The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter XXIV, Section II

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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SECTION TWO: How He Handled the Temporal Affairs of the Congregation

We have seen in several of the preceding chapters how great a reliance Monsieur Vincent had on the Providence of God in regard to what was required for the subsistence of the houses of his Congregation. He held it as an axiom that if the members of his Company were faithful to the rules and fulfilled the duties of their calling, this divine Providence would never fail to provide what was required for their life. In this he relied on the promise of the Son of God, “Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides.”1

This did not prevent him from being careful to preserve and manage the temporal goods of the Congregation. This he did because of the command that we earn our bread in the sweat of our brows, and the plan of God to use secondary causes in carrying out his designs. Just as the father of the family has the responsibility to feed his children, generals of armies to supply arms and equipment for their troops, and the heads of organizations to influence the spirit and life of their members, Monsieur Vincent saw himself as obliged to look after the needs of his community. He worked at this because God willed it, and required it for the good of souls. He had a double care, first, to make the most of what little he had, and second, to use his resources sparingly.

To make the most of the temporal goods of the community he appointed procurators and other knowledgeable people to handle these affairs, but these remained under his close scrutiny. They did nothing without his advice. He often pointed out what they were to do and say, and afterward he would require a report of what had been done. He would often ask them in the evening what they had done during the day, and then give them the next day’s assignment.

So as not to neglect anything, he would often say that once something had been started it ought to be pursued to its conclusion. No matter how careful or accomplished those were who attended to these matters, he did not want them to do anything in the house or outside of it without informing him, though many things were being done. If these procurators were too inclined to go off on their own, he would replace them with others. He would do this even to superiors of the houses if they undertook some major projects, such as building or tearing down a structure, without informing him and obtaining his authorization. He used to say that if everyone did whatever came into their heads, the dependence ordained by God would be weakened, and the house would be marked by constant changes and disorder.

He employed the brothers of the Company to work the farms at Saint Lazare, so that it would be said that the missionaries worked with their hands, as the apostle said, for the sake of the Gospel.2 He employed laymen to help in the domestic work, the farm, and the animals, to provide food for the house at Saint Lazare. This was demanding work, and called on all his ingenuity to meet these needs. He took an interest in both the least and the most important things, occasionally checking the reports in the farmyard at Saint Lazare. He looked after all, cared for all, and used everything, even the trees and fruits of the garden, so that nothing would be lost or wasted for want of foresight and good management. In a word, he considered nothing beneath his dignity or unworthy of his attention.

The missions were given without charge, and he instructed his confreres to take neither money nor gifts from those they evangelized. Nevertheless, he did allow his missionaries to receive gifts or alms, provided they were truly given out of charity, and not by way of salary or recompense. In this, they imitated our Lord’s practice of receiving alms. This is what he wrote to one of his priests on this subject: “There is no problem in receiving the gift of Monsieur N. If you have already turned him down, you may make your excuses. We have no right to refuse what is given us for the sake of the love of God.”3

Second, to save what he could, he wanted the provisions of food and clothing to be appropriate to the times and to the places where the community was situated. He recommended to those in charge to see that let nothing be lost, and that frugality be the general rule. He urged everyone to be satisfied with the clothes and food given them, even though these were of poor quality.4 In bad years, when prices were high, he tried to see if some cutting back of the usual portion of meat or wine served at meals could be made. He sought to share in the common suffering of the people by cutting back on the expenses of the house.

Once when frost had ruined the grain and the vines, he spoke to the community to urge them to have compassion for the suffering people. His talk ended with these words:

We must bear the burden of the poor, and suffer with those who suffer, otherwise we are not disciples of Jesus Christ. But what can we do? Think of the people in a besieged city checking on the food they have left. How many loaves do we have? So many. And how many people are to be fed? So many. And so they decide how much bread each one may have for each day. They figure that at two livres a day they can hold out for such and such a time. If they see the siege is going to last beyond that time, they reduce the ration to one livre of bread, then ten ounces, six, or even four, to prolong the time that they can hold out. This will prevent their being overcome by famine.

And as for the sea, what happens there? Should a ship be driven off course by a storm, the food and water are examined to see if there is enough to last them to the port. The longer they are delayed the smaller the rations become, to stretch them out as long as necessary. The governors of towns and the captains of ships act in this way. Prudence suggests they do so, since otherwise all would be lost. Should we not also do the same? Are you not aware that the tradespeople are cutting back this year? Even the best households, in view of the poor vintage of this season, are cutting back their use of wine, lest they run short next year.

Yesterday, some upper class people who were here told me that some of the houses had completely stopped serving wine to the servants. They were told that there was enough to serve only the master of the house. All this, my brothers, makes us think of what we must do. Yesterday, I brought together the older priests of the community for their advice. It finally was decided to serve only a half-setier of wine at each meal for the rest of the year. This will cause some hardship to those who feel they need a bit more. Yet those used to submitting themselves to Providence and to overcoming their own appetites will make good use of this privation, just as they make good use of other mortifications without complaint.

Perhaps some will complain because they are so tied to their own satisfaction. They are children of the flesh, sensual, pleasure-seekers who are never satisfied. They murmur at everything not in keeping with their taste. O Savior, save us from this spirit of sensuality.5

He avoided all superfluous expenses, spending only the least amount possible for necessities. Yet he spared nothing when it came to charity, as we have said before. He gave everything to God and to souls, but to the flesh and sensuality, to pleasure and conveniences, he gave the least he possibly could. He built no building unless it was absolutely necessary. He spent nothing on embellishments, paintings, ornaments, furniture, or niceties which were not strictly necessary. When pressed to make so-called improvements, he always resisted these changes. He said that God’s Providence was obliged to give us what was necessary, but not anything superfluous.

A superior of one of his houses requested permission to build. He even suggested that Saint Lazare should help pay for it, although it was in no position to do so. Further, he suggested that much good would fail to be done unless the building were constructed, since his community found living in the older building most disagreeable and almost impossible. The request to Monsieur Vincent brought the following prudent reply:

You speak to me of beginning a new building. O Jesus, Monsieur, you must not even think of it. It is a great mercy of our Lord to our Company to have given us the building we now have, such as it is. We must await his divine goodness before we do anything different. We could not avoid the inconveniences you point out to me, for they did not come from us. It seems to me your condition resembles in some way God’s dealings with his people. He permitted them to live in disarray for several centuries, and at the cost of an infinite number of souls. Their experiences put them in a disposition to receive the Son of God, and profit by his life, passion and death, after being prepared by so many warnings, prophecies and yearnings for his coming. If this view is not correct, I shall gladly retract it. If you have a better one, please let me know.6

Monsieur Vincent avoided another source of expenses, into which too obliging superiors often fall. This comes from the natural human desire for change, a desire for a change of location, for better climate or occupation, or because of the people who might be there. Some imagine that everything will be better elsewhere. Sometimes the superior becomes dissatisfied with one of his inferiors, thinking that another would surely be an improvement. According to these people, men have to be changed often, or sent on long trips at great expense. This view comes from a lack of mortification or of mutual support in bearing the defects of others.

There were few houses where these situations did not come up, but Monsieur Vincent would not agree to these transfers. He counseled those concerned to wait a while and be patient, or he excused himself on the grounds of the difficulty of finding a suitable replacement. He would say that in due time he would look into the matter, but with the hope that time would help them lose the desire for a change. He did, from time to time, change certain confreres, but only for good reasons, and never to favor their inconstancy or their personal satisfaction, against which he showed an extraordinary resolve.

He gave this answer to a priest requesting a transfer. It may serve as an example of many others written by Monsieur Vincent in similar circumstances:

It has pleased God to give me an understanding of the Congregation, the state and the needs of each house, and the disposition of each of its members. At present I do not see how you could be more useful to the Congregation than where you now are. In the name of God, Monsieur, hold firm, and be convinced that you will not lack God’s blessings. One of the greatest consolations I have is to see you where you now are, and one day I hope to see you in heaven.7

He did all he could to avoid useless expenses, and in a holy fashion purchased only what was necessary for the service of God. In addition, he was most careful in his use of time. This was precious to him, because of the number of projects he was involved with both in the temporal and in the spiritual spheres. Besides his own Congregation, he directed other groups, so he strove to lose not a single moment in doing anything useless.

First, he was always taken up with praying, speaking, writing, taking or giving advice, solving difficulties and following up on agreed-upon solutions. Second, he robbed himself of sleep to devote more time to his various responsibilities. Besides retiring an hour or two later than the others, to give him time to speak to someone, to finish reading letters sent to him, or for other duties, he continually had to have his charges in mind, like a true shepherd watching over his flock. Third, the other priests of the Congregation enjoyed two hours of recreation each day, an hour after each meal, but Monsieur Vincent used this time for other duties. Fourth, although he gave full liberty for those who spoke to him to say all they wanted, especially those from outside the community, he never engaged in useless chatter or gossip. Even in pious assemblies which met to help the poor or for some other charitable purpose, he would call the discussion back to the point if the speaker digressed. He would often say, “Let us return to the question, wrap it up, and see what remains to be done. Monsieur, or Madame, do you agree we should end this?” Fifthly, he paid few visits, unless they were required by some business, or an expression of gratitude or charity.

This has been a short sketch of his leadership. It is summarized in the next section in a conversation he had with one of his priests, and written down immediately after by the person concerned.

  1. Matt 6:33.
  2. 1 Cor 4:12.
  3. CED I:137.
  4. Common Rules 3,7.
  5. CED XII:286-88.
  6. CED V:441.
  7. CED IV:380-81.

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