In a book of dazzling intuition about St Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton memorably remarked that Francis and Thomas Aquinas had saved us from spirituality. You may well blink. If you didn’t, you haven’t really been paying attention. The wisdom of this insight grows ever-deeper in me. One thinks of all sorts of transient phenomena posturing as spiritual wisdom, including recent outbreaks such as ‘New Age’, ‘apparitional’, so-called Celtic, and Charismatic in various manifestations, – don’t start me on “Ignatian”, nor on much of the arrant nonsense that passed as spirituality during our programming in religious life. Chesterton’s insight [he seems to have been alluding to the Albigenses] – came back to me recently when I was ruminating about the life of Vincent de Paul. I found myself wondering if Vincent himself had been saved from spirituality?Probably “yes” – at any rate from two prevailing “spiritualities”; one purveyed by de Bérulle (the so-called ‘French School’) and the other by the Jansenists (and, of course, he steered clear of Ignatianism if there was such a thing then). Bérullism favoured a “High” spirituality of priesthood… rather conceptualised, and heady… which really would not have suited Vincent’s purposes at all (he wouldn’t say that he had purposes – but his missioners were to be simple priests speaking simply to rural, unlettered peasants about the mercy of God. The Jansenists disapproved of the liberal way in which Vincent’s missioners offered absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation.Vincent’s moderation is further variously evidenced by the style of communication he favoured on parish missions; and by the methods he employed in the renewal of the clergy, and in tackling the innumerable socio/economic problems that called out for justice. All were characterised by low-key, common sense matter-of-factness.As for the parish missions: emphasis was to be on catechism – during instruction given at noon and in the evening. When, later, Vincent found that some of the missioners were turning the evening slot into a preaching session, he was disappointed. What was wanted, he believed, was instruction, not a rousing of people’s emotions – nor indeed of the preacher’s. He seemed convinced that these simple people did not really want or need “preaching”: what they needed was an exposition of basic truths. The exposition was didactic; and though its purpose was to move the heart to repentance, there was to be nothing that even hinted of emotionalism. Vincent was all too aware of the dangers of delusion in religious matters. The transformation in preaching was truly innovative – its style of communication actually effecting change in the Parisian theatre. It was a change from the melodramatic to the conversational; from the affected to the real; from the erudite to the simple; As for Jansenism, the case is interesting, for Vincent may temperamentally have had inclinations in that direction
Early in his ecclesiastical career when he first came to Paris, he lodged with and was friendly with Jean Duvalier, usually known to history as the Abbé St Cyran – a circumstance that was brought up against Vincent by the devil’s advocate at the process of his Beatification. Before he meets any of those who apparently were to some extent significant spiritual influences – de Bérulle, Duval, Duvergier, de Sales– Vincent had made his first visit to Rome, in 1601, shortly after his ordination, and was moved to tears by the experience, speaking feelingly of the holiness of Pope Clement VIII. Among the pluses in Clement’s able and momentous pontificate was the effecting of a cessation in the wars of religion which had racked France for forty years (the great minus was the affair of Giordano Bruno – it would be very interesting to know if Vincent’s path crossed his during their respective sojourns at the University of Toulouse, which coincided chronologically).
There would have been graphic memories of religious denominational struggles in the conversations Vincent would have heard in his youth. Their way of life was always a struggle for the peasantry. For as well as the usual hazards of hand-to-mouth subsistence farming, Vincent’s own region near Dax, where his parents had raised their six children, had suffered considerably in what are referred to as the wars of religion. The area had been pillaged and terrorised by the Protestant gangs of Jeanne d’Albret (mother of King “Paris is worth a Mass” Henry IV). It will also be recalled that Vincent’s ordination to priesthood was unable to proceed in the cathedral of St. Etienne, seat of the Bishop of Perigeaux, because the town was under the control of militant Huguenots, who had rendered the cathedral unusable.
Vincent never alluded to these events and always preached a humble dialogue with Protestants. Presumably he learned such restraint in his family milieu – more than restraint, toleration. He was also fortunate in having for a time Francis de Sales as a spiritual guide – a man whose charity and prudence in dealing with Calvinists, were legendary. It’s one thing to have a good teacher, another to be a good pupil. Vincent showed that he was open to the moderation taught and modelled by the Bishop of Geneva. He doesn’t let matters of religious strife infect his ministry. His pastoral work in Châillion-sur-Challaronne was a model of ecumenism for its time.
He doesn’t intervene in Richelieu’s fierce suppression of the Catholic party – which had an added grief to it in that the uncle of Louise de Marillac, Vincent’s closest associate in the works of charity – was summarily executed at Richelieu’s orders. Vincent advises her calmly to see it all in spiritual terms (nothing could be done about it anyway).
When he does intervene, during the Fronde, it’s to go to Mazarin and plead with him that the people are suffering – they are hungry, they exist in miserable conditions, they are being terrorised… his pleas fail to get Mazarin to change his policies. Indeed, Vincent nearly loses his life in consequence – and with it would have fallen his projects for the poor, and the good name of his various organisations – for a false report begins to circulate that Vincent is collaborating with “the enemy”. But though Mazarin didn’t change his policies, Vincent managed to orchestrate a whole raft of agencies to minister to the casualties of the fighting… So successful was he on so many fronts, that it almost seems necessary to assert that there was nothing underhand about Vincent – he was not a “Fixer or an “operator” nor glory-seeker, as these terms would now be applied to many successful men in public life, civil and ecclesiastical. There were no deals done in smoky taverns, or promises that led to compromised pay-back times; nor any hint of brown envelopes. Nor, despite the revolution he wrought in France, was there anything confrontational about him. Quite the contrary; for though he was passionate about the poor and marginalised, there is no suggestion of anything that could be construed as being politically subversive.
Vincent’s two greatest contemporaries in 17th century France were Descartes and Richelieu. Descartes was all about separations, Vincent all about bringing things and people together. Richelieu, with whom Vincent would have had dealings, also brought some things together – brought France and the French together, but at the cost of great human suffering; and with such violence, that inevitably there would be repercussions in the years ahead. Vincent’s projects, being holistic, and gentle, and prompted by the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, took root and grew amazingly. And this was achieved without anything that could be termed a revolution in either church or state. It was, rather, the quintessential mustard seen of the Gospel.
With his intelligence, the influential contacts available to him, both secular and religious, with his passion for the poor and weak, and with the possibilities available to him when people in their hundreds sat at his feet whether at parish missions, at retreats, in seminaries, or in formation as Daughters of Charity, Vincent could easily have wreaked mischief had he been an extremist, or even unbalanced – like Calvin, for example, or the Jansenists, or the devotees of Port Royal.
Instead of becoming an ideologue, he became wise; and the grace of God purified him, and moderated and mellowed his judgements and decisions; “moderation” was an expression of that wisdom, which is the gift of the Spirit of God.