Saint Vincent de Paul, a biography 00 – Introduction

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Author: José María Román, C.M. · Translator: Joyce Howard, D.C.. · Year of first publication: 1981.
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Foreword

Forests and mists will always present a challenge to man’s curiosity. It has been said of St. Vincent de Paul that his works encircle him like a forest and his humility envelops him like a mist.

Father José María Román valiantly guides us through that forest and mist. His work on St. Vincent de Paul, the fruits of his reflection and study, is the most recent biography of Saint Vincent and it comes out very opportunely during the fourth centenary of St. Vincent’s birth.

As a professional historian, Fr. Román is qualified to apply the methods of historical criticism to the information we have about the life and times of St. Vincent. At the same time Fr. Román is an experienced priest and he is a competent guide and excellent interpreter of the spirituality of this Colossus of charity. This spirituality is expertly analysed in detail by Fr. Antonio Orcajo in the second volume of this work.

St. Vincent was a giant, not only of charity which was his special mission, but in other fields of activity too. Like a giant, his thoughts range from the North of Scotland to Algeria and Madagascar, and from Paris to Poland. In his later years Vincent de Paul’s active mind could organise a plan for the rescue of captives and towards the end of his life he was wondering what would be the best method of ridding the world of pirates. From that thought he turned his mind to speaking to the first group of Daughters of Charity about the importance of mental prayer and the method they were use for this. Later on that day he might be found in the royal palace in Paris for the Council of Conscience where he put forward his wise suggestions for the appointment of worthy bishops in France. At night he might be planning which missionaries he could send to Madagascar to replace those who died there as victims of malaria.

What was the secret behind this colossal display of spiritual and charitable energy? Vincent would have replied simply… “The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ”; that grace which is given to those who are simple and humble of heart. St. Vincent said that simplicity was his gospel, and in his opinion, humility was the basic requirement for anyone who wants to love God and the poor.

The pages of this biography relate all these things and much more. We hope that people reading this book will be encouraged to read St. Vincent’s letters and conferences or his complete works. All these, fortunately, are published in Spanish. Or they might read the anthology by Fr. Miguel Pérez Flores which completes the second volume of this present work.

I am sure that the readers of this biography and the writings of St. Vincent published here by the Library of Christian Authors to promote the spread of catholic culture, will find, amid the forest and the mist, a shining light to guide them through life. After four hundred years, St. Vincent remains a model for our times.

I pray for all who may read this book, using Vincent’s favourite phrase for starting a letter, “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with us for ever”.

RICHARD McCULLEN, CM
Superior General
25th March 1981

Acknowledgements

This translation of the second edition of Fr. José María Román’s biography of St. Vincent de Paul was commissioned by the British Province of the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity.

I would like to thank Sr. Margaret Barrett, DC. and her Council for facilitating the work and Fr. Eamon Flanagan, CM., Mr. W. McGrath, my brother Alan, and Sr. Cheramie (Paris) for their help and suggestions.

A special word of thanks is due to Sor Carmen Victoria Ruíz, former Visitatrice of St. Louise’s province, Madrid, and to Sor María Luisa Luquín, Visitatrice of St. Vincent’s province, for their warm hospitality and the very generous help they gave me in Spain. I had the joy and privilege of spending some months with the community of San Rafael in Madrid and would like to express my gratitude to Sor Matilde Alameda, DC., for many acts of kindness, including the use of computer facilities, and to the sisters of that community for their friendship and support.

The most important contribution to this work, however, was made by my friend, Consuelo Santamaría. Although she would not like to be called co-translator of the book it is absolutely certain that this translation would not have been possible without her help. Consuelo not only painstakingly checked the work but she typed various drafts of the manuscript and put all the work on computer. Her long hours of devoted work and generous contribution of material must surely be recorded in the heavenly files. If this work can inspire any reader to have the same grasp of St. Vincent’s spirit that Consuelo has, and which she lives out, above all, in her work for the poorest of the poor in El Piti, then this translation will have been more than worthwhile.

In translating the biography I have kept very closely to the format and style of Fr. Roman’s book. When the work was at an early stage Fr. Richard McCullen, former Superior Genral of the Congregation of the Mission, gave his blessing to it, graciously describing it in his message of encouragement as a translation that “mediates the mind of St. Vincent to the English-speaking world of today”. I pray will do just that.

SR. JOYCE, DC.
Provincial House, Mill Hill, London
27th September, 1993
Feast of St. Vincent de Paul

Abbreviations

Anales: Annals of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity. (Spanish edition).

Annales: Annals of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity. (French edition).

Annali: Annali della Missione. (Italian edition).

D.S: Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique.

D.T.C:. Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique.

E.S: Edition Sígueme (of St. Vincent de Paul).

G.S: Gaudium et Spes. (Constitution of second Vatican Council on the world today).

L.G: Lumen Gentium. (Constitution ibid. on the Church).

M. et Ch Mission et Charité.

M.V: P. COSTE. “Monsieur Vincent, Le grand saint du grand siècle”.

P.C: Perfecte Caritatis. (Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on the renewal of religious life).

RAM: Revue d’Ascétique et de Mystique.

RHE: Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique.

RHEF:.. Revue d’Histoire de L’Eglise en France.

RSChI:. Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia.

Reg. com. CM.. Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission.

Reg. com. H.d.I.C Common Rules of the Daughters of Charity.

S.V.P:. St. Vincent de Paul. Correspondence, entretiens, documents. The volume quoted is given in Roman numerals and then the page reference is given. For all the quotations reference is made to the Spanish edition following the initials E.S. (Edition Sígueme) except for the volume 13 which is not yet published in Spanish. The French edition is also quoted and references given.

Introduction

One of the saints whose life history has most frequently been written is Vincent de Paul. There have been as many as 1,500 biographies of Vincent, by different authors, but the quality of writing has not always matched the quantity. Much of this literature was produced to celebrate special occasions and was directed at a reading public whose expectations differed widely. Strictly speaking, in the four hundred years since Vincent’s birth, there have only been four major biographies of Vincent de Paul; that is to say, one for each century.

1. The 17th century biography was published in 1664, four years after Vincent’s death. It was written by Louis Abelly, bishop of Rodez, and entitled: “La vie du vénérable serviteur de Dieu, Vincent de Paul, instituteur et premier supérieur général de la Congrégation de la Mission” (Paris, Florentin Lambert, 1664) three volumes (260, 480 and 372 pages).

Louis Abelly, (1604‑1691) was an old and a close friend of Vincent de Paul whom he had got to know about the year 1633 and with whom he had a close relationship until 1660. He was indebted to Vincent for various important steps in his ecclesiastical career; his nomination for the post of Vicar General in the diocese of Bayonne and as principal chaplain to the General Hospital in Paris. He was a prolific and widely read author. His “Sacerdos Christianus” and his “Medulla theologica” went through numerous editions in spite of Boileau who made a pun on the title of Abelly’s best known work to satirise the author, describing him as “moelleux” or stodgy and viscous. When Vincent de Paul died, his priests wanted to publish a biography of their founder, and so they turned to this writer who was also a friend. They put at his disposal an impressive amount of documentation which ran to two or three large volumes and which had been compiled by Brother Bertrand Ducourneau who had been secretary to the dead man. This was supplemented by papers collected by other missionaries including Fr. Fournier and Brother Robineau. These were in addition to material gathered by Abelly himself who visited Vincent’s birthplace; to papers sent by canon Saint Martin, an old friend of Vincent who lived in the same locality, and finally, Vincent’s original correspondence. There were far more of Vincent’s letters than we have today. Abelly constructed his magnum opus from all this material which was classified by one of the priests of the Mission.

This is a very edifying biography with decidedly hagiographical overtones but it was radically and punctiliously accurate. Errors discovered later are due to lacunae or to mistakes in documentation; they were never deliberate. In spite of its sentimental style, the book continues to be one of the primary sources of information about Vincent, especially as many of the documents handled by Abelly have now been lost and we are left with just the transcriptions that he made. Perhaps the main defect of the work is that there is no sense of biographical development. Vincent de Paul is always the same, from the cradle to the grave.

In spite of everything, Abelly’s work is still the first and the essential point of reference for all new biographies. Until proven otherwise, his information can be taken as reliable because it provides first hand witness to most of the events related. His early readers who had known Vincent during his life, criticised the book for being long‑winded, repetitive and cloying but never for being misleading. The only person bold enough to question its veracity was somebody who had no connection with the family, Martin de Barcos, and he took issue with only one point, viz Vincent de Paul’s relationship with Saint Cyran, the uncle of Barcos, and with the Jansenist movement. Abelly refuted this accusation and proved that all his documentation was taken from the archives of the Congregation of the Mission and not from the Jesuits as Barcos claimed.

2. The eighteenth century saw the second great biogrphy of Vincent. Pierre Collet wrote, “La vie de Saint Vincent de Paul, instituteur de la Congrégation de la Mission et des Filles de la Charité”. (Nancy. A. Lescure, 1748), two volumes (XVIII + 588 and + 616 pages).

Pierre Collet was a distinguished theologian in the Congregation of the Mission. On the instructions of Cardinal Fleury he completed Tournely’s work, “Institutiones Theologicae” which was in seventeen volumes and it took him thirty‑one years to finish this. He also produced other works on moral and polemic theological issues. He was a fierce opponent of Jansenism.

Collet’s biography of St. Vincent was published shortly after the saint’s canonisation. Because of Jansenist opposition, the book had to be published in Lorraine, and even then the author’s name couldn’t be revealed. In a methodical and systematic manner, Collet collected all Abelly’s material and added to this the collection of documents that had been the basis for the beatification and the canonisation processes. He arranged all this in strictly chronological order for his book and he added critical notes; something not found in Abelly’s work.

It has been said of Collet that he was not very original. This criticism is only partly true. For the most part he followed Abelly fairly slavishly but he did introduce new material, he criticised many documents, argued against the Jansenist representation of Vincent de Paul and high‑lighted the political background to Vincent’s work. This biography was an erudite work, written in the scientific style of the 17th century. It complements Abelly’s work in more ways than one but it is less readable, because if Abelly’s style errs on the side of being sugary, Collet’s book is dry and rather heavy.

3. The major biography of the nineteenth century was the work of Ulysées Maynard, canon of Poitiers, (1814‑1893). He wrote, “Saint Vincent de Paul. Sa vie, son temps, ses oeuvres, son influence”. (Paris, Retaux‑Bray, 1860) in four volumes.

Maynard’s work was published to celebrate the bicentenary of Vincent’s death and was commissioned by the Superior General of the Mission, Fr. Jean Baptiste Étienne who placed the archives of Saint Lazare at the author’s disposal. Maynard made a thorough study of the documents with the intention of producing a work that was original. His aim was to present Vincent de Paul against the great historical background of that era. On the whole he succeeded in doing this although he didn’t always convey to the reader the relationship between the main character in the story and the world that Vincent lived in.

Maynard had skilfully managed to collect a vast amount material and this meant he was able to include a lot of additional information in his biography of Vincent. It is a pity that his critical faculties are not always on the same plane as his painstaking research. At times he quite arbitrarily alters information or he accepts as authentic,

anecdotes which are more than a little dubious. The tone of the book very much reflects the nineteenth century taste for rhetoric with some lingering touches of romanticism. It continues to be an indispensible work of reference, especially with regard to certain Vincentian enterprises such as the relief work they carried out in devastated regions and various other undertakings.

4. The twentieth century gave to Vincentian historiography the great work, “Le grand saint du grand siècle, Monsieur Vincent” (Paris. Desclée de Brouwer, 1932) This was written in three volumes and was the masterpiece of the Vincentian priest, Pierre Coste (1873‑1935).

The author, who was archivist and Secretary General of the Congregation of the Mission, had earlier edited the complete works of Vincent de Paul under the title, “Saint Vincent de Paul. Correspondence. Entretiens. Documents.” (Paris, Lecoffre‑Gabalda, 1920‑1925) 14 volumes. This work brings together all the writings of Vincent de Paul that we know about to date ‑ the letters he wrote and those he received, his spiritual conferences to the missionaries and to the Daughters of Charity and a great number of miscellaneous documents (bulls, regulations, contracts and depositions, etc.) Strictly speaking, this is not a critical edition of Vincent’s writing, as the editor dispensed with certain formalities, but this no way detracts from its reliability, given the care Coste took to present the reader with Vincent’s own words. The outstanding merit of this edition is the care taken by the author to bring together all the information which can throw light on the people, events, places and ideas referred to in the text of Vincent’s writings. Since the publication of this work it is unthinkable that any biography or study of St. Vincent de Paul could be undertaken without an in‑depth study of Coste’s writings. These are the primary source of all Vincentian research.

Coste, himself, was the first to systematically exploit his work, and the outcome of this was his biography of Vincent. The underlying concept of this book, and the way the work developed, are in accordance with the strictest demands of historical positivism. Facts are what interest him and, considered from this angle, Coste’s biography leaves nothing to be desired. Apart from some discoveries that only came to light at a later date, we can say that this work draws together all the material facts connected with the history of Vincent de Paul.

Two objections might be raised with regard to this excellent work. For one thing, the author follows his convictions and is guilty of the excesses we connect with positive criticism. He set so much store on documentation that he refused to accept any evidence that was not in written form. Secondly, Coste may not have lacked talent but he certainly lacked the ability to interpret his material. His reading of the texts did not lead him to penetrate the deep, inner meaning behind words and events, something which is essential for any biography. Even so, Fr. Coste’s “Monsieur Vincent” is essential reading for any serious study of Vincent de Paul.

The reader will find an outline of the more important biographies in the bibliography. I will only mention here the four or five books which are the most original or of the greatest interest. In my opinion these would be the biographies written by A. Redier, Father Renaudin, J. Calvet, J. Mauduit and A. Dodin.

This last work (André Dodin, “Saint Vincent de Paul et la Charité” [Paris, Du Seuil, 1960], 188 pages), is a slender volume which is much more important than its small number of pages might suggest. It is an extraordinarily good synthesis which penetrates the interior world of Vincent de Paul and the inestimable work he did and it succeeds in rediscovering for us the living and smiling image of the saint of charity. At the same time, the author’s skilful and thought‑provoking questions move the reader to study the subject further by reading a longer and more detailed work.

There are numerous biographies written in Spanish but most of them are translations or adaptations of French works. The two outstanding ones are from the eighteenth and the twentieth century.

The first one, Father Juan del Santísimo Sacramento’s, “Vida del venerable siervo de Dios, Vicente de Paúl” (Naples, De Bonis, 1701, 12 + 572 pages) was published in 1701. It is the work of an Augustinian whose prestige was somewhat enhanced by the fact that he was the natural son of Philip IV. It is the Spanish translation of an Italian biography which came from the pen of the Oratorian priest, Domenico Acami (Rome, 1677) and this in turn was a translation of a French abridgement of the biography written by Abelly. This biography is not written in the vernacular but the author’s easy flow of language and his well‑turned phrases render his style superior to that of the original. It is a pity that subsequent editors felt free to modify the flowery sentences of the original text only to render dull and technical, a prose style that has all the flavour of the Spanish classical writers of the Golden Age.

The last great Spanish biography was the work of Frs. José Herrera and Veremundo Pardo, “San Vicente de Paúl. Biografía y selección de escritos.” (Madrid, BAC 1950) X + 908 pages. This is a serious attempt to produce an original Spanish biographical work. The basis for its documentation is Coste’s biography and his edition of Vincentian writings. It is to be recommended for the soundness of its conclusions and for its easy style but it also reveals all the negative effects of the triumphalistic attitude prevailing at the time of publication and the author takes any Spanish link with Vincent and his work to extremes.

The book that the reader now has in his hands, aims at continuing the on‑going effort to discover and interpret the past from our present day standpoint, and this with regard to history in general and to church history in particular. One has no difficulty at all in recognising the methodological principles that underpin the work. Nevertheless, I would like to make some of these explicit.

Ortega y Gasset wrote, “All human life can be reduced to three major factors: vocation, circumstances and fate. When we write the biography of any human being we are expressing these values as an equation”.

The author’s original intention, and his continued objective when writing this biography, was to remain faithful to this dictum of Ortega. From a christian viewpoint, the three factors mentioned by Ortega are all related, not to a fourth factor, but to God, who is the guiding force behind every human story and who shapes all the events of history. It is God who reveals to every man his vocation to be the ideal self that each one of us is called to be.” It is God who places man in the circumstances that determine his life. What people call fate is in reality God; or, what amounts to the same thing, his providence.

In writing this book I have been concerned with two other factors that are deeply rooted in the Ortegan tradition. On the one hand, I wanted to view Vincent de Paul’s life from the inside; that is to say, to look on it as a drama, or a story, whose plot would be the fulfilment or otherwise of a personal vocation over a long period of time, and one that is helped, or hindered, by circumstances. Secondly, I would try to refer each specific fragment of the historical reality that was Vincent de Paul to the authentic whole. There is no greater mistake than to isolate individual facts or else to consider them within a general setting where they are out of place. This, according to Ortega’s diagnosis, constitutes an “anatomical error”.

To organise the vast amount of different types of material on which the story of Vincent de Paul is based, and to make it into a coherent, intelligible and unified study in accordance with the three principles already indicated; one has to link up the five stages of human development which are appropriate for any biography: infancy, youth, early adulthood, later adult years and old age.

With this agenda in mind, here is the outline synthesis of Vincent de Paul’s biography.

  1. Chilhood and adolescence (1581‑1600) No historical action.
  2. Youth (1601‑1617) A period of instruction and apprenticeship, of searching for and discovering his vocation, or if you prefer the term, his basic option following on from a process of conversion.
  3. Early adult years (1618‑1633) Period of gestation in which he is setting up the agencies which will put into action the programme he regards as his life’s work ‑ a time of conflict with the forces that had opposed him from the time he was admitted to influential circles.
  4. Later adult years (1634‑1653) A period of dominance or management when he brought to fruition the great enterprises which are to mark his passage through the history of the Church and of the world.
  5. Old age (1653‑1660) Vincent, now on the sidelines of life, and beyond the range of daily struggles, is eager to bequeath to future generations the fruits of his life’s experience and his part in history.

It goes without saying that none of the above dates has been chosen at random. Anyone who has even a slight knowledge of Vincent de Paul knows that 1600 was the year of his ordination to the priesthood, 1617 was the year of Folléville and Chatillon when he knew for certain his vocation, and the years 1632‑1633 saw him established in Saint Lazare with the Congregation of the Mission unconditionally approved. The Daughters of Charity were founded and the Tuesday Conferences organised. The period 1652‑53 corresponds with the time of his leaving the Council of Conscience, the approbation of the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission by the Archbishop of Paris, and the condemnation of Jansenism. 1660 is the year of his death.

In this introduction to the book we must also take on board the historical events at the time that Vincent de Paul lived. I hope these are dealt with explicitly enough in the text and, more importantly, that they are presented in a way that shows how they influenced Vincent’s actions. For this reason, I must be true to my convictions, and refuse to paint a picture of events seen in isolation from the main character for whom they are meant to serve as a background.

The complete work is in two volumes; this book, which is the biography, and a second volume, produced by Frs. Antonio Orcajo and Miguel Pérez Flores, which includes a study of Vincent’s spirituality and a wide selection of his writings. The two volumes belong together as both of them need and complement the other. It has been our wish to offer the Spanish, and the Spanish American people, a life of Vincent de Paul written for 1981, the fourth centenary of the saint’s birth.

 JOSE MARIA ROMAN. CM
Madrid, 25th January, 1981.
364th anniversary of St. Vincent de Paul’s first mission.

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‑ Ibid. Observations nouvelles. Summary of ibid., Vol.7 (Tunis 1929).

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‑ (The three last articles were reproduced in Les cahiers de Tunisie 49‑52 [1965] p.51‑84).

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