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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: His Justice and Gratitude

not use the word justice in the sense that Holy Scripture sometimes uses it to signify the grace that justifies and sanctifies souls, or the state of justice and sanctity. We will use the word justice to refer to a particular virtue, one of the most excellent of the moral virtues. As Saint Ambrose teaches, it gives to each what belongs to him. Not only does it not attribute to oneself the good which rightly belongs to the other, but even leaves off the most legitimate interests when the common good requires it to preserve the rights of the neighbor.1 In this sense of the word, we can truly say that Monsieur Vincent had this virtue in an excellent degree. He practiced it on all occasions when the opportunity arose.

He often thought of and referred to the words of Jesus Christ: “Render to God the things of God, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”2 Following this divine rule, he carefully rendered to God all the duties of religion in virtue of his being a reasonable man, a Christian, a priest, and a missionary. He likewise gave to his neighbor in general and to each one as an individual, according to his rank and condition, whatever justice required of him. He never detoured from the straight path of this virtue. On this topic, he often said to his confreres in his conferences: “Gentlemen, have regard to the interests of others as much as of your own. Let us be straightforward and act always with loyalty and fairness to everyone.”

He was so careful to fulfill the demands of justice that he felt they superseded all other responses. In this connection, he wrote to one of his friends, saying:

Remember to pray to God for me. Yesterday I found myself in the dilemma of having to fulfill a promise I had made, or to do an act of charity for a person who could do us a lot of good or ill. Unable to do both, I left off the act of charity to fulfill my promise, but my friend was not at all pleased. I was not so much concerned with my decision in doing this act of justice as, it seems to me, in following my own inclination in the matter.

He was careful that the community paid its bills promptly, and regretted to see some people forced to come several times to Saint Lazare for payments. When these persons came to his notice, he would tell them that there was no need to go to the trouble of coming to Saint Lazare. He would send promptly to their homes what they were owed. When the community had to borrow, they remarked that he would make a note of the time and place where repayment must be made. At the given time he would send someone from the house at Saint Lazare with the payment. When it was suggested that he ought to wait until he received a notice, or until the lender would come to collect his payment, he would not agree to such a plan. He said it was not just to force someone to come seeking what was rightly due him.

One day the coachman backed up, knocking several loaves of bread from a baker’s stall, causing several to fall to the ground. At once, Monsieur Vincent, fearing the soiled loaves might not be sold, immediately paid the price asked by the baker, and brought them back to Saint Lazare.

Another time, when this same coachman backed the carriage against a large gateway fastened on the inside by a bar of half-rotten wood, the bar broke quite easily. Only the caretaker lived in this house. He could easily have fastened the door some other way, but Monsieur Vincent on his own, sent his brother companion to the carpenters. He had them make a completely new bar. It cost three or four times more than what the original one was worth.

If he felt he had offended someone by any word or deed which he felt might not be just, he would not fail to make satisfaction in full.

The mayor of a large town once asked Monsieur Vincent to do him a favor at court. The gentleman assured him that he would protect the missionaries in his town from several powerful persons who opposed their work and who had even gone to Parlement against them. Monsieur Vincent replied that if he could help, he would. He begged the mayor, however, to leave the priests of the Mission in the hands of God and the ordinary police authorities. He did not wish to have his missionaries in any place owing to the favor or the authority of men.

In important lawsuits the Company found itself involved in, he sometimes went himself, or sent someone else, to see the judge. He did so, not so much to plead the cause of the Company, but to ask the judge to consider only the cause of justice in the case. He could be called the lawyer for the side of justice rather than the defender of his own interests. He was neither for nor against anyone, but pleaded equally for either, seeking always to have each one given what was rightfully his. He was not happy with having to be bothered with lawsuits of whatever kind. Once, a brother of the house of Saint Lazare, in charge of looking after these matters, came to ask him to visit the judge in a pending case to protect the rights of the Company. Monsieur Vincent showed his distaste for this. He said we must leave it to the Providence of God and to the court system, and besides, he did not believe these interventions did much good, especially with certain persons. He referred to the time he was at the royal court, when he paid little attention to the recommendations made to him about appointments to the various benefices. He looked only at the merits of the case, and what would be for the greater glory of God. In this way he was little influenced by solicitations in favor of anyone.

On another occasion he told this same brother that he must adopt the practice, when asked about a case, of saying everything good about the other party.3 He should omit nothing, just as if the opponent were present to deduce his arguments and to defend himself, and had somehow failed to do so in the matter under consultation.

The missionaries owned some properties in the provinces where they were established. They had much to put up with from the farmers and others there who abused their patience. The local people knew that they would not be badly treated, since they were used to the quibbling of the region, and feared little from their local courts. Because of this the superiors of several houses of the Congregation asked Monsieur Vincent to obtain a Committimus.4 This might serve to intimidate those who would not listen to reason. The man of God ordinarily would persuade them against this, saying they must do the best they could. He was not happy with the arrangement that cases involving Saint Lazare were assigned to the courts of Paris, either the Hotel or the Palace. This caused great inconvenience, especially if the plaintiffs were poor, and had to come all the way to Paris to participate in the case. “Is it just,” he would ask, “to have these poor persons come such a distance to plead their cause?”

As the Lord of the Manor of Saint Lazare, where he was responsible for high, medium, and low justice, he made his appointments gratis.5 He chose capable and good men for these positions, preferring them to others who sought out these responsibilities and came powerfully recommended. He saw to it that justice was well administered, to the glory of God and to the satisfaction of those on trial.

We will speak of the virtue of gratitude here, because according to the teaching of Saint Thomas, it is joined to justice.6 A Christian could fail in one of his greatest obligations of justice if he were not grateful and thankful for the benefits he had received, either from God, the first and principal source of all good, or from the neighbor whom the divine Bounty uses as the channel of his blessings. Monsieur Vincent was as far from the vice of ingratitude as his natural inclination and his heart, influenced by grace, were attracted to gratitude and thanksgiving towards God and his neighbor.

He used to say that nothing was so efficacious in winning the heart of God as a spirit of gratitude for his gifts and blessings. In this spirit he had the custom of thanking God often for the gifts from his bounty to all sorts of creatures, going back to the beginning of the world. He also thanked God for the good works accomplished through the inspiration of his grace, and he urged others to do the same. Coming down to particulars, he often invited his confreres to thank God for the protection and graces given to the Church, and for the elements which made it up, especially the prelates, pastors, and other ecclesiastical workers engaged in its preservation and advancement. He was careful to thank God for the fruits produced by all well run companies and congregations. How can we express adequately the thanks he gave the divine bounty for the blessings he had poured forth on his own Congregation and each of its enterprises, such as the missions, the ordination retreats, the retreats, the clergy conferences, the seminaries, and the other services given to the Church? He often thanked God for the help given to the poor, for the promotion of good priests to positions of responsibility in the Church, for the happy outcome of the worthy designs of the king, for the victories he gained, for the triumphs of the king and other princes and Christian states over the heretics and schismatics, or in general, for all those events favorable to the glory of God and the good of the Catholic religion. These were the usual subjects of his thanks to God, but his own gratitude seemed to him so inadequate that he invited pious persons and even entire communities, mainly his own, to join him in his praise and glorification of God, and he asked others to offer their sacrifices and prayers for this intention.

He was often heard to say, “We must give as much time to thanking God for his favors as we have used in asking him for them.” He complained vehemently of the extreme ingratitude of men towards God. He was referring to the lament of Jesus Christ reported in the Gospel on the occasion of his curing the ten lepers. He urged his confreres to practice this virtue of gratitude and thanksgiving, without which, he used to say, we make ourselves unworthy of receiving any favors from God or men.

It is not known for what particular graces he thanked God especially, since his humility kept the gifts he had received under the cloak of silence. On the anniversary of his baptism each year, however, he would ask the community to help him thank God for having supported him for so many years upon the earth. We can form some idea of his gratitude to God by the appreciation he showed to men. He accepted the favors of men as coming ultimately from the liberality of God, and in thanking them, he wanted the praise to be referred ultimately to the Creator.

His gratitude towards men was given not only for the major benefits he received, and the great services rendered him, but even for the least things done for him. This came from his profound humility, which made him think that he deserved nothing by right, and that everyone gave him more honor and respect than he deserved. This led him to find reasons for gratitude in those trivial things that would not even have been noticed by many others.

In this spirit of gratitude he would say to those who visited or who rendered the least service: “I thank you for overlooking my old age;” or again, “for having taught me something I did not know;” or, “for the patience you have shown me;” or, “to allow me to come into your presence;” or, “for the charity God gives you, in my regard,” etc. He extended his thanks even to the least of the brothers, or to the one who stayed with him in his illness, thanking him for the least services, such as lighting a lamp, bringing a book, opening or closing a door, showing that he kept account of the least things done for him and received them with a spirit of gratitude. This had the effect of making others take pleasure in rendering him some kind of service.

He was equally attentive on his trips to thank those who gave him the least help, such as helping him mount a horse, or other such small things. He would acknowledge these favors with cordiality and graciousness, even to children. Besides receiving his thanks, they would often receive some other token of appreciation as well. He was so exact in his expression of gratitude that, if the companion on his journeys was not thankful enough, or expressed himself coldly, he would remonstrate, and regard it as a failing in him.

This venerable priest, who in all things imitated our Lord, who said he held as done to himself what was done for the least of his brethren, thanked and recompensed those who gave any service to the brother who accompanied him on his trips, as generously as he did for those done to himself.

We spoke earlier of Monsieur Vincent’s falling into a stream near Durtal on one of his trips from Le Mans to Angers, and that a priest who happened to be with him immediately plunged into the water to save him.7 In due time this priest fell from his first fervor. Failing to respond to the good example around him, he decided to leave Saint Lazare and return to his own region against the advice of Monsieur Vincent. He told him that this proposal was a temptation from the devil to cause the priest to lose his vocation. He gradually lost the spirit he had at the beginning, so that far from accomplishing the beautiful projects he had envisioned, he found himself filled with boredom, surrounded by difficulties, and pressed by the enemies of his salvation.

After a year or so in this condition, his eyes were opened to his spiritual condition. Although he was comfortably fixed, he began to realize that Monsieur Vincent was right in trying to dissuade him from this venture. He realized, too, that he had made a bad mistake in leaving the Company to which God had called him. He followed the example of the Prodigal Son, deciding to return to his father. He wrote letter after letter, asking pardon for his mistake, and begging to be allowed to return to one of the houses, but Monsieur Vincent made no reply.

This priest redoubled his efforts and openly said that, unless a helping hand were extended, he would be lost. Monsieur Vincent felt it was not in the best interests of the Congregation that this man should return. His previous behavior had not given enough reason to hope he would succeed, and so Monsieur Vincent remained firm in his decision not to take him back. Finally, this priest decided to attack Monsieur Vincent from the most vulnerable avenue to his heart, that of his gratitude, knowing well that this was one of his greatest virtues. He therefore, figuratively, knocked at his door with the words: “Monsieur, I once saved your life; now you must save the life of my soul.” Seeing his perseverance, and hoping he would do better, the grateful superior wrote that he was to come at once to Saint Lazare, where he would be received with open arms. With this response in hand, the priest rejoiced to be again in the good graces of Monsieur Vincent. He prepared to leave for Saint Lazare, but unfortunately fell sick and died before he could carry out his designs.

After Monsieur Vincent fell into the water, as we mentioned earlier, he went to a hut nearby, which proved to be the lodging of a poor peasant. He was grateful that he took him in and dried his clothes, as though he had been welcomed into a castle by a gentleman. He thanked him and paid him a sum beyond what was appropriate. Beyond that, when this man told Monsieur Vincent that he was bothered by a hernia, he was promised a truss to relieve his pain. When Monsieur Vincent returned to Paris, three or four months later, he did not forget his promise, but bought the appliance. He sent it to the poor peasant, along with a letter of thanks for the help he had received from him in his home. Not having any assured way of getting the letter and appliance to its destination, he elicited the support of a highly placed lady, the wife of a marshal of France, who owned the lands in question, to deliver the package to the place he showed on a sketch.

He appreciated even those who expected nothing of him, for example, the people who cultivated the fields. By their labors they enabled the clergy and nobility to live according to their condition. Here is how he spoke of this, in a conference to his community:

God serves as our provider, furnishing us with what we need and beyond. He gives a sufficiency and more. I do not know if we think often enough of thanking him as we should. We live off the patrimony of Jesus Christ, off the sweat of these poor peasants. When we go to the refectory, we should consider whether we have earned the food we are going to eat. I often have this thought, and it causes me to blush. O miserable one, have you earned the bread you are about to eat? This bread and other food coming from the labor of others. At least, if we have not earned it as we should, let us pray to God for them. We should not let a day pass without offering them to our Lord, that they may have the grace to use their pains and suffering well, and one day crown them with his glory.8

He was so grateful when he received a favor from someone for his Company that he publicized it widely, calling him benefactor, protector, helper, or giving him other engaging titles. He exhorted his confreres to recommend him to the Lord, and would himself remember the benefits he had received whenever he met the person. A priest of the Congregation of the Mission had died in Lorraine, in the house of the Jesuit Fathers, who had him honorably buried.9 On that occasion, Monsieur Vincent gave a conference to his own community on gratitude. He sought to move his followers to pray to God for these good fathers, and to ask for the grace and opportunity to thank them for their kindness, as he had already done in every way possible. He took the side of this holy Company whenever persecutions were raised against it. He sought to divert calumnies and to publicize both their great virtues and their great accomplishments.

He looked after the board of a poor woman for twenty-five or thirty years. He even paid the rent for her room near the College des Bons Enfants because she had tended to several of the plague-stricken priests at Saint Lazare at the very beginning of the existence of the Congregation.

Once, speaking in private with a priest of his Congregation, and having said something good about a woman for some favor she had done, he reflected on the praise he had just given this person. He then said: “I have two qualities in myself, gratitude, and praising the good I see in others.” It is true he had these two qualities, which he mentioned, but it was unlike his usual reticence to say anything to his own advantage without evident necessity.

He appreciated the generosity of the founders of the houses of his Congregation so much so that he set no limits on the expressions of gratitude he used. Writing to one of his priests, he said:

We cannot have too much appreciation and gratitude for the founders of our house. God gave us the grace recently to offer to give back to a founder what he had given to us, because I felt he had fallen on hard times. If he had accepted, it seems to me I would have been happy. In this case the divine bounty would have become our surety, and we would have lacked nothing. Although this did not come about, still, Monsieur, what happiness it would have been to impoverish ourselves to help out someone who had done us so much good. God gave us the grace to do so once before, in giving back what he had just given to us, and every time I think of it I have such satisfaction that I can hardly express it.10

This letter was written in September, 1654. He wrote another to a benefactor, offering to return what he had given, for the same reason.

Monsieur, please use the goods of our Company as belonging to you. We are ready to sell all we own for you, right down to the very chalices we use at mass. In this we are observing the sacred canons, which tell us to look after our founders in their needs, since they have helped us from their abundance. What I now say, Monsieur, I do not say out of politeness, but by God’s direction, and from the bottom of my heart.11

The truth of Monsieur Vincent’s words was borne out in several other situations. When he learned of a pressing need of one of the benefactors of the Congregation, he sent him two hundred pistoles. The benefactor refused it, however, out of concern that this would cause too much inconvenience for the missionaries.

Another time he borrowed three hundred pistoles to offer them to a benefactor of the Congregation in need. This person realized that this money could not be accepted without seriously inconveniencing the Company, so he too refused, although he was urged to accept.

A person of great piety had left a sum of money in his will for the Congregation, to be used in works of the institute. When Monsieur Vincent was informed of it, he brought together the officers of the community and some of the older members. One of them said he felt many responsibilities would be placed upon the community in accepting this legacy. Also, there was nothing in the procurator’s account, largely because the house of Saint Lazare was already burdened by a previous foundation set up by this same person.

When Monsieur Vincent heard this, he closed his eyes, and then opening them, looked to heaven and said:

Even if things are as you say (and let us assume they are) it is always something to have people give us the means of serving God and making him known. Therefore, we should be grateful for this and pray to God for him as we would for a benefactor. We see the Church displaying this same gratitude towards her benefactors. It goes so far as to relax her usual regulations, and as we see in several cases, it gives laymen and women the right of patronage, although this should be reserved to priests. Why does she act this way, if not to show her appreciation for benefactions?

He was so grateful to the late prior of Saint Lazare and the religious who had preceded the missionaries in that house, that he prayed to God to apply to them the merits of the works of the Congregation as far as possible. This would make them participants in the good works they were able to accomplish because of their graciousness. He always showed great respect and deference for them, not in externals only by way of courtesy, but by a true sentiment of gratitude. He showed this spirit everywhere, whether these religious were present or not.

We would never finish if we were to give all the examples we could of his spirit of thanksgiving. We will be satisfied with what we have already said, and shall conclude this chapter by citing the words of a priest of the Congregation of the Mission:

The gratitude of Monsieur Vincent towards his benefactors was extreme. I personally witnessed the acts of virtue which he practiced in regard to the late Monsieur le Bon, former prior of Saint Lazare. He called him “our father.” He visited him often, and when he returned from a trip the first thing he would do, after adoring the blessed sacrament in the church, would be to greet this good prior. I was delighted once in meeting them to see with what respect Monsieur Vincent greeted him. I saw the assurance Monsieur Vincent gave of preserving a grateful memory of the prior’s person, and his charity towards the Congregation of the Mission. He attended his last agony with great devotion. He had the entire community assemble in the sick room to receive his last blessing, which he asked in the name of all. This moved me deeply, as did all the other things he did and said on this occasion, which showed the gratitude he had toward him. I heard him say, speaking of the virtue of gratitude, that we must rejoice when divine Providence gives us an occasion of practicing this virtue. It is so agreeable to God, as he made known to us by establishing thanksgiving sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the Holy Eucharist in the New. This sacrament is named Eucharist, not only because it contains the author of grace, but also because our Lord in instituting it gave thanks to his Father. He required us to offer this same thanksgiving for the innumerable graces and blessings we have received, and continue to receive, from his bounty.

  1. PL 16:57.
  2. Matt 22:21.
  3. This was Brother Louis Robineau.
  4. Documents by which a person’s case would be sent to the palace courts immediately instead of to lower jurisdictions.
  5. At a time when appointments to civil positions were usually sold to the highest bidder, Saint Vincent as the Lord of the lands of Saint Lazare gave these positions to qualified persons without charge.
  6. Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q.106, a.1.
  7. Book Two, ch. 39.
  8. CED XI:201.
  9. Germain de Montevit, who died at Bar-le-Duc in 1640. See Book Two, ch. 11.
  10. CED V:139.
  11. CED V:393.

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