Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 07

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
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Chapter VI: M. Vincent fellow-labourers

THERE is certainly no opportunity for confusion of result between Vincent de Paul and Théophraste Renaudot ; their ambition and their field of labour are so distinct that the biographers of each make no allusion to the other. But this is not the case with all the contemporaries of M. Vincent; there were some who worked on the same lines as he did, and yet worked independently, and there is every reason to believe that of the reforms attributed to him a certain number were brought about by other agencies.

The difficulty of determining on the borderland be­tween his achievements and those of others is due to the fact that there existed, at the time of his greatest activity in Paris, a body of persons, like-minded with himself in general aim, who had agreed to envelop all they were doing for the welfare of their neighbour in the pro­foundest mystery. While they worked secretly, Vincent de Paul was striving for the same objects under the eye of the public, and it was inevitable that he should obtain credit for success which was really theirs. It would be an impossible task to select from the list of his philan­thropic triumphs those which from the first depended wholly on himself; but no faithful chronicle of him should ignore the great society of fellow-labourers bound to him by common sympathies, yet separated from him and from S. Lazare by many essential differences of opinion and intention.

It was in March, 1630, that four friends arranged together to meet weekly at the Capuchin Convent in the Faubourg S. Honoré. One of them, Philippe d’Angoumois, was himself a Capuchin; another was a priest (destined in the future to be a Bishop) ; the other two were laymen, Henri de Pichery, gentleman of the King’s household, and M. de Ventadour, who was celebrated for his austere piety. Their intention was to found a Society of priests and laymen pledged to protect the faith and labour for the poor. They invited others to join them, and a year after their first meeting a name was decided upon: they were to be the Compagnie du Très Saint Sacrement de l’Autel, which title took a shorter form as the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement.1 At the same time they fixed their Constitution. Every three months a Superior, a Director, a Secretary, and six Councillors were to be elected from among their number. The Director was a priest, but the Superior was generally a layman; he acted as chairman of their weekly meetings, and was responsible for carrying out the resolutions arrived at. The meetings opened and closed with prayer; the business was laid before the assembly by the Secretary and discussed; in cases where relief was needed the amount to be given was put to the vote. The practical was followed by the spiritual; when the end of the agenda was reached, a passage, previously decided on, from the Bible or the ” Imitation of Christ ” was read, and two of the associates gave their reflections upon it. It will be seen that these meetings bore very close resemblance to the ” Conferences ” at S. Lazare, the chief external difference being the exclusion of lay­men from the latter; and it appears curious that the scheme that centred at S. Lazare should havehad such extraordinary influence when we reflect that it came into being after the Company of the Holy Sacrament was firmly established.

The object of the Company is set forth in an official circular as follows:

“To undertake the promotion of all that is good, and the suppression of evil in every way possible, at all times, in all places, and in relation to every sort of person. The Company has no limits or restrictions save those of ordinary prudence and caution. Its work is not only the relief of the needy, the sick, the prisoner, and the un­happy, it is concerned with assisting missions and semin­aries, with the conversion of heretics, and the propagation of the faith all over the world; it must also endeavour to abolish every sort of abuse, impiety, and blasphemy; it must, in short, aim at preventing or remedying every evil; at furthering all that is for the good of the public or of individuals; at charging itself with all good work that is difficult and has been neglected or given up.”

There was sufficient ” abuse, impiety, and blasphemy ” practised to give ample scope for the energies of the Company; there were, besides, conditions of misery to which there is no real parallel in modern times—cruelty and injustice in the prisons, horrors of neglect in the hospitals, a huge submerged class for whom there was no chance of self-support or self-respect, and therewith an ignorance of all useful knowledge, both temporal and spiritual, which left a human being on a level with a beast. It is plain that the fortunate class was awakening to a sense of its responsibilities, and that it had strong men as leaders; yet where so many influences were tending in the right direction, it is impossible to determine on the particular inspiration of any individual movement. But all reforms contain an element of offence, and the true conservative will never have difficulty in finding flaws in an untried and novel system. The Company of the Blessed Sacrament existed to defend the weak, but it was also part of its programme to attack the strong, and there is no period of social history wherein the strong have shown themselves resigned to concerted and serious attack. Under Richelieu, and during the Regency that followed, passions were stirred easily, and were apt to find violent expression; beneath the surface of elaborate manners were the instincts that brought about the orgies of the Fronde. It is easy to see, then, that an open crusade against the extortion of landowners and the op­pressive judgments of the magistrates would have re­sulted in such warfare between parties of differing opinion as must infallibly have counteracted any benefit that the aggressors were seeking. It was, however, the distinction of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament that it did not engage in open warfare or make appeal to public opinion; it was to labour secretly, and each one of its members pledged himself to conceal the fact of its existence. Out­side its limits no one knew who its members were, and when a blow was struck in a good cause, or some flagrant injustice exposed and counteracted, no one could say for certain whether a member of the secret society was responsible or not. This rigorous and almost miraculous preservation of secrecy explains the silence of all memoir writers concerning it, and the lack of any reference from M. Vincent. It is supposed that he was himself a member of the Company, but when we remember his own weekly ” Conferences ” at S. Lazare, and regard also the vast responsibility that rested on him as the head of two growing Communities, we can only consider his member­ship as nominal and honorary. Among the active com­panions, however, may be numbered two of the intimate friends of M. Vincent—de. Condren, Superior-General of the Oratory, and Jean Jacques Olier, afterwards the celebrated Curé of S. Sulpice—and the fact of their mem­bership is sufficient of itself to prove that the aims and practices of the Company, at least in its early years, were above reproach.

As its name implies, the Company was more spiritual in its rule and object than a Confraternity of Charity; it was its essential charge ” to promote the adoration—at all times and in all places—of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament,” and it was part of the spirit instilled into its members that even as the Presence of Christ was hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, so was His Presence with them to be hidden by their semblance of ordinary life, and yet to go out as a conquering force against the sins and miseries of the world.

It is not very easy—in a more prosaic period—to picture the situation; most probably every pious layman in society was a member of the Company when it was at its highest level. There was an infection of piety in the air ; the austere adherents of Port Royal, as well as the devout parishioners of S. Sulpice, belonged to a race that could not have maintained existence in the Court. of Henri IV., but was able to breathe freely in the atmosphere of mingled licence and devotion that surrounded Anne of Austria. And the man who, by original instinct or violent conversion, was devout, obtained through the Company a new zest for life. Instead of facing a long future that was, by a process of self-repression, to be made barren of excitement, he found himself armed with a constant incentive both to watchfulness and activity. The lively imagination of a cultivated Frenchman was touched by the mystery of the pledge he had taken, and his powers of observation were sharpened by the thought that any moment and any incident of his ordinary avoca­tions might reveal a claim by which to prove his mettle and show himself worthy of his membership. When M. Vincent’s schemes depended on the influence of the magistrates and the tolerance of the nobles, it is very likely that he owed to the Company the astonishing com­pliance and support that he met with; the Ladies of Charity could hardly have persisted in their novel and unconventional pursuits if the Company had not pre­pared the way by accepting for themselves a law of personal service; and many a great enterprise, in the provinces as well as in the capital, must have been stifled at birth for lack of funds if there had not been a spring of generosity, out of the sight of the public eye, that supplied each need as it arose. Some circumstances in the career of M. Vincent, that strain credulity if regarded by themselves, are explained by the existence of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. Reformers and philanthropists in every other generation are met with such baffling forms of opposition that the constant sup­port accorded to Vincent de Paul may seem to throw a shade of unreality over the chronicle of his labours. But, in fact, in outside achievement he must often only have gathered what others had sown. If there were need, we might find here another reason for insisting on the superiority of his hidden and spiritual service over that which had earned him his renown; for, great as he was in originating and organizing, there are years when it is impossible to decide how much of the success of his philanthropy was due to himself and how much to his mysterious assistants.

The Company of the Blessed Sacrament was not destined for long life. It was the expression of thoughts latent in many minds that might without it have borne no fruit, but it was the movement of a generation, and when the best years of its founders were passed, it had not , as an organism, the strength to control the ill-directed zeal of some of its members. The spirit of the Samaritan was exchanged for that of the inquisitor, and the energies of the Companions were directed to the pursuit and conviction of the heretic rather than to the relief and consolation of the oppressed. It was Cardinal Mazarin who suppressed the Company on the plea that secret associations were illegal, but when he did so the moment was already reached when Society could no longer tolerate the Companions and their methods. The sup­pression of evil was as much a part of their original pro­gramme as the promotion of good; but the man who will denounce an associate, as soon as their intimacy gives him sufficient evidence to do so, is apt to be regarded as a spy, and the excellence of his motive will not protect him from subsequent unpopularity.

The real glory of the Company had departed long before its actual end, and it was commonly referred to as La Cabale des Dévots, which scornful nickname is adopted by the most recent of its historians. Death or disagreement had removed from its roll of membership the strong men who could have preserved its original purity, and the fine enthusiasm which it had fostered for a while vitalized other fields of labour in which it had no part; this, rather than the despotic interference of Mazarin, must be regarded as the reason of its downfall.

The degree to which the Company affected the age must always remain a matter of conjecture; probably it was very important, and the lay element in its member­ship lent it a strength that could not have been attained through a movement that was solely ecclesiastical. It stood for the recognition of Christian obligation, and so long as such recognition was confined to the clergy, there was small hope of social progress. Vincent de Paul—except during his brief experience at Châtillon—avoided what is known as Society, his touch with the leisured class depended on their initiative; the natural course of his life never brought him into contact with the heedless majority. It is therefore plain that there was immense scope for labour altogether outside his domain, while at the same time his enterprises were so far-reaching that any movement that made for righteousness could not fail sooner or later to affect and further his purposes. This, vague though it be, seems the only satisfactory summing-up of his relations with the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. That during his lifetime there was no rivalry or suggestion of rivalry is absolutely clear. Again and again we find the Companions—lay or clerical—working in intimate union with the Mission Priests, and the Convict Hospital at Marseilles, which was founded by the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, was placed from the first under the direction of the Lazarists.

There would appear to be something inherent in historical research that fosters a spirit of controversy, but Vincent de Paul is an ill-chosen object for attack, and the learned writers who in recent times have set them­selves to prove that he was not responsible for the charit­able movement of his age, or for the attempt to educate the priesthood, forget that he would himself have depre­cated any credit that might accrue to him from the success of any enterprise. To defend his reputation, it is sufficient to let the well-established facts connected with him speak for themselves, even if in considering them, it is well to remind ourselves that his efforts were not isolated, and that the prominence that has been given to him by popular sentiment as well as formal sanctification is somewhat deceptive. We admit freely that among his contemporaries there were men who would have stirred their fellows to an effort for reform—social and spiritual—if he had never escaped from slavery. Of the laymen enough has been said already, but there remains a priest whose mark on life in Paris has never been obliterated; he was the friend of Vincent de Paul, the partner in some of his strongest desires, yet a labourer in a somewhat different field—Jean Jacques Olier, the Founder of the Seminary of S. Sulpice.2

South of the river there lay a populous and much-frequented quarter comprised in the ancient parish of S. Sulpice. Here stood the Hôtel de Condé, and the Palace of the Luxembourg, owned by Gaston d’Orleans, the King’s uncle; here also dwelt M. de Liancourt, the celebrated adherent of Port Royal, and Mme. d’Aiguillon, to whose generosity M. Vincent’s charities owed so much, besides many other magnificent personages. But it was also the home of a very different race of beings—the worst houses that Paris contained in a period of extreme depravity were to be found there, and year after year, when the Fair of S. Germain was held so near the church that the din could be heard within its walls, a fresh stream of evil poured in for the poisoning of the people. Inside the church, moreover, there were abuses that were not less deplorable because they had grown customary. Timorous ladies who desired the minimum of risk in their pursuit of adventure used it for assignations; the clatter of tongues never ceased during the celebration of Mass, and the congregation emerging from the sacred building was greeted in the porches by vendors of disreputable books and pictures, and by the touts of drinking booths and gambling hells. Paris was full of evil, but the parish of S. Sulpice was notorious as the centre of corruption.

According to public opinion then prevalent, the curé of a parish had no real responsibility for its condition; the Curé of S. Sulpice for many years was M. de Fiesque, a gentleman who made no pretence of residence, but spent the considerable emoluments of his office in other parts of the city. He may have had some misgivings as to the habits of his flock, however, for in 1639 we find that the priests of S. Lazare were persuaded to make an exception to the Rule that confined their work to the country and to preach a Mission there. The fullest knowledge of the iniquities prevailing in the quarter would by this means have reached M. Vincent, but we do not know what part he played in subsequent events. M. Olier had at one period been under his direction, and withdrew from it because M. Vincent urged him insistently to accept a bishopric which was offered him. His own instincts were so stronglÿ against obedience in this matter that their relations could not continue on the same footing, but their friendship never wavered, and their divergence of opinion indicates that M. Vincent would have chosen him for a post of difficulty. By some means M. de Fiesque was induced to surrender his office to M. Olier, the Seminary which already he had opened at Vaugirard was removed to the neighbourhood of S. Sulpice, and in 1642 M. Olier, with his two faithful friends, du Ferrier and de Bassancourt, took up his residence as curé.

The substitution of an energetic priest for one of in­dolent and luxurious habits in a populous parish is not ostensibly a sensational event. But in this instance there were elements that made it of immense importance. In the first place, the idea of a rich benefice like that of S. Sulpice being held by one who intended himself to do the work attached to it was something of a novelty. At S. Nicholas du Chardonnet M. Bourdoise, the intimate friend of Vincent de Paul, had set an example, but the church itself and the possibilities of its work were of far smaller extent than in the case of S. Sulpice. And even more astonishing than the initial fact of a curé in residence was the personality of the curé himself.

Jean Jacques Olier was the son of Olier de Verneuil, who held some Court appointment under Henri IV. He was thirty-four when he entered on his labours at S. Sul-pice—an age when instincts of ambition are apt to be in the ascendant. He was brilliantly gifted, and had been very popular in society; his relations were clamorous in remonstrance at the step he was taking, and he must have been aware that it was an anxious experiment. He had had some success with mission work in the provinces, and the need at S. Sulpice was for a perpetual Mission; but in the interests of his own career it would obviously have been wiser not to step off the beaten track. It was regarded by general consent as degrading to a gentleman to hold the position he accepted, and for a man of his talents there was no difficulty in obtaining whatever pre­ferment he might choose. As we know, however, he had refused a bishopric, and when he embarked on his enter­prise at S. Sulpice he must have done so with some understanding of the immense difficulties that lay ahead.

Perhaps that curious question of the social position of the curé was the first obstacle to be overcome; the great folk—and there were very many of these at S. Sulpice—were accustomed to Iook on the officiating priest as a de­pendent, and resented any suggestion of authority in virtue of his office. In 1643 a letter was written to Vincent de Paul petitioning him to draw the attention of the Queen to the outrageous conduct of a certain Seigneur de Berzian, who had knocked down a priest on the threshold of his church, and kicked and beaten him, and in the journal of a devout woman of this same period we find the following entry:

” It would appear that to the great personages in a parish the curé is merely as one of their lackeys. In truth, a good curé in his inward humility will consider himself as the lackey of Jesus Christ, but in relation to men he is their pastor, and, as such, honour and respect are due to him.”3

It was necessary for M. Olier to assert himself against this position of the lackey before he could begin his work on either class, for without the respect and support of the rich the task of civilizing and purifying the neigh­bourhood was an impossible one. It is to the credit of his noble parishioners that they recognized his worth and forgave his lack of obsequiousness. The change wrought in a few years by M. Olier at S. Sulpice was very remarkable. It proves that men grow sick of licence, and turn with desire to reform. In many directions M. Vin­cent and the Mission Priests had the same experience, but it was not their part to reap the full harvest of their labours; their vocation was for movement, and they had no opportunity of developing a theory and watching the effects. The fame of M. Olier is chiefly due to his f oun-dation of the Seminary of S. Sulpice. He has had so many imitators in his parochial experiment that he re­ceives less than his share of honour on that account. But, in fact, it was his part to prove the possibility of a condition that had never been recognized, or had fallen into disuse, and his work was carried on by others after his death, and strengthened by many successors who were worthy to maintain it. The influence of S. Sulpice has been felt through many generations ; it is still aflame. He cherished an ideal—very difficult to apply under the conditions that he found—of teaching the miserable beings whom he drew into the great Church of S. Sulpice to regard themselves as a family of which he was, in a sense, the head; and he was able to show the possi­bilities of the relationship between a pastor and his people in an age when any pure ideal was strange, and to do it in such wise that it was understood as being a closer imitation of the method of Christ than the practice of the Religious. He lived in days when piety was con­stantly travestied, and excitement and exaggeration were often the main features of conversion, and he had always to keep such dangers in view. Most of his flock, moreover, were in the most abject ignorance, and in so far as the Church attracted them the attraction was due to the brilliancy of its ceremonies. The task of infusing the idea of discipline was one of superhuman difficulty; nevertheless, he regarded discipline as the indispensable foundation of any real success. Neither the Church nor the precincts of S. Sulpice were to be used for assignations, and the ladies who came to worship were not to come in the fashion of the day that exposed neck and shoulders to the gaze of their neighbours. The church was the sanctuary of the Blessed Sacrament; the first lesson for those who came there was that they came into the royal presence chamber—an idea that had vivid force even in the childhood of Louis XIV. But the image of respect for the Majesty of the King could not be carried out in detail. At one point it broke down. In this more sacred Presence there were no inequalities of rank; the claim of the humblest workman was as good as that of the owner of a palace. A commonplace such as this, however, was not accepted readily. The rich man stalked and the poor man cringed, and the fact that they were within the walls of a church made no difference in their mutual relations; even to suggest the possibility of equality was an offence to the ruling class. One measure that he adopted made him unpopular with the poor. The Sacrament of Penance had, until then, had direct connection with the giving of alms, but he ordered every priest who heard confessions at S. Sulpice to warn the needy that no money would be given to them. On the other hand, he checked the unlawful extortion of fees which had become customary, and so applied his disci­pline to himself and his colleagues as searchingly as to the laity. The fact that he roused indignant opposition does not prove that he was unduly violent in his methods, for the condition that he found required drastic treat­ment. He attacked the gambling hells and houses of ill-fame in the immediate neighbourhood with unflinching perseverance, and was openly desirous that the Fair of S. Germain should be suppressed by royal command, though it was an old-established institution, and had been patronized by princes and nobles, as well as by their pages and footmen, for generations.

Even so brief a summary as this will show that M. Olier’s reign at S. Sulpice was not a peaceful one. There were constant intrigues against him and one violent outbreak, but his personal courage was self-evident. It was ad­mitted that he stood for righteousness against those who upheld vice, and he earned the respect of rich and poor by the industry with which he regulated charity and all relief of suffering. He might make inconvenient demand for reality in others, but it was recognized that he applied the sharpest tests to himself, and at moments when his authority hung in the balance the testimony of his per­sonal Iife turned the scale in his favour. No doubt the fact that he did not come of the same class as the parish priests to whom they were accustomed helped him with the people. He was a scholar and a gentleman. His contemporaries record that he was extraordinarily eloquent, and he had the gift of intuition, which taught him how to appeal to the many widely separated grades of humanity that came under his care.

Here, perhaps, it is worth noting a special point of distinction between Jean Jacques Olier and Vincent de Paul. The Curé of S. Sulpice, though he had been des­tined from childhood for the priesthood, and had been recognized by François de Sales as possessing special vocation for it, had not always held aloof from the life of the world. In common with many another young abbé of aristocratic lineage, he had not regarded his eloquence in the pulpit as a bar to the full enjoyment of the amusements that could be obtained by the laity. There is a legend that his conversion was partly the result of the exclamation of Marie Rousseau—a strange and devout prophetess of the bourgeoisie—who saw him standing at the door of a wine-shop when the Fair of S. Germain was in full swing, with three or four other young abbés in mauve satin doublets, all alike forgetful of the claim of their vocation. We do not know what impression was made on his companions, but the brief Ah, messieurs, que vous me donnez de peine C” of the old dévote had extraordinary effect upon Olier. In the sequel he was ordained priest, and passed into the hands of M. Vincent. But he had knowledge of the renuncia­tion that he claimed of others—a knowledge which M. Vincent could not possess in the same way. And as life went on and the mystic in him developed, the past that nothing can obliterate taught him a depth of peni­tence which, to those who knew him intimately, was a cause of wonder. It is likely that on those who had no intimate knowledge of him it had an effect so strong as to silence any need of explanation.

M. Olier remained ten years at S. Sulpice. He estab­lished there something which has survived, and he trained a successor who could uphold the standard he had set up. It is difficult now to realize that his severance from S. Sulpice meant downfall and disgrace, but this was actually his fate, and so heavy was the blow that he did not long survive it. The nominal reason was due to his own imprudence and ill-fortune. For years society was divided by the Jansenist question, and religious controversy was the theme for drawing-room chatter. It was the Jansenist party—inextricably confused with the adherents of Port Royal—who suffered ultimately, and whose cause was the weakest. There was, however, a brief period when they were in the ascendant. The most popular preachers were the Jansenists preachers. The Congregation of the Oratory—then very powerful—supported them, and the whole de Gondi influence, paramount in ecclesiastical affairs, was on their side. This was the moment chosen by M. Olier to launch from the pulpit of S. Sulpice a violent diatribe against the teaching and the practice of the Jansenists. It was the last sermon that he was permitted to preach there. The Oratorians were already roused against him because, believing that they favoured heresy, he had refused them permission to establish a branch house within the limits of his parish, and it required very little pressure to induce the Archbishop of Paris to exercise his authority over the offender. There was, moreover, a secret reason —more potent than any that were declared for the with­holding of protection from the Court. The tumult of the Fronde was hardly over, and while it was in pro­gress M. Olier, moved to desperation by the miseries of the people, had written to the Queen urging her—sternly rather than persuasively—to part from Mazarin, and put the welfare of the nation before personal taste. We shall see that Vincent de Paul was made to suffer for a similar venture, but the Superior of S. Lazare was too firmly established to be displaced even by the machinations of Cardinal Mazarin; the Curé of S. Sulpice was an easier victim. Opposing parties combined that they might strike at him, and he fell.

Perhaps the astounding record of that ten years could not have been sustained for a longer period, and the interference of party strife in an enterprise so essentially spiritual is a sign of the times. The political conflagra­tions of the Regency were of such a nature that no French subject, however peaceful in intention, could be secure of keeping outside their limit.

  1. The full history of this institution will be found in a volume edited by R. P. Beauchet Filleau, ” Annales de la Compagnie de Saint Sacrement par le Cte. René de Voyer d’Argenson,” and in ” La Cabale des Dévots ” (Raoul Allier).
  2. See ” Vie de Jean Jacques Olier ” (l’Abbé Faillon). 2 vols.
  3. “Journal of Marie Rousseau,” December 4, 1643

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