The question “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Mt 15:34) was asked about our Lord and it is understandable that we should ask it about his faithful servant St Vincent. Our saint used to express his admiration for St Francis de Sales as a spiritual guide, so we can look towards him for similarity of outlook. We can also look towards St Francis of Assisi for traces of influence since Vincent spent two or more years at a Fransiscan secondary school at Dax. The Common Rules are taken as containing St Vincent’s definitive expression of Christian wisdom as far as it concerned himself and his confrères. They will be referred to a number of times.
By the end of the year 1618 St Vincent had been a priest for eighteen years, and an excellent one. But it could be said that one thing was lacking in him. In his own words he had “a dry and brusque temperament”. It was at this time that the met Francis de Sales, who came to Paris on business that lasted about ten months. His acquaintance with Francis was a revelation to Vincent on the rôle of meekness in the priestly life.
Shortly after his ordination in 1593 Francis was sent by his bishop to the Calvinist Chablais district in Switzerland. After about a year he had one convert. After two more years there were thousands of them. In 1602 he had spent six months in Paris and preached very frequently. In 1609 he published the Introduction to the Devout Life, and in 1616 the Treatise on The Love of God. In 1618 he was back again in Paris. Speaking more particularly about this period St Jane Frances de Chantal testified:
“Every Sunday and feastday crowds of people used to come to him — men and women of high rank, ordinary citizens, soldiers, servant girls, peasants, beggars, people who were ill, full of sores, stinking of squalid diseases — he welcomed them all without making any difference between them… I am speaking of what I myself saw in Paris, where he often used to hear confessions in our church… People thought there was no one like him for kindness, for love of God, and skilful direction. When it got around that he was passing through some town or going to stay in the country with friends he always had to hear general confessions…”
St Vincent must have heard about these things. But it is remarkable that he does not seem to have spoken about the great labours and the conversions. What St Vincent used to refer to, and repeatedly, was the kindness and gentleness of the bishop of Geneva. St Vincent had an illness in 1622, and afterwards he told some people close to him that during the illness he used to say again and again “My God, how good you must be, seeing that your creature (Francis) is so good”. Almost forty years later, when petitioning the Pope for the beatification of his friend, he recalled this illness and his frequent reflections on the goodness and gentleness of Francis. What exactly it was that his contemporaries saw in Francis is, perhaps, best illustrated by something that happened before his death. He travelled several miles through his diocese to hear the confession of a dying man who refused to confess to anyone else. Vincent called Francis “a living gospel” and said that he came to see in him “the one who was the best likeness of the Son of God on earth. . . Finally, I resolved to allow myself to be formed the way I thought our blessed father would do it”.
To find out what that might mean we can turn to the sworn testimony of St Chantal concerning the virtues of St Francis. She said that the virtues he liked best were small, unseen, virtues. She named humility, meekness, simplicity “and other little virtues that mortify the heart”. Here we note four of the five virtues which St Vincent eventually came to reckon as the faculties of the soul of the Congregation of the Mission (CRII 14); and St Francis called them small. He had this idea about littleness, and urged it not only at the individual level but also, and with emphasis, at the collective level. Speaking about his own Visitation nuns he wrote to a superioress:
The evil spirit exerts his efforts, because he sees that this little institute is useful to the glory and service of God, and he specially hates it because it is little, and the least of all; for he is an arrogant spirit and hates littleness because it serves towards humility — he who always loved pride, haughtiness and arrogance, and who, because he would not stay in his littleness, lost his greatness.
St Vincent himself noted:
There are many communities which think only of the interests of their own communities, because these are so important that they engulf God’s interests.
He had also observed the phenomenon by which certain Religious banished vanity at the individual level only to retrieve it at the collective level:
Is it not a strange thing for someone to imagine that the individuals of a company, like Peter, John and James, ought to flee from honour and love contempt, but the company and community ought to acquire and preserve esteem and honour in the world…; and so all the missionaries ought to be content not only when they find themselves in some occasion of individual contempt but also when the company is despised.
Hence, he scattered frequent reminders of this aspect of humility throughout eight of the chapters of the Common Rules: “little congregation (minima)”; “everyone to the best of his poor ability”; “according to our poor measure”.
With regard to the virtue of humility we may note one difference between the two saints: St Francis refrained from making disparaging remarks about himself; St Vincent did not. But the two were in agreement about the much more important matter of the effort needed to develop a virtue. St Francis said that he concentrated for three whole years on trying to have a more humble opinion about himself. St Vincent said: “A true missionary ought to labour incessantly to acquire this virtue”. That they happened to be speaking about one particular virtue is only incidental here. They would apply the same idea (effort) to the acquisition and growth of any virtue required by one’s state in life. In fact, St Francis had little regard except for that virtue which was won, as he said, “at the point of the sword”. This attitude of the two saints was in contrast to the Quietists who troubled the Church at the end of the century.
This brings us to a subject in which St Vincent differs from St Francis more than in any other matter: fear. Vincent tells us that all his life he had a fear that he might slip into heresy and be enveloped in its errors. Sins of the intellect he regarded as the most dangerous because only rarely did one retract. In one of his conferences he said he knew two saintly people who had allowed themselves to be won over to the new opinions and refused to submit to the judgement of the Pope. The saint remarked that nothing he had ever observed gave him such a vivid idea of Hell as the state of mind of these two people.
One can recall other fears expressed by St Vincent, and they seem to revolve around faith and knowledge. He recalls how in the early days of the missions, when returning to Paris, he used to fear that the gates would fall on, and crush him. In the mission just given he had met so many people who badly needed a mission, and he would say to himself that there must be many others like them in the neighbouring parishes (and here was he, going for a rest!). What the need of those people was, in St Vincent’s eyes, can be seen from his appeal to Fr Du Coudray. The latter wanted to make a new translation of the Old Testament. The saint represented the poor people imploring him to come and help them. They did not need an improved translation of Scripture, just a priest to give them an elementary knowledge of their faith, etc.
He had a fear that God might remove his Church from the countries of Europe (because of the disorders of the clergy). For, he said, that even though our Lord had promised that his Church would last till the end of the world he had not promised that it would continue to exist in individual countries.
He had a fear of knowledge (and a still greater fear of ignorance):
We must have knowledge, my brothers, and alas for those who don’t spend their time well! But let us fear — let us tremble a thousand times more often than I can say; for those who have intelligence have much to fear; scientia inflat; and it is even worse for those without it, if they do not humble themselves.
St Vincent would pilot us with much trepidation between the Scylla of conceited knowledge and the Charybdis of reprehensible ignorance (cf CR XII8).
Fear, in St Vincent, was not the phantasy of a timid pesonality, for good sense and confidence in God are among his most prominent characteristics. His fear was worship of the holy and unsearchable judgements of God, “the beginning of wisdom”. It does not appear that St Francis voiced his fear like St Vincent.
He has, of course, three or four chapters on this topic in the Treatise, and he shows its place in the spiritual life with his usual clarity. But these passages are exposition of doctrine.
As for knowledge, St Francis expresses his regrets:
I am in continual turmoil which the variety of the affairs of this diocese continually produces, without a single day in which I can look at my poor books, which I so loved once, and which I no longer dare to love now, for fear that the divorce from them, into which I have fallen, might become more cruel and afflicting.
He had even greater regrets that in the matter of learning the Church had been caught napping in the previous century. He was convinced that the Reformation did so much harm to the Church because the clergy had fallen behind in learning:
We confined ourselves to saying our breviaries and did not think of acquiring scientific knowledge… Knowledge is the priest’s eighth sacrament.
The two saints realised the necessity and importance of learning in the clergy. It might be said that Francis was the more enthusiastic and Vincent more cautious (cf CR XII8).
As the founder of a Congregation devoted to the giving of missions St Vincent was especially interested in preaching. In this connection he spoke of the virtue of simplicity, a virtue by which one speaks and acts with God alone in view. He said that while we should practise this virtue at all times we should do so more particularly when we preach. He branded as sacrilege the preaching that was done by anyone who used the pulpit to build up for himself a reputation for learning, eloquence, etc. In order to escape from such a danger, and at the same time offer the people instruction that was within every listener’s grasp, the saint most urgently insisted on simple preaching. Moreover, when the subject permitted it (i.e. a sermon on a virtue) he proposed the use of what he called “the little method” — three points: in what the virtue consists; the motives for practising it; the means of acquiring it (cf CR XII5).
There was a well-known example of the simple style. The bishop of Geneva was asked to preach at the Oratory in Paris, 11 November 1618. The King and Queen were present, and the church was so packed that the preacher had to use a ladder and enter by a window. In the pulpit he proceeded to give a very plain narrative account of the saint of the day (St Martin). Some of the congregation felt cheated and were very annoyed. Words like “bumpkin” and “mountaineer” were heard afterwards.
As to “the little method”, St Francis was making use of it (at least in substance) long before the foundation of our Congregation. In a letter to another bishop (1604) he writes:
You can reduce your sermon to method, considering in what the virtue consists, its true marks, it effects, and the means of acquiring or practising it. This has always been my method… There is another method, showing how the virtue is worthy of honour, useful and pleasing, which are the three goods which can be desired.
Since St Francis was a very well-known preacher in Paris it is quite likely that zealous priests studied and analysed his sermons.
St Vincent wished all of us to cultivate the virtue of zeal for souls. This is not a “little” virtue. The distinction between which virtue a person likes best and which one dominates his soul may be little. In any case, St Chantal said that St Francis liked simplicity, meekness etc, best; but in one of her letters she gave it as her judgement that zeal for souls was the dominant thing in him.
St Vincent, too, was all for zeal but against impetuosity. We know how complaints were made about him on account of his slowness in answering letters. On his side, our saint was sceptical about people who were in a hurry with their projects, and he said that he saw nothing more common than the failure of such. He held that God is glorified by the amount of time that we take to think over matters that concern his service. Of course there is a limit. “Life is too short as it is”. In 1657 preparations were in hand for the printing of the Common Rules. Suggestions and tiresome amendments kept pouring in to the saint’s room in St Lazare. Eventually they sparked off a flash of childhood memory: how chickens can go over the same little patch of ground a hundred times and always find something to peck at.
St Vincent was slow to start, but once any work was accepted he was most tenacious. This quality of perseverance in tasks once started made his other quality of cautious slowness imperative, otherwise his time would have been taken up with unworkable schemes. His friend, St Francis, had the same qualities. It took him four months to make up his mind if he himself was the right person to direct St Chantal. And when problems arose he was just as dogged as St Vincent. In fact, St Chantal uses about him a verb that suggests the “mentalilty” of a terrier: il n’en démordait jamais. He would never “unbite”.
Slowness is not opposed to zeal, but insensibility is. St Vincent made earnest appeal to the confrères about a nonchalant, mechanical way of doing the works of the Congregation. He urged us to cultivate sensitivity about the way we perform the liturgical ceremonies and preach the word of God, because when the faithful see that we esteem our function they respond. Zeal, in fact,
…consists in a pure desire to make ourselves pleasing to God and useful to the neighbour … If the love of God is a fire, zeal is its flame; if love is a sun, zeal is its ray. Zeal is what is purest in the love of God.
When expressing the hope that the Congregation would learn to love God with unselfish love St Vincent drew on the example used by St Francis about an expert musician who had been adopted and reared by a prince. When the prince asked him to play he did so willingly, even though he could not hear a single note he played, being deaf. And he continued to obey the order even after the prince had left the room (Treatise, Bk 9, ch 9). It was thus, in fact, that the foundress of the Visitation practised divine love for forty years, and this may explain the terms of profound reverence St Vincent used in writing to her, beyond all other recipients of his letters. Both St Francis and St Vincent draw attention to a subtle failure in this matter, a trap that catches many spiritual people: in their good works and excercises of piety it is not God’s contentment but their own that they seek. This shackles ardent zeal (cf CR XII2, 11).
That the love of God was uppermost in St Vincent’s care of the poor is sufficiently indicated in his words to the Daughters of Charity:
It was never our Lord’s intention, in founding your Company, for you to take care only of the body, because there never will be wanting persons to do that… God has chosen you principally in order to teach the truths necessary for their salvation;
the patron of the Poor telling us what is the particular poverty of the poor.
Our founder accepted a maxim much used by St Francis, who left it as a kind of legacy to the Visitation nuns at Lyons, a few days before he died: “Ask for nothing and refuse nothing”. It is obvious that St Vincent consulted his friend’s conference on this topic when preparing his own one for the sisters (1657). He quoted from it also for the benefit of some of his own seminarists who were injuring their health by trying to advance in perfection without realising their own limitations, (and while counselling the seminarists he was telling the whole community which spiritual writer knew best):
I recall on this subject a saying of the bishop of Geneva, divine words and worthy of so great a man: “ I would not wish to go to God if God did not come to me”. Admirable words! He would not wish to go to God if God did not first come to him. Oh!, how these words come from a heart perfectly enlightened in that science of love! That being so, a heart wounded by charity, which understands what it means to love God, would not wish to go to God if God did not forestall it and draw it by his grace.
In loving God, just as in everything else, one must not “encroach upon Divine Providence, but follow it step by step”.
St Vincent did not incorporate this maxim (“ask nothing, etc”) in the paragraph on indifference, but in the chapter on obedience (CR V 4). Its presence here might make one think that St Vincent felt there was no need for much communication between a superior and his confrères in community. On the contrary, St Vincent believed very strongly in the circulation of information and opinion in community. He was asked about this by St Louise at a council of the Daughters and he replied that nothing was more necessary. He said that there was a certain Sister Servant who caused unbelievable pain by holding herself aloof from her community. Then he added;
I find that over there, where we have the poor wretches of the Mission, if there is a superior who is open, who communicates, everything goes well. On the contrary, if there is someone who stands on his dignity and keeps his mind to himself, that locks hearts and no one would dare to approach him… It is necessary to have this reciprocity.
We know that our saint used to read the Treatise as one of his favourite books. The reply given above seems to be reminiscent (even in its vocabulary) of a sentence of St Francis in which he says that charity is a friendship, and that friendship cannot be unless it is reciprocal, and its groundwork is communication (Bk X, ch 10, and cf CR VIII2: “fraternal charity.. . living together after the manner of dear friends”).
We may take a glance at the two saints’ ideas on ecclesiastical authority. In his use of authority St Francis had a clear idea of the weakness of human nature and the poverty of contemporary faith and discipline. He thought that censures might check some cases of disorder, but were no use for giving vigour to the life of the Church. But if Francis thought little of them Vincent thought far less:
Regulations can be made and censures imposed, (priests) can be forbidden to hear confession, to preach, to beg for alms, but in spite of all that there will be no amendment, and never will the empire of Jesus Christ in souls be extended or preserved by such means. Formerly, God armed heaven and earth against man. Alas! What good did it do? In the end did he not have to lower himself before man in order to get him to accept the sweet yoke of his empire and his guidance? And what God could not do with his omnipotence, how can a prelate do with his power?
St Vincent applies to mental prayer what Sacred Scipture says about Wisdom: “It is through it that all good things come to us” (cf Wisd. 7:11). He was most anxious that his confrères should learn how to pray well. It is one more mark of the great regard he had for St Francis that the method of making mental prayer handed down in our Congregation is that found in the Introduction to the Devout Life (part II, chs 2-7). The two saints, of course, would look upon method as a good servant but a bad master:
Some are continually, as it were, examining and prying into their prayer to see how they make it, or how it could be improved upon, and they think that they must neither cough nor move during it, for fear the Spirit of God should withdraw. Truly, this is a great folly, as if the Spirit of God were so fastidious as to depend on the method and posture of those who pray. I do not say that we ought not to make use of the methods recommended to us, but we must not cling to them, as do those who think that they have never prayed unless they make their considerations before the affections which our Lord gives them, whereas these affections are really the end for which we make the considerations. Such persons resemble people who, finding themselves at the very place to which they intended to go, yet turn back because they have not reached it by the road which was pointed out to them”.
So St Francis. We can easily recall how St Vincent dealt with that last point by the example of a person who wants to light a fire, and so strikes a flint to obtain a flame. He would make himself ridiculous if he kept on striking the flint after he had obtained flame.
The writing of St Francis has been criticised for being too sweet, too florid. Whatever about that, should one neglect great works on account of their style? The dream of St Jerome comes to mind. As a young priest he used to read the Scriptures dutifully, but was often appalled by the style. He would find relief by turning to the classics. In his dream he saw himself brought before the tribunal of our Lord. He was asked about his religion, and answered that he was a Christian. “You lie” said the Judge, “You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian”.
In defence of St Francis’ writing it has been justly observed that one gets no spiritual gimmickry, no ranting, no obscurity, and (saint though he is) the writer has the most helpful quality of making the reader feel that he is only one step ahead of him. But for us, what is most important is the judgement of St Vincent. None of us can imagine our Holy Founder being taken in by “seraphic twaddle” (sic Sainte-Beuve), and recommmending it in all directions. The Treatise was one of the books he read most, and he wrote: “I have carefully arranged that it shall be read throughout our Company”. During his lifetime it was the custom for the sisters to read a chapter of the Introduction every day. When Fr Nacquart was setting out for Madagascar St Vincent asked him to take some copies of it with him.
This special promotion by St Vincent of an author who was himself the co-founder of a religious institute is all the more remarkable because St Vincent showed himself keenly aware that attitudes and practices suitable for one religious family were not so for another. Indeed, St Francis held this opinion just as strongly. It might seem, therefore, that in order to be faithfully Salesian in outlook St Vincent should have been rather silent about the writings of St Francis while speaking to his own communities. The fact that he so openly showed his approval is an indication that, in the judgement of St Vincent, these writings breathed a spirit suitable to his own foundations. How very particular St Vincent was on this point is seen in a conference to the Daughters on the spirit of their Company. He told them to take advice from those people only “to whom God has communicated your spirit”. On one occasion when some sisters were being sent to a town where there was a number of religious communities he advised them that when going to confession there they should go to a secular priest rather than to a confessor of one of the religious houses. It was simply his concern that they should not acquire a spirit other than the one God had given them.
There was another Francis who may have had an influence on Vincent’s development, Francis of Assisi. St Vincent spent a few years at a Franciscan secondary school at Dax. I can only point out a few coincidences, which may well be nothing more. They could, however, indicate ideas implanted in his mind at this period, which gradually matured over the years, (cf Mk 4:26 “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow and grow, he knows not how”.)
We all know how frequently St Vincent turned to the example of Jesus in the Common Rules:
We have, as far as in our power, endeavoured to draw them all, as may easily be seen, from the Spirit of Jesus Christ and the actions of his life”.
Franciscan scholars point out that their founder was the first to do this. It is not that previous founders failed to look towards our Lord. If, however, one compares (for example) the Rule of St Benedict with the first written Rule of St Francis it is obvious that the latter refers to Jesus much more frequently. More than one tenth of the text is direct quotation from the words of Jesus.
In his devotion to our Lord St Vincent dwelt especially on his endurance of humiliations (Jesus aneanti. referring to Philippians 2:7ff). As in so many other things, different sources can be suggested. It is a fact, however, that St Francis was particularly affected by the humility of the Word Incarnate. There is a story among The Little Flowers of St Francis which conveys the message. The saint asks Br Leo where true joy is to be found. He himself suggests that it is to be found in possible brilliant success for his Order, friends in high places, etc, etc, only to reject all such things. The conclusion he comes to is that true joy is to be found in willingly bearing humiliations for Christ. St Vincent in his time made the same choice. He rejected the efforts of his agent in Rome to make an impression on the Papal Court. His bent was “to honour the trials, contradictions, weariness and labours that Jesus endured”, and he held that the best condition for anyone of us to be in was that one which most resembled the life of Jesus, “tempted, praying, labouring, suffering”.
Had St Vincent heard much about St Francis at Dax? When Bremond was doing research for his great work on the history of spirituality in France he was unable to find material to answer some of his own questions about St Vincent. He complained that some communities had a bizarre way of honouring their founder. Was such a complaint ever made about the Friars?
When the first Franciscans started preaching, their theme was penance, “and they were active in the confessional with the same zeal as in the pulpit”. One is reminded about what St Vincent said regarding his own first missions: “I had only one sermon, but I turned it a thousand ways” (“Do penance”). Our Congregation started from a sermon on penance and the general confessions that followed.
The great exponent of Franciscan spirituality is St Bonaventure. In his guidance of souls he insists particularly on humility, examination of conscience, frequent confession, (all interconnected). St Vincent was rather exceptional even among canonised saints, for the frequency with which he approached the sacrament of penance. Had this practice its origin in something he heard in the Franciscan college-chapel at Dax?