SECTION FIVE: His Regard for Priests and Other Members of the Clergy
To appreciate Monsieur Vincent’s high regard for priests and other members of the clergy we have only to recall all that he did for them, as we have made abundantly clear in Books One and Two. It is not necessary to produce any other evidence or testimony. We will, however, examine the results of the ordination retreats, the spiritual conferences, the retreats, seminaries, and all the other undertakings which this great servant of God initiated for the reformation, sanctification, and perfection of the clerical state. Besides these works in general, many particular events deserve to be reported to help us better understand his respect and love for all those who ministered in the Church.
In this sentiment he wrote one day to the superior of one of his houses, a seminary for clerics:
I greet you with tenderness and love for you personally and all your family. I pray our Lord will bless them abundantly and that this blessing will fall upon the seminary as well. May all those who study there, in whom you strive to inculcate the priestly spirit, be filled with this grace. I do not plead for them, for you already are well aware that they are the treasure of the Church.1
Speaking to another priest on the same subject, he said: How happy you are to serve our Lord as the instrument for providing good priests. You are a person who can both enlighten and inflame your students. You fulfill the role of the Holy Spirit, who alone enlightens and warms hearts. Rather, the Holy Spirit fulfills this function through you. He resides and works in you, not only to help you to live the divine life, but also to bring that same life to birth in these gentlemen, your students. They are called to the highest possible ministry upon earth, which is to imitate the two great virtues of Jesus Christ, worship of his Father, and charity for others. Consider then, Monsieur, if any earthly occupation is more necessary or more desirable than yours. For myself, I do not know of any, and I imagine God has favored you with this same appreciation since you give yourself so completely to your ministry. God has given you his grace to ensure success in your work. Humble yourself before him, always have full confidence in his goodness so that you may become united to him.2
The regard Monsieur Vincent had for the clergy can be seen by the courteous way he treated all other religious communities, and the way he tried to duplicate these in other places as the opportunity presented itself. In this regard he once received an urgent letter from a worthy priest who had set up a community of priests in his benefice in Anjou. The letter requested several priests of the Mission to help in this attempt, but Monsieur Vincent found it impossible to comply. He sent the following reply:
The Spirit of God has evidently shed his graces abundantly upon you. Zeal and charity have taken deep root in your soul, and nothing stands in your way to work for the greater glory of God within your benefice, both for the present and future.
May it please the divine goodness, Monsieur, to prosper your good intentions and bring them to a happy fulfillment. I thank you from my heart for the patience you show towards us who are unable to accept the honor or the financial arrangements you offer, nor to respond to your expectations. I hope, Monsieur, that you will be able to find satisfaction elsewhere. I don’t know exactly clearly where you might seek this help, because I doubt if the fathers of Saint Sulpice or those of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet would give you some priests. These are two saintly communities. They do great good in the Church and produce many good results, but the first is committed to seminaries in the main cities, and the second is taken up with so many forms of service to the Church that I doubt they would be able to help you on such short notice. I think, however, that it would be good to send your request to them, since both are more suited and proper than ourselves to begin and sustain the work you have so much at heart.3
He once wrote to a highly placed woman to persuade her to devote to the seminary established by the priests of Saint Sulpice the revenue of a legacy left by her predecessors for the training of good priests.
If you apply this legacy here, Madame, you may be certain that it will be carried out in full accord with the wishes of the donors for the advancement of the clerical state. To be convinced of this you may see the good done at Saint Sulpice itself. You can expect the same in this new location, for the community is animated by the same spirit, and has but one goal, the greater glory of God.4
Not by words alone did Monsieur Vincent show his esteem for religious institutions or individuals among the clergy. He was always disposed to welcome, console, or serve all sorts of clerics, according to their status and needs. It was enough for someone to be a priest or to have the external marks of a cleric to receive a favorable reception from the servant of God. He used boundless charity in finding employment for priests who appealed to him. For some who were capable, he found positions as pastors or other benefices. Others he placed as chaplains to bishops or in noble families. For still others he was able to find positions as assistants in the parishes of smaller towns, or as confessors or chaplains of religious houses or in hospitals. For all clerics, great or small, he showed a great esteem and affection. He urged the men of his own Congregation to have a great regard for all clerics, to speak well of them, especially when in the pulpit. One day he showed how sensitive he was on this point. He traveled from Saint Lazare to a parish some five or six leagues away to beg pardon of the clerics there for the hasty words said by one of his own priests.
It was once reported that when a certain priest had fallen into some great difficulty Monsieur Vincent did all he could to straighten out the problem. He even wrote to Rome on his behalf, and provided a place for him to stay while awaiting the absolution from there. Later he found a way to provide for his future needs.
Another priest was sent to Saint Lazare because of some great sacrilege. Monsieur Vincent spoke to him so convincingly and so mildly that he was deeply moved. He was allowed to remain at Saint Lazare for several weeks at the expense of the house until he and his bishop were finally reconciled.
Another cleric took sick at the Seminary of Bons Enfants, but wanted to receive a costly treatment beyond what he was able to pay for, or for that matter, beyond he needed. The missionaries at the seminary were displeased and wanted him sent away, but Monsieur Vincent would have none of it. With his usual charity he insisted that the cleric be supplied with whatever he requested at the expense of the seminary, even though this was not strictly required by his condition.
Another priest fell sick in this same house, but quite unlike the previous priest he made no demands. He realized his inability to pay for his care, and feared that he might become a burden for the house. Monsieur Vincent heard of this, visited him, and assured him that he must not be concerned about money. There were chalices and other sacred vessels in the house which he would willingly sell than deprive him of anything he needed.
Another priest, previously unknown to Monsieur Vincent, was referred to him as being sick and in need. Monsieur Vincent received him with great charity, and housed and nursed him until he regained his health.
Yet another priest came to Saint Lazare to make a retreat but fell sick while there. Monsieur Vincent took every imaginable care of him. He recovered after a lengthy illness, and even received a breviary and cassock from his benefactor, together with ten ecus to help him over the next few days.
Another clergyman stopping by Saint Lazare for a single night’s lodging was welcomed, although poorly dressed and unknown to anyone. The next morning he left without saying good-bye to anyone, having made off with a cassock and a long mantle. It was immediately suggested that he should be followed and the stolen clothes returned, but Monsieur Vincent would not allow it. Instead, he said that the man must obviously have had great need of these things if he went so far as to steal them. He further said that rather than having him bring back the missing articles, they should take others to give to him.
Another poor priest found himself needing to take a trip, but had no money to cover the expense, nor the necessary clothes. Monsieur Vincent gave the man what he asked, even a pair of boots, and twenty ecus besides.
Another priest told us himself that he once came to Paris on some business matters, but not knowing anyone in the city, he had to spend the night in a tavern. Monsieur Vincent found out about this, sent to find where he was staying, and brought him to Saint Lazare. He stayed there nearly a month at the expense of the community until his business was completed.
A good clergyman of the diocese of Tours was involved in a lawsuit in Paris that he felt obliged to pursue to redeem his personal honor. He contacted Monsieur Vincent as the most helpful person of all the clergy of Paris on whom he could rely. He wrote that without Monsieur Vincent’s help he could not come to the city, nor hire a lawyer to plead his cause. Monsieur Vincent replied that he knew of just the lawyer to help out, and would pay for his services. He also provided lodging and board in Paris during this whole affair which lasted over a year, all at the expense of the house of Saint Lazare. The lawsuit was finally concluded in favor of the pastor, a good, honest man.
This great respecter of the priesthood of Jesus Christ helped restore, largely by his kindly attitude towards them, several clerics who had fallen into serious difficulties. He was helpful in removing them from occasions of sin, and provided for their pensions and subsistence. For several years, he even supported an Italian priest who was a bit unbalanced, and who had taught faulty doctrine in various places.
Another priest of Paris, a confessor to a group of women religious, fell sick. Monsieur Vincent had three clerics take his place during his illness which lasted three entire years, so that he could retain his rights to the stipends involved.
Another priest would occasionally come from quite a distance to seek some aid from Monsieur Vincent, since his own region was entirely devastated by the wars. The procurator urged Monsieur Vincent to tell this priest that he should no longer come this long way. Alms would be sent to him if he were in severe need. Monsieur Vincent replied: Non alligabis os bovi trituranti [“You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain”],5 which implied that he preferred to leave this poor priest at liberty to come as often as he wanted, to ask for help.
Lastly, the great charity he displayed towards all clerics encouraged all poor priests to come to him as their father, full of confidence in him. Since they came from all sides, from France and elsewhere, hardly a day passed that someone did not seek his aid. Those who appealed most to his heart were the priests from Ireland, refugees in France because of their religion. Not only did he seek help for them from people he knew, but he also gave much from the resources of Saint Lazare for the relief of their needs. The priests of the house would often contribute something from the stipend Monsieur Vincent gave them each month. Over several years he supported a poor blind Irish priest and provided for a young boy to look after him. Besides the money he gave or solicited from his friends, he invited him and his young helper to his table whenever they came to Saint Lazare, which happened often. Moreover, he became aware of some younger Irish priests in Paris who were trying to complete their studies, even though they had no means of support. He arranged for them to transfer to some other provinces, where they could live more reasonably than in Paris. He contacted some of his friends in these outlying areas, and they helped in the support of these exiles. Besides all this, he provided the money to allow them to move to the provinces.
Monsieur Vincent’s concern was not limited to the clerics who came to Paris to seek his help. He would help other pastors and priests, especially those in the regions devastated by war. He would mainly send priests of the Mission to help out in their most pressing needs, and send whatever was required for divine service, and especially for the holy sacrifice of the mass. He supplied, to sick and well alike, the clothes, cassocks and everything else required for staying alive in those troubled times. He did all this by collecting alms from many charitable people, and made it a scrupulous obligation to distribute carefully everything he had received. Concerning this, one day a priest of the Mission was traveling in Champagne on some business when the pastor of a town met him and asked him who he was. When he learned that the traveler was a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, he publicly embraced him. Then he brought him to his home, and he recounted the great spiritual and temporal gifts the whole region had received from the charity of Monsieur Vincent. As for himself, he showed his visitor the very cassock he was wearing, and said, Et hac me veste contexit [“And he clothed me with this garment.”] These were the same words our Lord had earlier said to Saint Martin after he had given his cloak to a poor beggar.6
We could add to this recital of Monsieur Vincent’s charity towards clerics his regard for religious as well. He had a singular respect and love for them, which became evident whenever a religious would come to visit Saint Lazare. They would be received as an angel from heaven. He would often throw himself at their feet, asking for their blessing, and in humility would not rise until he had received it. On these occasions he showed great hospitality towards his visitors, doing them all sorts of little services. In turn, he wanted his priests to act this same way. In this matter he often recommended them to esteem and respect all other orders and religious communities. He said that they should not allow the least envy, jealousy, or any other sentiment contrary to the humility and charity of Jesus Christ to enter their minds. He wanted them always to speak of religious with respect and love. In a word he wanted his Congregation to look only for the good in other groups, and to praise publicly all the marvels they were accomplishing.
One day, when one of his priests asked him how he should act towards some religious whom he thought had behaved poorly towards himself, he said:
You ask me, how you should act towards these good religious who have opposed you. Here is what I answer: you should try to serve them on every occasion that presents itself. Every time you meet them, show them that you are well disposed towards them. You should visit them from time to time. Never take a stand against them. Don’t interfere in their affairs, except to defend them. Speak of them only on first-hand knowledge. Say nothing from the pulpit or in private that could cause them the least pain. In short, do all you can. Have others do the same, in words and deeds, to do all the good you can for them, even if they do not reciprocate. This is what I wish that we all do, and further, we should make it a duty to honor and serve them as often as we can.7
The charity of Monsieur Vincent towards religious was made known too by the good advice he gave when asked, as he was on several occasions. Among other incidents is the case of a religious of a distinguished order who was thinking of leaving his present situation to enter another order. He first thought was to ask Monsieur Vincent’s opinion, since he regarded him as an enlightened and charitable person. The response of Monsieur Vincent was as follows:
I have received your letter with respect, most reverend Father, but even more so with confusion. You have sent it to the person recognized by everyone as the most earthly and least spiritual of all men. Be this as it may, I send you my thoughts, not by way of advice, but only because of the solicitude our Lord wishes us to have for our neighbor. I am consoled to note the attraction you have for perfect union with our Savior, and how you have cooperated with this attraction, and with the tenderness of the divine goodness towards you. I recognize the great difficulties and contradictions you have experienced, the other spiritual states you have passed through, and finally, the great attraction you have for that teacher of the spiritual life, Saint Theresa.
With all of this, I think, Father, that you will have more security if you remain in the common life of your present order, under the direction of your religious superior, rather than pass to another, even if it should be more holy. First, because of the maxim that a religious ought to strive to acquire the spirit of his order, lest he have solely its habit and not its spirit. Since your order is recognized as being among the most perfect in the Church, you have a great obligation to persevere, to work to gain its spirit, practicing those things that will help you attain it. Second, another maxim has it that the spirit of our Savior is marked by meekness and kindness. Nature and the evil spirit, on the other hand, act harshly and shrilly. It appears to me in all that you tell me that your way of acting is just that, and that you hold too firmly to your own opinions against those of your superiors, even to what your own temperament inclines you to. All things considered, Father, I would think that you ought to give yourself anew to our Savior. You should renounce your own spirit to accomplish his will in the state to which his divine Providence has called you.8
Another religious, a doctor in theology, had a dispute with his congregation, and wanted to bring his complaint to Rome. He sought the help of Monsieur Vincent as intermediary, but this is the reply he received:
I am sympathetic, Father, at what you must bear. I pray that our Lord will deliver you from this burden, or give you strength to bear it. Since you bear it in a good cause you might console yourself that you are among the blessed who suffer persecution for justice’s sake. Be patient, Father, and place your trust in our Lord who allows you to be tried. He will see to it that the congregation in which he had placed you, like a leaky boat, will bring you happily to port. I cannot beseech God, as you requested, that he help you pass to another order, for it seems that this is not his will. There are crosses everywhere, and your advanced age should urge you to avoid those you would find in such a change of state. As to the help you asked to obtain a rescript, that is another matter. I most humbly beg you to dispense me from the obligation of presenting your propositions to Rome.9
Monsieur Vincent’s same respect for the religious state also made him sensitive to the plight of those women religious he encountered living outside of their convents for whatever reason. He tried with great gentleness to have them return to their own houses, but if this was not possible, at least to go to some other convent or monastery. He wrote to an abbess on this matter: Madame, I make bold to ask you to receive in your abbey one of your own religious. She was the prioress of N., but now cannot live there because of the misery of the times. She is in need, subject to reproach and the ridicule of the world, and of the soldiers. Perhaps, Madame, you have reasons for not wishing to take her back, or at least it would be difficult for you to do so. Even so, I felt I must write, for charity obliges me to do so on behalf of a person like this. She hopes for your acceptance. Living outside her “center,” I mean to say outside her monastery, she is not at ease, and feels unsafe. If it should be that she cannot return, I most humbly request that you contribute something towards her upkeep, should we have to place her in a boarding house in this city. In God’s name, Madame, forgive me for making this suggestion to you.10
If we were obliged to speak of all the expressions of esteem, and all the services Monsieur Vincent rendered to religious men and women, a whole volume would be needed. It suffices to say that he never let an opportunity pass to help or serve them. There is hardly any particular act or charitable function that he did not do in their favor. He made it obvious to all that he cherished, honored, helped, served, and protected them to the full extent of his ability. He covered their faults, published their virtues, and praised their state in life. By a loving humility, all the more praiseworthy because it is so rare, he portrayed his own Congregation as the least of all others, to make theirs shine forth even more. He wanted his own community to think of themselves as the least of all the congregations.