“I have traveled much in Concord,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, who in his life scarcely ventured from the vicinity of Walden Pond. The inner journeys among ideas and imagination that this stay-at-home person undertook served him as a metaphor of far-ranging cosmic travel. This is an equally apt image through which to view the realities and the symbols of Vincent’s activities and accomplishments. Vincent did indeed travel much in his early life, setting forth to pursue education, ordination and ecclesiastical advancement in such places as Toulouse, perhaps Zaragossa, Bordeaux, Paris and Rome. After some years, he sealed in Paris and its environs, which were eventually to become the center of his world.
Once thus established, his body stayed at home, but his interests and his real roamed the universal Church. Content at first with foundations in France and Italy, his missionary vision, in its last two decades, followed the trade routes around the world — to Poland, to England, Scotland and Ireland, to the Barbary Coast, to Madagascar. He included other fields in that vision. Given the opportunities, he would have sent missionaries to the Scandinavian countries, to Greece, Egypt, and Syria, and even to China and Australia and the New World.
The man who never moved without signs from providence found solid reasons for what was to become his missionary outreach. He was approached by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome and by missionary bishops to share the services of his Congregation. An equally profound impulse came from within. In addition to a natural zeal for spreading the gospel as extensively as he could, he harbored a curious notion that encouraged him to seek alternate apostolates. In a letter to Jean Dehorgny he confessed: “I have…a great affection for the propagation of the Church in infidel lands, which arises from the fear i entertain that God may gradually bring her to naught in Europe and that little or nothing may remain of her here in a hundred years’ time, on account of the corruption of our morals, the new opinions which are spreading more and more, and the general state of public affairs.”
Lay much of the blame for this condition, Vincent said, at the feet of the dishonorable clergy. Nevertheless, he had no intention of abandoning Europe; its evangelization was as important as the missions ad genres. He compared the home missions to a holding action, after the manner of “conquerors [who] leave some of their troops behind to guard what they already hold while they send on others to conquer new districts and extend their empire.”
Vincent’s voyages of the mind were not fantasy, however. Rather, they bonded him to the apostolic realities of the mission. As the missionaries traveled the world over, Vincent’s spirit accompanied them, giving encouragement and direction, mediating disputes, sharing their joys and sorrows. In turn, their superior’s interest kept them fraternally bonded with those at home, whom Vincent also kept current with accounts of the trials and the triumphs of those on the missions.
In offering these reports Vincent’s words are often tinged with envy and regret that he himself could not be at their side. To the bishop of Limerick he lamented, And would to God, my Lord, I was worthy to be one of the band! God knows that I would go with my whole heart.” And to Charles Nacquart, preparing to depart for Madagascar, he wrote, “I now give myself absolutely, if not actually, to follow you, as indeed I am not worthy to do….”
Vincent’s zeal made him a restless spirit, anxious to follow wherever the call to evangelization beckoned. Confined to Sainr-Lazare, he nevertheless ranged vicariously over a worldwide course, tramping in the footsteps of his missionaries. Their labors were as much a part of him, and he of them, as those taking place in the next parish. Through his missionary vision he was able to project his presence, his charism, and his words to wherever his priests and brothers ventured.
“Success” did not always attend these journeys. plague, shipwreck, and persecution were frequent companions. This mattered not to Vincent. To him the deaths of his sons were “the seed of a great number of good missionaries.” His words about the ultimate victory of his deceased missionaries are a key to the hope that he held for all those who labored in the Congregation, both at home and abroad. All the scattered missionary paths, his own included, led to a common destination, where all journeys come to rest. To use a favorite expression of his, that destination was “the mission of heaven.”