Chapter II: In the service of M. de Gondi
WHEN Vincent de Paul joined the household of Philippe de Gondi, General of the Galleys, he was, ostensibly, quite as far from the discovery of any clear purpose in the use of life as when he depended on the patronage of Mon-torio in Rome. He was nearing his fortieth year, and there was not as yet the least indication that his development was of any importance to his fellow-countrymen. Except in the pulpit at Clichy—which was then in the country and out of touch with Paris—he does not seem to have delivered a sermon; he was certainly as unknown in learned circles as he was among the frivolous, and his link with Royalty in the person of Queen Margot was not conspicuous enough to lend him dignity in the eyes of ordinary persans. De Bérulle, who was only one year senior to Vincent de Paul, held a position among French ecclesiastics which was second only to that of François de Sales, and for twelve years he had been eminent. The contrast between the two contemporaries is remarkable, and assuredly at the moment that M. Vincent abandoned Clichy and returned to Paris (with his personal possessions on a hand-barrow, as Abelli tells us) he appeared a most unlikely subject for celebrity. Even then there lay before him eight years of uncertainty, but these contained the events that were to give him his directions for the future. The experiences that lay behind him when he accepted his post as tutor to the children of de Gondi, had been educational and fruitful of result for himself rather than for others. As we consider that long apprenticeship, we find reflection of it in certain words of his spoken forty years after it ended in a ” Conference ” with the Sisters of Charity1.
” Let us see,” he said to them, ” why God allows those who serve Him to suffer. My daughters, we are each like a block of stone which is to be transformed into a statue. What must the sculptor do to carry out his design ? First of all he must take the hammer, and chip off all that he does not need. For this purpose he strikes the stone so violently that if you were watching him you would say he intended to break it to pieces. Then, when he has got rid of the rougher parts, he takes a smaller hammer, and afterwards a chisel, to begin the face with all the features. When that has taken form, he uses other and finer tools to bring it to that perfection which he has intended for his statue. Do you see, my daughters, God treats us just in this way. Look at any poor Sister of Charity, any poor Mission priest, when God drew them out of the corruption of the world they were still as rough and shapeless as un-hewn stone. Nevertheless, it was from them He intended to form something beautiful, and so He took His hammer in His hand and struck great blows upon them.”
Disappointment, captivity, and failure had done their work on M. Vincent; he was ready to be treated by the lighter tools; the time had come for the features of the statue to disclose themselves beneath the hand of God; but it is clear that he was not aware that he had found at last the opportunity for his true development. At Clichy his work was congenial, and it was only under obedience that he left it; he was out of his element among magnificent and luxurious surroundings, and he does not seem to have possessed special aptitude for teaching and training children. The two boys placed under his care were described by their aunt, Mme. de Meilleraye, as ” vrais démons,” and there is not the faintest evidence that Vincent de Paul obtained any influence over either of them. The younger did not survive his boyhood, and the only record of him that remains is his expressed desire to be a Cardinal, that he might take precedence of his brother; the eldest was a brave soldier, but he was not distinguished for piety. There was also Jean François de Gondi, the most celebrated representative of his race, but he was not educated with’ his brothers. He was very much the youngest, and could not have shared with them; therefore it would be unjust to attribute the training of the future Cardinal de Retz to M. Vincent. The result of a strong influence in childhood, nevertheless, is often felt through life, and the notorious Cardinal was not a credit to the associations of his infancy.
It becomes evident, then, that Vincent de Paul did not find his vocation in his office as tutor; he must have seen at once that he was not suited to his new position, and, though we have no reminiscences of that period, he would hardly have been human if he had not felt the chill of deep discouragement. Yet perhaps the understanding of vocation which was afterwards so strong in him was then taking hold upon his mind. For him vocation—a term that is constantly made synonymous with conscious aptitude and strong desire—meant the fulfilment of God’s will, and as life advanced he tried to be true to it in complete simplicity. At that moment of upheaval it may have become real to him for the first time, and his feet at length were set on the right path. For he was not merely submissive; his acceptance was so complete that with every successive step his will seems to grow a little nearer to the Divine Will. It should be recognized that it was not by the spur of a fine and pure intention for the future, deliberately conceived, that he kept himself steadfast to his vocation, but by the continual withholding of intention, by a most faithful yielding of himself.
His direct connection with de Gondi lasted for a period of ten years. It was in November, 1613, that M. Vincent left his labours at Clichy, and was established in his new capacity at the Château de Montmirail. His patron was one of those aristocrats of France over whom history casts a glamour hard to define and impossible to dispel. The Courts of Henri IV. and of his successors were unspeakably licentious. We know that coarseness of speech matched depravity of morals, and that the reality would inspire abhorrence, if by bridging the centuries it were possible faithfully to reconstruct it. But an impression of brilliancy is quite independent of all sober and reasonable conviction. . Neither Gui Patin nor Tallemant des Réaux, nor any of the other witty scribblers who have perpetuated the ugliness that surrounded them, can rid us of the half-envious admiration we accord to their glittering contemporaries. In spite of everything, the French aristocrat of that period remains superb, and that quality of superbness, of complete and unassailable self-assurance, has its own historic value. It was not only for posterity that they were impressive; in the eyes of the class below them—that bourgeois class which was so much better endowed intellectually—they were possessors of a magic with which no power that a man may acquire for himself can possibly compete.
And here it is well to prepare ourselves for the unquestionable fact that to accomplish those great and far-reaching schemes which were to revolutionize the social life of Paris Vincent de Paul contrived to use the magic of the noble. Possibly it was easier for him to use it by reason of the enormous width of the gulf that separated his natural position from that of his clients, and dispelled any misgiving on their part lest he should presume upon their bridging of it. The bourgeois priest, however spiritual, had more prejudices to overcome before he could attain to satisfactory terms with the aristocrat than had the peasant. But Vincent’s relations with other men were too unusual to be affected deeply by considerations of convention or of class. Even in those early times he was learning to be humble, and the exterior manifestation of his humility gave him from the first a special security of foothold. He went to the Château de Montmirail in the position of a dependent, but he so ordered his ways that it would have been impossible to cast a slight upon him. He would never appear among the great folk of the Château unless specially sent for; when his young charges were not in need of his services, ” it demeurait dans cette grande Maison comme dans une Chartreuse,” says a contemporary. He laid down as a maxim for his own guidance that among the many perils and temptations surrounding him, his sole protection was the choice of silence and retirement whenever choice was possible, and his room became to him as the cell of the Religious. This choice of retirement, however, was in no wise slothful; he was on the lookout for every duty that had relation to his office. His own position towards the many grades of servants in that huge establishment might suggest great possibilities of difficulty, but he was so self-forgetful that he ignored any such trammels, and he applied himself to the task of winning their confidence. When a great festival approached, he tried to assemble them and remind them of their privilege as Catholics and all that it entailed. Such an enterprise demanded courage. Under the most Catholic monarchs who ruled France while Vincent lived it did not, perhaps, present such insurmountable obstacles as would a similar effort with a Reformed Church in the twentieth century; but lackeys in all places and at all times have a tendency to scoff, and the peasant priest gave signal proof of entire self-abnegation when, in the new world on which he had just entered, he made this venture.
Here, again, it is quite clear that he was not consciously training himself for the future that did, in fact, lie before him. There was an after period of uncertainty and doubt which shows conclusively that he had no prevision of his career. And such experiences of his as seem to have been a preparation for his destined work were so utilized by reason of the extraordinary spiritual energy that was developing within him. To such a development no circumstances are a hindrance, but the Château de Montmirail did not offer any notable advantages.
Philippe Emmanuel de Gondi was not distinguished for special saintliness of life. He held the office of General of the Galleys, and from boyhood stood high in Court favour. It is true that his uncle, his brother, and afterwards his son, were Cardinals, and the episcopal throne in Paris was held in succession by four members of the de Gondi family; but, without detailed study of Church history in France, we may understand that preferment was possible without corresponding spiritual endowment, and, in fact, the de Gondi furnished examples of just such abuses in the Church as Vincent de Paul in later years made it his mission to attack. But if Philippe de Gondi was not the ideal patron for a man of Vincent’s calibre, his wife2 soon showed herself capable of appreciating the privilege de Bérulle had obtained for her and her children. She was still a young woman, but she had reached the fourteenth year of her wedded life, and, in spite of the temptations of her high position and great personal beauty, she seems to have kept herself unspotted by the world. She was by nature a dreamer, one of those beings whose purity of soul is admitted and admired, but who hold themselves so far aloof from ordinary experience that as a rule they accomplish nothing. The records of fact which concern her are quite sufficiently explicit to show the transformation which was wrought—not suddenly, but in process of years—by Vincent de Paul. Some months after his arrival at the Château de Montmirail, the birth of her youngest and most celebrated son, Jean François, took place, and it was during her time of physical weakness that she discovered the degree to which Vincent was worthy of her confidence. The natural outcome of her growing trust was her choice of him as spiritual director, but she seems to have had sufficient discrimination to foresee that he would not welcome such a suggestion, and to obtain his compliance she resorted to the intervention of de Bérulle. Vincent was thus coerced by a double claim of obedience, and he accepted the charge; but it is evident that he was never entirely reconciled to the delicate position it entailed.
The fashion of professing sanctity did not come into vogue till some sixty years later, when Mme. de Maintenon reigned at Versailles, and the doings of the Ladies of S. Cyr furnished inexhaustible topics for the chatterers; but even in those early days of Marie de Medici’s regency, as in the wild times of the Valois, the instinct of the dévote (which is never eradicated in the French nature) declared itself in unexpected quarters. And at all times the dévote is difficult to deal with. When—as in the Château de Montmirail—we find a high-born lady, possessing every advantage that this world can give, living in comparative seclusion, with one of her dependents as confessor, we recognize elements of danger. Vincent’s own development had hardly reached the point that would teach him to be moderate with others. Already he ruled himself by a law of sacrifice before which ordinary human nature quails, and in his new penitent he had just the material out of which might have been made one of those astounding examples of conversion in high places with which Fénelon and Bossuet and the Directors of Port Royal edified their contemporaries. We may search in vain, however, for anything sensational in the record of his dealing with Mme. de Gondi. The charge which he accepted in fear and trembling he held in a spirit of complete personal humility.
It is much to be deplored that there is no record of this period of M. Vincent’s life. His failure with the children was counterbalanced by success with their parents, but the gradual process by which that success was attained is hidden; his references to the years at Montmirail are very rare, and all they convey is the impression that he avoided any sort of self-assertion, and regarded the authority of his employers as of Divine appointment. Abelli gives us one incident, nevertheless, which proves his courage. It was the age of duelling; Richelieu was not yet in power, and no attempt to check the savage practice had been made. De Gondi was a notable duellist, but the influence of his wife or his years of association with M. Vincent had drawn him into practices of piety. With the childlike inconsistency that distinguished the Catholics of that period, he went to Mass on a morning when he proposed to fight. M. Vincent celebrated. When the other worshippers had gone, M. de Gondi remained—praying, perhaps, for success in the forthcoming contest. It was then that the duty of the priest became so clear to M. Vincent that his own natural diffidence was put to flight.
” Monsieur,” he said, approaching the kneeling figure, ” will you let me say something—with all humility. I have heard on good authority that you intend to fight a duel, but I tell you as a message from my Saviour, Whom you have just beheld, Whom you have been adoring, that unless you will renounce your intention His judgment will fall on you and on your family.”
He was the dependent admonishing the seigneur, the priest interfering in affairs of which he had no knowledge. In either aspect the attempt was dangerous, for the Church had grown loose in discipline, and the great nobles were imperious. Yet he succeeded. Probably the honour of M. de Gondi was unassailable, and he approached a duel in the spirit of the sportsman rather than in that of the bully, so that for him there was less difficulty in refusing a contest than for many others; but he would not have listened to the suggestion of a priest in such a matter unless a foundation of respect for the priest as an individual and for the Church he was representing had been laid. M. Vincent desired that his life during those years at Montmirail should be hidden, and his desire has been fulfilled, but we know by his effect on those who were with him that he must have lived in the practice of personal holiness.
It was natural that Mme. de Gondi should wish to share with others the privilege that she valued so highly, but she had reason to regret her generous instinct. M. Vincent was not fully occupied by his duties to his charges, for they had much to learn in the department of sport and swordsmanship, and therefore he had many hours of leisure. At first he remained in retirement, but the march of events forced him into prominence, and the deep respect with which he was regarded by Mme. de Gondi increased the difficulty of his position. One incident in particular that was to have great effect upon his afterlife had immediate influence at this juncture; it is, indeed, as important to the development of his character as of his actions, for it seems to have come as the most searching test of his humility. It was in humility that he found himself wanting, and in agreement with S. Augustine he believed that this was the essential virtue of the spiritual life. The form of his temptation and his violent method of dealing with it shows us that he had reached a stage when his regard for the progress of his own soul was paramount over every other consideration.
The momentous incident occurred in 1617. He had accompanied Mme. de Gondi to the Château de Folleville in Picardy, and, while there was summoned to the bedside of a peasant in a village on the estate. The sick man was respected by his neighbours and believed to be a faithful son of the Church, but when M. Vincent came to him and he knew that death was near, the bonds by which for years he had confined his conscience snapped, and the fear of hell possessed him. Vincent de Paul, in the ministrations that are part of the ordinary duties of a parish priest, was awakened to a new understanding of the possibilities of human nature. This Folleville peasant had not neglected the Sacraments, but he had misused them,; he had lied to God and to himself, and the deadly poison of this constant secret sacrilege had almost destroyed his soul. The depth of his repentance, however, spurred him to an act which had results of immense importance. His shrinking from confession had involved him in the most fatalform of deceit, but having recognized his sin, he was not content with the shame of the confessional. He desired that Mme. de Gondi, as representing his liege lord, might come to him, and to her he made open acknowledgment of his misdoing. Of the nature of his original crimes we know nothing, nor is there any record of his name. Having played his unconscious part in the development of future events, he died.
Mme. de Gondi and M. Vincent shared this experience, and it made a vivid impression on them both. It was not a matter of hearsay; they had each been personally concerned, and actual touch with such a spiritual tragedy as this suggested to the minds of both the possibility of a great spiritual need for which there was no provision. The imagination of the devout Catholic shrinks from contemplating the fate of those who, by making a practice of untrue confession, deprive themselves of every means of grace. The idea that thousands of souls might be in such a plight was brought home to the minds of these two, to whom the Church’s Sacraments were so much more precious than life itself. It seems that M. Vincent received a sudden revelation of the spiritual conditions under which the peasantry of France were living, and that the course of his life was altered in consequence.
At the moment he took action. On January 25 he preached a sermon in the church at Folleville, on the reality and necessity of the Sacrament of Penance. While he meditated on his theme, Mme. de Gondi prayed that he might be inspired by the Holy Spirit. This was, in fact, the first of the Mission sermons, and its effect on those who heard it was so great as to suggest that M. Vincent had found the remedy for a wide-spread disease. Great schemes for the sanctifying of all the country folk on her vast and scattered estates filled the brain of Mme. de Gondi. Her enthusiasm knew no bounds, and it would seem that it reached beyond the schemes themselves, and was fixed on the personality on which, as she believed, success depended. M. Vincent found himself the object of an admiration which was no less intense because completely spiritual.
Simultaneously he was becoming conscious of the call of his real vocation. It had not taken definite shape; it may have appeared to him as the stirring of ambition, for we know absolutely nothing of the progress of his thoughts at that period, but it is clear that it made a claim on him which could not be satisfied without action. The action which he took was sensational. In the July following his first Mission Sermon, he left his post in the de Gondi household, and established himself at Châtillon, in the province of La Bresse. Mme. de Gondi took leave of him without any suspicion that he would be absent more than a few days. His excuse—which was a true one—that his personal affairs called him away deceived her completely, and he was settled in the parochial work of his new cure before the truth dawned on her. For two months she was expecting his return from day to day, and then in September a letter from her husband—who was then in Provence—opened her eyes. The best record of the position is to be found in this letter, and others succeeding it, which Abelli has preserved :
” I am in despair,” wrote M. de Gondi3, “over a letter which M. Vincent has sent me, and which I enclose in the hope that you may find a means to avert such a misfortune as his loss would be to us. I am utterly astonished that he should have told you nothing of his resolve and that you had no warning. I beseech you to use any means to keep him with us, for if the reasons he gives be the real ones; they do not seem to me worthy of consideration. There are none of them so important as is my salvation and that of my children. I know that he will some day be able to aid us in this, and will help me in those resolutions of which I have often spoken to you, and which I am now more than ever eager to make. I have not yet replied to him, and shall wait to do so till I hear from you. You must decide whether my sister, de Ragny—who is not far from where he is—would do good by interference. But I think the best hope is from M. de Bérulle. Tell him that even if M. Vincent has not the gift of teaching children, that he may have a man under him ; and that in any case I desire most ardently to get him back under my roof, that he may live there as he may choose; for, if he is with me, I myself shall some day live as a righteous man.”
By his eagerness and incoherence, M. de Gondi shows us what deep importance he attached to M. Vincent’s presence in his home; but to him, in the midst of a busy and active life, the shock of their sudden loss was not so overwhelming as to his wife. Of her we are told that for days she did nothing but weep, and could neither sleep nor eat. She had accustomed herself to accept M. Vincent’s decisions in the spirit of obedience, but it is plain that resentment very nearly mastered her. A confidential letter to an intimate friend discloses her mind to us :
” I should never have thought it possible,” she wrote. ” M. Vincent has shown too great charity towards me to desert me like this. God be praised, however, I do not blame him—far from it. I believe he has only acted under God’s special guidance and touched by His grace. But it is very strange, truly, that he should have gone away. I confess I can see no reason for it. He knows how greatly I need his direction and all the business on which I ought to consult him; the sufferings of soul and body which have been the result of losing him; the good which I am longing to do in our villages, but which can come to nothing without his help. In short, I am in a most pitiable state. You know how indignantly M. le Général has written, and that my children are losing ground daily; that all the good he was doing in my household and among the seven or eight thousand souls on the estate has come to an end. Yet are not these souls bought by the Blood of Our Lord as truly as are those in Bresse ? Are they not equally dear to Him ? I do not know how M. Vincent regards it, it is true; but to me these things seem so important that I shall spare no means to get him back again. He only desires the Glory of God, and I desire nothing that is against His Holy Will; but I do beseech Him to give him back to me. I pray the Holy Mother, and should pray even more vigorously, if my own personal need was not so intertwined with that of M. le Général, of my children, our household, and our tenants.”
The pendulum swings rapidly betwixt the mood of submission, which was an acquired virtue, and the imperious wrath, which was the natural instinct of one of her class. Mme. de Gondi shows herself very human in this outpouring, and it is hard to understand how M. Vincent reconciled his conscience to a desertion that seems strangely unfeeling in its method. He had, without question, received abundant kindness from his employers; they had made a visible effort to conform their way of life to his standards, and the extent of his influence could not have been hidden even from his own eyes. We cannot arrive at any explanation with complete certainty, for we have only outward facts by which to judge his conduct; but it is possible that M. Vincent reached the crisis of his life in that year of the first Mission, and that the stirring of his soul towards his real life-work brought him to that deep spiritual experience which is termed Conversion. If this was indeed the case, he was impelled to his sudden flight by a force that he could not resist; he had no choice. The Call of God had come to him to leave the familiar things among which he had prospered so notably and to sojourn among strangers, that he might test the standards of his life. It was imperative that he should obey, for his sense of vocation was synonymous with such obedience, and the great enterprise of the Missions — which he seemed to be evading — may have been dependent on the complete submission of his will.
Whether this is the true explanation of his action or not, his use of the years before and after the experiment at Châtillon seem to prove that his sensational escape was not the result of a sudden whim or a desire for novelty. The episode remains mysterious, but, considered in its practical aspect alone, it has immense importance. It lasted less than six months, but it gave M. Vincent knowledge of the conditions of a provincial town which it would have been hard to acquire otherwise. It brought him into touch with a class of persons who were new to him, and—as we shall see in connection with the foundation of the Confraternities of Charity—it was while he was curé at Châtillon that he received a suggestion from which sprung vast undertakings in the future.
The hope cherished by M. and Mme. de Gondi that de Bérulle’s authority would restore M. Vincent to them was a fallacious one. In fact, de Bérulle was the confidante of M. Vincent’s intention, and procured for him the cure that made fulfilment of it possible ; and Châtillon was an admirable field for his energy. There were many priests attached to his church there, and they seem to have been lively persons addicted to field sports and the wearing of lay attire. His conception of the obligations of priesthood must have come as a surprise to them; but, if tradition may be trusted, his influence and example brought them back to duty. At this time only did M. Vincent win celebrity by effecting some of those sensational conversions of private individuals, which suggest Port Royal rather than S. Lazare. He found the society of a little town frivolous, undisciplined, and silly. He came with all the force of novelty as well as the fire of conviction, and some of those he touched were not again what they had been before he came to them. The popular fashion—against which M. Olier at S. Sulpice afterwards made war—of attending Mass in the most extravagant attire, and chattering behind a fluttering fan during its progress, was prevalent at Châtillon, but it was one for which M. Vincent had no tolerance. He tried the experiment of insisting upon outward seemliness. The power of the priest appeared almost to have lapsed through the habit of laxity in the confessional, but the inheritance of the faith, even in the most frivolous of Catholics, is an incalculable force. Where reverence for Divine worship was in question, M. Vincent became severe, and the result of his severity was a sensational reform, not only in the outward appearance, but in the private life of the chief ladies of the town. Philanthropy took the place of amusement, and some of them seem to have accomplished useful work, which was continued when the direct personal influence of M. Vincent had been withdrawn. There was the case, also, of a certain M. Beyrier, a young man in whose house M. Vincent hired a lodging. He was so celebrated for his riotous hospitality that the priest was urged not to countenance him ; but perhaps the fact that he had been brought up a Huguenot and had abjured those errors, even though he did not attain to the full practice of any other faith, gave him a special claim. M. Vincent remained under his roof in spite of the expostulations of the well-meaning, and in due course the young men of the town awoke to the unwelcome knowledge that the gayest of their playfellows was taking life seriously, and becoming a devout Catholic, as well as a good and sober citizen.
And, finally, to this short episode in M. Vincent’s career belongs the romantic story of the Comte de Rougemont the great seigneur of the district, who had been celebrated far and near for his wild Iife, and was one of the most notable of duellists. From the lurid and rather fantastic tradition regarding this gentleman’s youth, it would seem that he had not the least respect for any principle of mercy or of charity; as a type he presented as sharp a contrast to M. Vincent as is conceivable. That fact in itself may possibly have had an effect on him. The new parish priest, whose influence was stirring the town of Châtillon, was animated by aims and instincts that were altogether outside the experience of that magnificent personage, Balthazar de Rougemont, Baron de Chandes. Out of curiosity, he joined the congregation that gathered to hear one of M. Vincent’s sermons; still, it may be, out of curiosity, he sought personal intercourse with the preacher, and the force of contrast between this man’s life and his own, the promise of magnificent usefulness in the one and the certainty of evil effectiveness in the other, impressed and absorbed him. Little by little the man of peace conquered the duellist, the estates of Rougemont were sold—with a recklessness characteristic of their owner—and the proceeds were given for the support of works of charity; the festivities of the Château de Chandes where he made his abode ceased for ever, and the only guests were the needy. The most severe of the Hermits lof Port Royal could not have outdone him in rigour of renunciation. It is told of him—and if the story is inaccurate in detail, it is true in spirit—that when his conversion had gone far and he had learnt to deprive himself of all those desires and possessions which had been his by right, he made the discovery that his sword, the companion of his adventurous career, was very precious to him; and thereupon he drew it from its sheath and struck it against a rock until it fell in fragments. So great was the sacrifice that afterwards he had no difficulty in obeying any demand his conscience might make upon him; for him the joy of life was represented by his sword, and without it the only way was that Way of the Cross to which it seemed that Christ had summoned him. M. de Rougemont did not live to old age, but while life lasted he maintained the practices of asceticism and penitence he had adopted.
Records of this kind are rare in biographies of Vincent de Paul because it was only at this stage that he had close connection with the class whose conversion appeals to the imagination. The poor and ordinary were the chosen objects of his spiritual energy, and these had no individual history. In his intercourse with the rich it was his part to guide those who were already the declared followers of Christ, rather than to retrieve those who forgot Him; and in his dealing with the priesthood it is likely that he was himself responsible for the careful concealment of well-known names.
During these months of labour in new fields he seems to have shown no sign of compassion for the distress of Mme. de Gondi; but his silence did not check her in her efforts to win him back. She went to Paris and succeeded in enlisting M. de Bérulle in her cause. She devoted all her thoughts and energies to it, and all her projects of benefiting her tenants slipped into abeyance. Her state of mind is represented by the following letter which she wrote to M. Vincent :
” I told you often of my fear of losing your help, and it was not a vain fear, because now I have indeed lost it; I could not bear the misery of it if it were not for a special grace of God of which I am unworthy. If it was only for a time I should not be so unhappy, but when I reflect on all my need of direction and advice, for dying and for living, my distress overwhelms me. Do you think either soul or body will be able to bear this trouble for very long ? I am not able to seek or to accept any help elsewhere, for you know very well that it is only to very few that I can disclose the needs of my soul. M. de Bérulle has promised me to write to you, and I call on God and on the Blessed Virgin to restore you to us for the salvation not only of my family, but of so many others who need your charity. And once again I beseech you to extend this charity of yours towards us, for the sake of your love for Our Lord. I yield myself to His Will, even though I fear greatly that I shall not be able to continue to do so. If you still refuse me, I hold you responsible before God for all the evil that may come to me and for all the good I fail to do for lack of help. You expose me to the risk of being often deprived of the Sacraments because in my great distress there are so few who are able to help me. You know that M. le Général has just the same desire (with which God has mercifully inspired him). Do not forego the good that you might do in helping towards his conversion, for it might at some future time affect so many others. I know that my own life, being only an offence before God, there is no reason that it should not be endangered, but my soul needs preparation for death. Do you remember my terror in my last illness when I was in the country ? I am on the verge of even greater misery, and the dread of it alone does me so much harm that I fear—unless something counterbalances it—it may kill me.”4
There was no immediate result from this appeal, and it is extremely likely that it obtained no reply. M. Vincent held strongly to the view that no soul can depend on individual direction, that all help of this kind is fallacious unless it be recognized as derived from God and given or withheld according to His Will. It was on M. de Bérulle that Mme. de Gondi made an impression. We have no means of knowing the extent of his interference. In October M. Vincent began to show signs of wavering. He had worked hard, and would have been content to remain working hard in his retreat ; but probably, when the pressure of distractions that had preyed upon him was removed, he was able to see his life in truer proportion. As the weeks drew out and the appeals from those he had left behind grew more and more insistent, some misgivings may have been mingled with his relief. He consented to see M. de Fresne, secretary to M. de Gondi, and at his suggestion he went to Lyons to discuss his position with the Superior of the Oratory there. The hopes of Mme. de Gondi may well have risen at the first rumour that M. Vincent was ‘reconsidering his decision. The arguments for his return to her and to all the work she offered him were far more weighty than the claim of Châtillon on its new curé. But the Superior at Lyons was prudent and discreet, and by his advice there was to be further time taken for reflection. As a result of their interview a letter was despatched informing M. de Gondi that before the year ended Vincent de Paul was coming to Paris to take counsel with certain devout persons there. The reply was prompt :
” I received that which you wrote me from Lyons two days ago, and I note your resolve to make a journey to Paris at the end of November. I am greatly rejoiced at this, hoping to see you then, and that you will grant—at my entreaty and at the advice of your best friends—the favour that I ask of you. I say no more, because you have seen the letter I wrote to my wife; I only ask you to remember how likely it seems that God wishes that the reform of the father as well as of the children should be effected by you.”5
For another two months the people of Châtillon had the benefit of M. Vincent’s presence, and then he bade them farewell and started for Paris, arriving there December 23. Ostensibly he sought the advice of M. de Bérulle, but the substance of that advice was not doubtful for M. de Bérulle had joined forces with Mme. de Gondi, and on Christmas Eve Vincent de Paul returned to the de Gondi household, under a pledge to remain the spiritual director of its mistress so long as her life lasted.
In fact, M. Vincent’s retreat had made him a far more notable personage than he would have been if he had accepted the ordinary progress of events. He had been the theme of endless discussion and correspondence, and his subsequent position with the employers he had deserted could not have been that of an ordinary dependent. The step taken to break up his growing reputation had just the opposite effect; on his return he found it more firmly established. But, whether his flight from Montmirail was, or was not, an error, it must be regarded as a landmark in the career of M. Vincent. After it there is no longer any uncertainty in his progress; he had definite ends before him, and he went forward steadily in pursuit of them.
Mme. de Gondi had awaited his aid to put into shape the shadowy ideas awakened by the incident at Folleville. She had seen the plan of a Mission spring—almost of itself—from the actual and intimate experience of an individual need, and its success had made a deep impression upon her. She was weighed down by a sense of responsibility towards the large numbers of tenants on her husband’s estates, and she thought she recognized a Divine summons to provide for their spiritual necessities by the assistance of M. Vincent. The Folleville sermon that had so stirred the hearts of the people was to be the first of a long series; the personal influence which had done so much to deepen its after effect was to touch as many as possible of the thousands who were needing it. There was no shadow of self-glorification in her scheme. From the haven of her home M. Vincent was to go forth on his mission of succour to famished souls. All the material support he needed she and her husband were to supply, but in the work itself he, and he only, would be God’s agent. Her purpose only grew stronger during that long autumn of suspense, and when M. Vincent was at last restored to her, she lost no time in attempting to fulfil it. She offered to endow—with the sum of 16,000 livres—a band of preachers who would engage to make a complete circuit of her estates in the course of every five years. Vincent approved the idea; he was ready to assist, but he considered himself unworthy to lead, and he recommended that these preachers should be chosen from some existing community. He approached Père Charlet, a Jesuit, in the hope that he would undertake the work, but sanction could not be obtained from Rome ; and when he turned to his old friends the Ora-torians, among whom it seemed certain that exactly the right persons might be found, he was met by direct and uncompromising refusal. These and other tentative negotiations with existing bodies of Religious spread over years without producing any result, and Mme. de Gondi chafed at the delay. It was obvious to her that Vincent himself was the fittest person for the post he was inviting others to fill, and that the discouraging reception that was accorded him was an acknowledgment of this fact. In her eyes, indeed, he was the only person able to bring the idea to the fruition that she pictured, and as she had at her command just the ecclesiastical influence most likely to be serviceable, she brought it into play.
The See of Paris had become almost an hereditary possession of the de Gondi. Jean François, who held it at that time, was the first Archbishop, and to a son of the Church, as loyal and as humble as was M. Vincent, his authority would have infinite weight. With him M. and Mme. de Gondi held conclave, and there and then their plan took form. A new Congregation was to be founded, having for headquarters the Collège des Bons Enfants, which stood near the Porte S. Victor. Its members were to be persons who renounced ecclesiastical preferment, and devoted their lives to preaching in the villages. They were to avoid towns of any importance, and were to be wayfarers defraying the necessary expenses of travel from a fund held in common. Their selection was to be made by their Superior.
Mme. de Gondi and the Archbishop then made a joint appeal to Vincent to be the first Superior, and his consent was a foregone conclusion. The scheme was in accordance with his most cherished desires. Clearly it was only humility that withheld him from volunteering to inaugurate it. In March, 1624, the Archbishop made over the Collège des Bons Enfants to be prepared for its new uses. Just a year later M. and Mme. de Gondi executed the Contract of Foundation. The clauses of this contract embodied the original scheme, and were simple and uncomplicated. The Founders were sincerely desirous of providing for the spiritual needs of the poor, and, departing from the usage of their kind, made no demand that Masses should be said for their own welfare. But all the holy zeal with which Madame was animated did not lessen her need of Vincent’s support and actual presence, and the deed that sets forth the duty, responsibility, and authority vested in the ” Sieur de Paul ” provides that he shall, notwithstanding, make his abode continually and actually in the house of the Founders, to the end that he may continue to render to them and to their family the same spiritual guidance as for many long years they have received.
Since the summer day when he had fled from temptation, M. Vincent had grown in spiritual capacity. If he was sincerely anxious that the new Company should fulfil the purpose of its Foundress, he must have deplored a provision that condemned him to certain inefficiency; but he was able, from its earliest beginning, to confide it and its development to God. And events proved that it was the Will of God that it should grow, and that it should grow under his guidance. A new Order will not prosper under a Superior who is perpetually an absentee, and Vincent was pledged to remain with Madame for the rest of her life. She was greatly his junior, so that the prospect was not promising. But two months after signing the Contract of Foundation the Foundress was taken ill, and died in a few days. She had Vincent with her, and her end was peaceful, though her husband was far away in Provence. When she was laid to rest in the Carmelite Convent in the Rue Chapon, the Superior of the new Congregation hastened south to break the news to M. le Général, and through the sadness of that mission there glowed the welcome certainty that the chain which bound him to the uncongenial life of these noble persons was finally broken.
In vain had Mme. de Gondi attempted to command the future by her Will, and with the force of a voice from the dead implored Vincent to remain with her husband and her sons, while with equal fervour she laid a last command on those nearest to her to ” keep him with them, and to remember and to follow all his directions.” There is extraordinary pathos in this woman’s confidence in the power of the pure soul it had been her lot to encounter, to shield those whom she loved against all evils that might beset them; and she is essentially womanly in her disregard for all consideration of proportion when she claims to monopolize this power in the interest of her own family. But the attempt was ineffectual. By the free consent of M. de Gondi, Vincent moved to the Collège des Bons Enfants a few weeks after the death of Madame, and so entered upon the fulfilment of his real vocation. Two years later the magnificent General of the Galleys abandoned all his state and dignity, and was admitted to the Congregation of the Oratory.