CHAPTER FOURTEEN: His Obedience
of no better way to begin this chapter on the obedience of Monsieur Vincent than to recall his words on this subject, particularly when he spoke to the religious of the first convent of the Visitation, in Paris.
These sisters have said that this great servant of God, who was their first spiritual father, often recommended the virtues of obedience and exactness in regularity, even to the smallest point. He had a special concern to have those two virtues well established in their communities. He used to say that the perfect practice of these two virtues constituted holy religion. To deepen their appreciation he used to bring them together, to speak about their excellence and beauty. He pointed out how it was necessary to perfect themselves in these virtues to please God, who takes delight in religious souls who are faithful to their practice. This divine Spouse so loved the virtue of obedience that the least delay in obeying was displeasing to him. A virtuous religious who had publicly vowed this virtue in the Church ought to be solicitous in carrying out what she had promised. One who failed in smaller observances would soon fail in greater matters.
He used to say that the good of the creature consists in the accomplishment of God’s will. This is found in the faithful practice of obedience and in the exact observance of the rules of the institute. We cannot give a better service to God than by practicing obedience, for by this virtue he accomplishes his designs upon us. God’s glory is found in the overcoming of self-love and one’s own interests, and this is what we should chiefly aim at. This practice leads the soul to the true and perfect liberty of the children of God.
He recommended strongly that they renounce their own judgment to mortify it and submit themselves to their superiors. He used to say that obedience did not consist in simply doing what one is told on this or that occasion, but in having the disposition of soul of doing all they are commanded on all occasions. They must look on the superiors as holding the place of Jesus Christ on earth, and therefore give them every mark of respect. To murmur against them is a sort of internal apostasy. Just as exterior apostasy would involve removing the habit and leaving the religious life, so internal apostasy causes one to be disunited with superiors, rejecting them in the mind, and attaching oneself to ideas contrary to their wishes. This is the greatest of all ills that can happen in community. The religious soul will avoid these when she keeps herself in a holy indifference and allows herself to be directed by her superiors.
He also said on the topic of obedience that to have a true submission which should characterize a religious community we should consider attentively the following points:
(1) The role of superiors, who on earth take the place of Jesus Christ in our regard.
(2) The troubles which superiors endure and their solicitude to lead us to perfection cause them sometimes to pass the whole night in prayer in anguish of soul. Their subjects enjoy a peaceful rest. Their anxiety is the greater when they reflect that they will have to render an account to God of all their responsibilities.
(3) The recompense promised to truly obedient souls, even in this life. Besides the graces this virtue merits, God is pleased to fulfill the will of those who for love of him submit their wills to their superiors.
(4) The punishments the disobedient should fear. An example was given in the Old Testament of the chastisement of Korah, Dathan and Abiram for their contempt of Moses, their leader. By this contempt they had grievously offended God, who has said of those constituted in authority in the Church: “He who hears you, hears me; and he who despises you, despises me.”1
(5) The example of obedience which Jesus Christ gave us. He preferred death rather than to fail in obedience. One would have to be truly hard-hearted to see God obey unto death for the sake of such wretched and miserable creatures as we are, and still refuse to subject himself for love of him.
He added that to practice this virtue perfectly, we must obey:
(1) Voluntarily, placing our will in the will of our superior.
(2) Simply, for the love of God, never allowing ourselves to question why our superiors commanded such and such a thing.
(3) Promptly, not delaying in carrying out what has been ordered.
(4) Humbly, not seeking any praise or esteem for our obedience.
(5) Courageously, not hesitating in the face of difficulties, but overcoming them with strength and generosity.
(6) Joyfully, doing what is ordered with pleasure, with no show of resentment.
(7) Perseveringly, imitating Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death.
It should not be imagined that what Monsieur Vincent said or taught on this matter was done as a lesson from a teacher, or the exhortation of a preacher, who sometimes does not practice what he teaches others. On the contrary, these lessons were the sincere expression of the deepest sentiments of his heart, and as a sort of reflection of what he himself practiced. He showed by the example of his own life what he proposed by his words.
First, Monsieur Vincent maintained a faithful and perfect dependence on God, submitting himself to all he understood would be most agreeable to him. We can truly say that God found in him a man after his own heart. He was always ready and disposed to do God’s will, as we have seen illustrated in the earlier chapters of this book.
In this frame of mind, when he first came from Rome to Paris, one of the first things he did was to seek out a spiritual director, so that in following his advice and counsel he might obey God and cooperate with his designs upon him. This spiritual director was Father de Berulle, who later became a cardinal in the Church. In submission to his guidance, Monsieur Vincent accepted the post of pastor of Clichy. Later he entered the de Gondi household to be the chaplain of the general of the galleys and of his wife, and tutor of their children. When Madame wished to have him as her confessor and her own spiritual director, he would not consent except through obedience. Only when she worked through Monsieur de Berulle, did he accept this charge. He did not want to do anything of himself, but only in following the guidance of God.
Not satisfied with his obedience to God directly, he submitted himself, in keeping with the word of the holy apostle, to all human creatures for the love of God, especially the spiritual and temporal powers, in things unpleasant and humiliating as well as in those agreeable and honorable.2
His obedience was given mainly to our Holy Father, the pope, joyfully and without reserve. He recognized him as the vicar of Jesus Christ upon earth, and as the sovereign pastor of the whole Church. He was subject to him in all his judgment and affection.
Only through obedience did he accept the responsibility of superior general of his Congregation, for Pope Urban VIII had specified this in the bull by which he approved the Congregation of the Mission.
He insisted that all the missionaries under his direction be perfectly obedient to the Holy See, and he put into writing this rule:
We will exactly obey each and all our superiors, looking upon them as taking the place of our Lord, and seeing our Lord in them, especially our Holy Father the pope, whom we will obey with all possible respect, fidelity, and sincerity.3
We saw earlier the esteem and veneration which Monsieur Vincent had for the bishops.4 We will now mention the perfect submission he always had towards them, and the perfect obedience he wished his Congregation to have in all that regarded them.
In approving the Congregation of the Mission, the Holy See had thought it expedient that the superior general should have the care and direction of its members, both in their interior lives, that is, for the progress of their souls in the practice of the virtues proper to their vocations, and in their exterior lives, in regard to the observance of the rules and constitutions, the domestic arrangements, the placement of personnel, and the choice of ministry. This was done to assure that all members of the one body might preserve the same spirit despite working in a variety of dioceses, and might be animated with the charisms which God bestowed upon their founder. It was most expedient that the superior general, with his intimate knowledge of the talents and dispositions of each of the members, could assign them to appropriate missions in a variety of possible places, all in furtherance of the work of the Congregation. Nevertheless, in anything having to do with assistance to the neighbor, Monsieur Vincent had seen to it that the Holy See subordinate his community to the bishops. This was done in such a way that the missions, the ordination retreats, the clergy conferences, the spiritual retreats, or the direction of the seminaries, all were carried out under the authority and with the permission of the ordinaries. He was careful himself to observe this always, and was insistent that this be observed also by all his Congregation, to the satisfaction of the bishop wherever they worked. The community is resolved to maintain this attitude, and with God’s help, will do so in the future.
Around 1622, long before the establishment of his own Congregation, he accepted the direction of the religious of the Visitation of Holy Mary of the city of Paris. He did so at the request of the Blessed Francis de Sales, their founder, and at the command of the archbishop of Paris. This occasion gives us a good opportunity to see his fidelity to obedience. Being extensively burdened with the affairs of his own Congregation and with the other major activities with which he was connected, he sought to be released from this supervision.
The number of sisters so increased that they filled three convents in Paris and one outside the city, and this demanded much time and attention. Several times he took steps to be relieved of this responsibility and once did succeed in stepping down. Despite efforts by people in high places, he preferred not to reassume the post, and did so only at the request of the archbishop of Paris. Nevertheless, to protect his priests, and to allow them to devote themselves entirely to their proper functions, he forbade them from accepting the direction of women religious. He made this a matter of rule, knowing from his own experience how incompatible this service was with their duties, and how unsuitable to their calling.
He wanted his priests to be obedient to the pastors when they gave a mission in the parishes. They were to do nothing, not even, as he used to say, to move a straw without their approval. In this connection he once wrote to someone outside the community: “We take it as a rule to work for the good of the people, with the concurrence of the pastors, and never against their wishes. At the beginning and end of each mission we seek their blessing to show our dependence upon them.”5
He was faithful to this practice himself with the most marvelous humility. Although he was sent by the bishops with full authority to work in the parishes of their dioceses, he never wanted to act without the consent and approval of the pastor. He was as careful about this in the small villages as he was in the larger towns. He saw to it that his confreres acted in the same way, and remained faithful to this practice himself.
He spoke once to his community on the obedience due to kings and princes. He referred to the way the first Christians were obedient to the emperors and respected their temporal power. He then added these words:
My brothers, following their example, we ought to have always a faithful and simple obedience to the king, never complaining about him, not murmuring, no matter what. If we should happen to be called upon to lose our goods or our very lives, let us give them away in this spirit of obedience rather than oppose his will, provided that what the king asks is not opposed to God’s will. We should act this way, for the king represents on earth the sovereign power of God.6
To show with what exactitude Monsieur Vincent obeyed the king even in the smallest things, we recall an incident so insignificant that few persons would ever have bothered themselves about it. A brother of the community of Saint Lazare happened upon a pheasant’s nest. He took the eggs and had them hatched by a hen, and when the young pheasants had attained some size he brought them in a cage to Monsieur Vincent with the thought of giving him a bit of diversion. Monsieur Vincent recalled that the king had issued orders forbidding the hunting of the pheasants, and said to the brother, without showing what he had in mind, “go and see if these birds can manage for themselves.” He accompanied the brother to the courtyard, and had the birds set free, happy to see them run off and hide. Seeing the brother somewhat saddened at this ending to all his troubles, he said, “You must realize, my brother, that we should obey the king. His directive against hunting applies to the taking of these eggs as well as to hunting the birds themselves. We cannot disobey the king in these temporal things without displeasing God.”
Monsieur Vincent extended his obedience beyond his superiors to all sorts of persons, and recommended this same course of action to his confreres.
Our obedience ought to go beyond those who have the right to give us orders. If we are to practice obedience as recommended by Saint Peter, we should submit ourselves to all human creatures for the love of God. Do this then, and look upon all others as our superiors, and place yourself below all, smaller than even the least. Make this evident by the deference, condescension, and all sorts of services for others. What a fine thing it would be if God would confirm us in this practice.7
He exhorted his confreres to this mutual condescension, a form of obedience, by a comparison to the members of the human body, which adjust and compensate for their common welfare and conservation, so that whenever one member suffers the others adapt as much as possible. He said:
Thus should the members of a community act towards each other. The more learned should accept the weaknesses of the ignorant, at least in those areas where no error or sin is involved, and the prudent and wise should accept the humble and simple: non alta sapientes, sed humilibus consentientes [“Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly”].8 In this same spirit of condescension we ought not only to approve the sentiments of others in matters good or indifferent, but even prefer them to our own. We should believe others to have natural or supernatural lights and qualities superior to our own. On the other hand, we must be well on guard against showing tolerance of evil. This is not a virtue but rather a great fault, and leads to dissolute ways or else to cowardice and mediocrity.9
He practiced what he preached, for he showed himself most accommodating to others in indifferent things, even to those of modest abilities. He held the maxim that it is better to accept the will of others than to follow one’s own preferences. According to the account given by a priest who knew him well, he carried this practice so far as to follow the advice of all sorts of persons in the simplest matters, in things of no moral significance. This did not arise from his lack of knowledge of the matter at hand. His long experience in all things, coupled with the lights he received from God, allowed him to penetrate and discern what ought to be done. He preferred, instead, not to lose the merit of submission and obedience when the occasion arose to practice it.
This same quality was noticed in him about accepting the opinions of others, when it could be done without prejudice to truth or charity. He was never known to have contradicted or disputed with others, although he often had to discuss difficult questions on which there was often a difference of opinions. He deferred to the opinion of others, or after humbly stating his own position he would then maintain silence. Where there was a question touching on the service or the glory of God, he was adamant to the degree that he was known to refuse for years to budge on certain points he saw as contrary to the will of God. His great maxim in this regard was: “Be as polite as you can, provided you do not contravene God’s will.” When the glory of God, or charity towards the neighbor, or Christian prudence obliged him to refuse something, he did so with such grace, mildness, and humility, that his refusal was sometimes accepted better than a favor or benefit would have been from someone else.
In this same spirit of obedience and accommodation, he wrote to the superior of a mission experiencing some difficulties. He counseled following the advice of others rather than one’s own opinion. He cited the opinion of Saint Vincent Ferrer, who recommended this practice as a means of perfection and sanctity.
In this same spirit of condescension he agreed to dismiss the matter of a farm offered to the community of Saint Lazare, but under a life-annuity so large he felt the offer ought not to be accepted. He persisted in this refusal for two years. The owner of the farm, anxious for the annuity, convinced the late prior of Saint Lazare, for whom Monsieur Vincent had the highest regard, of the advantages of the transaction. This good prior then urged and pressured Monsieur Vincent so much that by condescension he agreed to sign the contract. Monsieur Vincent first obtained the consent of his council, who assured him there was no risk involved. He paid the annual pension to the donors until their death, as stipulated in the agreement. Later a lawsuit was instituted, which resulted in the Congregation’s loss of both the farm and a large sum. Monsieur Vincent was shown a way to circumvent this adverse judgment, but he preferred to lose both farm and money rather than show any lack of submission to the judges in any way, and so lose the merit of obedience to their decree.10
Another incident shows his exactitude and zeal for the practice of this same virtue, on which occasion it seems that he could easily have dispensed himself. The queen had requested him to provide a mission for Fontainebleau. He sent two of his priests there, where contrary to their expectation they found a religious giving a series of sermons. In obedience to Her Majesty they felt they had to begin the mission. They held off their usual exercises at the hour this good religious was scheduled to preach, so that the people could have full liberty to attend his sermons. The people much preferred the instructions of the missionaries to the sermons of the preacher. He attracted only a few, but the church was filled when the missionaries presented their instructions and catechism lessons as was customary for the mission. The religious complained of this, leaving the priests of the Mission in a quandary. The maxim of Monsieur Vincent was to defer to everyone, on all occasions, but his instructions were also to obey the queen in her request to have the mission preached. They wrote to Monsieur Vincent, to inquire what course to follow. Seeing obedience to the queen involved, he felt it was of such consequence that he sent a man by carriage to present a letter from himself to the queen, who was at Notre Dame de Chartres at the time. In this letter he recounted the impasse at the parish, and recalled that the usual practice of the priests of the Mission in such cases was to withdraw. He humbly begged Her Majesty to agree to their retiring, which she did. He had the missionaries go to another place, leaving the field to the good religious, out of consideration for him.
Monsieur Vincent was equally careful that obedience be observed by the members of the Congregation, as much as he himself practiced it. He wanted this virtue to be in vigor everywhere, as one of the most important ways of ensuring its prosperity. When he came upon any failure in this regard, he was quick to offer a remedy. This is what happened one day to one of the oldest and most regular of the priests.11 Monsieur Vincent had recommended that he remain in bed the next morning because his duties had kept him up late, and he felt this priest needed the extra rest. However, this good missionary, so punctual in making his morning mental prayer with the community at the usual hour, rose with the others. He thought that the recommendation of Monsieur Vincent was no more than a gracious wish on his part, not binding him to obedience. Monsieur Vincent, however, took another view of the matter. He called him over at the end of prayer, and in the presence of all the others, had him kneel for a good while, even though he was the oldest of the priests and the subdirector of the house, who took Monsieur Vincent’s place when he was away. Monsieur Vincent remarked that this was the first fault against obedience he had ever noticed in him. He praised his zealous exactitude in the observance of the rule, but blamed his excessive fervor in this particular situation. He spoke at some length of the virtue of obedience. He recalled the case of Saul and Jonathan in the Old Testament, and some remarkable incidents drawn from the history of France itself to show his confreres the importance of this virtue.