Presentation of the theme
At the beginning of the seventeenth century. society was healing from the wounds that been inflicted on it as a result of the upheavals of the previous century. A prudent king had established order and a Council had restored confidence to the Church. Now all sides attempted to put into practice the principles that had been established and thus applied those principles to new situations.
Vincent had always been very respectful with regard to tradition, rules and the hierarchy. We never see him taking “revolutionary” positions or adopting a provocative tone. He was, however, gifted with a rare ability to adapt to even the most unexpected situations. I once read a life of Vincent de Paul that I found in the priest’s library in Amiens, a work that had been published in the early 1820’s. This idealized biography stated that Vincent, from the time he was a little boy, was nourished with goat’s milk which gave him intelligence and the extraordinary ability of discernment (sure!).
We know that Vincent did not need that form of nourishment. We see that he opened his eyes and discovered situations of misery that society had created and ignored … situations of misery that could not be resolved with the means that had been put in place. We see that Vincent acted in accord with certain constants.
Beginning in 1617 Vincent’s vision was further clarified and nothing escaped his gaze. He recognized the misery that many families endured as the result of some illness. He saw that many priests had not received an adequate formation that would allow them to fulfill their obligations. He knew the scourges that beggars experienced. In light of those realities and many other realities he discerned the best way to respond to those evils. Those responses needed time to be developed and only then could one begin to see results. There were times, however, when the response was insufficient or not suitable for the situation, for example, the situation of abandoned children and the service provided by La Couche. More time was needed in order to analyze the problem. Providence enabled Vincent to recognize various existing evils. It was not he who invented various forms of poverty (a reproach that was leveled against him by the Chancellor Séguier in the film Moniseur Vincent). After a mature analysis of the situation and after encouraging people who could change such situations and seeing that they refused to act (Vincent felt that others were better prepared to intervene in such situations) … only then did Vincent decide to act.
Yet even then Vincent waited for some sign from Providence, some sign that would frequently be revealed to him through some event, for example, Vincent was enlightened by the initiative of Marguerite Naseau who came forward to serve the poor. As a result of that event Vincent would refer to her as the first Daughter of Charity. Providence would also reveal itself through the requests that he received from persons who had the authority to speak in the name of God, for example, the Bishop of Beauvais requested Vincent to organize some retreats for the ordinands of his diocese, retreats that would provide those candidates with more formation. This marked the beginning of his ministry on behalf of the formation of the clergy … a ministry that would include retreats for the ordinands, the Tuesday Conferences, and seminaries. The situation was analyzed in the light of experience and this was the way in which, in the course of time, the Daughters of Charity were organized.
With these new initiatives nothing was left to chance or improvisation. The institutions that were established in order to respond to some urgent need were given detailed rules that defined their purpose. At the same time these institutions were established with certain resources that enabled them to function even when public consensus might change and oppose such activity.
Once Vincent decided on a specific course of action he was tireless in implementing such a solution. He dedicated himself to these new ministries and when necessary also committed the resources of the Congregation. We see Vincent’s tenacity in his decision with regard to the mission in Poland and the many sacrifices that this mission involved. He stated that the loss of M. Lambert aux Couteaux was like cutting off his own arm (CCD:III:169). Who could describe the incredible openness that was revealed as the confreres left France to begin a new mission in Madagascar … and then Vincent had to listen to the disastrous news that was communicated to him? Who could describe the anxiety that Vincent had to experience as he provided for countless people who were living in areas that were devastated by the poor … the poor, he said, are my worry and my sorrow (Abelly III:117).
The solution that Vincent had opted for required determination and an unwavering spirit. Those who had been delegated to accomplish these various bold tasks relied on Vincent’s support and encouragement. They followed his instructions and informed him about their progress. Through the exchange of letters Vincent was present to these various individuals … he suffered and grieved with them.
We are members of a post-conciliar church, a church that must confront new problems and that experiences new forms of poverty. We must also sharpen our power of observation in order to discover these new forms of misery and their causes, in order to minister together with those who are involved in finding solutions to this misery. At the same time we must also be attentive to the signs the Providence will be revealed to us and when such a sign is given we must be ready to act with determination.
We will be able to respond to these present day problems if we reflect on the profound heritage that Vincent de Paul has entrusted to us and if we place ourselves in the same spiritual dynamic as Jesus and proclaim Good News to the poor.
Vincent de Paul and “creative love”
In the unforgettable film, Monsieur Vincent, whose script was written by Jean Anouilh, we find Vincent speaking the following words at a time when he was being pressured by the Ladies of Charity to curb his initiatives: It seems to me that you think I have undertaken too many things and yet I believe that I have not undertaken enough things.
It can be said that Vincent was a man with a creative dimension and thus we discover that his creativity unfolded in an activity that was quite proper to him.
A man with a creative mind
“…I cannot restrain myself…”
Vincent’s life was distinguished by his spirit of inventiveness and creativity. He assigned the Missionaries to minister in various places and he stated to one of his confreres: I am writing you a short note to express to you the joy of my heart at the extraordinary blessings God has just bestowed on your work, and for the miracles you have performed in your mission…. Indeed, Monsieur, I cannot restrain myself and must tell you quite simply that this gives me renewed, greater desires to be able, in the midst of my petty infirmities, to go and finish my life near a bush, working in some village. I think I would be very happy to do so, if God were pleased to grant me this grace (CCD:V:204).
“…This is our principal work…”
The missionary vocation is accomplished in many ways, but is primarily lived out by accompanying the poor and by providing for their needs: And because you wish to know what constitutes our humble way of life, I shall tell you then, most worthy Mother, that our Little Company is established to go from village to village at its own expense, preaching, catechizing, and having the poor people make general confessions of their entire past life. We try to settle the disagreements we find among them and do all we can to see that the sick poor are assisted corporally and spiritually by the Confraternity of the Charity, composed of women, which we set up in the places where we give the mission and which desire it. To this work, which is our principal one, and in order to perform it better, the Providence of God has added that of taking into our houses ten days before ordination those who are to take orders. We feed and support them and during that time teach them practical theology, the ceremonies of the Church, and how to make and practice mental prayer according to the method of our blessed Father, the Bishop of Geneva. We do this for those who belong to the diocese in which we are established (CCD:I:553). The number of verbs in the above text is an indication of Vincent’s inventive ingenuity.
“…Many people come here to make their retreat…”
We must reflect that many people come here to make their retrea in order to know God’s will, having been inspired to leave the world; and I commend one of them to your prayers. He has finished his retreat and, when he leaves here, will be going to the Capuchins to take the habit. Some Communities send us many men who want to enter them, and they send them to make their retreat here in order to test their vocation better before they accept them. Others come from ten, twenty, or fifty leagues away for this purpose, not only to recollect themselves here and to make a general confession but to decide on a choice of life in the world and to take the means of saving themselves in it. We also see a number of pastors and other clergy who come here from everywhere to set themselves aright in their vocation … Others will grumble about this ministry, under the pretext that it’s very burdensome and demands a lot of energy. So, the priests of the Mission, who formerly would have given life to the dead, will no longer have anything but the name and appearance of what they once were. They’ll be only corpses and not true Missioners; they’ll be the carcasses of Saint Lazarus, not the resurrected Lazarus, and, even less, men who bring others back to life. This Mission, which is now like a beneficial pool, where so many come to bathe, will be nothing but a cistern contaminated by the laxity and idleness of the men who live in it (CCD:XI:13-14).
“…Let us care for them…”
Let us thank God, Messieurs, for having given this Community the care of the mentally ill and the incorrigible. We did not seek out this ministry; it was given to us by his Providence, along with all the others in the Company (CCD:XI:17).
“…Four poor Sisters … six hundred poor soldiers…”
I also recommend the Daughters of Charity we sent to Calais to nurse the poor wounded soldiers. Of the four we sent there, two of them, the strongest and healthiest among them, have died. One of these, Sister Manceau, the niece of M. Manceau, priest of the Company, was the Sister Servant; that is, the one who had the charge and care of the others. She was one of the strongest Sisters in that Little Company of Charity, yet she was the first to succumb beneath the weight of this heavy duty. Just picture that, Messieurs. Four poor Sisters in the midst of five or six hundred poor sick and wounded soldiers! Please consider for a moment the guidance and goodness of God in raising up such a Company in these days. And to do what? To assist the poor corporally, and even spiritually, saying a few good words to them, especially to the dying, to help them to prepare to die well (CCD:XII:34)
The beginning of Vincent’s activity
Even a cursory reading of Vincent’s writings presents us with the image of an individual who might be viewed as excessively prudent. Yet this image must be tempered with the understanding that [a] Vincent had an unfailing trust in divine Providence; [b] Vincent had a different understanding of time; [c] once Vincent made a decision he displayed a tenacity that bordered on temerity. The letter that he wrote to Bernard Codoing (August 6, 1644), illustrates these points.
Attentive to providence
“…The good which God desires is accomplished almost by itself…”
Vincent never anticipated providence but rather he discovered the signs of God in the events of life: The good which God desires is accomplished almost by itself, without our even thinking of it. That is how our Congregation came into being, that missions and retreats for the ordinands began, that the Company of the Daughters of Charity was formed, that the Ladies of Charity for the assistance of the poor at the Hotel Dieu of Paris and the sick in the parishes were established. That is also how the care of the foundlings began and, in a word, how all the works for which we are now responsible came into existence. None of the above was deliberately undertaken by us, but God himself, who wanted to be served in such circumstances, brought them imperceptibly into being. If he made use of us, we had no idea, however, where that was leading. That is why we allow him to act, far from busying ourselves with the development of these works, any more than we did when they were just beginning. Mon Dieu! Monsieur, how I wish you would moderate your ardor and examine matters thoroughly before making any decision on them! Be acted upon rather than active. In this way, God will do through you alone what all men put together could not do without him (CCD:IV:128-129).
“…unless we are called…”
We are grateful to that good priest from Piedmont for expressing the desire to have our Company established in Turin. Perhaps that means that we ourselves should ask for the empty house he mentioned to you. We will not do so, however, because it is our custom, as you know, never to insert ourselves into any place unless we are called there. If we say that we should do so on this occasion because it would open the door to the advancement of the glory of God in that region, we should think the contrary. We should hope that God will be more honored by our submission to his Providence in awaiting his orders than if we ventured to anticipate them (CCD:V:165).
From a Vincentian perspective, every initiative should begin modestly, even when external help is provided.
Mon Dieu! Monsieur, how indebted we are to the zealous ardor of Monsieur de Fleury for the extension of the Company! In the name of God, Monsieur, thank him for this in my name. Ask him, with the respect and submission you owe him, if it might not be taking on too much to offer your services in the college you mentioned to me. Tell him also that it would seem sufficient — at least in the beginning — to work at giving missions in the rural areas and in a seminary in the city. Nature makes trees put down deep roots before having them bear fruit, and even this is done gradually. Our Lord acted in this way in his mission, leading a hidden life for a very long period before manifesting himself and devoting himself to the works of our redemption. Please represent all that to him as gently and humbly as you can; for, after all, we must be submissive to the enlightenment Our Lord will give him (CCDLIV:218-219).
The dimension of time is very important to Vincent … he is the master over his activity!
“…Everything has been done in its time…”
You will object that I take too long, that you sometimes wait six months for an answer that can be given in a month and that, meanwhile, opportunities are lost and everything stands still. To that I shall answer, Monsieur, that it is true that I take too long in answering and in doing things; still, I have never yet seen any affair spoiled because of my delaying, but everything has been done in its time and with the necessary foresight and precautions. Nevertheless, I intend in [the] future to answer you as soon as possible after receiving your letters and weighing the matter before God. He is greatly honored by the time we take to weigh with mature deliberation matters having to do with his service, as are all those with which we deal. Please, then, correct yourself of your hastiness in deciding and doing things, and I shall work at correcting myself of my slowness (CCD:II:236).
“…Time changes everything…”
We must be careful not to give the Vicars General any grounds for discontent. They are our masters; as far as possible we have to adapt ourselves to their wishes. Therefore, when they send you any priests, the Company must accept them willingly and keep them for as long as they request, even priests they send there to receive correction. You may, however, represent humbly to them that you are overburdened, if this is the case, or any other inconveniences that may arise. It is also quite fitting that the Company observe their intentions with regard to missions, not undertaking any without their consent nor without asking them where. We should take as a maxim never to be surprised at current difficulties, no more than at a passing breeze, because with a little patience we shall see them disappear. Time changes everything. I read in the history of the Jesuits that the Pope, who succeeded the one who erected their Company into a religious Order, obliged them to wear a hood. That was rather hard for them, yet they had to endure it during his lifetime. Immediately after his death, however, they got rid of the hood. In like manner, if you are presently being obliged to do something you do not like, let a few days slip quietly by; the instability of things will soon free you from this constraint. God raises us up and humbles us, consoles and afflicts us, according as he sees us disposed to profit by these states (CCD:III:381-382).
Remain firm with regard to the decisions that are made
“…There is a disadvantage in putting it off so long…”
Once Vincent understood that there was a call from God and once he became aware of the importance of such a call, he would make a decision and nothing could deter him from his resolve. The day before yesterday, I received the letter that responded to what I wrote concerning Rome. I shall tell you in reply that I find the reasons you sent me with regard to postponing the trip until after Easter quite significant; however, there is a disadvantage in putting it off so long. The Pope, Cardinal Lenti, Dean of the Cardinals, and another good and virtuous priest, who is mindful of the ordinands, could die during that time; and, if that were to happen, a good work would be lost (CCD:II:240). This response has even greater significance given the fact that it was addressed to Bernard Codoing who often acted in a hurried manner without consulting others.
Two initiatives demonstrate Vincent’s tenacity: Madagascar and Genoa. His boldness and tenacity would have border on foolishness if he had not been grounded by his faith and trust. The plague ravaged the mission in Genoa and the sea and the ministry and the climate had grave consequences on the Missionaries destined for the Isle of Saint-Laurent. Yet none of this appeared to be insurmountable … Vincent maintained his position and sent other Missionaries.
“…This overwhelms us with grief…”
The plague has nearly depopulated the city of Genoa. The streets are strewn with dead bodies and there are no living persons left to bury them. Two of our priests put themselves at risk in order to nurse the sick, and I have had no news of them since then. All I know is that the disease attacked our family and carried off good M. Ennery, then M. François Vincent. Next, Messieurs Duport and Lejuge caught it, and on July 20 there was no hope of survival for them … That is not all, Monsieur; God has also chosen to take from us the last three priests who went to Madagascar: Messieurs Dufour, Prevost, and de Belleville … This overwhelms us with grief. But God be praised for all those losses, which are great for the Company (CCD:VI:488).
“…Fill the places left vacant…”
Please accept our apologies for being unable just now to send you the preacher you request. This is due not only to the missions, which are keeping busy the men we have — and will be keeping them busy all winter — but also because we are obliged to fill the places left vacant in Genoa, Madagascar, and the Hebrides by the deaths of Messieurs Blatiron, Duport, Ennery, Vincent, Boccone, Tratebas, Dufour, Prevost, de Belleville, and Duiguin. I told you about all these except the last-named, whom God took to Himself this past May 17, as we have just heard. It can be said that he worked wonders in the Hebrides for our holy religion, which is suffering a great loss in this good Missionary, as is the Company, which God is choosing to try in every direction. Because of all these losses, therefore, I ask you to be satisfied with the number of priests you have and, nevertheless, to continue the missions, as M. Cruoly, who had no more than that, used to do (CCD:VI:583).
“…I am willing…”
Someone in the Company may say perhaps that Madagascar should be abandoned; flesh and blood will use that language and say that no more men should be sent there, but I’m certain that the Spirit says otherwise. Quai! Messieurs, shall we leave our good M. Bourdaise all alone there? The death of those priests will, I’m sure, astonish some … God has called our confreres into that country, and yet some die on the way, and others shortly after arriving there. At this we must bow our heads, Messieurs, and adore the wonderful, incomprehensible ways of Our Lord. Weren’t they called to that country by God? Who can doubt it? All three of them asked me several times to go there. M. Dufour had that desire from the time we began to talk about Madagascar; that, along with the circumstances and special considerations that occurred in his regard, led us to believe that God had called him there. And how many times did our poor deceased M. Lambert ask me to let him go! It wasn’t flesh and blood, as you can imagine, that led them to risk their lives as they did. Judge now whether the Company has a vocation from God for that land, whether it has been called to go there; we have no doubt about that, Messieurs, for we weren’t even thinking about Madagascar when the proposal was put to us. Here’s how the whole thing happened … my dear confreres! After knowing that, could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which his Divine Majesty has called us merely because four, five, or six men have died? And tell me what a fine army it would be — if, because it lost two or three, four, or five thousand men — as they say happened at the latest siege of Normandy — it would abandon everything! What a nice sight an army of runaways and poltroons like that would be! Let’s say the same of the Mission; it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work! What a cowardly Company, attached to flesh and blood! Oh, no! I don’t think there’s a single member of the Company who has such little courage, or who isn’t ready to go to take the place of those who have died. I don’t doubt that nature may tremble a little at first, but the spirit, which has the upper hand, says, “I’m willing; God has given me the desire to go; no, this loss can’t make me abandon my resolution” (CCD:XI:372-374).