The Birth and Education of Vincent de Paul
On Easter Tuesday 1576, Vincent de Paul came into the world in the small town of Pouy 1 near Dax, 2 an episcopal city in the Landes of Bordeaux near the Pyrenees. 3 Within the bounds of this parish is a chapel dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin under the title Our Lady of Buglose. 4 It ordinarily attracted a large gathering of the faithful who would offer their homage and prayers to the Mother of God. This undoubtedly was one of the reasons which led Vincent de Paul from his tenderest years to conceive and nurture a special devotion to the Queen of Heaven. He had been born in a place dedicated to her and under her special protection.
His parents were poor in worldly goods and lived from their work. His father was Jean de Paul, his mother Bertrande de Moras. 5 Both lived beyond reproach, in innocence and rectitude. They owned a house and some small pieces of property they had inherited, which they developed with the help of their six children. 6 These were four boys and two girls. Vincent was the third oldest and, like the others, began his working career as a guardian of the family animals.
It seems as though God wished to raise upon this humble origin the building which was to become so remarkable, that is, the virtuous soul of his faithful servant. As Saint Augustine says so well, “whoever would be great before God should begin by a profound repudiation of his own self. The more he plans to raise an edifice of virtue the deeper must be the foundation of his humility.” 7 So it happened that in his later positions of some consequence or amid the tributes to his virtue and accomplishments, Vincent de Paul usually responded that he was merely a poor peasant’s son, who had watched over swine, etc. 8 What a sign of real virtue to recall his humble beginnings amid recognition and praise! Saint Bernard had good reason to say that it is a rare treat to find a humble man exalted. 9 Few attain the degree of perfection that they seek out humiliation at the very moment honors rain down on them.
Pearls develop in an unlikely and often soiled surroundings, but even so they do not lose their brightness by being in the mire. This serves only to heighten their luster and emphasize their true worth. The vivacity of spirit with which God had endowed the young Vincent began to appear and was the more noticeable in such surroundings. His father soon realized that this child was destined for other things than pasturing animals. He planned therefore to send him to school, encouraged by his acquaintance with a prior in the neighborhood. This man was from a humble family like himself, but it was known that he supported members of his family from the revenues of a benefice he enjoyed. In his simplicity the father imagined that with a little schooling Vincent too might receive a benefice, and while serving the Church might help to support his family. The thoughts of men are not always the same as those of God, as one of the prophets reminds us, and his designs are above all our imaginings. 10 The father of the young Vincent thought only of the petty advantages his son might win for the family, while in God’s design Vincent was to do great good for the entire Church. The parents were to be left in their lowliness and poverty, while Vincent worked solely to advance the building up the kingdom of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Apropos of this subject, Vincent years later once received a visit in Paris from a priest of his native region. He pointed out the poor circumstances of the de Paul family and asked if Vincent could not do something for them. Vincent inquired if they lived by their own labor and in keeping with their social status. After receiving the reply, yes, they did, he thanked his visitor for his concern but recalled the case of the prior spoken of earlier. This clergyman had spent a good part of the revenues of his benefice to support his parents, but they largely dissipated this help both during the lifetime of their son and after his death. They fell into a worse state than before, for, as Vincent recalled: “In vain do they labor who build the house, if the Lord does not build it.” 11 He cited this example to prove what he had often observed, that families are often ruined by the help received from their clerical relatives who gave them money at the expense of the Church. These priests did more harm than good. The money they gave was in reality the dowry of the poor, which sooner or later God would take back from them.
His refusal on this occasion to help his family did not suggest a hard heart or a lack of filial affection. It revealed only his uprightness and pure intention, the soul of all his actions. He ever walked on the straight path that leads to God, without turning aside for any consideration whatsoever. Moreover he had a tender heart for the sufferings of his neighbor and was quick to help them as much as he could. He could say with the ancient patriarch that “mercy had been born with him.” 12 He had a particular inclination towards this virtue even from his earliest years. It was noticed that he gave what he could to the poor. Whenever his father sent him to the mill to collect the flour, and he met a poor person along the way and had nothing else to give, he would open the sack and give the poor man handfuls of flour. We are told that his father, a good man, would not object to this. Another time, when about twelve or thirteen years old, he had saved some thirty sous from different jobs. At the time, and in the country district where money was scarce, this was regarded as no small sum. However, upon meeting a poor destitute person along the road, he felt moved with compassion and gave away every bit of his small treasure. If we pay close attention to what attracts young people, we can form a judgment about their future dispositions. In Vincent’s case we can predict a great and perfect detachment from the things of this world and, by the grace of God, an eminent degree of charity.
- This village is now known as Saint Vincent de Paul. A royal ordinance of December 3, 1828, authorized the change of name.
- The ancient diocese of Dax was suppressed by the Concordat of 1801 and attached to that of Aire.
- If one accepts the date of 1580 as the correct year for the saint’s birth, his birthday was April 5, the feast of Saint Vincent Ferrer; if 1581, it was March 28. By Abelly’s reckoning, it was April 24.
- The Blessed Virgin has been honored at this place of pilgrimage since ancient times. There was, however, no chapel at Buglose in the saint’s childhood. According to legend, at the time of the Wars of Religion, the chapel was burned and the local Catholics are said to have protected the statue by hiding it in a nearby bog. Then, in 1620 a farmer came upon one of his cattle licking the mud from the statue. The pilgrimage probably dates from this year. The chapel was confided to the Congregation in 1706, where the priests established a missionary center to evangelize the surrounding districts. It did so until the French Revolution.
- Collet mistakenly referred to Vincent’s father as Guillaume. Vie, I:5; this is the original edition, cited in this work.
- This house, named Ranquine, was preserved and became a place of pilgrimage. Transferred a short distance from its original site, it has been reconstructed several times using such original materials as existed to restore it to its original appearance. In the nineteenth century, the Berceau (“cradle”) was established as a pilgrimage site and a center for Vincentian works of charity.
- PL 38:441, 2.
- See also Book Three, ch. 13, sect. 1; also CED II:3, 171; IV:215; V:394; VIII:138; IX:81, 673; X:342; XII:432.
- In Cant. Magna prorsus et rara virtus, humilitas honorata. Homily on Missus est, or in laudibus Virginis Mariae; references from Brepols: 4-55-6-9-Miss-4; homily 4, parag. 9.
- Isa 55:8-9.
- Ps 127:1.
- Job 31:18.