refuse them absolutely. Since he was aware that the human malice is ingenious in hiding under various pretexts, he was most careful to be on guard against the camouflages of this unholy business. When he did not see clearly what was happening in the changes, resignations, or other modifications in the benefices sought, he would send away the petitioner until he could have a clearer insight into the matter. In addition, he kept careful watch on pensions, to see there was no abuse in them, and that they were not excessive, or too great a burden on the revenues of the benefice supporting them.
There was another evil committed in the quest for benefices which he sought to remedy as much as was in his power. Some sought to profit from the property of the Church, but not being able to do so legally, sought to achieve their goal by more devious means. This scheme was to threaten to have the benefice held by someone else declared vacant, and oblige the legitimate holder to pay ransom to stop the annoyance. If these unscrupulous persons could not gain title to a benefice, at least they hoped to get some financial benefit. Because these parasites on the property of the Church ordinarily hid their specious pretexts under the appearance of good to make their designs less hateful, more often than not Monsieur Vincent had to be most vigilant. He attempted to attack the evil at its root. He obliged those appealing to the council for the devolution of any benefice, before answering their petition, to justify and prove the causes and reasons upon which they based their claims.3 Those who could not do so, he reported to the council, with the recommendation that these requests should not be honored, and should be rejected.
By this procedure he put a stop to a countless number of lawsuits at their very beginning. This prevented annoying vexations for many virtuous clergy, and even some pastors. Without this charitable protector they would have been obliged to abandon their flock and spend months, and sometimes entire years, in defending themselves in various courts from the injustices practiced against them.
Although the temporal part of benefices is not as significant as the spiritual, they still should not be neglected. They are goods offered to God, and the beneficiaries, their stewards and dispensers, are obliged to use them wisely. Nevertheless some productive abbeys were held by powerful persons content to accept the profits, but with little care for the buildings or for making needed repairs.4 Sometimes buildings and even churches were in danger of falling into ruin. In seeing this, and wishing to remedy it, Monsieur Vincent had the king send a letter to the officials of the local parliaments, authorizing them to force the abbots, even by seizing their revenues, to make the necessary repairs.
- A reference to the Latin text of Hag 2:8.
- CED IV:77-78.
- Devolution is a legal claim made on a benefice on the basis of the alleged incapacity of its holder, or on some default in his titles. Because of negligence like this by an inferior collator, the right of conferral of the benefice reverted after a certain amount of time, to a superior collator, by “devolution.”
- The award of an ecclesiastical benefice in trust to a lay person needed a canonical dispensation from regularity. The French term commende (from Latin commenda, a protection or safeguard), was synonymous with a trust.