The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter II

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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CHAPTER TWO: Monsieur Vincent’s faith

Faith is the foundation of the other virtues and the strength of the spiritual edifice rests mainly on this mysterious foundation. As a result, here in Book Three, where we wish to study the admirable edifice of the virtues in Monsieur Vincent, we will begin with a consideration of faith. This wise architect placed it as the foundation of all the virtuous practices and all he did in God’s service.

Just as trees buffeted by winds and shaken by storms put down deeper roots, we may say the same of Monsieur Vincent’s faith. God permitted him, early in his life, to be tried with temptations and trials relating to this virtue. By the help of God’s grace he emerged victorious in these struggles, fortified in his faith rather than weakened, for God allowed these trials to strengthen and perfect this virtue in him. After these temptations he became not only stronger in faith but also more enlightened (as he himself declared on several occasions), so that he possessed this virtue as fully as is given to someone in this life.

One of his most extreme remedies against temptations against faith was to write out and sign a profession of faith, and to carry this over his heart. He begged our Lord to accept his gesture, so that every time he was tempted he placed his hand over his heart, as a sign that he rejected the temptation, and that he was once again resolved to live until his last breath in the faith of the Church and to believe firmly all the truths that she taught.

Not only was his faith strong, it was pure and simple. It was not based on study or experience but rather on the first truth alone, God himself, and on the authority of his Church. He reproved those who wished to examine too closely the truths of faith either by the subtlety of their mind or in the light of their learning. He used the comparison of looking at the sun. The more directly you look at it the less you see. Those who more and more studied the truths of faith risked understanding less and less. “It is enough,” he used to say, “that we believe what the Church proposes to us, and submit our minds to this truth.”

For this reason he was always ready to give perfect obedience to the decisions of the Church, which he received with great respect and a sincere humility. He believed everything decided by the Church’s authority. One day he said to his community:

The Church, which is the Kingdom of God, inspires those who govern the faithful, and helps them in their lives. Her Holy Spirit presides in the councils. From this Spirit comes the lights spread over the earth, forming the saints, judging the wicked, resolving doubts, proclaiming the truth, denouncing errors, pointing out the way the whole Church and each one of the faithful in particular must follow to assure his salvation.1

He was often said to have thanked God for preserving in him the integrity of the faith in an age known for its errors and scandalous opinions, and for giving him the grace of never having taken up any position contrary to that of the Church. Despite all the dangerous situations in which he found himself, he never strayed from the right path, but by the special protection of God he preserved the true faith.

Monsieur Vincent did not hold his faith locked up in his mind, for his perfect charity made his beliefs evident to everyone. We have earlier seen the zeal with which he catechized and preached, especially in places where the people were most in need of instruction, such as in the villages and among the poor. These people are ordinarily those least instructed in the truths of the faith. He applied here the words of the prophet: “I believed, and I have spoken, for the faith has loosened my tongue, and the knowledge of the truth which God has revealed to me obliges me to announce this to others.”2 He was not content to do this alone. He influenced all those that he could to join him in taking up this charitable work. He established a congregation completely dedicated to cultivating this faith in the most unfertile lands. By the grace of God his fellow workers in this Company have produced an abundant harvest.

The fruit of his faith was not limited to the poor who lived in ignorance of the truths of salvation. He also served many others who felt tempted against this virtue. A virtuous priest has related how his spirit was once greatly agitated because of his doubts about a particular article of the creed, and how he discussed this with Monsieur Vincent. The words of this holy man brought peace to his troubled spirit, something not achieved by the advice and exhortations of many other distinguished persons whom he had consulted.

The virtue of faith moved Monsieur Vincent to devote himself to teaching and explaining the truths of our holy religion, but he was also vigorous and courageous in opposing all errors. We saw in Book Two3 how zealous he was in opposing the new heresy of Jansenius. One of his chief weapons in this battle was prayer, which he used always. Even before the decisions of the Church, when questions of grace were all the rage in the salons of Paris, and the adherents of the new doctrines were publishing book after book on the subject to propagate their opinions, he had recourse to God, the Father of lights. At this time he said to one of his confidants, “For the past three months I have meditated on the doctrine of grace. Every day God gave me new insights, leading me farther and farther away from the dangerous opinions so prevalent in our world today.”4

As we have already said, he was most vigilant that the weeds of this new doctrine not be sown in his Congregation. A superior of one of the missions has stated that from the time when Monsieur Vincent first studied theology, he had often looked into this question. His study had given him a violent distaste for these pernicious novelties. He had even removed a director of studies, as some in the Congregation are aware, because he gave reason for his orthodoxy to be suspect. Despite the pleadings of those who studied under this director, that he should be restored to his office, Monsieur Vincent never consented. When this group of students came to his room with this same request, he would not listen and sent them away with a severe reprimand.5

Another priest of the Congregation has told of the occasion when, without realizing it, he let a remark slip out that could have been construed as favoring the errors condemned by the Church. Monsieur Vincent summoned him privately to give him a chance to explain himself. He did so with complete satisfaction, but Monsieur Vincent spoke to him as he had spoken to others on similar occasions:

You must realize, Monsieur, that this new error of Jansenism is one of the most dangerous in the history of the Church. One of the things I most bless and particularly thank God for is that he has never allowed those who first professed these doctrines, some of whom I knew well and who were my friends, to convince me of their thinking. I can hardly exaggerate the pains they went to and the arguments they used, but my answer was, among others, the authority of the Council of Trent, which manifestly opposed their teachings. In face of their persistence, instead of responding to them, I recited the Creed to myself. This is how I firmly persevered in Catholic belief. Even to my old age, I have always had a secret fear in my soul, and I have not dreaded anything else as much, that I might be swept away by some heresy and be drowned in some novelties of belief.6

He said this on several occasions. A virtuous person who died before him stated that Monsieur Vincent was the first to make him see what really was involved in the doctrine of the Jansenists. He developed a detestation of this heresy long before the errors were officially recognized and condemned.

At length, when the condemnation of the doctrine of the Jansenists contained in the five propositions was sent from Rome, and the late archbishop of Paris had it published throughout his diocese, Monsieur Vincent said to his community:

We must thank God for the protection he has given his Church, especially in France, to purify it of the errors which threatened to throw it into such great disarray. God had given me the grace to be able to discern between error and truth, not that I have any sense of vain accomplishment in this, nor any spiteful joy in seeing that my judgment conforms to that of the Holy Apostolic See. I well recognize that this judgment comes purely from God’s mercy, for which he must be given glory.7

Besides this purity, simplicity, and firmness in the faith in which he excelled, we must also say that he possessed the fullness of this virtue. Not only did faith inform his mind, but it filled his heart and animated his actions, words, affections, and thoughts. It made him act in everything according to the truths and teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What most Christians do by habit, by natural motivation, or by human reason, he did by the principles of faith. It is, according to the words of the prophet “a lamp to my hand to lead me and direct my steps in the paths of justice.”8 Without a doubt he received from God this special gift of applying the light of faith to all occasions and circumstances, and directing and undertaking even temporal and secular affairs only by motives inspired by faith, in the light of faith, and with the supernatural goals proposed by faith.

He was not content only to direct himself by this spirit of faith in all that he undertook. He inspired others, as much as he could, especially those under his direction, to act similarly. In this connection, Mademoiselle le Gras, foundress and first superior of the Daughters of Charity, of whom we have spoken in Books One and Two, one day expressed a certain anxiety about this charitable institute, of which Monsieur Vincent was the spiritual father. He replied to her:

I always see some purely human sentiments in you when you think that all is lost, or when you see me ill. O woman of little faith, you have such little confidence and acceptance of the direction and example of Jesus Christ. This savior of the world cares for the entire Church. You are responsible for a mere handful of women, whom his Providence has brought together, and yet you think he will forsake you. Alas, Mademoiselle, you must humble yourself before God for this lack of trust.9

He often said that a lack of progress in the virtues and the little success we have in the things of God comes from our not being motivated enough by the light of faith, and by relying on motives coming from human reason. He said one day:

No, no, eternal truths alone can fill the heart and lead us with assurance. Believe me, we must base ourselves solidly and confidently on one of the perfections of God, such as his goodness, his providence, his truth, his immensity. I am saying that in order to progress greatly in a short time, we must build on these divine foundations. This does not mean that we should not use sound and pressing reasons to guide our actions, but only that they should be subordinate to the truths of faith. Experience shows us that preachers who appeal to truths of faith do more for souls than those who fill their sermons with mere human and philosophical wisdom. The light of faith is always accompanied by a certain heavenly unction that diffuses itself secretly in the hearts of those who listen. From this we can judge that it is necessary, as much for our own progress as for the salvation of others, to follow always the light of faith in all things.10

He also held the maxim that things should not be judged solely from the outside and according to their appearance, but by what they are in the sight of God. He recalled the words of the apostle, quae videntur, temporalia sunt; quae autem non videntur, aeterna sunt. [“What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever.”]11 He said:

I ought not consider a poor peasant, or a poor woman according to external appearances, nor according to what seems on the surface to be their disposition. Often enough, being so crude and earthy, they do not present themselves as respectable or reasonable beings. But turn the medal over and by the light of faith you will see that the Son of God, who chose to be poor, is present here in these poor people. During his passion, he seemed to be a fool to the gentiles, and a scandal for the Jews, and in all this he called himself the Evangelizer of the poor: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me [“He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor”].12 O God, how beautiful are the poor if we see them in God, and because of the esteem Jesus Christ had for them. If we see them only according to the flesh and with a worldly spirit, they truly seem miserable.13

Lastly, to understand how great and perfect the faith of Monsieur Vincent really was, we should look to all his other virtues. His faith was the root of them all. For as Saint Ambrose said: “We may judge the vigor and perfection of this mystical tree by considering the quantity and excellence of the fruits it has produced.”14 We will speak of them in the following chapters.

  1. CED XII:133.
  2. See Ps 116:10.
  3. Ch. 12.
  4. During the course of the canonization investigations, Antoine Durand testified that he had heard Vincent say these words one day in a conference to the community. See Summarium no. 21, p. 52.
  5. This confrere was a professor at Saint Lazare named Guilbert. See also CED IV: 355-56.
  6. This quotation is an extract from a letter submitted to the investigation by Michel Caset, who entered the Congregation in 1649. See also CED XI:37.
  7. CED XI:156.
  8. Ps 119:105.
  9. CED II:158.
  10. CED XI:31.
  11. 2 Cor 4:18.
  12. Luke 4:18.
  13. CED XI:32.
  14. PL 14.1.1:132-35.

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