SECTION SEVEN: His Charity Towards His Adversaries
When it comes to relationships with our enemies, Christian charity is most in opposition to our natural impulses. The grace of Jesus Christ alone can conquer the principles of the world by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Considering the love of our enemies, there is no more assured mark of divine adoption as true children of the heavenly Father. He causes his sun to shine on both good and bad alike, and allows his dew and rain to fall on sinners as well as the just.
Monsieur Vincent was so careful about all other aspects of the virtue of charity that it is not surprising to see that he had a high regard for this aspect of charity, especially since Jesus Christ had explicitly recommended it in his Gospel.
We have spoken at length of how this great servant of God related to all classes of people. He was full of respect and submission to the great of this world, of adaptability and charity for the lesser ones, and of justice and deference to all. Perhaps there never was a person more committed to all sorts of works of public service, and as a result, more exposed to criticism, slander and calumny than he. He met with little opposition. What difficulties did come his way divine Providence allowed to enable him to be more closely identified with his divine Master. Jesus Christ suffered great outrages and bad treatment and willed to be numbered among those who suffered for justice’s sake.
Two situations were likely to arouse the displeasure of some of his associates. The first was his position at court where he had a part to play in the distribution of benefices. He was adamant in insisting on acting according to what he saw as right, but it was obviously impossible to please everyone seeking an appointment. Sometimes there were more than a dozen candidates for a single benefice. Those who were unsuccessful would sometimes complain loudly to others, often attributing things to him which were not true. In response, he would bless God, continue to greet these people when they met, and express his desire to help them. When an occasion would present itself he would do so more willingly than before.
The second instance which led to misunderstandings was his position as superior of a congregation. This obliged him to look after the goods of the community and to manage what had been given for the service of others. He regarded himself as the steward and not the owner of these things. He felt obligated in conscience to protect the right of ownership at Saint Lazare and other properties, as well as the fruits of a benefice he held. On this point he sometimes found that he had to resist those who would interfere in his affairs, if attempts at accommodation proved unsuccessful. The result would sometimes be that he was slandered and opposed. These sentiments gave him the opportunity to offer the same prayer as our Savior on the cross, a prayer for his enemies.
We will now give some examples of how this good servant of God behaved towards those who maltreated either himself or his Congregation.
A nobleman of some standing was unsuccessful in obtaining a benefice for a friend because of Monsieur Vincent’s opposition in the council to the appointment. Monsieur Vincent judged the person proposed to be incapable of fulfilling the obligations of the office. Several days later he chanced to meet Monsieur Vincent in the Louvre where he began to berate him publicly, although he had never before complained to anyone. The queen, told of the incident, ordered the nobleman to retire from the court. Monsieur Vincent was so insistent that he be recalled that the queen finally relented. This is an example of how Monsieur Vincent showed such charity towards an opponent by doing more for him than he would have done for the best of his friends.
Another incident illustrates both his humility and his charity. Returning once from the city to Saint Lazare, he met in the faubourg Saint Denis a man who was aware of Monsieur Vincent’s close association with the queen and her chief ministers. He publicly blamed him for the troubled times, and for the heavy taxes borne by the people. The holy priest himself customarily blamed his own sins as the cause of public difficulties. On this occasion he got off his horse, fell to his knees, and admitted that he was a miserable sinner. He begged pardon of God and of his accuser, the source of the troubles being spoken of. The person in question was so taken aback at the sight of this humble priest abasing himself and so aware of his own boldness, that he came to Saint Lazare the next day to ask pardon of Monsieur Vincent. He received him as an old friend. He was persuaded to stay six or seven days in the house, and to take the occasion to make a spiritual retreat and a good general confession. The story illustrates how charity completed what humility began.
He opposed any spite or grudges to such an extent that he not only bore no ill will to anyone, but he did not want anyone to harbor bad feelings against him if it were possible to avoid them. Once he noticed that a well-placed person seemed to have grown cold in his dealings with him, whereas before he had been quite friendly. When this continued, he went directly to him. With a smile he said: “Monsieur, I am unhappy if, without knowing what, I have given you some reason to be displeased with me. I have come to ask you to let me know what I may have done, so that I can correct myself.” The nobleman, struck by his openness, admitted his displeasure: “It is true, Monsieur Vincent, that on such and such an occasion your actions have given me trouble.” For his part, Monsieur Vincent imitated in his charity what the sun does by its light. He dissipated the shadows of doubt from his mind, and softened the hardness of his heart in such a way that the nobleman from that time on became friendlier than before.
Once while vesting for mass in the chapel of the College des Bons Enfants, he remembered that a certain religious of Paris had a grievance against him. He at once put off his vestments, went to find this person, and asked pardon for the trouble he had caused. He assured him that he esteemed and honored both him and his order. Only after he had done this did he return to celebrate mass.
Once Monsieur Vincent became aware that the superior of a well-known religious order in Paris was disturbed by the way he had handled a certain business matter. At once he went to see the superior, threw himself at his feet, and asked pardon for any offense he had given. Unfortunately the superior received Monsieur Vincent with coldness, and despite his efforts to conciliate the superior, he put Monsieur Vincent off with offensive words, and he had to leave. Yet he was happy to have had the opportunity to suffer rebuff for the love of his Master. Some time later, it became necessary to borrow some vestments for the chapel of the College des Bons Enfants. When Monsieur Vincent was asked if the superior mentioned earlier should be approached, he replied: “Yes, ask him for me if he would lend these things to us.” The one who had asked him was astonished, but did as he was told. The superior in turn was amazed: “What! Doesn’t Monsieur Vincent remember what I said to him? Is this all he can recall? Ah, gentlemen, the hand of God is here. Now I see that Monsieur Vincent is led by the Spirit of God.” After lending these vestments, the superior was moved to go himself to visit Monsieur Vincent at Saint Lazare, where he was received with much joy by both.
Once, he heard from Marseilles that a certain religious had spoken ill of the Congregation in a matter of some importance. This was all the more galling because he had received some notable favors from the community. In reply, Monsieur Vincent wrote to one of his priests: “The words coming from this priest are an occasion for us to rejoice, seeing that we are innocent of the calumnies he spreads, thanks be to God. We will be blessed if we are found worthy to suffer something for justice’s sake, especially if it helps us rejoice in embarrassment, and learn to return good for evil.”1
The Congregation of the Mission had applied to the Holy Father, Pope Alexander VII, at the beginning of his pontificate, to approve an important matter about the Institute. The superior of the house at Rome wrote to Monsieur Vincent to alert him that some powerful persons were working against this petition. When he received this letter he remarked to someone with him: “I understand by this letter that certain men (naming them) are against us. Even if they were to pull out my eyes I would not cease to love them, respect them, and serve them all my life. I pray that God will give me the grace to do this.”2 This is how he acted, always taking their part, defending their reputations, emphasizing their virtues, appreciating and praising their good works in general and for each one in particular. He rendered them all imaginable services, deference, and submission.
Several foreign clerics who were refugees in Paris because of the persecution in their own country found themselves in great physical and spiritual need. Monsieur Vincent requested one of his own priests from the same country and known to most of the clerics, to organize weekly meetings for their benefit. Together they could learn what was appropriate for their profession, and be prepared for future employment as a way out of their present want and idleness. Monsieur Vincent said: “We must find a way to help them when they assemble because they seem ready to prepare themselves to become more useful and more edifying than they now are. Monsieur, please look after this.” The priest replied: “Monsieur, you are aware that as you requested, we tried these meetings. We even continued them for some time, but we are dealing with some difficult personalities. They were disagreeing among themselves, just like the provinces of their homeland, and we had to stop these meetings. They argue, and are jealous of one another. Despite all you have done for them they show no appreciation. They complain constantly, and have even gone so far as to have written to Rome to have you stop meddling in their affairs. It seems to me, Monsieur, that their ingratitude dictates that you no longer do anything for them.” To this, Monsieur Vincent responded: “Monsieur! What are you saying? We must do so precisely because of this.” He did more than simply talk. He continued to do all the good for them that he possibly could, in all sorts of situations.
Once, someone involved in a lawsuit asked him to write on his behalf to the judge in the case. Monsieur Vincent excused himself by saying that he had no influence in such matters. He would sometimes write such letters, although he preferred as a practice not to become involved in these affairs. Some time later, the one who had asked for this favor, thinking he had lost his case, came to complain bitterly about Monsieur Vincent’s failure to write in his support. Monsieur Vincent not only accepted this criticism meekly, but asked pardon on his knees for having caused him such annoyance. The man discovered only later that the report of his having lost the case was erroneous. In fact, he won it. He then returned to Saint Lazare to beg pardon, for having complained and abused Monsieur Vincent so unjustly.
Several soldiers came upon two clerics from Saint Lazare, walking in the neighborhood. They seized their cloaks from them by force, but were observed by some people of the quarter. They ran after them, caught them, and had them put in the local jail. Afterward, Monsieur Vincent saw to their being fed, visited, and arranged for them to make general confessions. With their promise not to steal again, he released them without the penalty they so richly deserved.
Occasionally others would be caught in their robberies in the house of Saint Lazare or on the farms which depended upon it. These included grain stolen from the fields by night, trees cut from the woods, fruit taken from the orchards, or vegetables from the garden. Monsieur Vincent felt great uneasiness in allowing these people to be put in prison, and when they were, he would secure their release. Sometimes he would even go beyond this. He would offer excuses for them, invite them to eat with the community, and sometimes give them money to speed them on their way. There were many such cases, when Monsieur Vincent not only pardoned those who did him harm, but aided them, as well. He used to say, “How I pity these poor people!”
In 1654 a young German Lutheran came to Paris to abjure his heresy. Possibly he felt that he would find greater sympathy there than in his native country. He was recommended to Monsieur Vincent by a religious superior of a community of nuns at whose convent he was staying. She suggested that this young man might possibly become a member of the Congregation of the Mission, for he showed much promise. Monsieur Vincent received him at Saint Lazare to make a spiritual retreat of eight days. During the exercises his guest slipped into one of the rooms, took a cassock and long cloak and some other things as well. He dressed himself in these clothes, then left by a side door of the church to go to the section of the city called Saint Germain to meet the minister Monsieur Drelincourt.3 He presented himself as a member of the Congregation of the Mission who had come to embrace the religion of the Minister. He, seeing his visitor dressed as a cleric, was taken in. He led him through the streets to show off a great conquest–a member of the Congregation of the Mission who had become a Huguenot. He was taken to the homes of several of these heretics to be strengthened in his decision by their flattery and attention.
While walking in the city, they were seen by Monsieur [Nicolas] des Isles, a man well versed in the religious controversy of the day.4 Seeing the minister walking with a cleric raised some doubts in his mind, which led him to follow the pair to the first house, where they all entered together. He allowed the minister to go upstairs, while he himself remained to talk with the young man, who told him the whole story of his dealings with the minister. This false missionary spoke of his stay at Saint Lazare, and of his deception. Monsieur des Isles left, saw the pastor of Saint Sulpice, and because of the scandal given by assuming the habit and title of the Congregation of the Mission, had the young man committed to the Chatelet prison. He also alerted Monsieur Vincent to the case. Many people in turn advised him to contact the authorities to see that this young man be punished for the robberies he had committed, and for the scandal he had given.
This charitable priest thanked those who had advised him, but said that he would do what had to be done. He did contact the authorities, not to demand justice, but rather mercy, for this unfortunate person. He took the trouble to go himself to see the royal prosecutor and the police lieutenant to inform them that the Congregation they did not wish to press charges, for it had forgiven the loss and the scandal that had been given. He requested most humbly that the prisoner be set free, remembering that God forgives, and it would thus please his divine Majesty if this poor stranger were released. He added, to the great edification of these gentlemen, that he looked upon the whole episode as simply a young man’s prank. On this occasion Monsieur Vincent showed clearly that he had personally accepted the maxims of the Savior too completely to act otherwise than the Savior himself. Jesus not only said that he had come to save sinners and not to condemn or punish them, but had acted in this same spirit in forgiving the adulterous woman, and forgiving all kinds of sinners, even the traitor Judas.
In 1655 another young member of the Congregation decided to leave it, contrary to the advice of Monsieur Vincent. He joined the Swiss Guards,5 but left a short time afterward, though not in such favorable circumstances as his leaving the Congregation of the Mission. He was apprehended as a deserter from the army, and was charged with other serious crimes as well. He was imprisoned, and later condemned to be executed. In this serious situation he had recourse to Monsieur Vincent, whose guiding maxim was always to render good for evil. Monsieur Vincent forgot that this unfortunate man had once rejected his advice, and came to his aid, and was successful in saving his life.
A poor person appeared at the door of Saint Lazare once, asking if he could tell Monsieur Vincent what people were saying about him. “Yes, my friend, speak.” The man then said that people in Paris were blaming him for the fact the poor were being taken off the streets and placed in the city hospital. Monsieur Vincent’s only response to this was to say, with his usual mildness, that he would pray to God for those who spoke this way about him.
The charity of Monsieur Vincent towards those who mistreated him is shown well in the matter of a serious business loss affecting the Congregation. The loss suffered by the community was about fifty thousand livres, the greatest loss Monsieur Vincent ever sustained during his life. He wrote the following to a friend of the community, a man knowledgeable in these matters:
Monsieur, good friends share in both good and bad fortune. As you are one of the closest we have in the whole world, I want you to know of the loss we suffered in this affair whose background you know. I do not speak of a misfortune which has happened, but of a grace that God has sent us, so I trust you will join with us in thanking him. I call the afflictions he sends a grace, provided they are accepted. His goodness has disposed us to accept this loss and to receive this accident with entire resignation. I dare even to say that we rejoice as much as if we had won our case. Surely this would be a paradox to anyone less sensitive to heavenly matters than yourself, and one less able to submit himself to the good pleasure of God in the adversities of life. This is a greater good than all temporal advantages. I beg of you most humbly to look on things in this way, so that we both share the same sentiments.6
What is most remarkable in this loss is the affection, respect, and charity of Monsieur Vincent towards those involved in this matter. He manifested in every meeting a disposition to return good for evil, honor for dishonor, good treatment for bad. As he said himself, and as the Holy Spirit says in the Scriptures, he wished to heap coals of fire upon the heads of all his adversaries.7
- CED IV:301.
- See the letter to Etienne Blatiron, CED V:395-96. This matter concerned the approbation of the vows which came in spite of opposition from some within the community. Despite the opposition, Saint Vincent consistently and charitably defended his position in favor of the vows. CED I:162-65.
- Charles Drelincourt, a Protestant minister and controversialist. He died in Paris in 1669.
- See CED XII:295, where Saint Vincent speaks of this person to his priests.
- One of a troop of elite guards in the royal service, coming originally from Switzerland.
- CED VII:252-53.
- Rom 12:20.