On 23 September 1600 a young man knelt before an old bishop at Chateau l’Evêque; he was being ordained to the priesthood. He was no more than 20 years of age, and his name was Vincent de Paul. The premature ordination did not indicate a corresponding precocious sanctity, but more exactly a widespread unhappy condition of the priesthood which was in urgent need of reform. It is true that reform was under way in some places, as, for example, at Dax where the zealous new bishop was initiating better ways. But Vincent, for whatever reasons, did not receive priestly anointing from his episcopal hands1. The Tridentine clerical renewal, not given royal blessing in France till 1615, would later be one of the great consuming pastoral concerns of Vincent de Paul. But that lay a long way off in 1600.It is not my intention here to narrate in detail the wonderful projects on behalf of seminaries and the priestly life and ministry, though I am keeping these in mind. Rather my specific intention is to look at Vincent’s experience of priesthood, and his reflections on it. So I want to draw frequently on the rich reservoir of St Vincent’s story as we follow him with vivid interest through the pages of his epic, re-lived, so to speak, and life-bringing to his sons of today some centuries further along the road. As a result of this vivified contemplation of our Founder my desire is that we would deduce some possibly great, workable and lasting insights bearing on our own experience of priesthood at the present time.
I think it is not too much to hope that our exploration, under the Spirit’s guidance, may have far-reaching effects in the renewal of the Vincentian charism in our priesthood — what emphatically characterises us as Vincentian priests. I am aware that many of our confrères around the world are engaged like us in this noble ideal, and in many ways, whether in the vineyard of daily labour, the painstaking task of research, at the well-spring of silent prayer, or in patient, relentless, suffering. I suggest that all these are complementary, and flow into and from each other. We then go on with this purpose of discovering the true Vincent and taking his spirit into our hearts only to let it pour out from us to present an authentic priesthood in this period of history.
Views on priesthood in St Vincent’s time
Feudal society and later monarchic rule provided a structural background influencing attitudes in the religious sphere during the late Middle Ages and into the 17th century. Clichtove’s image of priesthood was prevalent up to, and in, St Vincent’s lifetime. This author, reflecting the current opinion, saw priesthood primarily in relation to cult; and the consequence of this was a tendency to separate priest from people. Priests and monks were placed far above the level of ordinary believers. According to this image priests became for the first time completely clerical and monastic, and spiritual literature on the priesthood has had clear echoes of this model right down to Vatican II2. Closely allied to this view formulated in the 16th century was one with much older roots, perhaps dating back to Pseudo-Dionysius of the patristic era. The theory stated that as higher angels illuminated those of a lower plane, so priests, being higher in the hierarchy of salvific economy, transmit redemptive influence to the laity and bring them to God3. The Council of Trent did not set out to present a complete doctrine of the Catholic conception of priesthood and priestly ministry. The canons of the Council emphasised the priest’s presidency at the Eucharist and the performance of other sacramental acts. Trent also affirmed the ministry of pastoral leadership and proclamation, both in association with the episcopate4. More interesting perhaps than these statements of Trent were the actual effects they-were to produce in the future history of the Church. But that is a whole story in itself. More important for our present task is the extent, greater or lesser, to which St Vincent imbibed, assimilated or modified existing attitudes on priesthood. He himself recalled with enduring satisfaction the impression made on him in Rome by Clement VIII. He saw that Pope there probably in 1601, and always regarded him as a saint. It seems that it was on the occasion of that Roman visit that Vincent made his first real encounter with the mysterious world of sanctity.
Cardinal de Bérulle’s concept of the priesthood was well-known to St Vincent, and had effects on his own early ministry in particular. “Priests should practise the religion of Christ towards his Father”5. Here the two men are on common ground, but while Bérulle tended towards subtlety and speculation, Vincent succeeded in taking the priesthood out of the purely theoretical sphere and into the reality of fraternal service unfolding in a discerned activity. Bérulle presented a powerful doctrine of the Incarnation and the call to all people to do God’s will, and be redeemed in Christ. However, the great Oratorian “mystic of essences” somehow falls short of a dynamic direction which would bring to fruition this religion of the interior.
Evolution and labours of Vincent the priest
Vincent de Paul was alert to the conditions about him, and to other people and available writings. Francis de Sales and Benet of Canfield came into the young priest’s orbit during the second decade of the 17th century. The Salesian Love of God with its unmistakable resonances of Teresian simplicity and gentleness softened the rigour and sharpened the active ministry of Vincent. Benet of Canfield’s Rule of Perfection counselled him to follow the will of God and “be clothed with Jesus Christ”.
The second decade of the 17th century was also crucial for the young Vincent for other reasons. It was the decade of his trials: the false accusation, and, according to Abelly, the horrific night of faith. Bérulle, to his eternal credit, stayed with him in these hardest of times. Out of the uterine darkness of purgation came the priest disillusioned with former ambitions. His altogether new self-gift in ministry to the poor was the antithesis of the soft option for a comfortable life on a fat benefice. The experience of pastoral ministry in the countryside, and especially at Folleville and Châtillon, channelled the evolving spiritual energy of Vincent towards a realisation of the kingdom, not just in himself, but far beyond, among those who were neglected and hungry for the word, in the hearts of the poor.
It appears rather odd that Bérulle, who approved of Vincent’s early apostolate among the poor, should later oppose the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission. In the meantime the Oratorian had been adopting a policy of constriction towards the Discalced Carmelite nuns and, to say the least, Vincent was not in agreement with it. At all events, the young priest from Dax was now becoming more autonomous spiritually and more sensitive to the Spirit’s urgings in himself. Also, from about 1618 (the year of Bérulle’s clash with the Carmelites) he had as his spiritual director Fr André Duval, the humble Sorbonne professor, who was also a true friend to the Carmelites. This holy man remained his director for many years till his death in 1638. He allowed Vincent to mature into his forties and beyond. He guided him wisely to new pastures of priestly zeal and ministry. One of these was the Little Company of the Mission6.
Madame de Gondi, the “woman behind the man” who preached at Folleville in 1617, urged him to establish a new community to preach the Gospel on her estates. For some time Vincent had performed a kind of peripatetic mission, drawing now and then on the collaboration of others. He invited other communities to enter this apostolate along with him on a more permanent basis. After these communities had turned down his request Vincent, after much reflection, decided to undertake the new foundation. On the way to his final discernment he made two retreats, from which he reaped a treasure which is surely part of his priestly charism, and ours. He had in fact a strong pull and desire to go ahead into action, but he rightly feared that this might be an all too natural inclination, and might even come from the evil spirit. So at the Soissons retreat he prayed insistently that he might be free of this too natural attraction, and of the haste which beset him. And he says: “The Lord in his mercy deigned to hear me so that he took away from me this desire and haste, and allowed me to enter into the contrary dispositions” (II, 247). It still took a decisive nudge from Fr Duval to give Vincent the confirmation he needed in regard to God’s plan. As a good directee he poured out his heart to the prudent professor, who listened carefully and responded positively to his aspirations. On hearing his reply Vincent felt in his heart a strong outpouring of grace; he now experienced the peace and reassurance which accompany all true invitations from God. He abandoned himself totally to the enterprise.
The extensive project of preaching, teaching, conversion and healing among the people could not be carried out by a congregation of priests, no matter how devoted; there was required a holy and active priesthood right across the board. As one peruses the whole Vincentian story, the great work of priesthood renewal is one of the most inspiring and, I think, enduringly valid. The Tridentine seminary reform was slow in penetrating the maze of obstacles established by accepted usage, not least the poor quality of staff personnel in seminaries. Some reform was going on in this area. Among those already doing fine work in seminary ministry were the Jesuits for quite some time, and the Oratorians from 1612. Interestingly, St Vincent, with acute insight into human nature, did not favour the seminary recruitment of young boys, but he set great store by a thorough intellectual, pastoral and spiritual formation of men mature enough and ready to advance towards diaconate and priesthood. These he especially welcomed to the Bons Enfants College. He also pursued with remarkable resourcefulness and energy what we call today renewal courses for priests already in the ministry. These courses were diversified into several disciplines. The methods could obviously not be as sophisticated as today’s, yet they reveal a heart in the right place and we find a splendidly modern insight of the saint in his promotion of the association of priests who met for the famous Tuesday Conferences7.
Vincent de Paul, for all his far-reaching labours and love for the clergy, was the exact opposite of a clerical exclusivist. The wide expanse of his outlook was none other than universal in its embrace of the kingdom which is ultimately the possession of the poor in spirit. This man of Pauline courage and indomitable charisma was like another apostle striding the pages of Acts. Indeed his ministry and its light and fire have more than tenuous reminders of the Lucan early Church story. This chronicle of the young Church depicts the excitement of beginnings and the inebriating inflow of the Spirit. Vincent in some degree recaptures this sense of openness and sheer joy in love and service. He is not living today “in the body” to see the new expansion of multiple ministries in the life of the Church. But, no doubt, the mushrooming and variety of ministry would be in accord with his spirit, all of course with due deference to lawful authority. Châtillon was a discovery of lay potential in charity. It was a seed from which a great tree of love, variegated, rich and fruitful would spring up. The branches were laypeople, all who were willing to love, and give, and act, and the fruits were the love shared with the poor and all in need. A ministry of enlightenment, hope, and healing ensued, balm poured forth on a suffering world, and the laity were enrolled in this gentle kingdom of service. At this moment in time Vincent would find a responsibe chord in his heart for the modern agencies of mercy and relief, or for a group of Vincentians (or Vincentians in spirit) pouring oil on the wounds inflicted by drug abuse, or loneliness, or false prophecy, or unemployment. In a beautiful affirming talk to his lay ministers of charity he compares their position to that of the close followers and assistants of Jesus and his disciples of the infant Church:
There is no condition in the world which is so close to their state as yours. They went from place to place to care for the needs not only of the Gospel workers but also of the indigent faithful (XIII, 815).
Together with groups of laity and his own community St Vincent had a unique partner in St Louise de Marillac, who, with him, founded the Daughters of Charity. It was a case of new progeny rising from the family tree when the Company of the Daughers was established in 1633 and Louise, already eminent for her charitable work, was the right hand of St Vincent with regard to this new burgeoning of divine love released upon the world. In this context, as in many others, Vincent the priest esteems, listens to and incorporates women into the development of the Kingdom. He is not a feminist devotee of the 20th century, but a man who accepts fully the discipleship and ministry potential of womanhood. The launching of the Daughters into the city slums and the remote countryside was a stroke of genius, and also an act of faith in their spiritual calibre. Part of their apostolate, as that of the priests, was concerned with adult formation and education in the faith, something which was then appropriate and is now one of the most pressing needs of the Church. Vincent would use homely expressions of the Daughters, like “a fine big girl”, “a really good girl, judicious and gracious”, “little Barbara”8. These endearing sum-ups show us his affection as well as good judgement. Surely his acceptance of women is an indication of a mature man at ease with his celibacy, and an imaginative cue-taking from his observation of women’s role in the New Testament.
Vincent’s particular insights on priesthood
At this point I want to reflect a little on the central vision of St Vincent regarding the priesthood, and then try to weave this living reality into our own experience of priesthood in the present age. From all we have been saying it is clear that our Founder was not cramped by the prevailing concepts of priesthood. Recently when I mentioned to somebody that he advocated simplicity and con-creteness in preaching, the response was that he was a man ahead of his time. He was ahead of his time in so many ways, but also he was strikingly wise in starting from the real position on the ground and in people’s minds; he was a man of his time too. He subscribed in some degree to the Pseudo-Dionysian priestly model, mentioned above (cf XI, 348). On many occasions he expressed his highest esteem for the glory of the priesthood on earth as participating in the priesthood of Christ. He even went so far as to say:
If I had known what the priesthood was before I had the temerity to enter that state…, I would have preferred to work the land rather than to commit myself to such an office (V, 568).
Exaggeration, no doubt, due to the saint’s humility. But Vincent was not paralysed by its awesomeness, and was always faithful to his call, relying on the grace it carried. He clearly distinguished the ministerial priesthood from the laity. But perhaps one of his most brilliant insights was to put the priesthood at the service of his brothers and sisters in a most radical way, to insert the priesthood and the priests he contacted into a living pastoral realism and love. The true greatness of the Vincentian priesthood is not separateness or superiority but a tent-pitching among humankind, a presence and brotherhood with people as they are. Along this wavelength heaven is found in hovels; the grace of Ordination becomes alive among the poor from the threshold of a royal palace to a traveller’s caravan; the unloved are loved by those who bear the Vincentian emblem, so that through us they can believe in the Father’s love for them. In words full of evangelical passion, St Vincent skilfully proclaims the special character of his followers:
What reason has not the Congregation to humble itself, seeing the choice which the Lord made of it, since to the present day there has not been the like; and, be it said to the shame of our times, a congregation having for end to do that which Our Lord has come on earth to do — to announce the gospel to the neglected poor — has been but an object of contempt to the present age. Yet such is our end: to do what Jesus Christ has come on earth to do: “Evangelizare pauperibus misitme”. O! What an end!9
This typical, though not fundamentalist, likeness to Jesus and his mission was, and is, the inner secret of Vincent’s charism: to go and bring the Good News of God’s kingdom to the neglected poor, yesterday, today, always. This is our obsession and peace. The peace of Christ may disturb us, but is disturbs only in order to bring freedom and peace to us now and at the last.
Our portion, then, Gentlemen and my Brothers, are the poor. The poor! Evangelizare pauperibus misit me. What a blessing! Gentlemen. What a blessing! To do that which our Saviour has come on earth to do, and by this means to ascend from earth to heaven…10
Here is something to project one ahead on the road of Jesus, in his company, filled by the confidence he inspires. “Where I am, there shall my servant be” (Jn 12:26). And here, too, is another great part of the Vincentian secret. It is the mustard seed of the word ready for abundant growth at all moments, given goodwill, effort and atten-tiveness to the Lord. This awareness of the Lord will find times of more intense expression in the context of daily meditation and a rich liturgical life, but also a whole prayerful attitude to life in every respect, a life reflected upon, derived from Christ, and directed back to its source in the Trinity.
“The Congregation of the Mission will last as long as it faithfully carries out the practice of prayer” (XI, 83). These are sublime and sobering words of St Vincent who himself discovered a deep and prolonged experience of priesthood and of God in his sustained prayer life. He passes on the experience to us in order that we may grasp the truth that all is emptiness without the fullness of a sound life of prayer.
A look at ourselves
At the present moment it appears as if the Congregation is maturing deeply. Signs of new plants can be spotted in the Vincentian field of the Church. Much also seems to be going on beneath the surface, roots refreshed, reaching upwards, soon, with the help of God, to break forth in a new spring of hope and goodness. A spirit of adventure and evangelical boldness invites us to affirm the goodness to be found in the world about us, and to challenge current popularly-accepted non-Christian values.
One day, a young priest imagined he would like to proclaim Christ to the crowds in a busy city centre. It was sheer madness, of course (though Paul, who trod the Roman Empire long ago would hardly think so, nor do the cult devotees of today). The priest’s fervour did not last, perhaps fortunately. Only a crackpot or a saint would try such a thing, and the reckoning of our modern mentality would probablly rightly consign such a one to the former category. But what Catholic priest or Vincentian priest, with co-operators, would think of initiating popular Christian renewal in halls about our cities, in neighbourhood groups, in roadside mission (we already have the parish missions and the Travellers’ Mission), a lunchtime evangelisation, presence at pop concerts or youth festivals for Sunday Mass and direct apostolate, talks and leadership in Christian meditation and contemplation (the oriental groups are very active with the thoughts of their own masters), study and programmes of action on the greatest spiritual needs in contemporary society? (St Vincent saw the horrendous state of the poor and the sacerdotal wastelands, and then discerned the way to action). These are some of the questions among the many that may be asked, though the answers are another matter, and in all fairness and respect it must be said that many of our confrères are launching fresh initiatives in some of these, and other, areas. Here the heart could run away with the head, but also the head could be so cool as to cripple new possibilities, which are sometimes accompanied by risk and even failure. Certainly, means have to be proportionate to ends, and caution cannot be thrown to the winds. This kind of holy restlessness needs discerning, but I think it is great, especially now, to hear about new dreams, and to be open to the genuine prophetic voices within and without. It is good for us all to be tuned in to the insights, to listen, to reflect, to decide with the Spirit’s guidance, to go forward with innovative vigour, perhaps very painfully.
We have gained much inspiration from events of recent years and new fruitfulness in the Congregation, intraprovincial and worldwide. We have had the Provincial and General Assemblies, and the 1981 Fourth Centenary with its prophetic letter from Pope John Paul II to Fr McCullen. The Pope thinks of Vincent today “finding the way of the poor, the new poor”. There has occurred the Provincials’ meeting on Mission at Bogota in 1983. We are witnessing the Lord’s goodness in the spiritual fruitfulness and fresh promise of our young confrères in Columbia, Brazil, Nigeria, Poland, Austria and elsewhere. These seem to be among today’s “signs of the times”. And, most recently, the Congregation has experienced the Vincentian Month held in Paris in July 1984. Here was a whole mine of new richness betokening an ever-youthful Congregation to be unfolded in powerful mission in the fulness of God’s time.
I now want to pick out a few of the many fine splendours of St Vincent’s priestly ideal and experience, and propose that in these areas we might find the fertile seeds of growth at this point in our story. I would like in this process to work from the outside inwards, so to speak, like following a light back to the lamp which is its source.
First, it seems to me that the Vincentian priesthood is alive and well. It shares the beauty of the Catholic priesthood throughout the world, as found in the New Testament, developed in the life of the Church, and transmitted through history. Now, especially in the light of Vatican II and renewal in all communities (including our own), the true inner essence of Christ’s ministerial priests should be discovered and asserted. “The ministry itself (of priests) by a special title forbids them to be conformed to this world”11. The Council’s words contain encouragement for us priests to resist the “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (Jm 3:15) in ourselves and in the world. So, a strong evangelistic voice from us proclaims the word of life and the truth that sets us and all people free.
Wherever we are, whatever we do, this patient, divine word goes out from us to youth in our colleges and other places, to parishioners, to our seminarians, above all to the poor.
The poor did not receive much explicit mention in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It is since 1965 that they have cried most pleadingly across all boundaries. In Gutierrez’s phrase “theology from the underside of history” is now well and truly being written and lived. The Latin American theologians have reawakened our dormant consciousness and revolutionised Christian awareness on the existence of the poor. Paul VI and John Paul II have added momentum and weight to this trend. Vincent de Paul’s vision and words again come to life, most of all in the hearts of his sons and daughters. The poor transcend terms like conservative and liberal. They are concerned with bread, a decent life and a liberating Gospel of love and brotherhood, where prayer is born out of authentic celebration of the Eucharist. That poor man, Father Vincent, speaks to us again:
Yes, the Lord asks us to evangelise the poor. It is what he did, and wants to continue doing through us… What happiness, my brothers! And also, what an obligation to have an affection for it (our vocation). Therefore a great motive we have is the grandeur of the task: to bring the poor to the knowledge of God, to announce Jesus Christ to them, to say that the kingdom of heaven is near, and that that kingdom is for the poor. How noble this is (XII, 79-80).
Vincent thus catches the inner heart of our priesthood, its very essence. And in doing so he puts himself in the company of the most enthusiastic incarnationists. But we know that the Incarnation began with Christ, and always it has to include Christ in order to avoid ending up in the byways of mere philanthropy.
Secondly, we trace back a little further the light that illumines a prophetic message of humble spiritual leadership and partnership among the poor. Recently, on learning about new groups working among the poor, I was fascinated by the fact that these people live very simply and humbly. Their lifestyle is a sincere and pellucid witness to the poor whom they love. Their day-to-day living is eloquent and unmistakable, and compels credibility. I do not think the Vincentian way asks for an extreme form of poverty. We need reasonable community conditions, shelter and clothing. We need substantial food and the wherewithal to live and work effectively. Sufficient recreation and leisure, with opportunities for quietude, are also sound elements in our situation. The extent of all these is surely something for us to reflect on, though not easy to legislate on. Vincent, as up to date as the latest spiritual theologians, sets poverty in its true perspective:
Having made this vow of poverty we no longer hold on to anything, we are no longer attached to honours, riches and pleasures; and after that, shall our heart be without love? No. It must then give its love and affections to God. The vow of poverty, therefore, is nothing else than a sovereign and perfect means of loving God indeed (XII, 380).
The basis and effects of Christian poverty are stated in these words, and we are called to something even deeper than material poverty: dependence on God, our treasure (Mt 6:19-21). We become like Jesus and the biblical anawim, and in some way we can thus approximate to the lives of those we serve. In this regard, and in many others, the quality of our personal lives and fraternity is a sure indicator to the level of witness we give in the apostolic activity we undertake.
Thirdly, and lastly, I wish to say something about the luminous point, where our light is intensified and where especially we reach the Father of Lights. I refer to our daily prayer, and the more extended periodic solitudes of our lives. Interior prayer, mature reflection, which blends with our liturgical activity (Mass, Penance, sacramental ministry, the Divine Office), and with all our labours and relationships, is the precious time of heightened presence, intimate conversation with Jesus Christ, and interior delight in God. Individually and communally we can draw water from the wells of the Lord. There, in interior prayer, we become conscious of the Spirit’s promptings, lights, and the pulls of challenge, perhaps a treatment of healthy guilt at times. The divine life in us, born at baptism, nourished by sacraments, especially a living Eucharist, is fostered in the quiet hours of prayer, and in the sanctuary of a surrendered heart. A good knowledge of prayer and purification of self in accordance with a developing prayer life is a real need for all serious Christians. We give the daily desert time a high esteem in our diverse situations. And we could find great value in taking a quiet period at regular intervals for personal solitude and growth in friendship with Christ, “abiding” with him (cf Jn 15). Within our ministry, too, we can find a wealth of prayer, awareness and spirituality. In this way we would be able to discern more clearly the new invitations which the Lord extends to us, and receive strength to respond to them; our spirituality would be incarnational and transcendent in a balanced, harmonious realism.
As to ways of praying, it is for each of us to see how the Spirit is leading us. St Vincent was wary of contemporary tendencies towards quietism and illuminism, yet he says contemplation occurs where the soul in the presence of God does nothing else but receive what he gives it. It does nothing but what God himself inspires in it, without any effort on its part… God himself fills your spirit and imprints on it a knowledge which you would never have reached (IX, 420-421).
So he appreciates this manner of praying, though for him in this area the most important point was to be praying consistently according to the divine urge in each one, and above all with good fruit in love. He also sapiently asserts that “perfection in fact does not consist in following a form of prayer, but in charity”12. So, like Mary who pondered in her contemplative heart, we pray in silent times and with voice, but also reach out to others in our visitations of charity. I have tried to trace back the Vincentian charism of priesthood to its source. There, the brilliant light of the Trinity is found and shines forth in the heart of St Vincent de Paul who in the plan of Providence transmits beams from the spectrum in special tonalities to us who carry the Vincentian torch. We in turn let this light radiate, in harmony with the whole Church, and with an explicit expression of prayer, humble love, service and solidarity upon our brothers and sisters, especially the poor of our time.
- Coste: The Life and Labours of St Vincent de Paul, three vols, London 1934, translated by Joseph Leonard. Cf vol 1 pp 31ff. Román: San Vicente de Paúl, I, Biografía, Madrid 1981, cf pp 53ff. Mott: Saint Vincent de Paul et le sacerdoce, Paris 1900, cf pp 57ff.
- Schillebeeckx: Ministry, London 1981, cf pp 58ff.
- Orcajo and Pérez Flores: San Vicente de Paúl, II, Espiritualidad y seleccion de escritos, Madrid 1981, cf pp 60ff.
- Schillebeeckx: op cit, cf pp 60ff.
- Delarue: The Missionary Ideal of the Priesthood according to St Vincent de Paul, privately printed English translation, cf pp 41ff. Ibanez: Vicente de Paúl: Realismo y encarnación, Salamanca 1982, cf pp 184ff.
- Román, op cit, pp 167-168.
- Coste, op cit, I, pp 264-267.
- Coste, op cit, I, pp 336-337, 339.
- A Collection of the Conferences of St Vincent, Dublin 1881, p3. (This translation, published anonymously, was by Malachy O’Callaghan and John Burke and was made from the imperfect Pémartin edition. This passage is slightly different in the Coste edition, XII pp 3-4. Ed.)
- Ibid, p 4.
- Presbyterorum ordinis, §3. Cf Rm 12:2.
- Abelly: Vie du vénérable serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul, livre III, ch VII. (Pagination varies with edition, books and chapters remain the same).