Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 21
Index of Abelly: Book One
Some Remarkable Statements of Monsieur Vincent Regarding the Spirit of Humility and the Other Virtuous Dispositions He Wished to See as the Foundation of His New Congregation
Monsieur Vincent saw that God's hand was with him and his fellow priests, and that God had blessed the beginnings of this new enterprise. He wanted this new structure of the Congregation of the Mission to have a foundation proportional to the heights it one day might attain. Like a good architect he wanted an absolutely firm foundation on which to build. His choice was nothing less than the virtue of humility. He realized that among the temptations and distractions the missionaries would be exposed to in their work, the best means of safeguarding their souls and their salvation was to hold fast to a low opinion of themselves. They must become despised and abject in their own eyes to be great and estimable before God. There was nothing to fear in humility, however well developed it might be. What was to be feared, even abhorred, was the least glorification to which they might come by presuming on themselves. This is why, from the very beginning of the Congregation, he sought to inspire its members with a spirit of abasement, humility, deprecation, and contempt of self.
He led them to think of themselves always as the least of all those who worked in the Church and to judge all others as superior to themselves. We know of no better way to convey his sentiments than to quote what he said once when a new priest recently received into the Congregation had referred to it as "this holy Congregation." This humble servant of God stopped him and said:
Monsieur, when you speak of our Company, we ought never use the terms "this holy Company" or "this holy Congregation," or any such terms. Rather, we ought to say "this poor Company," "this little Company," or some such expression. We should imitate the Son of God, who called the company of his apostles and disciples "little flock," or "little company."
How I wish that God would give this grace to this wretched Congregation that it might be well-grounded in humility, that it might be founded and built upon this virtue, and that humility would ever remain part of its structure. Gentlemen, be not deceived. Without humility, we have nothing. I speak not only of exterior humility but mainly of humility of the heart. This leads us to believe truly that no one on earth is more wretched than you and I, and that the Congregation of the Mission is the most wretched of all the congregations, the poorest in numbers and in quality of its members. We ought to be at ease when people speak about us this way. Alas, what is it when we want to be regarded differently, to wish to be treated differently than the Son of God? It is insupportable pride. When the Son of God was on earth, what did people say of him? What did they think of him? He was regarded as a fool, a seditionist, a bumpkin, a sinner, though he was none of these. He even allowed Barabbas to be preferred to him, a robber, a murderer, a very evil man. O Savior, O my Savior, how your humility will confound sinners, especially miserable me, on the day of judgment! Be on your guard when you go on mission, you who speak in public. Often enough people will be so touched they will be moved to tears by what you say. They will even say, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you." <Ftn: Luke 11:27.> We have occasionally heard such things. Nature is pleased and vanity born if we do not turn from these vain praises and if we work for anything else than the glory of God and the salvation of souls. To do otherwise is to preach ourselves and not Jesus Christ.
And what about someone who preaches for applause, praise, esteem, and reputation? What shall we say of this person, this preacher? What, a person who uses the word of God, who speaks of divine things to acquire honor and a reputation, yes, it is a sacrilege. O my God, give the grace to this poor little Company that none of its members falls into this unhappy fault. Gentlemen, we shall never be properly disposed to fulfill our duty towards God if we do not have a profound humility and an entire disregard for ourselves. No, if the Congregation of the Mission is not humble, and if it is not persuaded that it can do nothing of value of itself and will spoil everything rather than succeed, it will never do any good. But if it lives in the Spirit, then, gentlemen, it will be a fitting instrument in God's designs, for through such people God accomplishes his true and great deeds.
Several doctors who explain today's Gospel <Ftn: November 25, Feast of Saint Catherine.> teach that the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins ought to be understood as applying to people who have entered religious communities. If it be true that half of these persons will be lost, alas, have we nothing to fear? What of me, first of all? Should I not wonder? Let us, gentlemen, encourage one another, not lose heart. Let us give ourselves to God completely, renounce ourselves, our personal satisfactions, our ease, and our vanity. We should recognize that our greatest enemy is ourselves. Yet let us do all the good we can and do it with all possible care. It is not enough to help the neighbor, to fast, to make mental prayer, to work on the missions. All that is good, but not enough. We must do all this in the same spirit as did our Savior and in the way he did, humbly and purely, so that the name of God be glorified and his holy will accomplished.
Plants cannot produce more excellent fruit than that dictated by the nature of the stock on which they grow. We are like the stock of those who would come after us, whose perfection is determined by us. If we have done well, they shall do well, following our example. Those who stay will teach those who follow them the way the first members of the Company practiced virtue, and these in turn will teach others, all aided by the grace of God merited by the original members. How is it that we see in the world certain families in whom the fear of God dwells? I have one such family in mind, whose grandfather and father I knew, both good men, and even today I know that the children carry on this same tradition. Where does this come from? Chiefly from their parents, who have merited this grace from God by their good and holy lives, according to the promise of God himself that he would bless such families to the thousandth generation. <Ftn: Exod 34:7.> On the other hand, we see husbands and wives leading good lives, but who nevertheless seem to lose everything, and nothing succeeds. Why is this? Because their parents have earned God's punishment by the faults they have committed. This punishment has been passed on to their descendants, according to what is written, to the fourth generation. Although these punishments are understood to refer chiefly to material things, we can apply the thought to spiritual things as well. If we are exact in observing our rules, if we practice well the virtues appropriate to a true missionary, we will merit in some way this same blessing for our children, that is, to those who will succeed us. They will be able to live good lives following our example. If we do ill, it is to be feared that they will do the same and even worse, because nature is inclined always to disorder and seeks after the self.
We ought to consider ourselves as the fathers of those who will follow us. The Company is still in its infancy, it has only just been born. It has been just a few years since it began. Is that not to be in infancy? Our successors in the next two or three hundred years will look on us as the fathers of the Company, even for those who have joined later. They too will be counted as fathers of the community, for anyone in the first hundred years will be so regarded.
When you look up a passage from some Father of the first centuries, you say, "This passage was from the pen of a Father of the first or second century." In the same way, they will say at some later day, the first priests of the Congregation of the Mission did this or that. They lived this way, and they observed such and such virtues. Because things are like this, gentlemen, do we not have a duty to leave a great example to our successors, since the good they do depends in some way on us? If it is true, as some Fathers of the Church say, that God allows parents in hell to see their children's evil as an added torment, then the more these children sin, the more blameworthy are the parents who have caused their children's evil deeds by the bad example given them.
Saint Augustine says, on the other hand, that God allows fathers and mothers in heaven to see the good their children do upon earth, for their greater happiness. In the same way, gentlemen, what a consolation and joy for us when God allows us to see the good our Company accomplishes, abounding in good deeds, faithfully observing the schedule, living in the practice of the virtues, and giving good example everywhere. How miserable I am, that I do not act this way! Pray for me, gentlemen, pray to God for me, my brothers, that I may be converted.
Let us all give ourselves to God and to everything that is worthwhile, working, helping the poor country people who await us. By God's grace some of our priests are almost always engaged in our work, some more, some less, in this or that mission, in this village or some other. I remember formerly when I was returning from one of the missions, as I approached the gates of Paris I felt they would fall upon me and crush me. Rarely did I return from a mission but this thought came to me. The reason was, I heard a voice saying within me, "You have gone out to such and such a village, but others await the same help as you brought them." Again, I seemed to hear it said, "If you had not been there, probably many persons would have died in their miserable state and would have been damned. If you have found such and such sins in the one parish, do you not think you would probably find the same in the neighboring parishes? And yet you leave, with people dying in sin, and you will in some way be responsible for their loss. You should fear that God will punish you for this." This is how my spirit was troubled. <Ftn: CEDXI:439-45.>
On another occasion he said to his followers:
The state of the missionary conforms to the Gospel maxims. These essentially are to leave all, following the example of the apostles, to follow Jesus Christ and to imitate his manner of living. The devil alone could find something to complain of in such a life, as someone once said to me. Nothing is more Christian than to go from village to village, helping poor people in working out their salvation, even at the cost of fatigue and inconvenience. This is how several of our confreres now work in a village of the diocese of Evreux, where they must sleep on straw. Why? To help souls reach paradise, by teaching and by suffering. Does this not resemble what our Lord came to do? He had only a stone on which to lay his head. Yet, he went from place to place to gain souls to God and even gave his life for them. He could not make us comprehend any better how precious these souls are to him, nor persuade us more effectively to spare no pains in teaching them his doctrine and washing them in the fountain of his precious blood. Would you like to know how to receive this grace? Devote yourselves to the virtue of humility, for the more one is humble the greater shall be his love for his neighbor. Charity is the paradise of communities. It is the soul of the virtues, but it is humility which adorns and guards them.
Congregations which are humble are like valleys, which attract all the goodness of the mountain. If we are empty of ourselves, God will fill us with himself, for he does not wish anything to go empty. Humble yourselves, then, my brothers, so that God may glance at this little Company committed to serving the Church. Can we say Company when we speak of a mere handful of men, lowly in birth, knowledge, and virtue, the dregs and the outcasts of the world? Every day I pray two or three times to ask God to finish us off if we are not contributing to his glory. What! gentlemen, would we want to continue if we were not pleasing to God and did not procure his greater glory? <Ftn: CED XI:1-2.> These then are the foundations upon which Monsieur Vincent wished to build the spiritual edifice of his Congregation, that is, humility and charity.
Apropos of this, the late Father de Condren, general of the Oratory, <Ftn:Charles de Condren, second superior general, 1588-1641.> whose memory is held in benediction, said one day to Monsieur Vincent:
How happy you are, Monsieur, that your Congregation bears the marks of a foundation of Jesus Christ. In founding the Church he delighted in choosing the poor, the unlettered, and the crude to spread his message throughout the whole world. He used the humblest means to show forth his almighty power, refuted the wisdom of the philosophers by poor sinners, and resisted the power of kings by the weakness of these simple men. It is the same with you. Most of those called to your Congregation are persons of the lowest class, at best rather ordinary. They do not have much learning, but as such are fit instruments to fulfill the designs of Jesus Christ. He uses them to destroy pretense and vanity. <Ftn: CED XI:131-32.>
Index of Abelly: Book One