The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter VIII, Section I

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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CHAPTER EIGHT: His Devotion and Piety Towards God

Devotion is a virtue which leads us to do with a special affection those things having to do with the worship and service of God, with a desire to honor and glorify him. It has no other limits than those imposed by charity. Since we honor and glorify God by the exercise of all sorts of virtues, Saint Ambrose has said that devotion is the foundation of the other virtues.1 Saint Augustine assures us that true virtue cannot be found except in those who have a true devotion and piety towards God.2

Monsieur Vincent excelled in all sorts of virtues, as we have begun to see in the preceding chapters and we shall continue to see this in the following chapters. Hence there is no doubt he was gifted with a sincere and perfect devotion for all that concerned the worship and honor of God.

The devotion of this saintly man was founded first on his exalted view of the infinite grandeur of God and upon a profound respect for his divine majesty. His self-denial in all the acts of religion, the references full of respect and honor that he used when speaking of God, and the most affectionate way in which he strove to inculcate a great esteem and thanks for the perfections and grandeur of God, were all evident signs of the saintly dispositions he carried in his heart.

He once spoke to his community as follows:

Make it your duty, my brothers, to conceive a great, a very great, idea of the majesty and sanctity of God. Could we but penetrate even a little into the immensity of his sovereign excellence, O Jesus, would that we could conceive the appropriate sentiments! Then we could well say with Saint Paul, that eyes have not seen, nor ears heard, nor the mind conceived anything like it.3 He is the unlimited perfection, the eternal being, most holy, most pure, most perfect, and infinitely glorious. He is the infinite good, encompassing all that is good, and he is wholly incomprehensible. This knowledge which we have, that God is infinitely above all knowledge and of all human understanding, ought to suffice to make us esteem him infinitely, to annihilate ourselves in his presence, and make us speak of his supreme majesty with great reverence and submission. Our appreciation of him ought to be in proportion to our love of him. This love should make us have a strong desire to acknowledge his blessings, and to form faithful adorers of his majesty.4

He had an incredible aversion to human pride. This vice robs God of the glory due him alone, and then with much temerity and injustice attributes this glory to a human being rather than to the Deity. Thus Monsieur Vincent waged a constant war against pride, not only in himself, but in all those over whom he had any influence, as we shall see more fully when we treat of his humility. We shall recount here only what he wrote to one of his priests serving on a mission.

How consoled I was to read that these good people are so devoted to their duty. I cannot tell you how concerned I was that this might not be the case. To God alone be the glory, and may those who work with you give him this thanks. If their small efforts have any success and produce any good (A Domino factum est istud) God has done this,5 and to him alone should be the glory. O Monsieur, what an obstacle it is to the glorification of the name of God and to the sanctification of souls to attribute either of these to oneself or to think that you have had anything to do with it. May his divine goodness never allow any of the missionaries ever to let such a thought enter his head! It would be a great sacrilege even to think this. The whole Congregation would be guilty of this same crime if it adopted this same opinion that by their efforts the confreres had converted people to God, and that they should be honored and respected because of this. How anxious I am to have this truth engraved on the hearts of us all! Those who think they are the source of any good, and have contributed even a part to it, and who take pleasure in this thought, lose much more than they gained by the good they did.

To the edification of all, the devotion of the great servant of God was most evident, in his public celebration of the divine office. When he came to the choir to chant the psalms, he did so with much recollection, and appeared to be totally taken up with the presence of God. He often recommended that his community fulfill this duty to God both with respect and piety, and to walk gravely, with eyes cast down, looking neither right nor left. Although his heart was usually gentleness itself, he would not countenance the least faults in the recitation of the divine office. On the other hand, he could hardly restrain his expressions of joy when the office was well said.

When he presided at a solemn office, he took pains to be informed of all the details of the rubrics appropriate to the occasion. In his later years he was much chagrined at not being able to make all the genuflections prescribed for the feasts. He believed strongly and often recommended that the objects used in sacred worship be appropriate to their sacred use. He also wanted the rubrics to be observed exactly. Whenever there was a failure in this regard, he made his displeasure known.

He extended his reverence and his posture to his private recitation of the office, which he always made kneeling, his head uncovered. He continued to kneel, except for the last two or three years of his life when infirmities compelled him to remain seated.

God had given him a great devotion for all the mysteries of our holy religion, particularly those of the most holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, and that of the blessed sacrament of the altar. Since the most holy Trinity is the first and principal of the truths to be believed and adored, he was anxious to have it known and loved among souls, and taught on all the missions. Every morning and evening he honored this mystery with such devotion that he inspired all the members of his Congregation. He arranged to have included in the papal bull establishing the Congregation of the Mission an explicit obligation to honor daily in a special way this mystery of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation. The rule says: “We shall strive to acquit ourselves of this duty with great care, and in every possible way, but chiefly by observing three things: (1) producing from the heart, acts of faith and religion in these mysteries; (2) offering some prayers and good works every day in honor of these mysteries, and celebrating their feasts with all possible solemnity and devotion; (3) carefully striving by our instruction and example to have the people come to know, honor, and greatly respect these great mysteries.”6

Since the Church invites us to honor these mysteries in a special way on the principal feasts, which recall them to the minds of the faithful, Monsieur Vincent showed his extraordinary devotion on these occasions. Thus he would ordinarily preside at the high mass and at vespers with such a spirit of recollection, modesty, and gravity that his internal union with God was made evident. Even though he was very devout on the days of great feasts in everything concerning the honor and worship of God, he was no less so on ordinary days.

He rose regularly at 4:00 A.M., no matter what time he had gone to bed the night before. Many nights he slept for only two hours, as he himself stated. Nevertheless, at the first sound of the bell, he rose so promptly that the second ringing of the bell never found him still lying down. With his usual humility, he never failed to begin the day by performing his morning devotions. He wrote the following in his own hand, to a virtuous woman, urging her to make good use of this opportunity to praise God:

After rising I adore the Majesty of God. I thank him for the glory residing in him, and which he has shared with his Son, the Holy Virgin, the holy angels, with my guardian angel, with Saint John the Baptist, with the apostles, with Saint Joseph, and with all the saints in paradise. I thank him also for the graces he has given his holy Church, and especially for those graces which he has granted to me personally, and especially for having preserved my life during the past night. I offer my thoughts, words, and actions in union with those of Jesus Christ. I pray that he will keep me from offending him, and I ask for the grace to accept faithfully everything that shall be most agreeable to him.7

After these acts of worship and thanksgiving, he made his bed. Then he went to the chapel to pray before the blessed sacrament, and despite having to wrap his swollen legs he managed to arrive within a half hour, and before many of the others. He was very happy to see the community assemble before our Lord. He strongly congratulated those most faithful in their prompt attendance, but was pained to see some arriving late for prayers.

After meditation he recited aloud with indescribable devotion the Litany of the Name of Jesus, and savored the titles of honor and praise given to the divine Savior. By his devotion to the litany he spread the balm of the sacred name in all hearts. Then allowing himself enough time for recollection, he prepared himself for mass, never allowing himself to be distracted by his many preoccupations. Often enough, he also went to confession. One of his priests wrote of him as follows: “I had the consolation of serving as his confessor while I was in Paris. I was able to see at first hand the sanctity and purity of his soul, which could not entertain even the appearance of sin.”

He pronounced the words of the mass so distinctly, devoutly, and affectionately that his heart was obviously in what he did. This greatly edified those in attendance. He spoke in a moderate tone of voice, pleasantly, in a manner both devout and free, being neither too slow nor too hasty, but rather suitable to the sanctity of the occasion. Two traits united in him were rarely seen in the same person: a profound humility joined to a serious and majestic presence. He shared in the spirit of Jesus Christ who brought to the sacrifice the two differing qualities of both victim and priest. In keeping with the first, he humbled himself interiorly, as a criminal worthy of death before his judge. He recited the Confiteor, the words in spiritu humilitatis et in animo contrito [“in a humble spirit and a contrite heart”, etc., and Nobis quoque peccatoribus [“Also to us sinners”] and others with sentiments of humility and contrition, and as though filled with fear. As priest, he offered in union with the whole Church prayers and praise to God, and joined them to the merits and person of Jesus Christ. He did so in a spirit of worship, with respect and love for God.

He said one day to his priests on this subject:

It is not enough for us merely to celebrate mass, for in keeping with God’s will for us we should offer this sacrifice with as much devotion as is possible for us. With the help of his grace, we must conform ourselves as much as possible to Jesus Christ. While on earth he offered himself in sacrifice to his Eternal Father. We must do our best, gentlemen, as completely as our poor and miserable nature will allow, to offer our sacrifice to God in the same spirit as our Lord offered himself.8

One of the oldest members of the Company remarked that the extraordinary devotion of Monsieur Vincent in the celebration of mass was especially apparent when he read the holy Gospel. Others, too, noticed it when he came to some of the words of our Lord. He pronounced them with such tender love that it struck a chord in all who heard them. On many occasions those who did not know him, but who attended his mass, were heard to say, there indeed is a priest who knows how to say mass; he must be a holy man. Others said that while he was at the altar, he seemed to them to have the appearance of an angel.

Several others noticed that when he read the holy Gospel and came upon the passages where our Lord said Amen, amen dico vobis, that is, I solemnly say to you, he paid particular attention to the words that followed, as if he were amazed that these were the words that God himself truly used. By the affectionate and devout tone of his voice, he testified to the prompt submission of his own heart in recognizing the great mystery and importance of these words. He seemed to be nourished by the passages of Scripture like a child taking his mother’s milk. He drew such nourishment for his soul that in all his words and actions he seemed filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ.

When he turned towards the faithful, the expression on his face was modest and serene. By his gesture of extending his arms, he portrayed the attitude of his heart, and the great desire he had that all present should be united to Jesus Christ.

Since he recognized the sacrifice of the mass as the center of Christian devotion and as the most important of all priestly actions, he never failed to celebrate mass each day, except for the first three days of the annual retreat, in keeping with the custom of the community. During these days of retreat the priests and brothers recalled any faults and failings they might have committed. In a spirit of penance they did not approach the altar until after their annual or general confession. Except for those days, this devout servant of Jesus Christ regularly celebrated daily mass, no matter where he might be, whether in the city or in the country, or even on a trip. He made it a rule that the priests of the Company do the same. It was never known that he ever failed in this practice, as long as he was still able to stand erect. Ordinary indispositions would not hinder him. Often he said mass or went to meditation when he had a fever, which he usually called his little warmup.

He was not content with just celebrating mass every day, for he also had the devotion of periodically serving the other priests at the altar. He would do this even when overwhelmed with business affairs. He continued this practice well into his old age, even when he was more than seventy-five years old and could no longer walk without a cane, or could kneel only with great difficulty because of his inflamed legs. At this venerable age and in this sickly condition the first superior of the Congregation of the Mission continued to fulfill the office of acolyte, in serving other priests at the altar, to the great edification of all who witnessed this.

He recommended that when the clerics of his Company attended mass, they should never allow a lay person to act as an acolyte. Instead, they themselves should get a surplice and provide this ministry, for he said, “Laymen do not have the right to serve, except in cases of necessity. It is shameful that a cleric, deputed for the service of the altar, should see his office taken by those without this sacred character.”

SECTION ONE: His Special Devotion Towards the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar

One of the greatest and most characteristic of the devotions of Monsieur Vincent was that towards the most Holy Eucharist, considered not only as a sacrifice, as we have already spoken of in this chapter, but also as sacrament, under the species by which the Son of God becomes truly present in our churches, and accomplishes in a true and marvelous manner what he had promised, to remain with us to the end of time.

This devotion of Monsieur Vincent was manifested first by the great respect which he displayed in those churches where the blessed sacrament was kept, and by his affection for these places honored by Christ’s presence. We have an account of this from a very trustworthy person:9

I several times noticed when Monsieur Vincent was in prayer before the blessed sacrament that his true and sincere devotion could be clearly seen in his exterior behavior. He always prostrated himself on both knees, with such a humble attitude that it seemed he would willingly lower himself to the center of the earth if by this he could show even greater respect for the sovereign majesty of the divine presence. In seeing the respectful modesty of his countenance, it could be said that a person was seeing Jesus Christ through his eyes. The impression made by his whole manner, so devout and religious, was capable of awakening the faith of the most tepid, and arousing in even the most unfeeling sentiments of piety for this adorable mystery.

This respect and devotion was shown not only during his prayers. He exhibited the same modesty no matter what the occasion, whenever he found himself in church in the presence of the blessed sacrament. As much as possible, he would never speak in these holy places. If he thought it necessary to do so, however, he would have the one he wanted to speak to first leave the church. He would act this way with persons of rank, even bishops, yet never failing in the respect he owed these persons.

This esteem for those places honored with the divine presence was such that on days he was not too occupied with the business of the community, or obliged to go to the city, he would go to the church, and remain there as long as he could, sometimes for hours, before the blessed sacrament. Like another Moses, he above all had recourse to the holy tabernacle and the oracle of truth when confronted with the thorny problems that arose during his administration of the community. It was noticed, especially on those occasions when he would receive letters which he felt would bring some particularly good or bad news, that he would go behind the altar in the church of Saint Lazare. He would kneel there with head uncovered, and open and read the letters in the presence of our Lord. He would do the same wherever else he was. One day he was given a letter in the court of the palace in Paris, which undoubtedly had news of the outcome of an important matter related to the glory of God. Although this happened at a time when he had much difficulty in walking, he went up the stairs to the upper chapel of the palace, where the blessed sacrament was kept. He found the chapel locked, but nevertheless he knelt at the door to read the letter. He undoubtedly did so to express more perfectly his submission to whatever would be revealed to him as the will of God manifested through the letter. He wished to sacrifice to God any sentiments of joy or sadness which whatever its contents the letter might arouse in him.

When he was obliged to leave Saint Lazare on some business, before leaving he would go to prostrate himself before the Lord in the blessed sacrament to ask God’s blessing upon his mission. Upon his return, he would again stop in the chapel, as though to give an account of his activities in the city. He would thank God for the graces he had received, and humble himself for any faults he may have committed. He did this, not in a formal or routine manner, but with a true spirit of worship and piety, remaining before the blessed sacrament in a humble and devout posture. He proposed this same practice to his community, saying it was only right for them to fulfill this duty to the master of the house.

When on his visits to the city he would come upon the blessed sacrament being carried through the streets, he would kneel, no matter where he happened to be. He would remain in this posture as long as the procession was in sight. If the procession went along the same street he was traveling, he would follow it bare headed, at a distance, because his difficulty in walking would not allow him to do otherwise.

On the trips he made to the villages and towns, he had the custom of dismounting from his horse to visit and adore the blessed sacrament in the church, if it were open. Otherwise he would do so in spirit. Once arrived at his destination for meals or for spending the night, he would first go to the local church to pay his respects and homage to the blessed sacrament.

In his serious illnesses, when he could no longer walk or support himself well enough to celebrate mass, he still communicated every day, if it were at all possible. In these daily communions he showed such affection and veneration for the presence of the Lord in this sacrament that he seemed transported outside of himself. In this connection, speaking once to his community on the effects of this divine sacrament upon those who approached it with appropriate dispositions, he said, “Do you not feel, my brothers, do you not feel divine fire burning in your breast when you receive the adorable body of Jesus Christ in communion?” He spoke these words out of the abundance of his own heart, and this allows us to deduce what he, in his own experience, tasted and felt in his communions. This appreciation led him to exhort everyone to prepare themselves well for the worthy and frequent reception of the holy communion of the body of Jesus Christ. He did not want his confreres to abstain from communion without serious reasons. When a person of piety came to him for counsel and guidance after omitting receiving the sacrament because of some interior trial, he wrote to her:

You did not do well in abstaining from communion because of the interior trial you experienced. Do you not see that this was a temptation, and that by doing this you laid yourself open to the influence of the enemy of this adorable sacrament? Do you suppose you will become better disposed, and more suited to unite yourself to our Lord by withdrawing from him? Surely, if you think like this you would be greatly mistaken, and would be living an illusion.10

On another occasion, he spoke to his community on the same topic:

You should lament seeing that this devotion to the blessed sacrament is declining among Christians, due in part, no doubt, to the new opinions. I have spoken with the superior of a saintly congregation and with another man who was a great director of souls, and I asked if there was a decrease in the number of those who came to confession and to holy communion. They told me that there was a great reduction in the number of those receiving these sacraments. The daily bread which our Lord wanted us to pray for, and which was received every day by the early Christians, has been discouraged by the new doctrines of our own times. This should not surprise us, for these doctrines appeal to our natural inclinations. Those who follow their own inclinations follow these new opinions which surround them, and which seem to dispense them from taking the trouble to put themselves in the required dispositions for receiving holy communion often and worthily.11

He added that he had known a good pious woman who had, upon the advice of her director, accustomed herself to receive communion on every Sunday and Thursday. Later, she put herself under the direction of a confessor who followed the new teachings. By some curiosity and the promise of a greater perfection, he limited her to receiving only once a week, then once a fortnight, then once a month. After eight months of this, she stopped one day to reflect on her life, and found things to be in a deplorable state. She was filled with imperfections, and subject to a great number of faults, given to vanity, quick to anger, impatient, and prey to the other passions. All this had come about since she had abstained from frequent reception of holy communion. She was astonished and moved by this, and said to herself, “What an unhappy state I am in! How I have fallen! How has it happened about that I am now subject to all these disorders and outbursts? What has brought about these changes in me? It undoubtedly has been caused by my leaving off and abandoning my original devotion, and having heeded the advice of these new directors. I now know from the unhappy results of my own experience that they are very dangerous. O my God, who has opened my eyes to recognize this, give me the grace to leave them completely!” Afterward, she left these new directors, and renounced their dangerous teachings which had so upset her and nearly brought her to her ruin. She returned to wiser counselors. They brought her back to her previous practice of the frequent reception of the sacraments with the required dispositions, and she found in them peace of conscience and the remedy for all her faults.12

Monsieur Vincent used this example several times to illustrate the great blessings inherent in the frequent and worthy reception of the blessed sacrament, in which our Lord gives us not only an abundance of grace, but himself as well, the source of all graces. Monsieur Vincent, this devout servant of Jesus Christ, felt very keenly the love and charity of God towards his creatures. Thus, he often exhorted his confreres to thank God for such an incomprehensible blessing, by expressing themselves in their frequent adorations, humiliations and glorifications of the Son of God residing in this blessed sacrament. Because of their own inadequacies, he urged them to pray to their guardian angels to help them in rendering this homage.

In this same spirit he wanted the members of the Congregation to show all external marks of reverence towards the blessed sacrament. He would reprimand those he saw lacking in this reverence. He was so careful of this that if he saw someone passing before the main altar of the church where the sacrament was kept, and not stopping to make a full genuflection, or making it too hurriedly, he would speak to the offender in private, or even in public, if he judged it expedient. He would say that we ought not appear before God as puppets, making light gestures and reverences without soul and spirit. Once, when he saw a brother making only a partial genuflection, he called him aside and showed him when and how to make a proper act of reverence. He was always personally exact in this, and made the proper genuflection as long as he was able, even up to the time that he needed help in rising from his genuflection. When he grew older, and the trouble with his legs no longer allowed him to do so, he publicly asked pardon before the whole community. He said that his sins caused him to be deprived of the full use of his legs.

Once, as he did on many other occasions, he said with his usual humility, that he regretted that his age and infirmities prevented him from making the proper genuflection. He went on to say:

If I should see the Company failing in this regard to show you what I would think of this, I would force myself to kneel down, no matter the cost, and not knowing how I could get up again myself. The faults committed in a community are the fault of the superior. The faults of the Congregation, in this matter, are important, because it is a duty of worship, and an exterior mark of the interior respect we must have for God. If we fail first in this matter, making only a small or half genuflection, the priests from outside who come here for retreats will feel that they too are not obliged to do any differently. Those in our own Congregation who succeed us, and will be guided by what we do, will do as they see us doing, and so all will fall into decadence. If the original is defective, what will the copies be like? Gentlemen and my brothers, please pay attention to this in such a way that our interior reverence will show in our external actions. God ought to be adored in spirit and in truth, and all true Christians should do so in imitation of the Son of God in the Garden of Olives. He prostrated himself in an attitude of profound interior humility, out of respect for the sovereign majesty of his Father.13

Since he so deeply believed that there should not be the least lack of even the exterior respect owed to the adorable sacrament, he was very displeased and filled with sorrow when he heard of the profanations and indignities against this holy sacrament committed by the soldiers and heretics during the wars. We cannot adequately describe his feelings, his sorrow, or the tears he shed, and how many extraordinary penances he endured to atone, as much as he could, for the disrespect shown to the person of Jesus Christ. Not content with his personal efforts, and what he was able to persuade his friends to do, such as sending ciboria, chalices, and other vessels to the devastated churches, he wanted the members of his community to join in the reparations. On pilgrimages, they would visit, in a penitential spirit, those churches where the sacrileges had been committed. The priests of the Congregation would celebrate mass, and the other members, joined by laymen, would receive communion. Afterward, missions would be given in the villages or other desecrated places. The missionaries sought to move the people to penance, and to practice other works of piety to appease the wrath of God, and to repair, in some way, the injuries and offenses committed against his sovereign majesty.

  1. PL 14.1.1, 424.
  2. PL 41:631.
  3. 1 Cor 2:9.
  4. CED XI:48.
  5. Ps 118:23.
  6. Common Rules, 10,2.
  7. CED XIII:142-43.
  8. CED XI:93.
  9. Brother Louis Robineau.
  10. CED I:111. Abelly altered the original letter in several ways. For example, he expanded the final sentence; the genuine expression of the writer reads: “Oh! Surely, that is an illusion.” It was addressed to Louise de Marillac.
  11. These “new opinions” were those of the Jansenists. They were most popularly formulated in the work of Arnaud, De la fréquente communion, which discouraged the faithful from the frequent reception of the Eucharist. Vincent had already worked for the condemnation of Martin Barcos and his work, on the two heads of the Church, De l’autorité de S. Pierre et de S. Paul, 1645. Vincent was actively involved in the negotiations with Rome for the condemnation of Arnaud’s work. When the condemnation finally came from Rome, Vincent invited the community to give thanks to God. CED XI, 321-22. See also VI, 88-89.
  12. See his letters to Jean Dehorgny on Jansenism: CED III:318-32, 362-74. The conference is not reported in Coste.
  13. CED XI:207.

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