Chapter III: M. Vincent and the priesthood
VINCENT DE PAUL was now forty-eight years old. He stood high in the estimation of those who knew him, but he had earned no great renown; his name was known to a small circle only. For ten years he had been a dependent in a rich man’s household, and although he had made for himself an exceptional position, he could not escape some of the drawbacks attendant on that state. He was a peasant by birth, he had never held a post of any importance, and had he died at the end of fifty years of a devout and rather toilsome existence there would have been nothing notable to record about him. But, in fact, that fifty years was his apprenticeship. In action and in judgment he was deliberate; he had not been less so in development.
At their end he accepted a divine commission to revive the faith. He had seen the fields lying ripe for harvest, and he entered almost alone upon the labour of gathering. No great and penetrating appeal, such as might arouse the sluggard heart and conscience, was made from the pulpit of Notre Dame. No Court influence spread the knowledge of the need. There was nothing stirring or eventful to mark an epoch of reform. Vincent went to the Collège des Bons Enfants, and his faithful friend, M. Portail, joined him. It is well that we should have the description of their inauguration in his own words.
” We had with us a good priest to whom we gave 3o crowns a year,” he told the Company thirty years later1, ” and we went about all three together from village to village preaching and holding missions. When we started we gave the key to a neighbour, and asked him to go and sleep in the house. Such was our custom when certain other priests bore witness that the blessing of God was on our labours by wishing to join us.”
The new recruits were du Coudray and de la Salle, and on September 4, 1626, a formal Act of Association was drawn up between Vincent de Paul and his three first companions by which they all pledged themselves to the service of the poor in the country according to the Foundation, and to live together as a community; and the three companions promised obedience to Vincent de Paul as Superior, and to his successors in that office.2
A few months later their numbers were doubled, but there was no excitement about them, no moment when a crowd of volunteers was knocking for admittance at the great doors of the house in the Rue S. Victor. Their growth was gradual but it was steady, and in January, 1632, the Company was so far established as to receive formal recognition from the Pope (Urban VIII.). Thenceforward it was to be known as the Congregation of the Mission.
It was at this early stage in the history of the Congregation that the Superior was also the leader in the actual work of country missions. Later, as was inevitable, it became very difficult for him to leave Paris, and his responsibilities were too great and too numerous to allow of a wandering existence. Probably those early days were a cherished memory, his references to them in after-years are frequent. The cause of the poor from the point of view of spiritual neglect and ignorance was very dear to him, and he said that when he decided to return to Paris, after a course of village missions, it seemed to him as if the gateway, of the city ought to fall on him for turning away from the innumerable souls whom he left in need3.
He would have been content to pursue his work on a humble scale, but his Foundation was destined for a certain . outward greatness. In 1630, two years before the Papal sanction had been given, there came one day to the Collège des Bons Enfants an ecclesiastic of position and repute—M. Adrien le Bon, Prior of the Augustinian Order of Chanoines Réguliers, established at S. Lazare. This gentleman desired a private interview with M. Vincent, and M. Vincent being at all times humbly accessible to those who had need of him, the private interview took place forthwith. It was memorable in the history of the Company, although the visitor who had sought it went away downcast. Long afterwards the details of it were made known. M. le Bon—like many another Prior in that period of lax discipline — had had difficulties with the Community. Possibly some cross current of new idea set afloat by de Bérulle or by Vincent de Paul had been wafted to him, and his eyes had opened suddenly to irregularities practised habitually under shelter of his jurisdiction. Possibly he was precipitate in acting on the impulse of the new revelation. It is clear that he found his authority inadequate to accomplish a reform which he conceived to be necessary. In his dilemma he went to M. Vincent with a suggestion (to which the Community must have agreed) that S. Lazare should in future be the headquarters of the Mission priests, and that the new-born Company should join forces with his Augustinian monks. He thought—with some reason—that the inducements he could offer for his scheme were, to say the least, worthy of consideration by the head of a small and struggling Order, but Vincent’s refusal was direct and absolute. The time had come at last when he saw his aim in life clear-cut and definite, and he would not deviate from the pursuit of it. There might be need of reform among the Augustinian monks of S. Lazare, there was great likelihood that the influence of his own small band might accomplish much that was needed, but he did not recognize the claim: his little company had more work than it could do already, and even at that early stage he grasped the necessity of concentration. Many a time in after-years he heard the call of work that needed doing, of work that probably he could have done, but which lay outside the limit of that which he had undertaken; and always he stood firm, realizing—as smaller minds cannot—that only by the rigorous preservation of the limit that he recognized could he fulfil the gigantic task assigned to him.
In 1630, therefore, M. le Bon failed to obtain any help in his difficulties from the Superior of the Collège des Bons Enfants. But he seems to have been notably pertinacious, and he enlisted others in his cause. There was a learned Doctor of the Sorbonne, M. de Lestocq, who set to work to break down M. Vincent’s resolution touching the proffered establishment at S. Lazare. Against the offer in its original form Vincent’s decision was unalterable, but the offer was changed, and the advocates of acceptance were persuasive. ” We cried after him,” says M. de Lestocq in describing the affair, ” as did the woman of Canaan after the Apostles.” The strange suggestion of amalgamating the two Orders was dropped, and instead Vincent and his Company were invited to take up their quarters at S. Lazare. There -was no valid reason for refusal, and at length he consented to refer the question to another Doctor of the Sorbonne, M. André du Val, and to abide by his decision.
No impartial judge could have hesitated. The Company of Mission priests was growing steadily, it showed every sign of life. The Collège des Bons Enfants which ‘had sufficed for the pioneers was quite inadequate as de headquarters of an important movement. S. Lazare, on the other hand, was so finely situated, and carried with it so much of the dignity that was adherent in the seigneurial buildings of Paris, that its occupation by an Order that had become demoralized and effete was in itself a subject for regret4. To the onlooker it seemed that M. le Bon had been directly moved by the inspiration of God in furtherance of the designs of Vincent de Paul. But then and always, as we shall see, Vincent himself held back, lest an appearance of success should tempt him into presumption. It was more than a year after the original proposition before he showed any signs of wavering, and when, after the advice of M. du Val, he could no longer shirk acceptance, he showed no desire to inspect the splendid property which was so miraculously given into his hands. At the last moment, indeed, it seemed likely that he would break off negotiations on a clause in the agreement that to others seemed of infinitesimal importance. M. le Bon desired that his monks should have the benefit of association with the Mission Priests, and sleep in the same dormitories; but on this point Vincent was obdurate. To him his Company appeared as a sacred trust from God for a sacred purpose. His indifference to their temporal fortunes was sincere; he knew that his responsibility towards them was the development of his ideal for their inner life, and their outward establishment was nought in comparison. Years of varied experience lay behind him. He had acquired knowledge of human nature, he knew the temptations to which his Missioners would be exposed by the roving and unsettled life which was part of their vocation, and here at the very beginning of his appointed work he stood firm. The rule which had protected him amid the distractions of a ducal household he now laid down for them. ” The true Missioner,” he said, ” must be as an Apostle in the world, but as a Chartreux at home,” and no advantage to be gained from the possession of S. Lazare would compensate them for the injury of association with demoralized Religious. But S. Lazare was the destined home of the Congregation of the Mission, and M. le Bon gave in on every point. In January, 1632, Vincent de Paul entered into possession, and although before the year was out his right was disputed by another community, no power proved strong enough to oust him.
This great change in outward circumstances opened a new field of labour. For eight years the Mission Priests had travelled from village to village striving to awake the country people to spiritual life. M. Vincent declared that no one knew so much about the peasantry of France as did his Missioners, and there was good reason that that statement should be accurate. But this knowledge went beyond the people themselves, and touched those on whom lay the real responsibility of their ignorance. It was the experience gained in country missions that showed Vincent de Paul the need for the reforming of the clergy, and it is necessary to cast a glance at the conditions prevalent, before we consider M. Vincent’s measures for dealing with them.
In 1628 a Bishop, writing to him of his own diocese, declared ” Qu’il y a presque 7,000 Prêtres ivrognes ou impudiques qui montent tous les jours a l’Autel et qui n’ont aucune vocation.” The extent of evil conveyed in that short sentence is baffling to the imagination, but many contemporary records bear out the same impression. The monasteries were centres of licence and disorder, their Superiors were appointed solely for mercenary reasons, and the idea of obedience became an absurdity. Henri de Bourbon, son of Henri IV., was Abbé of S. Germain des Prés, and held ecclesiastical authority over that quarter of Paris; he held other preferment of the same nature, and became Bishop of Metz. He was never a priest, however, and in his old age he married5. The priests of gentle birth were more likely to prosper if they were well known in society and welcome for their wit ; the humbler sort were not hampered by complete ignorance of their duties. M. Vincent, addressing his Company6, put on record the experience of Mme. de Gondi in this matter. ” My late lady,” he said, ” having made confession to her curé, noticed that he did not give her absolution. He murmured something between his teeth, and did the same again at other times when she confessed to him, which troubled her somewhat. At length she asked a Religious who came to see her to set down in writing the formula of absolution, which he did And the lady, when she next went to confession, asked the curé to give her the words of absolution on the paper, which he did. And she continued to do this every time she confessed, to him, always giving him the paper, because he was so ignorant he did not know the words that should be used in absolution. And having heard this, I began to pay more special attention when I myself confessed, and I found that it was really the case, and that there were some who did not know the words of absolution.” But it was not only for the administration of the Sacrament of Penance that elementary knowledge was lacking, M. Vincent drew the attention of the Company also to the variety of methods of celebrating; he describes the diversity of ritual, the rearrangement of the Canon. ” I was once,” he said, ” at S. Germain en Laye, and I saw seven or eight priests all saying Mass in a different way.”
He was speaking, in 1659, of a period forty years earlier, to the end that his sons might know how imperative the need had been when the Company first entered on its labours; and, over and over again, he made the evils of the time the theme of his discourse. ” The Church has no enemies so dangerous as the priests,” he told them. ” It is due to the priests that the heretics have flourished, that vice has gained its mastery, and that ignorance is so prevalent among the people. Is it not worth any sacrifice that you can make, Messieurs, to help to their reform, so that they may live in conformity with the greatness and dignity of their calling, and by this means the Church may be delivered from the contempt and desolation that has come upon her ?”7
Such utterances as these show us how deeply M. Vincent was affected by the revelations of depravity that came to him. He maintained always that ” those who celebrated the Sacred Mysteries were unworthy if they fell short of perfection, for the holy profession they had made demanded nothing less.” He could not be content with mediocrity either in himself or in others ; he demanded the perpetual struggle and no less perpetual failure of those who aim at perfection, and yet everywhere he was confronted by the spectacle of vice and hypocrisy—for the diocese that had 7,000 priests possessed by the devils of intemperance and immorality was not an isolated instance.
In fact, it was M. Vincent’s fate to see human nature in its extreme of savage ugliness. Not only was he witness of the exceptional horrors that were evolved by the Fronde Rebellion, but many of the enterprises that were part of his vocation brought him into touch with the degradation of life in the byways and hidden places of great cities, with all the infamy that infected the convicts and galley slaves in a period of authorized brutality. And in what he saw there was no inherent material for hope. It must be remembered that he could not look to a phalanx of philanthropists with possible energy to gather up what he might leave undone. In those early days there were no benevolent societies, there was no organization, there were very few priests who recognized that they had any duty towards the poor; yet poverty and ignorance, with all the evil that breeds from their alliance, prevailed alike in the cities and in the country districts, and M. Vincent heard the call to meet the needs he saw, temporal and spiritual, and for him that call meant leadership as well as personal labour. The odds against success were so great that reason must have suggested despair; but it was the hopelessness of the case that taught M. Vincent the remedy. ” For you by yourself the task is certainly too great,” he wrote to one of his Mission Priests who was overburdened by responsibility ; ” but for you, with the help of God, nothing is too difficult.” That was his discovery and the source of his continual courage.
It was with the sense that nothing was too difficult for God to make plain that M. Vincent approached the problem of the degraded priesthood. While he was still at the Collège des Bons Enfants he had made an attempt to re-establish the Ordination Retreats which had fallen into disuse, and during his last year there the Archbishop of Paris issued an order that every candidate for priesthood should make a Retreat with the Company of the Mission before his ordination; but it was only after the removal to S. Lazare that this work could assume its fit proportions. In days before the duties of Superior to the Company had become absorbing, Vincent de Paul went many times to Beauvais at the invitation of its Bishop, Augustin Potier, a man who regarded the misdeeds of the ecclesiastics under his jurisdiction as bringing disgrace upon himself. The two held long discourse over the terrible disease that was so apparent to them both, but it was the Bishop who suggested the remedy. It was a suggestion that bore witness to his wisdom. In face of a crying evil it is a natural instinct to resort to some drastic measure, and only a really wise man will direct his energies to prevent it in the future, instead of wasting them on a vain endeavour to correct in the present. In those days it seems that the conversion and reform of a depraved priest was regarded as a miracle; the contagion of drunkenness alone had spread so widely that no one cherished a hope of cure, and it was only from a new generation of priests that the people would again receive guidance and example. To secure a change in the new generation Bishop Potier and Vincent de Paul reorganized Ordination Retreats.
The scheme was first put in practice at Beauvais in 1628, and it was then that the Directions for Ordination Candidates8 were drawn up. These directions point to strictness of Iife of the most searching kind; the young priest who really followed them would have no possibility of slipping unconsciously into laxity. The complete consecration of life at ordination was to be followed by the scrupulous ruling of every hour, and by submission not only in outward things to the Bishop, but also to a Director, who was to be given knowledge of every spiritual difficulty. M. Vincent was well aware that the time of test would always come after the vivid impression of the Retreat was over and all excitement had subsided, and it was his ambition to sow a seed that should be Iong in springing and deeply rooted. At Beauvais, in the Rue S. Victor, and afterwards for many years at S. Lazare, M. Vincent conducted the Ordination Retreats himself; he set the standard of simplicity which was to be the characteristic of the Lazarist, and upheld the greatness of responsibility involved by this task of theirs. Again and again he made thèse Retreats the theme of his ” Conferences ” with his sons, urging on them the humility that was essential if ” this paltry Company ” was to be worthy of its charge. ” It is not by knowledge that you will do good,” he told them, ” or by the fine things that you can say to them; they are more learned than we are. Very little they can get from us would be new to them ; they have read or heard it all before. They say themselves that it is not in that way they are touched, but 1 y the strictness of life that they see in practice here.”
These Ordination Retreats may well have served as a spur to the Mission Priests themselves for the perfecting of their individual lives, and from the first it seemed as if the new Company had been endowed with a special vocation for its task. It was on their quiet intercourse with the Retreatants that their Superior depended. ” If you are filled with that which is Divine,” he told them, ” and if each one of you is struggling continually after perfection, then, though you may seem to have no capacity for helping these gentlemen, God will be able to use you to light them on their way.”
” You must know,” wrote Vincent de Paul to du Coudray9, ” that the goodness of God has bestowed a blessing—so great as to be almost beyond belief—on our Ordination Exercises; so great is it that all those who have been through them—or almost all—are leading lives such as a good priest should lead. There are some who are notable either for their birth or for other qualities that God has given them, who live as strictly by rule as we do here, and are more spiritual than many of us—more so, for instance, than I am myself. They have a time-table, and are regular in mental prayer, in saying Mass, in self-examination, even as we are. They devote themselves to visiting hospitals and prisons, where they preach and catechize and hear confessions; they do this also in the colleges, and are very specially blessed in doing it.”
This letter was written only a year after the Company was established at S. Lazare, and it shows us what immense encouragement Vincent de Paul received in his early undertakings as Superior. It shows also how closely he grasped those things which he undertook. S. Lazare was not merely a hostel where these future priests might gather on the eve of ordination, and go through a certain spiritual routine; it was a centre of real inspiration, and to stay there meant personal touch with M. Vincent, and the after-knowledge—for each one who sought such a privilege—that his thoughts and prayers would go with them in the new life, on the threshold of which they stood. In that time of low standards it would be hard to exaggerate the possible effect of such an experience. M. Vincent, in spite of his homeliness and humility, had an ideal of priesthood that was never lowered to meet the difficulties of any individual; he was impossible to satisfy, but his unreasonable demands stimulated instead of discouraging, and it was sustained intention rather than complete fulfilment that he expected of them.
” It is our will that in each of the four Seasons of the Year M. Vincent de Paul and his Company (without hindrance to their Missions) should receive and provide for the Candidates for Ordination in the diocese of Paris sent by us, for a fortnight, that they may go through the Spiritual Exercises.” So runs a clause of the deed by which the Archbishop of Paris established the Mission Priests at S. Lazare; and large donations from other quarters for the expense thereby involved testify to the widespread recognition of the value of the enterprise. And, indeed, it is not hard to understand that M. Vincent’s influence, brought to bear at the right moment on characters not yet distorted by the habit of evil-doing, might have been lifelong in its effects. The careless youth coming for ordination indolently, the weak who allowed himself an optimistic view of a future that would somehow be better than the past, the calculating for whom the priesthood opened a gateway of ambition—to all these the voice of M. Vincent had power to sound a note of warning.
It was always possible that those days might prove the most important in a man’s life. Many there were, no doubt, who accepted and went through the Exercises as through a course of lectures; who made notes of the instruction in the earlier hours of the day that was devoted to the outward duties of priesthood; who asked intelligent questions at the conferences that succeeded such instructions, and were able to employ the time for relaxation in real repose. Such as these took away with them a memory that might fade completely, or might in the far-off future stir the desire for understanding of that which had once been in their reach. The Archbishop of Paris gave the order that all whom he ordained should go into Retreat, but no reasonable person, lay or clerical, imagined that the fifteen days of retirement would transform dross into gold by magic. They were ” to conform to the ancient practice of the Church,” so ran the Archbishop’s command, and by fifteen days of study and seclusion they fulfilled what the Church required. It was to the few and not to the many that M. Vincent was sent. He had many listeners to the discourses that he gave every evening of a Retreat on the deep things of the inner life; and to one here and there his words rent away the veil that hid reality, and the meaning of their vocation stood revealed. It was an ordinary thing to the world that a young man should become a priest. A great many priests were needed, and as there were not enough candidates for ordination among the more educated classes, a well-to-do peasant would select the most studious of his sons (as NI. Vincent himself had been selected) that he might enter the priesthood, get preferment for himself, and push the interests of his family. Indolence or ambition were frequent substitutes for vocation, and it was not likely that a higher ideal could survive the pressure of accepted custom unless support was offered to it.
When we come to consider M. Vincent in his intercourse with individuals, as shown by his letters, we shall see the measure of his sympathetic understanding. For his task of direction in these Ordination Retreats, this was the power that was most essential. His own view of the sacerdotal vocation had no relation to prevailing opinion; in his old age he declared himself to be unworthy of it : “Si je n’étais pas prêtre je ne le serais jamais.” But it was not so much his part to present impossibilities to those whose career was already chosen and approved, as to show them how they might meet the claim the future inevitably would make upon them. They would need stupendous strength and courage, and only from the Master Whom they professed to follow could they draw it. The deepest of the demands of their Retreat was that of honesty with their own conscience, and it was to the few who made of their ordination the turning-point of their lifetime that the full meaning of such honesty revealed itself. To these the idea of taking up their office was awe-inspiring, and it was a natural instinct among them to turn to M. Vincent for a continuance of help. It was to meet this need that there was instituted Les Conférences du Mardi10. On June 25, 1633, a number of young priests met together at S. Lazare and formed themselves into a species of guild. They were pledged to complete detachment from self-interest, to a pure and direct intention of making the offering of self to God, and to maintain a fixed resolve to serve Him in the person of the poor, the sick, and the captives. There were to be weekly gatherings, and membership was not very easy to obtain. M. Vincent required that the individual life of each member should be known to the officials of the ” Conferences ” (of whom he was himself the chief), and that his participation should have practical effect upon their actions. Very soon after their first assembly he called upon some of them by way of test to preach a Mission to the workmen employed on some new buildings near the Porte Sainte Antoine11, and at all times he seems to have regarded them as an auxiliary force for Mission work. At the weekly gatherings discussion was encouraged. The subject of debate was always announced beforehand, so that there might be time for reflection, and the real part of the Director was left to the end, when he summed up the points of the previous argument, and gave a few words of counsel.
It was this personal touch with Vincent de Paul that gave the ” Conferences ” their attraction and their influence. In his lifetime 300 members were enrolled, and among them were numbered Jean Jacques Olier, Bossuet, and M. Tronson, each of whom became himself a centre of inspiration. If this work were the only one accomplished by M. Vincent, it would establish him as the benefactor of his generation. The power of the priest for good or evil was so far-reaching as to be illimitable, and it was being used chiefly for evil. To belong to the ” Conferences ” demanded reality in practice as well as in profession; the conduct of the members was so scrutinized that a defaulter would inevitably be found out; yet their number increased steadily. There is a tradition (the truth of which is borne out by after-events) that Richelieu sent for M. Vincent and asked him for a list of the members of his ” Conferences,” with a mark against the names of those whom he thought suitable for a bishopric, and that the list was given, but only after the Cardinal had pledged himself to secrecy, lest the taint of self-interest might ruin a pure endeavour.
The work of S. Lazare—which at this time was almost sensationally successful—may seem to suggest that M. Vincent and his associates were the first to realize the great abuse under which society was groaning. This was by no means the case, however. Every conscientious priest of that generation was forced to admit the degradation of his order, and various theories were promulgated from time to time by those who sought a method of reform. There was a certain M. Charles Godefroy, who in 1625 presented to a conference of Bishops in Paris a scheme for facilitating the practice of Retreat among the Clergy, for bringing them within reach of spiritual discipline, and also for training aspirants for priesthood. His scheme foreshadowed much that was afterwards accomplished by the Company of the Mission. It was approved by the assembly of Bishops, but the author died almost immediately, and it bore no fruit12. The Ordination Retreats and the ” Conferences ” admittedly did not accomplish more than a fraction of the reform that was needed. At their first institution both depended largely on M. Vincent, for it is impossible to doubt that much of their success was due to his personal magnetism; but though this power is useful in inspiring the immediate change of conduct that means defeat of inclination and of custom, it is a dangerous substitute for principle and conviction. It was plain to any reasoning mind that a fortnight’s spiritual exercises, even under the care of Vincent de Paul, was not sufficient preparation for the responsibility of priesthood, and the view that a long training was desirable was in accordance with the decree of the Council of Trent, which had provided that every Bishop should have a seminary for the future priests of his diocese.
There is in theory very much to commend the ancient idea of the seminary which admitted boys from twelve years old, and kept them apart, marked by tonsure and cassock, as separate from their fellows; but in practice the seminaries did not produce good priests, and the Bishops abandoned any attempt at obedience. François de Sales, who was not likely to evade a responsibility without reason, declared that he had spent seventeen years trying to train three good priests, and had ended by producing only one and a half!13 At Bordeaux and at Rouen, where special efforts were made, the failures were lamentable, the young clerks under training all returning to the world when their education was complete, and pleading their youth at the time of admission as excuse.
Nevertheless, the need of special training remained, and many minds were exercised over the difficulty of providing for it. At the accession of Louis XIII. no seminaries were in existence in France, but de Bérulle began, soon after the foundation of the Oratory, to admit a few young men who were already in deacon’s orders, and so gave the suggestion of a new idea. His charges for the most part became Oratorians, however, and the real idea of the seminary was not yet revealed. M. Vincent, moved by the instinct of obedience to the Church that so often prompted his actions, began, at the Collège des Bons Enfants, a seminary of the type suggested by the Council of Trent, and failed as completely as those who preceded him in the same attempt. It was not until 1642 that he decided to eliminate all who were not in holy orders—to keep his seminary, in fact, for those who were already committed and likely to prove steadfast. Through the four stages of ordination these priests of the future were to have every assistance from teaching, association, and influence, and the lads whose vocation was still uncertain were removed to another house in a suburb of Paris, that they might not distract their elders in the solemn years of preparation. This was the beginning of the Lazarist seminaries, and by a simultaneous inspiration, M. Olier began at Vaugirard the seminary that was to obtain—in its after-establishment at S. Sulpice—such vast celebrity. It is impossible now to estimate the importance of this movement, the honour of which is shared betwixt S. Lazare and S. Sulpice. The darkest hour for the Church was over when the new seminaries were opened and accepted, and they were the safeguard of reality in its reform. The age of Bossuet and Bourdaloue was coming, and priests and people were awakening. We need only regard the later years of that century, and contrast the general attitude towards religion with that in vogue when Henri IV. was King, to understand the change that had come to pass. When Mme. de Maintenon reigned at Versailles, society was not guiltless of hypocrisy. It was the fashion to be pious, and fashionable piety is tawdry. But if that smoke were offensive, there was still a fire behind it with capacity for burning clearly —a fire kindled from ashes that barely smouldered ninety years earlier. There had been many manifestations of that fierce desire for goodness which flashes forth even when mankind is at its lowest, and many influences had been at work; but the spiritual influence of M. Vincent must be recognized in this connection. It was, in fact, far more important than his labour for those definite institutions which are responsible for his fame and reputation. What he most desired was that a new standard of living should prevail, and the success of his sons in training others went far to accomplish his desire. The self-repression that he inculcated increased their power in this direction (though this is among the hidden things that may not be weighed or valued), for it should be remembered that they might easily have used the new institution of the seminary for the aggrandizement of the Company of Mission Priests, if their Superior had not forbidden any such use being made of it. The temptation avoided has no necessary place in the record of a life, yet there is no higher proof of this man’s greatness than his abstention in this matter. It was in r642 that Cardinal Richelieu endowed the Collège des Bons Enfants as a place of training for ecclesiastics, and in the years that followed priests from all parts of the country, and of every type, came there. There were some who belonged to the nobility, and some endowed with the qualities that insure power to their possessor; there were among them a few with that capacity for self-devotion in obedience which is the root of strength in a Community, and they were all at a period of transition. It was for that reason that they found themselves at the Collège des Bons Enfants. They had definite things that must be learnt, and, for some at least, things equally definite to be unlearnt; and around them, in touch with them at every moment, were the Priests of the Mission, men whose experiences were of the same order as their own, and who had found peace under a special rule. A suggestion of a possible vocation for the Company dropped at such`a moment was likely to bear fruit.
But Vincent’s outlook was far too wide for him to permit this simple process of benefit to his foundation. His sense that the Company was of Divine origin did not for a moment blind him to its position as only one among many endeavours for the service of God and of mankind, and its success in the eyes of the world never gave him an exaggerated view of its importance. It had its work to do—by Divine commission—but other work was needed equally, and must not be encroached on in its interests.
Therefore he exhorted his children never to let a word escape them that might attract a listener to the Company. ” It is for God to give that summons. And I go farther, even if there should be any who come to you unfolding a desire to join us, beware lest you give them any encouragement. Charge them to make it a subject for communing with God, for it needs much reflection. Impress on them the difficulties they will have with themselves, and that they must be prepared for long delay if they accept our conditions of suffering and of work for God. Let us leave all to God; for ourselves it is only necessary that we should have humility and patience as we await the orderings of His providence. He has mercifully allowed that this should be the method of the Company thus far, and we may feel that we have only what God has given us, and that we have sought neither men nor goods, nor importance. In His Name let us keep to it, and leave all to God. Let us wait for His commands, and not try to forestall them.”14
The secret of this man’s effective work is in this principle of waiting, so constantly sustained. Not only in his foundation of the Company of Mission Priests, but in the long catalogue of his achievement, his rule remains invariable: ” Let us leave all to God.” So far did he carry this reliance that he wrote to one of his Missioners15 that he had not dared in twenty years to pray for the growth of the Company, because, if it was the work of God, it must be left in His hands completely. Nevertheless, the more adventurous spirit of a younger generation so far affected him that he recognized their wish to pray for more labourers as being legitimate. That naïve confession, though it may not be defended in relation to the Church’s theory of prayer, is nevertheless consistent with Vincent’s point of view. Strong as was his faith, it wavered when confronted with the success that in the eyes of men had crowned so many of his enterprises. The blessings showered upon him aroused in him a certain instinct of misgiving and apprehension. We shall see his tendency in his old age to exaggerated self-abasement. He was acutely aware that the applause of human voices implies separation from the Master Who was despised and rejected of men, rather than union with Him.
” Our Lord died as He had lived: His life was hard and painful, His death was violent and agonizing, unrelieved by any human consolation. Many of the Saints, therefore, have been glad to die in loneliness and desolation, knowing that they would have God to comfort them.” So he wrote16, with the knowledge that the world was eager to do him honour clear in his mind. In that knowledge, which was never dimmed, lay his safeguard against the snares that surrounded him. The vividness of contrast between his lot and that which was accepted by Christ on earth continued always as a matter for regret and self-reproach, so that he seems strangely to have been. disciplined by his moments of outward triumph. But, though he could not escape notability, he was able to preserve an order of daily life as laborious and austere as that of the humblest workman. Every day he rose at four, and spent three hours in church, adhering to this habit, although the pressure of business might tempt him to divergence. All day long he was the prey of visitors, who came to consult him, and to all he tried to give a patient hearing. As the years passed, he became so deeply connected with affairs in distant parts of France and of other countries that his correspondence must have been overwhelming. In Paris itself there were many claims upon him which kept him out sometimes for many hours. In the evening he said Office on his knees, and without haste, and afterwards was at the disposal of any of the Company who might desire to consult him. Often, we are told, his business kept him up till a late hour of the night. In that daily routine at S. Lazare, with the pressure of overwork continually upon him, the need for patience is particularly evident. Those who knew him testify that he acquired such a measure of this quality as was almost inexhaustible. In the perpetual interviews required of him he learnt to be brief in giving counsel, but would listen without interrupting. For one whose time was precious, no better opening for self-conquest is conceivable; so large was his charity, and so many the real proofs of it preserved, that it is likely he reached the supreme attainment of the few and suffered fools gladly. In his correspondence there is indication that he did so at least without complaint.
The history of his accomplished work contains developments which Vincent himself referred to as miraculous, but, in fact, nothing more worthy of that term appears than the detail of his own personal doings. When he entered into possession of S. Lazare he took over the responsibility of three or four miserable idiots who had been entrusted to the care of M. le Bon, and made it his practice to serve them himself, although they were distressingly afflicted, and were sometimes dangerous; and if disease broke out under his roof, he was prompt in personal attendance, braving infection himself before consigning the care of the sick to others. We are told that when he had been ten years at S. Lazare, at Christmas-time, 1642, he invited two old beggars to dine with him, and sat between them attending to their wants; and it was characteristic of him that, having once had an opportunity of giving this literal interpretation to his idea of charity, he should hasten to repeat it. Ere long it became the custom to entertain two guests of this type daily at S. Lazare, albeit, ” infirmes et quelquefois assez dégoûtans,” as a contemporary expresses it, and Vincent frequently was seen welcoming them when they appeared, and helping them up the steps of the refectory. Such things as these, if practised by the Father Superior of a monastery whose duties were limited to the control of his Order, might command admiration; but Vincent was not only the founder of his Company, the regulation of which was sufficient to occupy all the energies of any man, but he was the centre and originator of the chief charitable enterprises of his day. He was consulted by the great folk of the Court and by Ministers of State. He was the confidant of innumerable private persons, and he was the head of the new Order of Sisters of Charity which still bears his name. In him these individual kindnesses, to render which it was necessary to step off the beaten track of unremitting labour, are among the miracles of the grace of God.
- Conference, May 17, 1658.
- See Appendix, note 1.
- Abelli, vol. ii., chap. i., sect. 3.
- Tradition says that in 163o the only occupants of these vast buildings were eight Augustinians and five imbeciles.
- See Rohrbacher, ” Hist. de l’Église Catholique,” vol. xxv., P. 244.
- Conference, May 13, 1659.
- Conference, May 6, 1658.
- See Appendix, note 2.
- ” Lettres,” vol. i., No. 18, July, 1633.
- In 1642 the day of meeting was altered to Thursday.
- See ” Vincent de Paul et le Sacerdoce,” by a Mission Priest.
- ” L’Origine des Grandes Séminaires et M. Charles Godefroi,” par l’Abbé Adam.
- Rohrbacher, ” Hist. de l’Église Catholique,” vol. xxv., p. 249.
- Abelli, vol. i., chap. xxxiv.
- “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 306, November, 1655.
- Ibid., vol. i., No. 38, 5639.