A RECENT work by a learned and brilliant writer contains the following passage: ” It was the age of S. Vincent de Paul, patron Saint of practical philanthropists. The air was thick with orphanages and hospitals, with Sisterhoods of Charity, with schemes for evangelizing the inferior clergy. But practical philanthropists seldom escape a touch of superficiality. They may be content with little, with small profits and quick returns; but a brisk turnover they must have.”1
This—if we can eliminate the note of scorn—is representative of the popular view of Vincent de Paul. He is accepted as the pioneer of social reform and organized charity—the charity of Annual Reports and Balance Sheets. The biographical study contained in the following pages is an attempt to pierce the veil with which the celebrity of his achievements has enshrouded him. His own choice, undoubtedly, would have been to remain unknown, but as fame has been forced upon him, it is well to connect it as nearly as we may with the reality of his labours and of his aspirations.
An endeavour to show that he was not chiefly a philanthropist does not involve any denial of the value and success of his philanthropic labours. He was born in the sixteenth century, and by a combination of inspiration and experience he arrived at conclusions which are regarded as discoveries in the twentieth. He dealt almost single-handed with problems of destitution involving many thousands of lives, and devised remedies for some of the diseases of social life which are still in use. Of the difficulties that harass and discourage the benevolent there were very few that did not come under his eye, for the whole field of social service lay open before him. He realized and met the need for the teaching and tending of the young, the nursing of the sick, the aiding of the prisoner, and passed on to the more difficult enterprises that concern the fallen and the wastrel. In his old age a grateful nation hailed him as ” Father of his Country,” and in the ungodly Paris of the present day his effigy may still be seen presiding at the corner of those streets where the poor will find assistance for their wants.
His undertakings were in almost every instance crowned with the most astonishing success ; but if they had all been failures, his life would still be worthy of record. To himself external success came to be merely an unimportant incident. He loved his fellow-men, and planned and laboured for them untiringly; but he did not claim to know what was best for their welfare, and he showed no anxiety as to the results of what he did. The self-devoted philanthropist or the eager social reformer of the present day may claim him as a comrade, but it is not with them that he has community of thought; the later years of his life—though they were passed in the midst of sensational events and pressing responsibilities that made demands on almost every hour—were dominated by the habit of prayer to a degree that lifted them into supernatural regions. In fact, if we would trace the real life of M. Vincent, we must be prepared to revise both the standard of value that is ordinarily applied to human existence and the accepted division betwixt the real and the unreal; we shall not need to discount his reputation for charity, but we shall find that the full meaning of his charity is the ” ascent of the ladder of love ” of which Ruys-broeck writes, and that his labours were a fragmentary expression of something much greater than themselves. It is essential, moreover, to remember the importance of his priesthood. He held the Catholic faith simply and sincerely, and he was a priest. From this it follows that external events, however sensational, did not affect him so deeply as the processes of his own interior development, and his vast undertakings were never so engrossing as to distract him from his life-long endeavour after sell-purification. ” Ruinez en moi Seigneur tout ce qui vous y déplaît.” Those words—on his lips in his extreme old age —represent the aspiration of his later years. To overlook, even momentarily, the spiritual bias of all his actions is to fail in comprehension of their purport; to remember his charitable achievements and to forget the hours of prayer in which they germinated is to miss the real interest of his life. It is, after all, only a colourless semblance of M. Vincent that is familiar to pilgrims on the broad highway of social service. He may have power to inspire new endeavour and to deepen perseverance in those who have only partial knowledge of him, and it is certain that his name is revered by many who have no understanding of his true purposes; but if we would find the real Vincent de Paul we must seek him on the steeps of Carmel, it is there only that we shall hear even an echo of his message.
Vincent de Paul had no advantages of fortune. He was the son of a peasant proprietor in the South; and though an attempt2 has been made to prove that he was of noble descent, and that his repeated references to his humble origin merely show his humility, the case for the advocates of aristocracy remains, to say the least, not proven.
There are, indeed, many incidents in his long career that support his own assertions. He was born when the conflict between Henry of Navarre and the Guises was raging, and through the distracted period preceding the accession of that gallant monarch to the throne of France was calmly pursuing his studies at Dax, at Toulouse, and at Saragossa. In all probability, the horrors enacted in Paris and Touraine reached him only as a distant rumour, and stirred him neither in experience nor in imagination; in after-years he makes no reference to them. During the twelve years of reconstruction, extending from 1598 to 161o, the course of his destiny had no connection with the history of his country. He was the bearer of some message from Rome to Henri IV. in 16o8, but we have no knowledge of the nature of this business, nor had it any notable effect on the fortunes of the messenger. Then and for yet another decade the life of Vincent de Paul was hidden; other men had time to rise to eminence, to win a place in history, and pass out of the world, while he was still serving his apprenticeship. The confusion that prevailed during the minority and youth of Louis XIII. touched him as little as did the miseries of the Valois rule; he had lived nearly half a century before he had part in the national life, and yet before his death he had rendered more effectual service to his countrymen than any Frenchman of that epoch.
A remarkable feature of his transition from insignificance to an important place in social and political life is that his ascent was not self-chosen; it was an unavoidable consequence of an aim in another direction. The reason of his settling in Paris was the foundation of the Congregation of Priests of the Mission, of which he was the original Superior, and the object of that foundation was completely spiritual. A few priests gathered together to journey into isolated country villages and preach Christ to the working people; they were given a house in Paris for their headquarters, and endowed with a small income for their support. In their journeyings they gathered knowledge of the lives of the people outward and inward, and of the immensity of their need. They could not have embarked on their original enterprise if they had not possessed enormous faith; and to their faith in God it was necessary that they should add a certain confidence in their fellow-men. Their Mission work could hardly have been sustained without an assurance that no sinner has gone so far as to be hopeless.
M. Vincent’s confidence in the virtue latent in human nature gave him a power of another kind. Seeing wealth on the one hand and destitution on the other, he assumed that the selfishness of the rich was merely the result of ignorance, and that they would welcome a summons to give of their superfluity. It is difficult at the present time to realize that such a theory could possibly be true, but when M. Vincent came to Paris the divisions of class were so profound that the distresses of the one were outside the limit of ordinary consideration for the other. Undoubtedly he was able to become a link between the two. He had the wisdom to demand personal service as well as money from those who were able to give, and the instinct of sympathy, once stirred, spread rapidly. We hear of ” Madame la Princesse,” mother of the great Condé, insisting on carrying a bowl of soup with her own hands to a needy invalid in a garret, and coming home with her clothes caked with the mud of the streets; and, despite an element of absurdity and exaggeration, there is plentiful evidence of an awakening to the conception of charity that brings all classes into community of love and labour. The awakening found its first expression in simple things and under normal conditions. In town and country Confraternities were started for the assistance of the sick and unfortunate; the idea of organizations for relief became familiar, and in the years of distress to which France presently doomed herself there was opportunity to discover the worth of M. Vincent’s regulations.
It was by the widening of the great circle of charity he had devised that M. Vincent came into touch with Anne of Austria, first as Queen Consort, and afterwards in the days of her misused power as Queen Regent. There were no outward experiences in the whole life of M. Vincent so painful as those which he owed to his connection with the Court, but, though even a passing association betwixt him and Mazarin is unseemly, the taint of the Court did not affect him; he was as much the simple Mission Priest at the Palais Royal as at S. Lazare. It was the strain of the dévote in Anne of Austria which accounts for his summons thither, but that strain did not prevent her from being a type of the voluptuary. She desired comfort for her own soul, and she desired physical comforts for those that needed them; but these desires had no weight against the ruling passions of her existence after she became Regent. Only, in moments of spiritual uneasiness, it seems to have been a source of consolation to her to reflect that in affairs concerning the Church she had asked the advice of M. Vincent, and that occasionally she had taken it.
To M. Vincent the contact with the life of the Court involved by giving advice to the Queen was a source of endless misery. He was a witness of the whole deplorable(struggle of the Fronde; it is likely that he understood the sins and weaknesses on all the contending sides which were responsible for it, and assuredly he had fuller knowledge than anyone else of the appalling suffering it brought to the thousands who had no desire or comprehension of revolt. The years of the Fronde rebellion were hard ones in which to maintain the vision of universal charity; M. Vincent was seventy before the Fronde began, yet it was in those years—when all the natural leaders of the people were fighting each for his own hand—that he was given power to proclaim the real meaning of charity; for he had the simplicity that strips obligation bare. It was through no fault of their own that the peasantry were dying of starvation during the civil wars, and to a proportion of them it was possible to supply food if money were forthcoming. But the numbers to be fed were enormous, and the sums needed of corresponding immensity. The disasters that meant actual death to the poor meant lessened incomes and consequent discomfort to the rich, and the civil dissensions in progress were of a kind to rouse all that was worst in human nature. It was an unpropitious moment for an appeal to the instinct of generosity, but to M. Vincent the necessity of giving was so obvious that response was a foregone conclusion. A follower of Christ must sacrifice vanity to save the lives of fellow-Christians. If a woman had jewels that were her own to give, she could not retain them when their price would give food to those dying for lack of it. It must be remembered that there was no complication in the position ; it was extremely simple. The soldiery wrought havoc in the provinces; houses were burnt, farms destroyed, cattle driven away. There was literally nothing to eat, and no means of obtaining clothes. But the people could be gathered in the towns; food could be prepared in vast quantities and at the smallest possible cost, and supplied to all who were destitute. The distribution of relief was organized by M. Vincent; it was under the close supervision of persons appointed by him and under obedience to him; it was he who made known the intensity of the need for funds. Probably the power of his personality had much to do with opening hearts and purse-strings, so that the stream of beneficence was kept in flood until the time of agony had passed. For more than twenty years it had been possible to watch M. Vincent in all his doings; he had had enemies and slanderers, and had shrunk from no criticism, and he was known as a righteous man. Therein lay his power. He was not afraid to proclaim the real consequence of Catholic belief, for he accepted it himself, and he could not admit that there was any alternative. The man or woman who would not sacrifice personal desires was repudiating membership with Christ. To those who came under his influence—and they were many—it was this simplicity in his demand that made it irresistible, and as a result the lives of the poor were saved by the bounty of the rich.
It was just that the miracles of generosity of which France was witness in her hour of trial should reflect glory on M. Vincent; he was acclaimed as the Father of all who suffered, and when peace came, and there was leisure to see what he had accomplished, all Paris rang with applause. But, in his view, the work which stirred his fellows to enthusiasm was the least of the tasks that God had given him. The same power that moved the rich to prodigies of liberality he had used in other fields, and its hidden work was incomparably greater in real importance than all the organizations of relief for the victims of civil war and famine which was attracting the world’s acclamation. It seems that the true vocation of M. Vincent was as little recognized by his contemporaries as it is at the present day, but if he had evaded it, he would have failed to accomplish those philanthropic feats that are the obvious sources of his fame. As has been pointed out already, the root of his power was his complete sincerity. He was given vision for the misery and degradation of his countrymen, and his life was thenceforward consecrated to the endeavour to help them. But he was a priest; the treasures offered by the Church to him were priceless, and the bodily needs of the poor had far less importance in his eyes than their spiritual desolation. Through every quarter of France, almost without exception, the people were as sheep having no shepherd. There were no vacant benefices, it is true, and in time of peace an authorized person would administer the rite of baptism, of marriage, and of burial, according to the ordinances of the Church, and would also exact payment for such service. The Church had representatives everywhere, and almost everywhere an ignorance more dangerous than that of the heathen was left unremedied. ” It is the priests living as most of them live to-day who are the greatest enemies of the Church of God “—that was M. Vincent’s verdict after years of wide experience.
To raise the priesthood from its degradation came to be his chief desire. He began by an attempt to do some of the work that had been left undone, to proclaim the Church’s message to Christians who had never heard it. ” I have only one sermon,” he said in the early days of his preaching, ” and that is on the fear of God “; but he soon realized that he and his fellow-labourers could only touch the fringe of the work that needed doing. It was not sufficient to awaken sleeping souls; there must be provision for their future sustenance and encouragement, and that provision could be made only by those who lived amongst them, by the curé who was in truth responsible for the progress of his flock. When this knowledge dawned on M. Vincent he came at once face to face with an enterprise whose difficulty far exceeded that of the most baffling problem of relief. He had the highest ideal of the sanctity of priesthood, and believed himself to be altogether unworthy of its privileges, and he was forced to regard in detail the practices common to the priests of that period. In his eyes, the one hope for his countrymen lay in the revival of the true spirit of sacerdotalism, but only an actual and living faith that with God all things are possible could have given him courage for his attempt to cause such a revival. As his life unfolds itself we obtain increasing knowledge of the vast scope of his vocation as a spiritual reformer, but it was a point of infinite importance to the fruitfulness of his labours that the handful of fellow-workers who had settled with him at his first establishment in Paris were of the type to inspire imitation. Year by year their numbers increased, until the Congregation of the Mission was known, not only in every part of France, but far beyond her frontiers. And it was the part of the Congregation of the Mission to train and teach the teachers of the poor as well as the poor themselves, and to show by their own lives that the idea of sacerdotal holiness was not impossible of realization. As they laboured with that intent, other fields opened before them; but M. Vincent cautioned them that their original objects must never become secondary. Under a rule of poverty and humility, their lives were always to be devoted to the service of the poor and the sanctifying of the priesthood.
It is in the foundation of the Congregation of Mission Priests that we find the real centre of M. Vincent’s lifework. It was in and through them that his influence was most deeply felt in his own day, but it is characteristic that that which was most intimate in connection with him should be most hidden; his Sons of S. Lazare were nearest to his heart, but in our knowledge of his relations with them we may penetrate only a little way. That which we know, however, in its revelation of strength, of courage, and of insight, is immeasurable in its value, and the reserve which guards the closest records of his life from publicity is in accord with the spirit of personal reticence that ruled him while he lived.
On the other hand, his intercourse with the other great Company which bears his name has been generously laid open, and M. Vincent, as he stands among the Sisters of Charity, teaching, consoling, and reproving, becomes so vivid and human a personality that it is hard to realize how great is the lapse of years which divides us from him. The Sisters of S. Vincent de Paul came into being to supply a need felt, on the one hand, by the generous upper class whose method of giving it was difficult to regulate, and on the other by the Mission Priests whose spiritual labours were hampered by the constant claim to minister to bodily necessities. We shall find that the Mission Priests, individually and collectively, reached heights of self-devotion and heroism where they may hardly be surpassed; but the Sons of M. Vincent, if they were true in their vocation, had the constant spur of the sense of their priesthood, and their sacrifice of self deepened and renewed the realization of their privilege. If we turn from them to regard M. Vincent’s Sisters of Charity, the difference between the privilege of the one order and the deprivation of the other is notable.
The Company of Sisters of Charity—which was even more humble and more indefinite in its beginning than that of the Priests of the Mission—was formed of persons belonging to the working class. A Sister of gentle birth was the exception in their early period. They performed the duties of parish nurse and Mission woman; when the hospitals in provincial towns had fallen into disorder, they were sent to reform them, and afterwards in many instances were established as the permanent staff for nursing and supervision. As charitable institutions of various kinds grew up in Paris, their services were continually demanded to secure good government. In time of war they were called upon to face the horrors of military hospitals; in time of famine or of plague the organization of relief and the struggle against death was carried on under their leadership. It was a lawless and unsettled period, and a Sister of Charity braved many dangers besides those of infection. The work required of her was incessant, and often was so much beyond physical capacity that many a Sister seems to have died from sheer exhaustion. She was vowed to an extreme practice of poverty. If any chance gave her an interval of leisure, she was exhorted to employ it in working for her own maintenance. The obedience required of her was of the most searching kind. Although her duty took her into the streets and gave her intercourse both with rich and poor, she had no freedom and no right of independent action even in her own most personal and spiritual concerns. And yet she was not a Religious, and was often reminded that she must not claim the privilege of the religious life. Her obedience was due, not only to her recognized Superiors, but to all and sundry of the benevolent ladies who supplied funds for the assistance of the poor (and many of them were difficult to please). If she was in attendance on the sick, it was her duty to carry out the orders of the doctors in every detail; if she was attached to a parish, she was to follow the directions of the curé. And a Sister of Charity whose aptitude for her duties made her so friendly with the people that she identified herself with the little circle of the hospital or the parish was immediately removed elsewhere. If, having sacrificed herself, she looked for human solace, her sacrifice was regarded as of none effect. ” I tell you,” said M. Vincent to them, not once only, but many times, ” that you will never be true Sisters of Charity until you have sifted all your motives, have rooted up every evil habit, and stamped out every personal desire.” Nevertheless, by the free acknowledgment of M. Vincent himself, there were very many true Sisters of Charity.
It is well to consider this Company of women—a large proportion of them unable to read, almost all lacking in any sort of culture—banding themselves together for the service of God and of their neighbour, accepting every sort of physical hardship as part of a daily routine, and, when occasion offered, vying with each other in eagerness to accept posts that involved the acutest danger to life. There was no promise, nor even any possibility, of reward. They did not retire out of sight and sound of the world’s allurements; they escaped no outward difficulty or toil, and, even to the most imaginative, it must have been hard to invest their rough and arduous conditions with any halo of the picturesque. But the Company of Sisters of Charity grew very rapidly, and the vitality which has preserved it to the present day was evident while its original members were still living. These facts, regarded dispassionately, present a problem, and its solution bears close relation to the comprehension of M. Vincent’s life.
The teacher and first Superior of the Sisters of Charity was Louise de Marillac, known as Mlle. Le Gras. The nucleus of them gathered beneath her roof; she vowed herself to their service long before they were bound together by a common vow, and she watched over their interests, both spiritual and temporal, with scrupulous and unremitting care. But, though she was possessed of remarkable capacity for government and organization, she referred every decision to M. Vincent, and it was at her suggestion that in 1634 he gave the first of his ” Conferences” to the Sisters assembled in the Church of S. Lazare. Thenceforward, until within a few weeks of his death, more than twenty-five years later, the ” Conferences ” were continued, and not only do they bring him as a person nearer to us than any other record, but they convey the homely persuasiveness of his method, so that its charm seems to be still alive. We may picture him standing in the midst of the rows of grey-gowned Sisters, clearing his mind as he regards them from all the crowded interests and anxieties of his own difficult life, and gathering all his knowledge of their aims, their sorrows, and their temptations. It was his habit to give notice of his subject and to elicit the ideas of the Sisters before he conveyed his own ; by this means he got into tiuch with them, and formed an estimate of their limitations. The ” Conferences ” were friendly gatherings. The Sisters would sometimes volunteer observations ; occasionally they seem to have interrupted. They were given an opportunity of revealing difficulty or distress, and very often they made use of it. There is nothing rigid or formal in the proceedings—M. Vincent is as a father among his children. Nevertheless, it is in this familiar intercourse that we learn the meaning of the spirit of austerity as M. Vincent understood it; it is here that we grasp what was involved in the vocation of Mission Priest or Sister of the Poor according to M. Vincent’s vision, and simultaneously we may discover the secret of attraction in that undeviating routine of self-repression. M. Vincent does not vary in his standpoint in all the course of the ” Conferences ” (though a quarter of a century separates the first from the last) ; there is always a naked reality in his representation of the claim on the Christian which he will not drape or shelter. As for the great lady, it was a matter of obligation that she should not cling to her jewels while her neighbour died for lack of bread, so for the man or woman who had entered on the special service of Christ there could be no reservations. We find in him a severity which is only deepened by his sympathetic understanding of the weakness of his listeners. He has the courage to refuse to humour them; he shows them their temptations one by one, depicting each with graphic touches; he declares to them the motives that have caused their sin, and will palliate nothing. In his hands life is stripped bare of every small indulgence, not only in the domain of external enjoyment, but in the hidden world where self-love snatches delight even from the practices devised for its own undoing. There could be nothing simpler than the form of these discourses, yet they sum up all that is tragic in the life of penitence :
” Quoi ! dira quel qu’une, toujours se mortifier ?”
” Oui, toujours !”
M. Vincent knew that that question must occur to the minds of many of those who heard him, and his answer is always unflinching. That undoubtedly is the reason of his power; yet, though he was not afraid to accept and to insist on the full consequence of a real belief in Christ and in His teaching, he can—having so insisted—show the joy that underlies the hardness. ” Remember that mortification is not so bitter as it seems, and holds more of comfort than of pain for those who practise it for the love of God. Yes, there is no greater delight than that of a soul that is really mortified. You ask how that can be. Ah ! my Daughters, this comes to pass when privation is not a thing of itself, but is united with the desire to please God. When it is the expression of love for Him, God so touches the soul as to fill it with happiness far greater than that which it renounced. Thus renunciation ceases to be difficult. In truth, what joy can be so great as the thought that we have done something that pleases God ? There is a sense of happiness in this which nothing equals.”
The Sisters, as they listened, knew that they had the opportunity of practising; instead of the grumbling and bickering that often soiled their service, they might raise their daily toil and hardship, and test the truth of M. Vincent’s assurances. They must have known that he was speaking from experience, and, as he stood among them, the great force of his conviction infected them. They went back to their diverse tasks and responsibilities, to dangerous journeys, to new undertakings of infinite difficulty, but they took with them the sense that their renun-ciation—if it was complete—was their privilege. A tenderness that would have softened their conditions and have given them relaxation could not have kept them steadfast. ” The spiritual life,” says Père Grou, ” is of the nature of a bargain.” In that truth we find the explanation of the Sisters of Charity. It was the completeness of self-offering that brought recompense: ” a sense of happiness that nothing equals.”
M. Vincent did not hesitate to spur them on towards endeavour which may seem beyond the limit of human capacity. ” Hold yourselves always in the presence of God,” he said to them, ” and remember that that which will always preserve and sustain you as a Sister of Charity is to keep God always as witness of your thoughts and actions, and to do everything for love of Him.”
As we come to more detailed knowledge of all that they accomplished and endured, we realize that these ” pauvres filles des champs ” (as their Founder loved to call them) required the supernatural atmosphere in which he strove to place them. They rendered practical service to the poor, and that was the nominal reason of their being; but if their outlook had been limited to the practical, they could not have continued. To Vincent de Paul that fact was so obvious as to need no assertion, but, looking back towards him, it is worth remembering that the great foundation which still does honour to his name was due to his position as a man of prayer. His compassion for the poor—great as it was—was not a force sufficient to generate and support a movement so vast and so permanent in its importance as the institution of the first uncloistered nuns. ” The thought of this was never mine; this is the work of God; man has no part in it.” This was his own constant protestation regarding his own supposed successes.
M. Vincent lived to be eighty-five, and he passed nearly forty years in Paris. He came in contact with many celebrated personages, and the course of his later life is in touch with the developments of history, so that we cannot trace his career without linking it to the politics of his period. But though we must follow him into the Palais Royal and on his journeys to Saint Germain in obedience to the call of duty—although the cause of charity drew him to one and another of the great houses in the Luxembourg and Marais Quarters, in all of which he was welcomed and revered—yet it is not enough to recognize his public life or to catalogue bis achievements. He cannot live for us again unless we can win entrance to the circle of those who were not content to revere, but attempted also to share with him. Among the Mission Priests and Sisters of Charity in their labour and suffering he does to some degree reveal himself; for them his fifty years’ apprenticeship bears fruit, and he attempts to impart what he himself has learnt. He gave them no golden rules that would lessen the difficulty of prayer; he did not show them how they might dispense with any of the toil of the spiritual life; nor, in practical matters, has he any simple theory for the relief or prevention of destitution. From his knowledge and vast experience there is very little that could be gathered for a handbook on any subject, and he never wrote anything for publication. Much has been recorded of him, however. A great collection of his letters has recently been issued. His utterances, as set down by his listeners, have been carefully compared and guarded. The voluminous biography which was compiled by Louis Abelli, his personal friend, from the contributions of those who shared his daily life, was published only four years after his death, and seventy years before he was canonized. It will be seen, then, that there is no lack of material for an attempt to find him as he was to those who knew him.
And in the end, when all available authorities have been studied and the great mass of information falls into some sort of shape, there emerges one idea, overmastering all details, definite, infinitely impressive : here is a man who has learnt humility. His charge to his Sons and Daughters as they listen for his teaching, or kneel to receive his blessing, is constantly repeated, and varies but little in its form.
” As for us, we are of no account; we are ignorant and sinful, and we must remain hidden as being of no use in ourselves, and unworthy of a thought.”
That was the effect of all the praise he heard on the lips of rich and poor, of all the acknowledged success of his enormous labour, and in him it was no simulated virtue; his self-abasement is consistent and unfailing. If proof were needed that all his wisdom was learnt in those hours. that he spent upon his knees, we should find it in his humility. The man who had achieved as he did, and. allowed himself the thought that his achievement was due to his own brains and energy, could not continue humble.