Studies and Promotion to the Clerical State
The favorable disposition of soul of the young Vincent and his obvious inclination to the good moved his father to send him for schooling to the extent his meager resources would allow. In keeping with this resolution he sent him to the Franciscan fathers of Dax, at a yearly fee of sixty livres, according to the custom of the time. Around 1588 he began to study the elements of Latin. He progressed so well that four years later 1 Monsieur de Comet the elder, lawyer of the city of Dax and judge of Pouy, took him under his patronage on the recommendation of the Father Guardian. He developed an appreciation for him and invited him into his own home as tutor for his children. As teacher and guardian of the children, Vincent could earn enough to continue his studies without being a further charge upon his father. He spent nine years at his studies in Dax. At the end of this, his patron Monsieur de Comet, a man of merit and piety, was satisfied with the service the young Vincent had rendered to his children. He had also edified the entire family by his wise and virtuous deportment, so far beyond his years. For this reason, Monsieur de Comet thought it was time for a change. 2
The light must no longer be kept under a bushel basket but must be placed upon a candlestick to light up the entire Church. He persuaded Vincent de Paul, who respected him deeply and looked upon him as a second father, to give himself totally to God as a cleric. Therefore he received the tonsure and the four minor orders, on September 19, 1596, at the age of twenty. 3
Now that he was a cleric he took God as his only portion. He left his native area never to return. With his father’s blessing and with a small gift from him (the result of a sale of a pair of oxen,) he set off for Toulouse. There he would remain for seven years to study theology. He also spent some time in Spain to complete his studies at Saragossa. 4
On February 22 and December 29, 1598, he received the orders of subdeacon and deacon, and finally, on September 23, 1600, he was ordained to the priesthood. 5 Since he lived until September 27, 1660, he was a priest of the Church of Jesus Christ for more than sixty years. God alone knows his dispositions on the occasion of his ordination when he received the sacred character of the priesthood. We can judge the tree by its fruit and the cause by its effects. Thus, in view of the perfection and sanctity with which this worthy priest did his duties, we can rightly conclude that at the moment he was consecrated, our Savior Jesus Christ the Eternal Priest and Prince of Priests poured out upon him the fullness of his own priestly spirit. He was so filled with this spirit that he always spoke of the sacred character of the priesthood with great reverence, as something which could never be appreciated enough. He was moved to astonishment when he spoke of God’s marvelous power. It imprinted an indelible mark upon the soul of the priest, bestowed the power to forgive sins, and with four or five words empowered him to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The priest offered this body and blood in sacrifice to the Father and gave the body of Jesus Christ as the bread of life to nourish the faithful. He was convinced of the great excellence of the priestly character and the obligation of those who received it to lead a pure, holy, and angelic life. This was such that he was often heard later to say that, had he not already been ordained a priest, he would not deem himself worthy to become one. 6 The more deserving he became, the less worthy he judged himself. None deserves advancement to the first places in the nuptial feast of the Lamb so much as the one who puts himself in the lowest.
When or where he celebrated his first mass is unknown. He later was heard to say that his respect for the majesty of this holy action was so great that he trembled before celebrating. He did not have the courage to offer his first mass publicly. He preferred to offer it in a remote private chapel, attended only by another priest and a server. 7
At the instigation of Monsieur de Comet who had such a great appreciation of his reputation, the vicars-general of Dax, since the see was vacant, no sooner learned of his ordination than they invited him to accept the pastorate of the place called Tilh. 8 Another candidate contested the appointment and appealed to the court of Rome. Monsieur Vincent preferred not to enter into a lawsuit over this matter. God permitted this to come about to allow him to continue his studies, which he was anxious to do. 9
By now, his father had been dead for two years, but his will provided for Vincent’s education. After seeing to the welfare of the other children, the will stipulated that Vincent should be helped by the remainder of the estate. This could have given him a legitimate claim on his family, but he did not wish to burden them. He saw that he could not support himself in Toulouse, so he decided to accept a tutoring position in the village of Buzet, four leagues from the town. 10 Some gentlemen of the region had Vincent take care of their children. Some students even came from Toulouse to be under his care and instruction, as we learn from a letter he wrote his mother. 11 Because of the great care he gave to the instruction and good education of the children, he was able to return to Toulouse a short time later. With the consent of the parents, he brought the group of students back to the city, enabling him to continue his studies in theology at the university.
A public record attests that he completed his study after seven years. A document shows that in October  of 1604 he received the Bachelor of Theology degree from the university. This record is signed by the Augustinian priest, Esprit Larran, Doctor Regent in Theology, by his secretary Assolens, and sealed. Another document of the same month, signed by Andre Gallus, Doctor Regent and rector of the university, by the secretary Assolens, and sealed, attests to the same degree.
By this degree Vincent received authorization to explain and teach the second Book of the Sentences within the university. 12 Still another document of the same year, signed and sealed by the chancellor of the university, Monsieur Coelmez, and by de Soffores, treasurer, mention the same facts. Members of his Congregation found all three of these documents among Vincent’s papers after his death. The priests had been completely unaware of their existence during his lifetime. If we count up the time since he left his native place, he spent more than sixteen years in studies, first at the town of Dax and later at the University of Toulouse. 13
He was not one of those puffed up by the little they know. On the contrary, he strove to hide what he had acquired. Out of an extraordinary sense of humility, he tried to persuade others that he had little education. He called himself a poor scholar of the fourth class to convey a poor impression of his education. 14 Saying this he did not offend against the truth, for indeed he had passed through the fourth class, but it was an artifice of the virtue of humility. He maintained silence about his later studies. 15 On those occasions when in the interest of truth or of charity he was forced to speak up and reveal that he was not ignorant of the matter at hand, he still was happiest when others judged that he had no training in formal education. He acted in this way to destroy pride, which leads most men to pass themselves off as knowing as much as anyone else or, even more, regardless of how uninformed they are.
Despite his academic background, Vincent de Paul took as his motto the words of the holy apostle: “I count all things as loss except the knowledge of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified.” 16 Here was his book of true learning and highest wisdom. This was the one book always open before the eyes of his soul. He drew from it knowledge and light surpassing what he might have gained from the other good and holy sources he had encountered in his years of study.
- Coste reckons that he could not have spent more than two years in Dax. Life I:15. Saint Vincent said that he remained in the fields until about age fifteen (CED IX:81), consequently he must have begun his studies between 1592 and 1595, depending on his birth date.
- Monsieur de Comet (or Commet) the elder, an attorney at the Presidial Court of Dax and a judge of Pouy, together with his brother, deserves the credit for discerning the capabilities of the young Vincent. Up to the day of his departure for the University of Toulouse, Vincent allowed himself to be guided by the Comets who, to increase his slim resources, entrusted to him a tutorship in their own family. It must not be said, however, as did the Jansenist Martin de Barcos, that Saint Vincent de Paul received Holy Orders without a vocation so as not to upset his two benefactors. See Martin de Barcos, Défense de feu Monsieur Vincent de Paul. . . contre les faux discours du livre de sa vie publiée par M. Abelly, ancien évêque de Rodez, et contre les impostures de quelques autres écrits sur ce sujet, 1666, 87.
- The correct date is December 20, 1596. This ceremony was conducted by Salvat Diharse, bishop of Tarbes, in the collegiate church at Bidache in the diocese of Dax. At that time, the see of Dax was vacant. By modern chronology, Vincent was only fifteen or sixteen years old. The same bishop conferred subdiaconate and diaconate upon Vincent since Dax was still vacant at the time of the subdiaconate, and the bishop, Jean-Jacques du Sault, although appointed, had not reached his diocese at the time of the saint’s ordination as a deacon. CED XIII:1-2.
- The time spent in Spain must have been brief. Roman, Biografía 50, n. 25.
- The correct dates are September 19 and December 19. CED XIII:4-5. He was ordained to the priesthood by Francois de Bourdeilles, bishop of Perigueux, at Chateau-l’Eveque, one month before his death, October 24. Vincent’s own bishop had not taken up residence in his diocese at that date.
- See CED V:568, VII:463.
- Although we do not know the date of his first mass, there is little doubt that he celebrated at least one of his first masses in the pilgrimage chapel of Our Lady of Grace near the village of Buzet-sur-Tarn. Another candidate is Our Lady of Remoulle, now destroyed, but whose altar was removed to Our Lady of Grace.
- 1600. The see was not vacant, since the bishop had been appointed in 1598.
- It appears that Saint Vincent made a journey to Rome at this time, in 1600 or 1601. CED I:114-15.
- Buzet-sur-Tarn was at the time a town of some importance with a gothic church and a fortified castle. It is located some twenty kilometers northeast of Toulouse.
- This letter is no longer extant.
- The standard theology textbook, composed by Peter Lombard, later bishop of Paris, where he died in 1160. The “sentences” or opinions of the Fathers were applied to individual theological questions. The second book deals with creation and what relates to it.
- More careful reckoning shows that the time spent in studies was less, between nine and twelve years, depending on one’s starting point.
- See CED XII:135, 293. By this expression, he implied that he had not finished his secondary education.
- After the saint’s death, his confreres found the papers for his bachelor of theology, received at the University of Toulouse, and those for the licentiate in canon law, conferred by the University of Paris. He had received this degree at least by 1624. CED XIII:60, n.1.
- 1 Cor 2:2.