Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 19

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
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Chapter VIII: The foreign missions

A CERTAIN infection lies in the display of courage. The Lazarists at Marseilles, who held their lives so lightly, were partly responsible for the fine indifference to danger which came to be recognized as characteristic of the Company. It is probable that M. Vincent was affected by this development among his Sons, and that their readiness to sacrifice themselves suggested those perilous enterprises on which he embarked in the last fifteen years of his life. It was also a natural sequence of idea which drew him from the criminal captives on the galleys to their innocent companions in adversity, the Christian slaves in Tunis and Algiers. In those days the Mediterranean was in­fested by Turkish pirates, who made as much profit out of the crew and passengers on board their prizes as out of the merchandise. Their prisoners were sold in the market at Algiers as cattle are sold, and were treated afterwards as having less value than cattle. No differ­ence of degree was recognized between the gently born and the roughest seaman, and no pity was shown to women. Only the width of the Mediterranean separated French subjects from their native land, but no effort was made to deliver them from a bondage that was daily torture. At Algiers there are said to have been about zo,000 slaves, and the majority of them were French; yet France was nominally on peaceful terms with the Sultan, and had her Consuls to represent her in his dominions. The position was singular, and it would require intimate knowledge of the practices of diplomacy at that period to understand it.

M. Vincent cannot have had much experience of the administration of foreign affairs, but his connection with Marseilles brought the plight of the Christian slaves in Africa before his attention, and the memory of his own youth sharpened his perception of this horror. It was not only compassion for their pain that moved him. He thought of them as Catholics in the hands of infidels, and he determined to put within their reach the only consola­tion that could be of real value in the midst of such suf­fering as theirs. This enterprise was the most risky of all that he undertook. The actual loss of life involved was less than in the missionary expedition to Madagascar, but in it he touched issues which were outside the office of a priest, and the Company at times ran serious risk of discredit. It is easy to understand the motive of his action he was venturing where others dared not ven­ture, because unhappy souls pleaded to him for succour—but it was utterly at variance with his habitual prudence. His first measure was not so reckless as that which fol­lowed. It was by the terms of a treaty with the Sultan that France was represented by Consuls both at Algiers and Tunis, and the Consul had permission to bring with him a priest of his own faith. The Consuls had shown no eagerness to avail themselves of this privilege, but it gave opportunity. to M. Vincent, who obtained the appoint­ments for Priests of the Mission. No plan could have been more wise and reasonable. A Mission Priest sent by the French Government, and officially attached to the French Consul, should have had every opportunity of ministering to French subjects unmolested. But, although something was achieved, the obstacles thrown in the way of the Lazarists almost nullified their efforts, and M. Vin­cent, in far-away Paris, came to the conclusion that it was mainly due to the Consuls that no progress was being made. It is possible that this decision was a just one. The position of a Consul was exceedingly precarious. Either Sultan or Dey would break faith if the inducement were sufficient, and any infringement of the treaty with France would inevitably mean death to the French Consul. The successive holders of the office were mainly occupied in endeavours to escape from it without damage to their future career, and incidentally they were sometimes able to acquire fortune by a trading venture. It was not to be expected that they would welcome the advent of the priests from France, nor that they would do anything to facilitate any plans that concerned the spiritual consola­tion of the Christian slave. The Queen Regent might be reputed to have pious proclivities, but it was a far cry from Algiers to the Palais Royal. The reward accruing to those who aided the Lazarists was problematical, while the risk of so doing was obvious and immediate. As a result, the reports of the Lazarists, while they deepened M. Vincent’s conviction of the need of missionary labour in Algiers, did not satisfy him that their actual presence there was being of much benefit to the Christian cap­tives.

It would appear that the Turks were anxious to win converts for Mohammedanism, and that the plight of the slaves was aggravated by intermittent religious persecu­tion. We find M. Vincent embarking on action which appears ill-judged and hasty, and it is interesting to see that he did not do so to prevent bodily suffering. It is plain that he was haunted by the thought of the constant danger of apostasy that shadowed these unhappy cap­tives. He knew the isolation and the hopelessness of their lot, and could realize that the great amelioration that would reward them for denial of their religion was a temptation not easily withstood. He was not able to deliver them from their distress, but he believed himself to be under a sacred obligation to provide them with the consolations of their faith. Without the Sacraments it was hard for them to continue steadfast, yet, if they yielded to their tempters, they condemned themselves to punishment for all eternity. His point towards their dilemma was absolutely consistent with the principles by which his life was ruled, and it was the zeal of a faithful priest that prompted him to his great ad­venture; nevertheless, it is with something of a shock that we find him buying, on behalf of the Congrega­tion of the Mission, the office of Consul at Tunis and at Algiers, and appointing to each a member of the Company that was pledged to hold aloof from politics. ” It was a mistake of his piety to imagine that the quali­ties essential to a Consul could co-exist with those essen­tial to his monks,” says M. Eugene Plantol in his chronicle of the relations between Algiers and France1. “Christian humility and the thirst for martyrdom are not the best qualifications for a Consul,” is the suggestive phrase of another of his critics2. Possibly the mistake is explained by the difference between M. Vincent’s estimate of ” the qualities essential to a Consul,” and that of the` normal observer, and no word of his ever suggests that he re­garded his experiment as a failure.

“If it is worth risking a life for the salvation of one soul,” he wrote3, after nine years’ experience of the diffi­culty of the enterprise, ” how can we give up so vast a number because we count the cost ? And even if the only result of our attempt was to show the glory of our faith to that accursed land by the testimony of men who cross the sea and leave their home and brave a thousand dangers to comfort their unhappy brethren—even so I should hold the money and the men were well employed.”

From the outset he needed all his courage. There were remonstrances from Propaganda at Rome on the plea that the Church forbade a priest to hold secular office in a heathen country. The fact that the Mission Priests were Consuls proves that their Superior was able to over­come these objections, but one may imagine that he did so by the weight of his character rather than his argu­ments, for reason was against him, and the Lazarist Consuls were not successful as officials.

The history of this Mission, as it was under M. Vincent’s control, is a very curious one. His successor realized that there were business faculties required, even from the point of view of the captives, which members of the Com­pany did not possess, and the right of appointment was sold to Colbert in 1669; therefore the real experience of the experiment was gained in M. Vincent’s lifetime. The clearest example of its drawbacks may be found in the history of M. Barreau, who was appointed to Algiers in 1651, and appeared to be a promising pioneer for the new scheme. M. Barreau was a native of Paris, belonging to a family of wealth and established respectability; he had no vocation for the priesthood, but a strong instinct of self-sacrifice urged him into becoming a Brother at S. Lazare. He seemed to have every qualification that M. Vincent most desired for the post. He was sure to give loyal support to the priests of the Company, and to be zealous in softening the lot of the Christian slaves in any way that might be possible. But, unfortunately for Frère Barreau, it was part of his duty to buy the release of those captives for whom money could be collected. Mme. d’Aiguillon (to whose generosity the purchase of the Consular appointments was due) was specially ardent in this matter, and vast sums were given, in the name of religion and of charity, to save the Christian captives from the risk of martyrdom or of apostasy. S. Lazare became a sort of agency for the transport of ransoms, and in many cases the relatives of a slave contributed all the money they could raise to secure his liberation. It will be seen that the business side of M. Barreau’s commission re­quired very careful handling; but his personal touch with individuals moved him to the most astonishing negligence of the ordinary principles of justice. He deduced, from the fact that all men are equal in the sight of God, the theory that all had equal rights, and that therefore he might apply for the liberation of one slave (whose plight was specially dangerous or deplorable) the money that had been contributed for the benefit of another.

The distance from S. Lazare to Algiers, and the length of time required for communication, increased the diffi­culty in which M. Barreau involved his Superior. In vain M. Vincent reminded him that a year had elapsed since the sums necessary for the release of such and such persons had been acknowledged, and still nothing was heard of their return, and ” their relatives, who are justified in requiring news of them, are giving trouble, and we know not what to say.”4.

M. Barreau may not have intended to appropriate what did not belong to him, but in actual fact he did make use of the ransom intended for one unfortunate that he might have the happiness of delivering another, and the explana­tion that he regarded his action as consonant with the strictest principles of Christian charity did not pacify the father who had sold his goods for his son’s release, or the wife whose support depended on the speedy deliverance of her husband. Living as he did in daily association with the prisoners in Algiers, M. Barreau might congratu­late himself that the money entrusted to him was applied to the most urgent and deserving cases; but M. Vincent, in Paris, had to deal with the disappointed kinsfolk of those whose captivity had not aroused M. Barreau’s pity, and a note of indignation is apparent in the letters de­spatched from headquarters. The Lazarists were unfor­tunate in their choice of a representative; the reaction from constant obedience seems to have combined with inherent unworldliness to destroy any common sense that he may ever have possessed. Not only did his compassion move him to borrow largely to liberate the slaves, but he was weak enough to go surety for a merchant from Mar­seilles. The merchant went bankrupt and prudently decamped, leaving liabilities to the extent of 12,000 crowns, for which the Consul was imprisoned by the Turks5.

“Never before,” wrote M. Vincent to the Superior at Marseilles6, have I had so fine a lesson in the evils of disobedience as has been given me in these matters. They have involved and discredited the Company to a degree beyond possibility of telling.”

The Company was not really implicated in the matter of the Marseilles merchant, but the arrested debtor was their representative, and it was impossible to leave him to bear the penalty of his own folly. Money, that was so sorely needed in other directions, had to be collected to set M. Barreau free, and, when his release had been effected, he received a vigorous letter of advice from his Superior. ” I give thanks to Divine goodness,” wrote M. Vincent7, “that you have preserved your reputation and can still protect the slaves for whom you have so much feeling. You must be very careful not to divert sums of money to other purposes than those for which they are sent to you (for instance, not to take from one to give to another), but you must keep for each that which belongs to him, and be ready to give it up when he claims it. And with regard to what you say of slaves released by the merchants to whom you cannot refuse the thirty piastres they need for their return, I must tell you that you can only advance it if you have the money of your own; you may neither borrow it nor take it from what is intended for others, nor must you go surety for others. If you do so, we shall be just where we were before, with the drawback that it would not be possible for us to deliver you again. There must never be another suggestion of raising money in Paris on your behalf. Whether you can continue or whether you should give up depends upon yourself. It will be easy for you to continue if you will listen to what is said to you. Have no dealings that are outside your office; do no business, nor make any arrangements with people in the world, except when your office requires it of you; and do not involve yourself in what is beyond your powers. It is with good reason that I give you this special charge not to go outside your Consular business, for, besides the trade for diamonds and other things that you entered upon, I find that you have quite recently written to your brother about undertaking to send pearls to France. This, my dear brother, is out of place, and against the Will of God. He called you to fulfil your duties—not for bargaining.”

This letter, gentle though it is, shows us to what ex­treme of folly M. Barreau had been tempted. Money meant liberty to the captives, and the harassing thought of their captivity destroyed in him all scruple as to the means of obtaining money. It was a malignant fate that caused the credit of S. Lazare to fall into the hands of one in whom the honest spirit of devotion could be so dis­torted; yet M. Barreau’s errors were not the only ones that checked the success of M. Vincent’s enterprise. The impression produced by a first association with the Chris­tian slaves in Africa was overwhelming, but its effects on different temperaments were curiously varied. While M. Barreau was moved to compassion of the most un­balanced kind for their sufferings, a fellow-labourer, Philippe Le Vacher, Priest of the Mission, was so appalled by their depravity that pity seems to have sunk into abeyance. Pain may have power to bring men down to the level of the brutes, and some of these slaves had sunk to the same condition of despair as the convicts at Marseilles. Among them were priests and Religious who failed entirely to profit by the opportunity afforded them of sanctifying suffering. Le Vacher was young, and his training had imbued him with a vigorous view of the obligation of a priest; much that he saw roused him to righteous indigna­tion, and he seems to have gone among the broken wretches he was intended to encourage, with the flail of ecclesi­astical discipline.

Again it was necessary for M. Vincent to despatch a letter of remonstrance. ” Draw what good you can from priests and Religious by gentle means,” he wrote8. “Use no severity except in extreme cases, lest the discipline which your position gives you the power to exercise, joined to the misery of bondage which they have to endure already, drives them to despair. You are not responsible for their salvation, as you seem to think ; you have been sent to Algiers to comfort unhappy souls, to help them in their suffering, and to give them courage to be steadfast in our holy religion…. It is impossible to enforce rule without adding to the wretchedness of these poor fellows ; it would hardly be possible to do it without putting them out of patience with you altogether. Above all, you must not be in such a hurry to interfere with their habits, even though their habits may be bad. Someone repeated to me the other day a passage of S. Augustine, which says one should be very careful not to begin by an attack on the vice that is prevalent in a place, because one will not only achieve nothing, but will repel all those to whom vice is habitual, and thereby become incapable of effecting any good at all. Whereas, by a different method of approach, much might have been accomplished. I implore you, then, to be as considerate as you can to human weakness. You will be far more likely to win these captive priests by showing compassion than by reproach and rebuke. It is not understanding that they lack, it is strength; and that is best conveyed to them by good example and friendly intercourse. I do not say that you should sanction what is evil, but I say that the cure should be a gentle and a kindly one because of their circumstances, and should be applied with infinite precaution…. Good work is so often spoilt by too much haste; impulse runs away with wisdom and makes us think that because a good thing needs doing, it is therefore practicable immediately. It is not so, and one finds it out by the failure of result… . Ah, Monsieur, how deeply I desire that you should restrain your eagerness and weigh each enterprise carefully in the scales of the sanctuary before you begin it. Be patient rather than ardent; thus will God achieve by you alone that which all mankind could not accomplish without Him.”

It is when M. Vincent is required to demonstrate the obvious that we see the sort of material from which those workers of his were moulded. We find that one can break faith and disobey in affairs of infinite importance, while another can associate with men who live in torture of mind and body and desire to sit in judgment on their moral failure rather than console them in their miseries. Probably M. Vincent had more sympathy with Jean Barreau in his recklessness than with Philippe Le Vacher in his self-righteousness, but to feel that the work, for which —beyond all the rest—his own heart yearned, lay in such hands as these must have made his burden of anxiety almost too great for bearing.

Fortunately, there is another side to the picture. The Company of the Mission, whether at home or abroad, might furnish abundant evidence of the weakness of human nature, but it could also show the heights of achievement to which the Christian soul can rise, and in the African Mission the quality of the workers was drawn out to a peculiar degree. Philippe Le Vacher himself learnt charity from his Superior, and became valuable; but in his brother Jean Le Vacher we find the purest strain of the missionary spirit. Of him it is related that when, in deep despondency over a broken love affair, -,he went to S. Lazare to ask counsel, he was pressed by M, Vincent to enter the Company—the only instance of such an occur­rence that was known. He was only twenty-eight when he was sent to Tunis. He held the office of Consul from time to time, but his spiritual capacity was too great for purely secular labour to be his vocation. He may be said to have given his life to the slaves. Thirty-seven years of it were passed among them, and he finally suffered martyrdom by being blown from the cannon’s mouth at Algiers in 1683. The danger of martyrdom was close at hand for every Mission Priest in Africa, for all the force was held by the Turks; and if a wave of fanaticism swept over them—as happened periodically—the Christians were completely at their mercy. ” They can harm you,” M. Vincent wrote to one of them9, “but I beseech you to have no fear. For they will do you no harm save that which Our Lord wills that you should suffer, and that which comes to you from Him is only to prepare you for some special favour which He designs to bestow upon you. It is rare for anything good to be accomplished without loss; the Devil is too clever and the World too corrupt not to be determined to smother such good work as this in its cradle. But take courage, Monsieur, it is God Himself who has set you where you are; if your purpose is for His glory, what have you to fear ? Still more, what may you not hope for ?”

This is, in truth, the simplest of messages, and as old as Christianity itself. Yet one may picture with what new force it came from M. Vincent to those Sons of his in their perilous exile. They knew his heart was with them, and that he would willingly have made their lot his own. In bis extreme old age his sense of the sufferings of the Chris­tians in Africa was so acute that he attempted to start an expedition against the Turks, and had obtained some sort of promise of support from the King and Mazarin, but he died without having transmitted his own fervour of courage to any individual among his survivors, and the expedition never took place10.

There is much that is astonishing in the long career of Vincent de Paul, but the vigour and enterprise of his last years is perhaps the greatest of these marvels. The shadow of failure was over him, but it cannot be attributed to the dwindling of his powers, but rather to the supreme development of his conception of the duty of a priest. The vast sums of money spent in the African Mission, and the corresponding sacrifice of life, had for their object the saving of souls in imminent danger; the idea of bodily relief was altogether subservient. In the Mission to Madagascar there was no philanthropy at all, it was the most desperate of ventures; and yet M. Vincent dedicated to it the picked men of his Company, and judged that he was according to them a special honour.

The reality of missionary ardour is, like the religious vocation, beyond the understanding of those to whom it has never been a matter of experience, but in his later years M. Vincent was possessed by it. It was, indeed, the natural growth from the deep love of souls at home of which his life-work was the evidence. He had minis­tered to the most crying needs of those who were at hand. It had always been his principle so to adjust the machinery of every new foundation that it depended on the joint efforts of persons he had chosen; and as it was his firm belief that each one was directed by the Hand of God, he could feel that its success no longer rested on the guidance of its nominal Founder. He was, therefore, not moved by any idea that the claim of a distant country was inferior to that of his native land. The fulfilment of the one obligation only made the other more evident.

The claim on the Lazarists to go as Missionaries to Madagascar came in this manner. The Eastern Trading Company obtained the concession of the island, with exclusive commercial rights, shortly before the death of Richelieu. There had been no settled rule over the natives since its discovery two centuries earlier by the Portuguese, but in 1646 Comte de Flacourt was appointed as Governor, and at his suggestion Cardinal Bagin, the Papal Nuncio, invited M. Vincent to attempt to carry the Christian faith to the inhabitants. The failure of former attempts at government was due primarily to the climate, which proved fatal to the majority of Europeans, but the deter­mined hostility of the natives was partly responsible. The population numbered about 400,000—Kaffir, negro, and Arab. They were idolaters, and in the extreme of moral degradation. A hundred priests would have seemed insufficient for such a work, yet only two were sent to open it.

From that inadequate beginning there was no inter­mission in the misfortunes of the Madagascar Mission. It cost the Company twenty-seven valuable lives, and the continual deaths by disease or violence left the people for long intervals without a priest, so that any founda­tions of conversion laid by one had ceased to be dis­tinguishable before the arrival of another. The records are so confused that it is impossible to explain the apparent folly of sending men in pairs. It may have been that no facilities were given for transporting larger numbers, and M. Vincent, even when he realized the forlornness of the hope, would still, for this purpose, have sent his Sons across the seas to certain death. The first to be chosen for Madagascar was M. Nacquart, and in the letter he received announcing his appointment we are allowed a share of M. Vincent’s thoughts on this particular subject. M. Nacquart was thirty-one, and had been eight years in the Company. M. Vincent was then seventy-two. He writes from Paris on March 22, 164811:

” MONSIEUR,

” Long ago Our Lord put into your heart the desire to serve Him in some special way. And when the suggestion was made at Richelieu of opening Missions among the Jews and idolaters, it seemed to me that you felt you had a call. The time has come for the sowing of this heavenly vocation to bear fruit. Monseigneur the Nuncio has, with the authority of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, of which His Holiness the Pope is chief, chosen the Company to go and serve God in the Isle of St. Lawrence, otherwise called Madagascar, and the Company has regarded you, and another priest as your companion, as the best sacrifice it can make for the glory of the Creator and for His service. Ah ! my very dear sir, what does your heart say to this news ! Is it fitly overwhelmed and humbled by so great a favour from Heaven ? This is a vocation as high and as great as that of the chief Apostles and Saints of the Church of God—a design from eternity fixing itself in time on you. Such a favour can be met only by humility and the com­plete abandonment of all that you are or may be in absolute confidence in our Creator.

” You will need the strongest courage; you will need faith as great as that of Abraham. The charity of S. Paul will be necessary. Zeal, patience, diffidence, compassion, austerity, discretion, moral discipline, and an immense desire to be completely sacrificed to God—these are as essential to you as to S. François Xavier.

” This island is nearly 400 leagues long and 160 wide. The people have not heard of God, but they are intelligent and open-minded. To get there you must cross the Equator. Authority over the island is in the hands of Parisian merchants, who are like kings there.

” The first point for your attention is to mould your­self by the journey of that great Saint, François Xavier; to help and to serve those who are on board with you; to establish public prayer, if it be possible; to pay great attention to the distresses of others, and always sacrifice your own comfort to theirs; to bring as great a blessing on the voyage (which lasts four or five months) by your prayers as do the sailors by their labour. As regards the Directors, always pay them the greatest respect. Be faithful to God, and never go against your conscience for any consideration; but take special care not to injure your work for God by being too impulsive in it. Take plenty of time and learn to wait.

” When you have lived and worked with those around you, so as to set a good example, your great aim must be to teach these poor people, who are born in all the gloom of ignorance, the truths of the Faith, not by the subtleties of theology, but by reasoning drawn from nature; for one must begin there, trying to make them understand that you seek only to develop the traces of God in them which have become hidden by long yielding to the corruption of nature. And to do this, Monsieur, you will need to turn continually to the Father of Light, and say to Him that which you say to Him daily Da intellectum ut sciam testimonia tua. By meditation you will be able to arrange the light revealed to you, that you may be able to declare the truth of the Supreme Being…

” And with this I give myself to you, if not to follow you in the flesh, of which I am unworthy, at least to pray God daily that He will leave me on earth to aid you, and (if it please Him to have mercy on me) that I may meet you in Heaven and do you honour, as one whose high vocation has raised him to the level of the Apostles. There is nothing on earth that I desire so much as to go as your companion in the place of M. Gondrée.”

The enthusiasm and the soaring hopes of the writer are evident in every sentence. It is not for the honour of the Company, but for the glory of God, that he sends his much-cherished Son to the other end of the world; but it is clear that he sends him with exuberant confi­dence in the result. The natives—intelligent and open-minded—will assuredly flock to hear the message that brings light to their darkness.

It is evident also that M. Vincent did not at that time realize the mortal danger that lay before the Missionaries. He plans the report that they shall send, and the news from home they shall receive annually; but M. Gondrée died in a year, and M. Nacquart did not survive him very long. It is impossible altogether to explain the divergence between the hopes aroused by the prospect of this Mission and the actual conditions under which it was carried out. There must have been some intermediary, whose identity is now impossible to trace, who was too sanguine; for the actual authorities in the island (at whose supposed invitation the Missionaries went out) made no preparation for their arrival, and gave them very little support. Moreover, small rivalries between the Eastern Company and the Marshal de la Meilleraye, who had interest in the island, led to threats of rejecting the Mission Priests, in spite of the sacrifices they had already made, and sending members of a religious Order.

M. Vincent, having spurred his Sons towards this supreme offering of themselves, saw it undervalued and rejected. It would be hard to imagine a sharper form of humiliation, and it came to him when he had already been through eight years of disappointment. ” I do not know what God will make of our Madagascar Mission,” he wrote in 1657 to M. Jolly at Rome12. “I have been told that M. de la Meilleraye has asked for twelve of the Capuchin Fathers, and they have been promised him. There may be some truth in this, because I have ventured to write to remind him that our Missionaries were holding themselves in readiness, awaiting his summons to pro­ceed to Nantes, and he has not made any reply. What­ever comes to pass will be according to the Will of God.”

All that had come to pass was heartrending. The letters from the Missionaries to their Superior are extra­ordinarily graphic. Each one is hopeful. The people seem to have been sufficiently responsive, and they were in such an extreme of ignorance that the opportunity given him had its own delight for the writer. But the courage of these champions, fighting, as some of them did, single-handed against overwhelming odds, only adds to the tragedy of their inevitable failure. The fate of those who, like M. Nacquart and M. Bourdaise, were able for a time to sustain life in that poisonous climate, was the hardest, for they saw their companions perish, and were left to the desolate realization of a task too great for a hundred men, and dependent upon one.

” Oh my dear Father,” wrote M. Bourdaise, ” how often I long that all the able priests who remain in idleness in France, and who know of this great need for labourers, would realize that Our Lord Himself has this reproach for each of them: ‘ Oh priest, if you had been in this island, many of my brothers bought by My Blood would have been saved from everlasting death.’ No doubt the thought of it would rouse their pity, and perhaps their fear.”

Such appeals as these fell on deaf ears. M. Bourdaise, in his desperate fight against idolatry, pictured the Guardian Angels of the natives who died unbaptized reproaching him for negligence; but on the other side of the world the responsibility did not bear the same aspect, and year by year he waited for aid that did not come, and at last, when relief was on its way, he also died.

M. Vincent had not been heedless, but a force stronger than any human agency was against him. One after another the chosen companions who started for Mada­gascar were driven back, shipwreck or capture having deprived them of their means of transport. At best the journey occupied six months, and involved enormous peril. But again and again a fresh party volunteered, for the missionary spirit had seized upon the Company, and their Superior would not hear of discouragement.

” It is a strange sort of army that turns back,” he told them, ” because it has lost two, three, or four thousand men. Such an army would be a pretty sight—a gathering of cowards and runaways ! And so also with the Mission—it would be a pretty sort of Company that gave up the work of God for five or six deaths ! A worthless Company, heeding nothing but the things of flesh and blood !”

There are times, nevertheless, when even a gallant army must turn back, and, despite his resolute words, it is likely that M. Vincent realized before his death what must be the end of the Madagascar Mission. In fact, the conditions became worse as the years passed. The feeling of the natives towards the French colony lost its friendliness, and the Mission Priests, though they had no part in the causes of the change, were included in its effects. Constant danger of murder was added to the other perils to existence, and their converts returned to the practice of idolatry. There was one moment when, as we are told by a contemporary chronicler13, of all the hundreds of natives baptized into the Church there remained only three who were not renegade. The French occupation of Madagascar had proved a failure, and the colony was preparing to withdraw. It became necessary for the Missionaries to abandon their position, and in 1676 the remnant of them reached France—there were two only out of the twenty-nine who had in twenty-five years offered themselves for the service of the heathen; for the others their offering had been a literal offering of life.

The story of that last enterprise of M. Vincent’s is not a subject for easy criticism. It is well to set it down—and indeed, the record of his life is incomplete without it—but not to apply the ordinary tests of expenditure and profit. It was the greatest venture of faith he ever made, and its outward failure should not be confused with the idea of loss either to him or to the Company.

  1. “Correspondance des Deys d’Alger avec la Cour de France, 1579-1833,” Introduction.
  2. H. de Grammont, ” Relations entre la France et la Regence d’Alger au r7IDe Siècle,” part iv.
  3. “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 423.
  4. “Lettres,” vol. L, No. 243.
  5. “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 384.
  6. Ibid., vol. ii., No. 420.
  7. Ibid., vol. ii., No. 488.
  8. “Lettres,” vol. i., No 179.
  9. “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 278.
  10. For full detail of this abortive scheme, see Bougaud, “Vie de S. Vincent de Paul,” vol. ii., liv. 5, chap. i.
  11. ” Lettres,” vol. i., No. 12.1.
  12. “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 413.
  13. J. Grandet. See ” Les Saints Prêtres Français du 17me Siècle.”

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