Vincent de Paul: Approaches to Government

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Author: Dr Alison Forrestal · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

This text is reprinted by kind permission of the author, who teaches in the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Galway. It is the text of an address which she gave to the Trustees of the DePaul Foundation in Paris, earlier this year.

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In 1626, the government of the Congregation of the Mission was not an especially complex task. As an urgent priority, this small foundation of four priests had been placed on a sound legal and financial footing under the terms of the contract signed one year earlier by Vincent de Paul and his longterm employers, the Gondis. This guaranteed the Congregation a capital sum of 45000 livres, the income from which should be devoted maintaining at least six priests who would perform missions every five years on the rural Gondi lands and amongst galley convicts. The youthful association’s legitimacy and security was further safeguarded when the archbishop of Paris formally approved its founda- tion in April 1626, and granted it the medieval college of Bons-Enfants three months later. However, one month before the royal letters patent for the Congregation were issued in May 1627, the foundation contract was modified, and the alterations to it bear the marks of a superior who was already being obliged to consider the future expansion of the still tiny association as well as the potential pitfalls that might bedevil it in the future. Now, excepting the plan for five yearly missions on their lands, the Gondi family agreed to withdraw all contractual clauses that had ascribed them any power over the Congregation’s missions as well as over ‘the manner of life’ of its members. Significantly, the initial contract’s instruction that the Congregation’s superior should be elected triennially once de Paul died was revoked in favour of an order that the election of superiors should be left ‘to the Regulations or Constitutions that will be made and drawn up’ by him.

An already changing situation

By this time, de Paul had joined his companions in Bons-Enfants, and the path was now clear to establish a distinctive structure for the Congregation that was not so tightly bound to its patron founders. From a tiny and quite inauspicious beginning, the group expanded at first slowly, then with pace: landmarks included its acquisition of a new base for operations at Saint-Lazare in 1632, papal approval of the Congregation in 1633 and the distribution of its Rules and Constitutions in 1658. By the time of de Paul’s death, its infrastructure included twenty-four establishments in France, mainly established from 1638, and it had sent members to Italy, Savoy, Poland, Ireland, Scotland, North Africa and Madagascar. Recruitment flourished from the mid-1630s, with at least four hundred and twenty-six members during de Paul’s superior generalship, while an extensive network of patrons had been cultivated wherever the Congregation operated. In addition, the association allied with two other ‘Vincentian’ organisations, the Ladies of Charity and the Daughters of Charity. De Paul maintained a vigilant eye on the activities of these female organisations, in collaboration with Louise de Marillac and a succession of able presidents of the Ladies, and the Daughters remained formally under the authority of the superior general of the Congregation. Excluding their Parisian bases, the Daughters had forty- two establishments in France by 1660, and it is reasonable to assume that branches of the Ladies of Charity existed alongside them as well as in other areas in which the Congregation operated.

The constellation of Congregation, Daughters and Ladies ensured that the range of activities that required the superior general’s input moved far beyond the guidance of a small community and the delivery of rural missions: it extended to the administration of seminaries, running of retreats and charitable initiatives. When Vincent de Paul gazed outward from Saint-Lazare in the twilight of his long career, how did he explain this dramatic and sustained growth? He would surely have assumed that divine providence was the principal architect of the steps and events that had enabled the three organisations to emerge initially, to expand and to consolidate. As he consistently reminded himself and others, the fate of humans, their institutions and their work remained entirely in the gift of providence. This, he believed, was the fundamental maxim of faith (de Paul to René Alméras, 11 September 1649) that gave direction and purpose to his own life, the lives of his comrades and the work of the Congregation and its fellow associations of charity. It necessitated trusting abandonment to God’s will, and acceptance of success and failure as elements of the history of salvation.


Yet, a worldview based on providence did not spawn feelings of utter powerlessness, pessimism or inertia. Firstly, in refusing to judge events solely by the world’s normal standards of accomplishment, de Paul was able to interpret them according to the Christian teachings of hope, struggle and salvation. Secondly, he scrupulously reminded himself and others that he approved ‘of the maxim that all licit and possible means should be used for the glory of God’ provided, of course, that ‘we expect everything from His Divine Providence, as though we had no human means.’ (de Paul to Marc Coglée, 24 April 1652). While initiatives in government, therefore, were not direct means of celebrating the ‘glory of God’, they would play a crucial role in providing the mechanisms and structures that would allow de Paul and his associates to do so.

Government placed de Paul in the position of figurehead, inspiration and model, but also required him to become a wellspring of spiritual and practical support and direction, and the fosterer of collegiality, common purpose, discipline, initiative and confidence. Their exhibi- tion was coloured profoundly by the spiritual values and goals that he envisaged to be central to Christian vocations and to Christian engage- ment with the world. De Paul’s undeniable prowess in developing the Congregation and its sister bodies rested on an acute understanding of human psychology and a consistent acceptance of key spiritual prin- ciples. In other words, his governing methods kept a close eye on both natural or human and supernatural or divine principles. He did not see these as opposing but as complementary and co-operative.

Creatively cautious

Characteristically, as a result, de Paul moved cautiously in developing governmental structures and techniques, reflecting carefully on the benefits and risks of innovations and drawing heavily on his and the Congregation’s experiences, the experiences of similar organisations and the advice of trusted confidants. In its basic governing structure, the Congregation operated hierarchically; when each local house was established, it replicated the organisation’s universal structure. The Congregation did not operate on a ‘one man, one vote’ or democratic basis in important matters. From its inception, a superior general headed the Congregation, and governmental levels and offices, similar to those of traditional religious orders, were incorporated as its operative com- plexity evolved. Most noticeably, when new houses were established, de Paul appointed a superior, who reported directly to him, and the superior appointed a range of officers with special responsibilities. Each superior was advised by two experienced assistants, appointed by the superior general or the house visitor, just as de Paul sought the guidance of assistants and an extraordinary assembly of superiors and seasoned members for major decisions. The house superiors who sat on this council acted as the representatives of their communities, and were told to take into account the needs of all those under their care in making and contributing to decisions. Further, as de Paul recommended in 1632 and had witnessed in other religious associations, provincial visitors travelled a circuit to houses in the four provinces (established in 1642) in order to identify problems and good practice and to offer supportive recommendations for the future. They were also required to meet trien- nially to monitor general progress and to counter the superior general’s ‘infractions’, if necessary (1651 council, Correspondence XIIIA).

The challenge of a charismatic leader

As the system of government evolved, de Paul provided a charis- matic connection between the Congregation, Daughters and Ladies; his governmental approach never permitted systematic or impersonal organisation to overshadow personal relationships. However, his close relationship with Louise de Marillac and his regular meetings with the Daughters and some branches of the Ladies could have resulted in their remaining entirely dependent on his personal custodianship, perhaps with detrimental results when he died. This was a particular threat to the perpetuation of the Ladies. This association operated democrati- cally, with each member voting on options proffered. Many of the local associations were not formally under the Congregation’s authority; de Paul relied on Congregation superiors as well as patchy and intermit- tent visits by de Marillac to maintain practical links with them. Equally, the only formal connection between individual associations lay in their adherence to basic common rules. It was therefore a more autonomous and fragmented body than the Daughters; de Paul probably endorsed the self-contained model so individual divisions could prosper even when the Congregation or Filles were not permanently within close range. But this strategy did not always work and a few failed to thrive without energetic promotion and steerage from outside. However, in general, and crucially, the consolidation of the Ladies and Daughters did not destroy the valuable spiritual affinities and practical links that attached them to the Congregation. Beyond the Daughter’s formal affiliation to the Congregation, there are two principal reasons for this: firstly, de Paul ensured that the three collectives retained a fundamental unity of purpose; secondly, he devoted enormous energy to the nurture of effec- tive leaders within them.

Unity of purpose

De Paul understood unity of purpose to be an essential component of each of the three groups with which he worked, as well as being a thread that bound all three together. He could not allow that he formed the only or main connection between them, nor was it sufficient to state simply that all three sought the glory of God. He needed to clarify the general terms of that objective: the imitation of Jesus through the work of salvation. Yet he also needed to highlight aspects of it that each group could embrace as their specific and special value, model and mandate: the Congregation members as ministers of rural evangelisation, and the Daughters and Ladies servants of God through maternal nurture of the sick and poor. In this way, despite differences in the type of functions carried out (missions, seminaries, nursing, fundraising and so on) and in the social, ecclesiastical or sexual status of their members, they could all share a common sense of identity and familial fraternity.

This balance between the particular and the general was naturally easiest to perpetuate within the Congregation and Daughters, within which de Paul acted for years as the paternal founding authority. However, in Paris, he was careful to nurture the Ladies’ sense of inclusion and shared possession, through regular meetings to reflect on their spiritual motivations, review their projects, share with them the ways in which their funds were being used and consult them on potential initiatives. This was a form of flattery that offered the Ladies an authentic influence tying them even more closely to the work of charitable welfare. Their assertive input also permitted them significant control over their schemes and balanced their relationship with the Congregation and Daughters. At the same time, it indicated that de Paul did not just admire their deep financial pockets, but valued the practical common sense and the spir- itual intelligence that were such essential elements of their contribution to the charitable imperative that sought to meet Jesus in the vulnerable:

While waiting to be able to share your letters with the Ladies who are helping the people in the ruined border areas and to find out from them whether you might extend your distribution to the Huguenots (Protestants), as well as… to the poor people who can work… their original intention was to assist only those who cannot work…
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 26 April 1651)

The role of the leader

In this episode, de Paul implicitly trained a local superior in the impor- tance of recognising and endorsing the active and special contribution made by lay volunteers. He also tutored him on the best means of ensuring their continued benevolence. On one occasion, he offered Coglée meticulous instructions on composing a written request for funds to the Ladies. The attention to persuasive detail is compelling, but it illustrates de Paul’s assumption that those with responsibility for taking initiatives should possess all relevant information. Therefore, Coglée was asked to provide complete information on the person involved, her previous good character and work, her present hardships in terms of income, age and health, and future intentions; he should suggest a sum of money that would be sufficient to answer her needs (de Paul to Marc Coglée, 6 October 1655). Clearly, de Paul was very familiar with the merits of this particular case, and it is indicative of the conscientious gathering, collation and transmission of massive amounts of informa- tion that characterised his career.

To foster their sense of corporate loyalty, de Paul dispersed the vivid language of familial affection liberally through his correspondence to the three associations. He often read letters from the outposts aloud to residents of Saint-Lazare, disclosing highs and lows of Congregation life, and acted as a conduit for developments that affected all members at least indirectly. When writing to Congregation members living far from the motherhouse in Paris, he frequently concluded his letters with the assurance that he and all those at Saint-Lazare were praying for the health, safety and success of their brethren. For example:

We have prayed in common and privately for the preservation of your sick men, especially for M. Dufour, who is in danger. Mon Dieu! Monsieur, how anxious I am about him and how I fear losing such a good servant of God.
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 4 December 1650)

A few days before de Paul expressed his concern, he wrote an inspi- rational letter to Dufour’s superior, Marc Coglée, who was encountering distressing challenges in war torn Sedan:

I shall continue to recommend to the Company that they place your needs before God …If your family redoubles its courage and fidelity for the good use of the common affliction and the consola- tion of the souls His Providence places in its path, this will be the means of drawing down blessings on the town and on yourselves.
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 26 November 1650)

In this excerpt, it is clear that de Paul sought to bolster the energy and courage of Coglée and his fellows by reminding them that they should be inspired by the hopes and prayers of colleagues who understood and shared their objectives. He also advocated that the family endure their trials and tribulations in unity and in anticipation of future consolation. Vitally, he firmly positioned their Sedanese family within the familial circle of the Congregation and then placed both within the larger protec- tive ambit of the earthly and heavenly family of God and men.

Jesus Christ is the core

At the core of de Paul’s ability to situate government within a familial identity, however, was his presentation of Jesus Christ as the primary unifying force of the family. Before concluding a letter to Lambert aux Couteaux, superior of the far-flung house in Warsaw, with a heartfelt admission that he missed his associate, he commented:

We are just about finished with preparations for ordination, and the solemnity of Christmas is almost upon us. I ask Our Lord to grant you the grace of entering fully into the love and practice of the virtues resplendent in his holy birth and to be more than ever the life of your life and the unifying bond of your little family, whom I embrace tenderly.
(de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 21 December 1651)

Once again, de Paul entwined the life of the individual with that of the larger family of the Congregation, and subjected both firmly to the creative impulse of Jesus in their actions. Additionally, he explicitly sug- gested that Jesus should be the model for Congregation life, so that his virtues would become the badges of an exemplary priest and the collec- tive marks of the association. It is certain, as a result, that he considered Jesus to be, specifically, the archetype from which the Congregation should draw its values for government. Importantly too, by presenting Jesus as a unifying bond, he found a way to circumvent early modern social barriers that might preclude him from using familiar familial language when addressing the Ladies of Charity. This particular concept dislodged attention from his personal relationship with the Ladies in favour of their relationship with the divine. Advantageously, it also enabled him to link the three organisations with which he worked by a shared value which gave them direction and a sense a combined purpose, even as they assumed a variety of tasks over a wide geography.

Mentoring other leaders

As the three organisations expanded, the importance of maintaining their particular priorities in work as well as a sense of common mission became a more pressing problem. In order to ensure that the members of the three groups continued to carry out the work to which they had dedicated themselves while keeping sight of their collective goal, de Paul knew that it was absolutely essential to nurture leaders on whom he could rely to live up to and perpetuate these values. He prepared individ- uals such as de Marillac and Lambert aux Couteaux to assume mantles of responsibility that he would not be able to wear indefinitely and, as they gained experience and confidence, he regarded them increas- ingly as collaborators rather than as subordinate administrators. His confidence in de Marillac was such that he relied upon her to maintain absolute steadiness amongst her Daughters and in the management of their work (de Paul to Louise de Marillac, 14 August 1646). Rather than simply being a dogmatic authority, their dialogues indicate that he acted primarily as a constantly available source of honest spiritual and practical advice, who encouraged Marillac to trust her ability to initiate, judge and supervise (sounding board). Importantly, de Paul earned Marillac’s respect for his opinion by his generous availability, frank- ness and edifying example of piety and leadership; this proved just as influential as the existence of a formal constitutional link between their organisations. As they deepened their collaboration, each assumed com- plementary roles in government and de Paul kept a lighter rein on her actions. For example, he urged de Marillac to ensure that the contractual agreement for the Daughters’ first venture into a provincial hospital in 1640 clearly elaborated their duties and rights in order to ensure the viability of the project; having been led through the process once, Marillac was able to use this document as a prototype for the subsequent agreements that she engineered (de Paul to Marillac, 11 January 1640 and 22 January 1640).

The Daughters operated routinely as an internally cohesive asso- ciation whose members, under their superior’s eye, were encouraged to contribute to the cultivation of spiritual norms and a rule of life as well as to physical work. De Paul’s willingness to view its members’ vocations as spiritually valid and fruitful meant that he did not tend to emphasise the subsidiary aspects of their liaison with the Congregation. Rather, he chose to emphasise the particular charisms that made the groups comple- mentary, mutually beneficial and even dependent on one another, as well as their shared focus on emulating Jesus in distinctive ways.

The importance of flexibility

One of the principal governmental skills that de Paul displayed was a willingness to integrate flexibility into the governmental system. In the Congregation, it proved crucial to provide a stable and sustainable struc- ture for management that was sufficiently elastic to react to specific, often unfamiliar, situations and circumstances arising from its relations with the Daughters and Ladies and with local ecclesiastical and secular authorities. So, it was crucial that de Paul ensured that he was as well informed as possible about local circumstances and individuals before offering thoughtful insights and suggestions for resolving difficulties. He often made preliminary queries to acquaint himself with details and context (de Paul to Jean Martin, 24 August 1657), without concern for the fact that he revealed his ignorance in doing so. De Paul did not value authority as innately praiseworthy; instead, the point of his position of authority was to ensure that that the Congregation and its sister asso- ciations could perpetuate the reign of Jesus wherever they operated. He used his written discourses with superiors as a didactic device to demonstrate this modest attitude. He anxiously coached officers to avoid the simplistic temptation to turn the means into the end, or to believe that the end would justify the use of autocratic or underhand means. Governors and the system of government should correlate to the exemplary virtues of Jesus, the true means and end of the Congregation and its affiliate groups. For this reason, de Paul suspected Marc Coglée’s motivation in establishing good relations with the Jesuits in Sedan in 1652:

You did the right thing in establishing good relations with the Jesuits in Charleville, but saying that you did so in order that they might support us when people speak ill of us to them is a very base motive and a far cry from the spirit of Jesus Christ, accord- ing to which we should consider God alone in our actions… You [have] your own reputation in view… This is vanity.
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 25 September 1652)

In a conference with the Daughters in 1647, de Paul coached them to assess choices by measuring in what way they contributed to God’s glory, the interest of the Daughters and the welfare of the interested parties (Council of 19 June 1647, Correspondence XIIIB). In Coglée’s case, de Paul acknowledged the good result of his action, which contributed to the Congregation’s ability to maintain equilibrial relations in Sedan and to operate more efficiently there. But the decision was fundamentally flawed. It did not contribute to God’s glory, the Congregation’s interest or anybody’s welfare because it was inspired by the ‘base motive’ of vanity. De Paul made his point explicitly and bluntly, but assumed a classic approach that he adopted when forced to exert his authority through criticism: he began his censure with praise of the action itself, before proceeding to a devastating deconstruction of the motivation that polluted it. De Paul did not offer criticism independently of constructive suggestions and gentle support, but sought to encourage his officers to learn from their mistakes. This tactic effectively reduced the risk that a superior would become depressed or disillusioned with his failures. By offering optimistic celebration of the leadership displayed in sound decisions, de Paul provided the superior with heartening evidence of his progress in office, while setting an attainable goal towards which to aim in the future.

De Paul often returned to two key influences upon his approach to government: Christ as the model and the sovereignty of providence. Both drove his wish to instill in Coglée the consoling belief he was under God’s care, that he was an instrument in the divine plan and that he could respond confidently to the call to be so through grace. De Paul reiterated in his letters to his superiors that they did not work alone and that their work was important because it served a higher purpose than mere oversight of rules and quarrels. Yet, as divine instruments, any success they accomplished in their work was due entirely to God (de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 21 December 1651). He added the cau- tionary reminder that they must remain entirely humble and trustful of God’s responsibility for achievements:

Yesterday I received your letter… which gave me great consola- tion, not only because it is one of your letters, which all have the same effect, but also because of your fine leadership – or rather God’s leadership over you.
(de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 12 April 1652)

This note succeeded de Paul’s effort a few months earlier to warn Lambert that he should expect setbacks as superior in Warsaw:

Entrust yourself confidently to His guidance and prepare your own guidance for all sorts of events in order to make good use of any that will be unfavourable to you. I have no doubt that you will experience some.
(de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 21 December 1651)

Lambert was, by this stage, a very experienced officer, having acted as superior of four other establishments. De Paul surely alerted him to pitfalls that awaited an unwary superior partly because Lambert had only recently arrived in Warsaw (1651). But part of de Paul’s policy in governing and in training governors was to repeat the general principles of trust in providence, faithfulness to Christ’s example, edifying and compassionate discipline and informed assessment that should become automatic elements of their decision making. Here is a further principle in relation to supervision, the lesson that inability to take action, while superficially frustrating, could be beneficial:

If God does not allow you to do either a little or a great deal for others, you will be doing enough by adoring His ways and remaining at peace… God often wants to build lasting benefits on the patience of those who undertake them; that is why He tries them in many ways.
(de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 21 December 1651)

The importance of training

Superiors in the Congregation and Daughters (Sister Servants) gener- ally went through a form of training that included residence in several houses and tenure as officers. De Paul pursued the policy of transform- ing potential into wise experience zealously from the beginning. De Marillac was a veteran of the Ladies of Charity before acting as visitor to its branches, and first superior of the Daughters. A similar pattern of experience and preparation for promotion was evident in the career of the able René Alméras, chosen by the Congregation assembly as de Paul’s successor in 1661. De Paul groomed this former state councilor for government, placing him in a variety of locations and roles in order to give him first hand experience of all facets of the Congregation’s work and to foster his skills of judgement, initiative and leadership. Before he became de Paul’s assistant, he was superior in two establish- ments, distributed poor relief in Picardy and Champagne, performed visitations, and took charge of retreatants.

It became standard practice for superiors to have performed special functions in Saint-Lazare and to return there at intervals to refresh their skills. Saint-Lazare loomed very large in the perpetuation of gov- ernmental principles, and de Paul resorted regularly to it to illustrate effective organisation and regulation. In 1657, he warned Jean Martin, superior in Turin, against deviating from the Congregation’s longstand- ing and formal restriction of its preaching and confession:

You must also point out [to the Marchese (patron of the Turin house)] that the inhabitants are laying down a condition contrary to our customs, which is to preach and hear confessions in the town. We cannot submit to this because of the consequences and because of the Rule that forbids us to do so. You know that at Saint-Lazare we do not preach or hear the confessions of people living in the city.
(de Paul to Jean Martin, 5 October 1657)

Saint-Lazare was the hub of Congregation government; the superior general resided there, it functioned as an oasis of rejuvenation for Congregation superiors and other members, and it provided the model that ensured uniformity of structure and operation throughout the organisation. For this reason, it was a natural refuge for those in need of reassuring direction or disciplinary correction (de Paul to Donat Crowley, 28 August 1655). However, although de Paul sought to instill uniform discipline in the Congregation, his personal style was that of a concerned advocate for the wellbeing of his charges. At times, he worried that he and his superiors had not placed an individual in a location or office for which they were suited; the effective governor should consider the character and gifts of each person in their com- munity, assigning them to duties that would allow them to make a full contribution to their vocation, house and local society. So, in 1652, he hesitated to send Jean Ennery on a mission to Corsica as Étienne Blatiron, the superior in Genoa, suggested:

I do not think he is gentle enough for that region, where the people are uncouth and used to being rough.
(de Paul to Étienne Blatiron, 16 August 1652).

However, he was elated when Blatiron displayed solid initiative in his second recommendation. Nicolas Duport, de Paul agreed, pos- sessed the qualities of zeal, judgement, prudence, discretion, gentleness and cordiality that were essential for this region (de Paul to Étienne Blatiron, 19 January 1652).

Focussing on the mission

In instructing Jean Martin, de Paul told him to correct a local patron rather than undermine the universally applicable rules of the Congregation. It was important that a community make every effort to establish good relations locally, but effective government required that decision makers be prepared to turn down an offer which although immediately attrac- tive could prove detrimental in the longer term; the Congregation Rules warned against the vice of ‘undisciplined enthusiasm’ that would forfeit the association’s independence to local pressures of unrestrained fervour and social prestige. For this reason, de Paul generally sought to clarify all obligations for resources and duties before the Congregation or Daughters traveled to a new establishment. He also tended to favour ini- tially modest foundations while the Congregation tested the resources and requirements of a new environment, as well as a variety of funding sources in case one or more collapsed. Crucially, when the mutual obli- gations of initiatives were not firmly established, projects suffered. He apparently felt impelled to withdraw the Congregation from Alet when the bishop did not fulfill his promise to provide them with a residence in which they could practise the Congregation’s common rule (Nicolas Pavillon to de Paul, October 1642). Indeed, de Paul emphasised the superior’s role in confidently enforcing judgements for, as he remarked to Edme Jolly, many proposals went ‘up in smoke’, because good inten- tions were not followed through energetically (de Paul to Edmonde Jolly, 28 December 1657). Once again, de Paul provided examples of this resolution in his own negotiations. His painstaking efforts to justify his opinions did not always meet with approval, but while normally open to respectfully considering views contrary to his own he was often obliged simply to forbid or reject them. So, house superiors might bypass the opinions of their assistants, as de Paul told Charles Ozenne, superior in Warsaw, in 1655:

Everything should be directed only by the Superior and his two assistants, so that, if the Superior is of a mind different from that of the assistants, he can and must act according to his own if, before God, he judges it to be best.
(de Paul to Charles Ozenne, 2 April 1655)

However, they should anticipate hostility in order to steel themselves against it:

We should be ready to accept [suffering] so that, when it comes, we will not be surprised or saddened by it… envisage upsetting situa- tions that may arise, to struggle against them, and to train ourselves for combat until we feel we are in command of the situation.
(de Paul to Coglée, 13 August 1650)

Having trained governing officers to make judgements based on the interests of God, the Congregation and concerned parties, de Paul was surely unsurprised when they used their experience, common sense and reflection to question whether it was desirable to introduce vows into the Congregation. Seeking counsel within and outside the Congregation, de Paul considered several options on the taking of vows for twelve years, and watched attentively for pitfalls as some members voluntarily took simple vows binding them to the Congregation. He deliberately followed the same procedure when seeking to produce a definitive Rule for the association, on the basis that Jesus ‘put things into practice before He made them part of His teaching.’ However, when de Paul convened an extraordinary assembly of superiors and other experienced members in 1651 to resolve the issue of vows, he encountered vociferous opposi- tion. In particular, Étienne Blatiron’s tenure in Genoa had convinced him that the vows would never prove acceptable to Italians, who would invariably assume that they demonstrated that the Congregation was a traditional religious order. This cultural division did not persuade de Paul who, having allowed the assembly’s fourteen members to air their views, overruled the arguments of the five who opposed the vows outright and the four who expressed strong reservations, and concluded that it was God’s will that they should be formally introduced (1651 council, Correspondence, XIII)

Striking a balance

In this episode, so pivotal for the Congregation’s future, de Paul proved uncompromising and relied heavily on his authority as superior general. He judged that the vows were beneficial to the cohesion and stability of the Congregation: the vote demonstrated that they accorded with the interests of all concerned parties, divine and human. However, he occasionally reminded his superiors that intractability was not neces- sarily a desirable quality; while certain principles and practices should invariably be safeguarded, they should use their initiative to adapt rules and customs if possible and suitable for local needs. Concurrently, they should weigh the benefits and risks of principled intransigence against those of pliable adaptation so that they might not forsake opportunities and resources. Striking a balance was not straightforward in fundamen- tal matters; de Paul was not ordinarily in favour of the Congregation assuming parochial benefices, but he accepted that this was necessary in denominationally divided and war torn Sedan if it was to have any hope of establishing the funding essential to its mission there. When the Congregations’ patrons in Turin continued to urge the house to preach and administer confession in this episcopal town, de Paul was twice forced to reiterate that this was impossible. But he then noted that the refusal conflicted with the wish of the local bishop, to whom the Congregation owed ‘absolute obedience in external affairs. He concluded that, temporarily, the functions could be performed until the questions might be resolved by the higher authority of the pope (de Paul to Jean Martin, 9 November 1657; same to same, 30 November 1657). De Paul struggled, and really did not manage, to reconcile several conflicting claims in this situation: the need to please sponsors, the prin- ciple of obedience to bishops and the stipulation that forbade preaching and confession in episcopal towns.

Accepting human nature

One of the difficulties of addressing governmental dilemmas such as this was that de Paul or his colleagues on the ground were not able to anticipate every event or were not sufficiently familiar with local culture, politics or history. For example, Lambert aux Couteaux had to inform de Paul that the proposal to provide the Congregation in Warsaw with a German church had come to nothing. De Paul was unperturbed, stating that ‘I always suspected that the people involved would raise some objections to it unless they were much better than we are in France.’ (de Paul to Lambert aux Couteaux, 17 May 1652). For de Paul, human nature tended to raise the same problems wherever the Congregation operated, but he had to accept that political and patriotic rivalries could throw obstacles in its path that were unforeseen to its local or central authorities.

De Paul regularly expressed his anxiety that those in authority did not reduce their role to instilling discipline through rigorous applica- tion of regulations that were elaborated in writing for communities and specific positions as the Congregation expanded; he described how superiors should positively nurture their charges through well judged methods appropriate to the situation. Therefore, in cases of discipline, a superior should initially admonish the individual, and de Paul, as we have seen, advocated gentle, cordial and timely correction, cushioned by fraternal comfort and constructive remedies for conversion. But he did suggest that it was sometimes useful to involve the community in the disciplinary process; first, if private admonitions were not effective; second, if the individual possessed a markedly good character but was sensitive and easily hurt, a ‘recommendation given in general’ to the community would be sufficient. This was sound advice, surely based on de Paul’s own governing experience, for he knew that a person singled out for admonishment might wilt, deny or react defensively. A tactful warning issued to the collective made the same point but in a less pro- vocative manner.

De Paul’s sensitivity to the ways in which personalities should inform tactics of government was related to his willingness to listen to the views of others, to seek wide and wise advice when deliberating and to estab- lish consensus as far as possible. His secretary, Robineau, observed that he treated everyone with respect, a trait that was a result of de Paul’s willingness to see Christ in all mankind, no matter what their moral or social state. De Paul was alert to the risk in ascribing greater influence to individuals because of their social and economic status:

Those who direct the houses of the Company must not look upon anyone as their inferior but rather as their brother… They should, therefore, be treated with humility, gentleness, forbearance, cor- diality, and love… It is not the spirit of the Mission to make courtesy calls on prominent persons in the places where we are established.
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 13 August 1650)

Furthermore, Robineau recorded an incident in which de Paul sought his opinion on the project to establish a general hospital for the poor in Paris before devoting three hours to elaborating in writing the benefits and risks of the proposal. This project required very careful reflection on de Paul’s part, for he had serious practical and moral misgivings about involving the Congregation (Robineau, 129-30). At this time, he had a reminder of how easy it was to err, even having sought sound advice. In 1658, he fought a claim made on a large farm in Orsigny that had been donated to the Congregation in 1644, having been assured by eight lawyers and a procurator that the Congregation’s case was water- tight. On losing the case, de Paul refused to take a civil case against the litigants, and warned Congregation members that to do so would damage the association’s reputation and could not be accommodated with its much more important mission of reconciliation and edification. As such, the material loss was negligible when compared to placing the Congregation’s ethos and driving purpose, its lifeblood, in jeopardy (Correspondence, VII).

Seeking the opinion of all

It was judicious of de Paul to seek to involve coadjutor brothers such as Robineau in the plans for the Congregation’s development because it gave them further investment in the association, but it also counteracted the possibility that those who felt that their voices went unheard would become aggrieved. De Paul advised Coglée of this policy of inclusion at length:

I often consult even the Brothers and ask their advice on ques- tions involving their duties. When this is done with the necessary prudence, the authority of God… is in no way disadvantaged. On the contrary, the good order which ensues makes it more worthy of love and respect.
(de Paul to Marc Coglée, 9 July 1650).

As a corollary of this rule of consultation, the governmental system that de Paul promoted allowed any member of the Congregation to have direct recourse to the superior general. While this accessibility clearly implied that the house superior was a subsidiary officer, despite de Paul’s insistence on their authority, it opened a valuable alternative avenue to those who disagreed with their superior or simply felt unable to open their conscience to him, as the Rules required. De Paul did not offer this route because he wished to undermine the liberty of his superiors to manage their communities, but he knew that mediation and communication were essential to the healthy functioning of the gov- ernmental system from top to bottom; this safety mechanism enabled individuals to feel that they were not helpless within an inflexible hierarchy of authority. De Paul was exceptionally attentive to ensuring that it did not become a path for the gossip, the embittered or the spy, however. Here is an outstanding example of his ability to act as modera- tor and conciliator in government, taken from a case in which a young priest experienced a personality clash with his superior. In his response to a situation so unsettling to the individuals immediately involved and to the harmony of the community de Paul was careful to diffuse any resentment or patronage that the complainant might feel when the superior general wrote to him about his problem. Equally, de Paul ensured that he balanced his criticisms with recognition and praise of the complainants’ work and a ringing affirmation of his affection for him. Equally, he balanced his forthcoming critique and recommenda- tions with praise of the complainant’s work and a ringing affirmation of affection However, he refused to undermine the position of the superior before his charge, and requested that the complainant submit to he who personified the goodwill, authority and wisdom of Jesus:

Our Lord approves of the trust you have in your Superior as the representative of His Divine Person, He will inspire him to say whatever is most appropriate for you.
(de Paul to Congregation priest, 20 February 1650)

To rally Jean Martin, who judged his ability to act as superior in Turin very harshly, de Paul wrote bracingly:

You win over [your men] through your advice and example… if there are a few who are not keen on learning the language well and helping you, you must remember, Monsieur, that there is no Superior in the world who does not have a great deal to put up with from the persons he governs… even Our Lord himself.

Furthermore, de Paul reassured Martin by telling him that he would soon benefit from the presence of the visitor, the governmental officer whose circuits supplemented the local routine of government. Jean Berthe, de Paul wrote optimistically, would edify by his presence and encourage by his advice. In particular, he would be able to offer a concrete recommendation on Martin’s suggestion that the Congregation should establish a seminary in Turin (de Paul to Jean Martin, 9 November 1657). In doing so, the visitor would demonstrate the key constituents of government as de Paul fostered them: guardianship of fundamen- tal rules and customs that articulated the organisation and purpose of the Congregation and were transferable to all environments, flexible guidance of individuals and the community in a spirit of familial unity and recognition, and nurture of the individual skills and virtues that ben- efited the entire organisation.

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