Peace in the Seventeenth Century
With the exception of some brief periods of time, the seventeenth century in which Saint Vincent lived was a century of wars: sequels to religious war, heart rending civil wars complicated by foreign wars, and continued threats from Islam (threats directed toward Christianity).
Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, the dove, the symbol of peace, frightened by the powerful weapons of the time, had abandoned the skies of the kingdom. The Huguenots, with assistance of gold and foreign mercenaries (English and Dutch soldiers) had attempted to impose their law on France. During the last invasion of 1590 King Henry of Navarre with 33,000 foreign soldiers and 12,000 Frenchmen laid siege to Paris. The people, who did not want a dictator, victoriously defended themselves but did so at the cost of incredible suffering: 60,000 people of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants died. King Henry, after becoming Catholic, was accepted as the legitimate king. As a result of the Edict of Nantes, King Henry decreed various means of appeasement, which involved the creation of a state within the state … a state that had its own laws and courts, its own army and fortifications. This situation would become the source of future conflicts (cf. L’Eglise au peril de l’historie, J. Dumont, pp. 326-330).
Thirty years later, thanks to English gold, the reformers once again took up arms and did not resign themselves to become like other ordinary citizens. They laid siege to Rochelle in 1626, in 1629 Richelieu entered Mondauban and in the same year the peace of Ales was established which brought the Huguenot Wars to an end.
In the town of Landes, the young shepherd, Vincent, could see in the distance the reddish glow from the last fires of the civil war. In the Kingdom of Navarre and the lands of Albret the Huguenot intolerance was a nightmare. In 1570, not far from Pouy, the image of Our Lady of Buglose was hidden in a marsh to save it from the iconoclasts. Fifty years later, in 1620, it was discovered and venerated with great devotion.
After some years of peace during the reign of King Henry and after his tragic disappearance, influential persons in the kingdom began to dispute (with weapons) the naming of his successor. A civil war began during the reign of Marie de Médicis and would continue until the time that Louis XIV became of age to ascend the throne. This war involved periods when all fighting was suspended and then other periods when the conflict became more intense. There was behind the scenes intrigue and armed confrontations and during this same period the foreign war that was promoted by the policy of grandeur of Cardinal Richelieu alternated between success and reversals. But whether there was success or failure, the people who were poor paid the cost. Higher taxes that were imposed and soldiers from the invading armies pillaged their land and crops. Indeed for the people, the armies (the army of the enemy as well as their own army) were a scourge. The soldiers lived off the people and destroyed everything that they could not carry off. Even today people in Lorraine still talk about the destruction caused the Swedish and Croatian armies. The plundering began in 1635 in Lorraine and then spread like a cancer to Champagne, Picardy, Artois and the Isle of France. These areas were decimated by slaughters and hunger and it seemed that all the inhabitants of certain cantons disappeared. We possess some very moving letters that were sent to Vincent by government officials from Lunéville, Pont-à-Mousson, Rethel and other cities, letters that describer the situation of extreme misery of the people.
Saint Vincent, who had dedicated his life to the poor, had to be especially concerned about those persons who were overwhelmed by the war. He was not satisfied with merely collaborating with the different initiatives that were undertaken but personally organized the collection and the distribution of emergency relief supplies for those persons devastated by the war. We have registers in which the confreres render an account for the assistance that they received and distributed. The confreres also speak about burying the dead and providing food for countless families and at the same time distributing seeds and tools that Vincent had sent to them, thus enabling people to farm the land once again. In Paris, Vincent personally assisted the refugees, religious women and young women in danger … all of whom were fleeing the war torn areas.
Whenever it was possible Vincent did not hesitate or fear to intervene with Cardinal Richelieu on behalf of peace. During the winter of 1649 Vincent put aside the dangers to his own life and pleaded with Queen Anne of Austria for peace. Again during the summer of 1652 Vincent intervened with the princes and finally in September of the same year he met with Cardinal Mazarin and reminded him about the lessons that could be learned from French history. Indeed, Vincent feared nothing and no one and showed himself to be a tireless artisan of peace.
Vincent’s desires for peace did not lead him to take a position of blind pacifism. We see this especially in regard to his view of Islam.
In 1541 Hungry and Buda (the western part of the Hungarian capital) had fallen into the hands of the Islam invaders. But the failure of Islamic armies in Malta (1565) and their defeat at the battle of Lepanto put a halt to their advance. But the soldiers of the prophet had recovered as the last vestiges of the Venetian Empire fell thus making it possible to renew the advance of Islam in central Europe. Where would this advance be halted? The answer was received when they laid siege to Vienna. There at the battle of Kahlenberg the Islamic forces were crushed by a military coalition under the command of Charles V, the Duke of Lorraine.
Traditionally North Africa was subject to the Sultan but the government officials of Tunis, Algeria, Rabat and other cities shielded an organized operation of pirates. These operatives extorted commerce in the western Mediterranean region and periodically attacked the coastal cities in order to rob these areas and hold people as captives who later would be sold as slaves in the markets of Maghreb and other areas. The Mediterranean shores of Spain, France, Italy and the islands still preserve numerous watchtowers that guarded the seas and warned of the approach of pirates.
Saint Vincent provided material and spiritual relief to those salves and was also able to rescue many of them by acquiring the position of French consul in Tunis and Algeria. He placed individuals in these positions who were dedicated to these captives and who were willing to pay the price with their freedom and their very lives.
Vincent wanted France and Spain to carry out the plan of Charles V and Philip II, a plan in which they would occupy North Africa in order to put a halt to the piracy … but they seemed to have other, more pressing concerns. Vincent, however, was not satisfied with pious intentions: he encouraged one of the best naval officers of the time, Chevalier Paul, to organize a military expedition and Vincent, during the last years of his life, followed this matter closely. In fact he attempted to raise money so that this military operation could become a reality. In this way he envisioned the cessation of the insecurity that was caused by the piracy that was also an open wound in the side of Christianity.
The prophet Elias saw that he was not better than his parents and thus our present century is not better than the seventeenth century. The devastation that occurred during the Thirty Years War and the Fronde, the material destruction and the suppression of people, while horrible in themselves, does not mean that the abuses of the armies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were worse than those that occur in the present age. Today we act in a more methodical and we might even say a more scientific way (we would say this if we did not fear invoking the name of science on behalf of such infamous actions). The slaughter in Ethiopia and Cambodia, the genocide in Afghanistan, the war in the Persian Gulf, the repression in Latin America and so many other forgotten conflicts … all of these realities are witnesses that cry out and proclaim that we are no better than our parents. Indeed our own nation (Spain), at the same time that she proclaims her desire for peace, has obtained great sums of money from the military establishment that has enabled Spain to become the second largest supplier of military weapons in the world.
There are Christians in every area of the world and disciples of Saint Vincent on both sides of every form of barrier and on both sides of every wall and curtain. Like Vincent they will participate, collaborate and contribute to every effort to provide relief to those who have become the victims of war. But they must also make every effort to discover and attack the root causes of this injustice. Blind pacifism and mere words are not enough. Indeed, as Vincentian missionaries we ought to support those organizations that labor to establish peace and justice in the world by influencing decisions on the social and political level.
Like Saint Vincent, we, his disciples, ought to be concerned about defending the poor who long for peace in a more urgent way than those who are not poor because they, persons who are poor, are the first victims in all of these conflicts.
Saint Vincent and the Reality of Peace
During a turbulent period characterized by war, Saint Vincent is revealed as an artesian of peace¸ one who is effective and tireless in his search for peace. His way of thinking and certainly his actions were influence by the historical situation in which he found himself. This should not surprise us and therefore we should also not be surprised that Vincent approved plans for a military expedition to combat slavery in Algeria (CCD., VII:93-94). Indeed, Vincent’s thinking and activity is no less significant and provocative for the present time since his thinking was nourished by experience and his actions were courageously directed to the causes of the injustice and suffering that result from war.
A thought nourished by experience
They must be seen and ascertained with one’s own eyes (CCD., IV:446). Saint Vincent wrote these words to Pope Innocent X. Vincent was not a theorist or an ideologue but rather an individual who as a result of experience decided upon an action and organized others to take action. With regard to the realities of war and peace, Vincent gave great value to the many first- hand eyewitness accounts that he received from the devastated and impoverished areas:
- All we hear are pitiful laments: Seeing a large crowd of sick people everywhere moves us to great compassion. Many — in fact, a very large number — are suffering from dysentery and fever. Others are covered with scabies, purpura, growths, and running sores. Many are bloated, some in the head, others in the abdomen, others all over their body. These diseases are due to the fact that for almost the entire year, they have eaten nothing but grass and spoiled fruit; some ate bran bread so bad that even the dogs would hardly eat it. All we hear are pitiful laments. They cry out to us for bread and sick as they are, drag themselves two or three leagues through the rain and over bad roads to get a little soup. Many die in the villages without confession and the last sacraments, and no one will ever bury them after their death. This is so true that only three days ago, when we went to visit the sick in the village of Lesquielle, near Landrecies, we found in one house a person who had died for lack of assistance, and his body was half devoured by animals who had entered the house. Is it not a terrible sorrow to see Christians, abandoned there in this way during life and after death (CCD., IV:104).
- War has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere: In several ruined towns the leading citizens are in dire need. The pallor of their faces gives ample testimony to this need, and they must be assisted in secret. The same applies to the impoverished nobility in rural areas who, having no bread and reduced to ruin, suffer in addition the shame of not daring to beg for what they need for survival. Furthermore, whom could they ask, since the misfortune of the war has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere? What is more conducive to tears is that the poor people of these border areas not only lack bread, wood, linen, and blankets, but they have no pastors or spiritual assistance … We do whatever we can, but this work is endless. In order to assist the more than thirteen hundred sick persons we have on our hands here in this canton, we have to come and go continually, exposed to the danger of roving bands (CCD., IV:112).
- No tongue can express… : No tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits: almost all the churches desecrated, sparing not even what is most holy and most adorable; vestments pillaged; priests either killed, tortured, or put to flight; every house demolished; the harvest carried off; the soil untilled and unsown; starvation and death almost everywhere; corpses left unburied and, for the most part, exposed to serve as spoils for the wolves. The poor who have survived this destruction are reduced to gleaning a few half-rotted grains of sprouted wheat or barley in the fields. They make bread from this, which is like mud and so unwholesome that almost all of them become sick from it. They retreat into holes and huts, where they sleep on the bare ground without any bed linen or clothing, other than a few vile rags with which they cover themselves; their faces are black and disfigured. With all that, their patience is admirable. There are cantons completely deserted, from which the inhabitants who have escaped death have gone far and wide in search of some way to keep alive. The result is that the only ones left are the sick orphans, and poor widows burdened with children. They are exposed to the rigors of starvation, cold, and every type of misery and deprivation (CCD., IV:151-152).
- The famine is so bad… : The famine here is so bad that we see men eating dirt, chewing on grass, stripping the bark off the trees and tearing up and swallowing the miserable rags that cover them. But what is horrifying — and what we would not dare to mention if we had not seen it — is that they are devouring their own arms and hands and are dying in this state of despair (CCD., IV:301).
After similar accounts we can better understand Vincent’s moving recommendation which he made during the repetition of prayer on July 24th, 1655:
- After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die: I renew the recommendation I made, and which cannot be made too often of praying for peace, that God may be pleased to unite once again the hearts of the Christian Princes. There’s war in all the Catholic kingdoms: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland — being attacked on three fronts — and Ireland, even in the poor, nearly uninhabitable mountains and rocky areas. Scotland isn’t better off, and we know the deplorable state of England. There’s war everywhere, misery everywhere, In France, so many people are suffering! O Sauveur! O Sauveur! If, for the four months we’ve had war here, we’ve had so much misery in the heart of France, where food supplies are ample everywhere, what can those poor people in the border areas do who have been in this sort of misery for twenty years? Yes, it’s been a good twenty years that there’s always been war there; if they sow their crops, they’re not sure they can gather them in; the armies arrive and pillage and carry everything off; and what the solider hasn’t taken, the sergeants take and carry off. After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die. If there’s a true religion … what did I say, wretched man that I am …! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD., IV:189-190).
Saint Vincent involved in a search for peace
Very often those who act with charity are reproached because their actions do not appear to resolve the reality of the situations that cause injustice and misery and therefore, their actions do not further the cause of those people who are poor. We will see that Saint Vincent organized national assistance in an effective and on-going manner. At the same time Vincent did not hesitate to attack the direct causes of these situations which also led him to a commit himself to peace and to speak out on behalf of peace:
To render some small service …
On January 22nd, 1649 Saint Vincent wrote to Monsieur Portail: I did not write last week: I think you know the reason why. I left Paris on the fourteenth of this month to go to Saint-Germain with the intention of rendering some small service to God, but my sins rendered me unworthy of this. After a stay of three or four days, I came to this place, which I will be leaving the day after tomorrow to go to visit our houses. It is God’s will that I be of no use now for anything else. I shall go straight to Le Mans and then on to Brittany (CCD., III:393).
These lines, at first sight seemingly unimportant, refer to one of Vincent’s most courageous and risky undertakings in his search for peace. Fortunately Pierre Coste, CM provides us with some further information regarding this small service which Saint Vincent spoke about: Moved by the impending disasters and by those which already afflicted the capital, Saint Vincent decided to go and see Anne of Austria who would willingly listen to him. He left before dawn on January 14 … [and] in Clichy the people, armed with pikes and guns, rushed on the two travelers. The Saint might not have escaped the danger had not one of the assailants recognized him as his former Pastor, and calmed his companions. In Neuilly, where the Seine had flooded its banks, Saint Vincent courageously forded the river on his horse. He arrived at Saint-Germain between nine and ten in the morning, saw the Queen, and told her clearly that her duty was to dismiss her minister. When he was brought before Mazarin, he spoke to him just as frankly (CCD., III:393, note 1).
There are no other remedies for these evils …
The following words are taken from a letter that Vincent wrote to Innocent X in which he speaks on behalf of peace: Confident of your paternal affection, with which you graciously hear and receive all your children, even the least, dare I also make known to you the very pitiful state of our France, which is most deserving of compassion. The royal house is divided by dissensions; the people are split into various factions; cities and provinces are ruined by civil wars; farms, cantons, and towns are destroyed, ruined, and burned. The farmers cannot harvest what they have sown and no longer plant anything for the coming years. Soldiers do as they please; the people are exposed not only to their thefts and pillaging, but also to murder and all kinds of torture. Most of the country people are perishing of starvation if not by the sword. Not even priests escape the soldiers’ hands; they are treated with inhuman cruelty, tortured and killed. Young women are raped, and even nuns are victims of their lust and fury. Churches are profaned, plundered, and destroyed; those left standing are, for the most part, abandoned by their pastors, so the people are deprived of the sacraments, Mass, and almost all other spiritual assistance … But, Most Holy Father, there are twelve hours in the day, and what has not succeeded one time may have better results if tried again. What more can I say? The hand of the Lord is not shortened, and I firmly believe that God has reserved to the care and solicitude of the Shepherd of His universal Church the glory of obtaining for us in the end rest from our labors, happiness after so many misfortunes, and peace after war (CCD., IV:445-446).
Saint Vincent Commits himself to the Cause of Peace
The organization of relief for the victims of war is another significant example of Saint Vincent’s charity. We find in these relief efforts the great characteristics of his holiness and his genius.
He knew how sensitize people to these realities and also knew how to appeal to their generosity. For the transportation and the distribution of money and goods collected for the relief efforts he chose M. Regnard and M. Parre, his most trusted and efficient collaborators. At the same time he is concerned that none of these goods should be wasted or lost and therefore he put in place very strict controls.
Sensitizes the conscience
Saint Vincent was quite eloquent and persuasive when appealing to people’s generosity to assist the victims of war. He spoke to the Ladies of Charity and said: Ah, Ladies! If all those good works should crumble in your hands, it would be a subject of great sorrow. Oh! What desolation! What a disgrace! … Doubtless, Ladies, if we examine ourselves closely, we would fear not having done all we could have done for the progress of this work. If you really reflect on its importance, you will cherish it as the apple of your eye and the instrument of your salvation. Taking an interest in its advancement and perfection, according to God, you will bring it to the attention of the ladies you know; otherwise, people will apply to you the reproach the Gospel makes to a man who began to erect a building but did not finish it … The Brother we assigned to distribute your charitable offerings used to say to me, “The grain that was sent to the border areas, Monsieur, has given life to a large number of families; they did not have a single seed to sow … and those areas were becoming deserted because of the deaths and departure of the inhabitants.” We spent up to 22,000 livres on seed in one year, keeping them busy in the summer and feeding them in the winter. See, Ladies, the good works you have done! What a great misfortune it would be if these should be taken from them! (CCD., XIIIB:432-433).
With the Ladies of Charity Saint Vincent published leaflets that contained the stories of people living in the areas devastated by war. These leaflets were distributed in the parishes in Paris and gave an accounting of the monies and goods that were collected and also exhorted people to further generosity.
To assist those in need
The one chosen to bring the money collected in Paris to the people in the war torn area of Lorraine was Brother Mathieu. Because of his ingenuity and cunning he was given the nickname “Renard” (fox) and made fifty-three trips and was never robbed.
- Our Lord is protecting our Brother Mathieu: Our Lord is protecting our Brother Mathieu in an exceptional way, whereas He is allowing most people in that region to be robbed, right before his very eyes, although he goes there every month with twenty-five thousand lives. Last month he had twelve thousand, the surplus being for the assistance of the men and women religious who are dying of hunger in that district. For two or three months now, God has done us the kindness of bringing together some people of rank in this city to assist the nobility here. His Providence provides us with six thousand livres per month and a little more for this purpose. In the name of God, Monsieur, let us pray and humble ourselves greatly; I entreat you to help a poor Gascon to do so (CCD., II:82).
The alms for Lorraine are still coming in: The Company is increasing in number and in virtue, by the mercy of God, which everyone recognizes and which was apparent to me during the visitations. I am the only wretch who keeps on heaping new iniquities and abominations on myself. O Monsieur, how merciful God is to put up with me with so much patience and forbearance, and how weak and miserable I am to abuse his mercies so greatly! I entreat you, Monsieur, to offer me frequently to His Divine Majesty. The alms for Lorraine are still coming in, by the mercy of God. Our Brother Mathieu takes 2,500 livres there for the poor every month and 45,000 livres for the men and women religious. And today we are having the meeting for the assistance of the poor nobles who are refugees. We distributed one thousand or so livres to them last month, and hope that we will distribute as much today (CCD., II:173).
Assistance according to need
We have distributed vestments for the churches, and blankets and clothing for our sick. The effect that this has produced on all these border areas is indescribable. People there speak of almost nothing else but of these acts of charity. Our workers take such good care of the sick that, by the grace of God, of five hundred sick persons in the town of Guise alone more than three hundred have been cured. In forty villages in the environs of Laon, such a large number of persons have been restored to perfect health that it would be hard to find there six poor persons unable to earn their own living. We felt it our duty to provide these people with the means of doing so by giving them axes, billhooks, and spinning wheels to put the men and women to work. In this way, they will no longer be dependent on anyone, if some other disaster occurs which could reduce them to the same wretched state. We have also distributed the seeds sent from Paris for this region. They have now been sown and God is giving great blessings to this. The result is that the poor people bear their trials more patiently, in the hope that the ensuing harvest will bring them great relief. We give several poor pastors two hundred livres a month for their subsistence. Be means of this assistance, all the parishes of the deaneries of Guise, Marle, and Vervins are being served. At least in each of these, Holy Mass is celebrated once a week and the Sacraments are administered (CCD., IV:138).
Supervise the charitable works
I wrote to tell you that you must carry out the distribution according to the order of M. de Villarceaux and see that the others do the same. I think you have the order he signed and that you will follow it exactly. That, Monsieur, is what I most humbly ask you to do. Also obtain a receipt from each monastery for what you give them. With regard to the distributions to be made in the other towns where there are individuals from the Company, please instruct them to do the same. They are to follow in their entirety the orders the above-mentioned Sieur de Villarceaux gave you and obtain a receipt for everything they give, because we must keep an account of it so that, whatever the pretext may be, not a speck of it is diverted or applied elsewhere. And please send me by way of Brother Mathieu a copy of the accounts, signed by M. de Vallarceaux … Also send me every month the amounts you have given out or ordered to be distributed in other places. Never has greater order been seen than what is being required and observed. You have mentioned nothing concerning the number of poor country people who have been given refuge in the town or the faubourg to whom you dispense help. I show that to the good Ladies every month from all the other places. It is only from Toul that I have not shown it to them for a rather long time. It gives them great consolation …That, Monsieur, is all I have to tell you at the moment, except that I beg you take care of your health and I ask this of you will all the affection in my power through Our Lord, in whose love and in that of His holy Mother, I am, Monsieur, you most humble servant (CCD., II:74-75).
May God grant you peace and deliver you from the evils which you are enduring: Everyone was deeply moved by the state of suffering of your town and edified by the goodness of those who are willing to contribute fifty livres a week for the relief of the poorest people. Nothing can be added, however, to the two hundred fifty livres sent from here each week. God grant that this can be continued! It is incredible how difficult it is for these ladies to bear the burden of such a great expense, which amounts to more than fifteen thousand livres monthly for Champagne and Picardy. I most humbly entreat you to believe, gentlemen, that I will do my utmost to give you satisfaction and assistance for your poor in the town as well as in the neighboring villages. The intention of the benefactors is that both be visited and helped by the priest of our Company who is there, as far as what is given to him can be stretched, giving preference to the sick poor and the most abandoned over the less needy. Mon Dieu! gentlemen, how pleased Our Lord is with your concern for the relief of His suffering members! I ask Him to be your reward for this, to bless you and your government, to give peace to the kingdom, and to deliver His people from the evil they are enduring (CCD., IV:201-202).
Questions for Reflection and Dialogue:
Violence and insecurity form part of our daily life. —the means of communication are proof of the above reality: some express a fear of war, others live in the midst of war and suffer as a result of war while still others seem to desire war or at least create an environment that is favorable toward war. —what is your knowledge about the causes that create violence and war? —the means of communication show us war “in living color” and we have become accustomed to seeing and then forgetting. Who today remembers the Kurds, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Chechens. —what is your personal reaction when confronted with a situation of violence?
Blessed are the peacemakers —How do I behave toward individuals who are foreigners, immigrants? —How do I behave toward those who think differently than I do … am I tolerant and do I seek to enter into dialogue with such individuals? —Do I forgive those who have wronged me? —Do I embrace the future?
Various NGO’s and individuals seek to know and understand the root causes of conflict and thus commit themselves to the transformation of our world. —Am I sensitive to the reality of violence and do I attempt to sensitize others? —Do I participate with other groups and/or individuals in trying to know and understand the root causes of violence? —In what ways can I commit myself to the cause of peace?