Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 11/Section 04
His Affectionate Regard for the Prelates of the Church
We have already seen in Book Two some of the ways Monsieur Vincent sought to help various bishops, and at the beginning of this chapter we touched on his great love and respect for their sacred persons. <Ftn: Book Two, ch. 13, sect. 6.> We must admit, however, that all we have said or could say on this subject would fall still far short of the full extent of his efforts. We cannot find the words to express adequately his veneration, respect, and love for prelates of the Church whom he recognized and honored as collaborators on earth of Jesus Christ and the successors of the apostles. For this reason we have thought it best to allow him to speak for himself, and to let him explain his own disposition of soul in these instances. We have taken extracts from only some of the letters which have come to our attention, among the many which he wrote at various times to many bishops in various parts of the kingdom.
A bishop of great merit, since deceased, whom Monsieur Vincent had earlier recommended for the episcopacy, wrote of the first fruits of his work in his diocese. Monsieur Vincent congratulated him:
- "Who could fail to recognize that it is a blessing from God for the diocese of N. to have a bishop who brings peace to souls, especially in a place that has not seen a bishop or had a visitation for a hundred years. Thus, would it be possible, Your Excellency, to esteem you enough, or to have an adequate respect for your person? May I say only that you are truly a gift from God, a bishop filled with grace, a totally apostolic man. You make Jesus Christ known to even the most desolate people. May his holy name be blessed forever, and may he confer on you many years on earth, to be crowned by a glorious eternity in heaven. There you will be received by the great army of the blessed souls who are there because of you and who will welcome you as their second savior after Jesus Christ. <Ftn: CED III:532-33.>"
Another bishop was contemplating resigning from his diocese because he felt incapable of directing it. He wrote to Monsieur Vincent several times, asking him to help find a worthy successor. Monsieur Vincent replied in these terms:
- "Your Excellency, your letters have awakened in me such respect and affection for you that I have, if I dare say so, your request ever before my eyes. I scarcely recognize the person you describe when you refer to me. You, Your Excellency, are as far above the one to whom you write to as the mountain is above the valley, but wishing to be at your service I must do what you request, on this as on every other occasion. <Ftn: CED IV:105-06.>"
He wrote to another bishop who, because of some difficulties he wished to avoid was likewise considering resigning his position:
- "Your Excellency, I cannot tell you the sorrow I felt at hearing of your illness. Only God knows the tenderness of heart that I experience in everything concerning you. My consolation is that your illness has a remedy and, I hope, a cure. I too had a similar problem some time ago. I lost feeling in one of my fingers, but this has since cleared up. May it please God, Your Excellency, that you be preserved for the good of your diocese, which I hear you are thinking of leaving. If I may say so, taking this liberty because of your kindness, it seems to me that you should let things remain as they are for fear that God will not be honored in your resignation. Where is the man who would be able to walk in your footsteps or rival you in your reputation? If such a one can be found, well and good, but in our troubled times I think it is too much to expect. You, Your Excellency, have not experienced in your episcopacy difficulties as great as Saint Paul did in his, yet he carried the burden until death. None of the apostles walked away from their responsibilities, except when finally called to receive their crowns in heaven. I would be too bold, Your Excellency, to recall these examples to you, did not God himself invite you to imitate them and if the liberty I take did not flow from the great respect and boundless affection the Lord has given me for your sacred person. <Ftn: CED IV:47-48.>"
On another occasion, a worthy bishop wrote, outlining some twenty outstanding difficulties on which he wished Monsieur Vincent's advice. The latter began his reply in these words:
- "Alas, Your Excellency, what are you doing? To write to me about so many important matters, to me who am a poor unlettered soul, hateful to both God and man because of my past sins and present unworthiness. I am unsuited for the honor your own humility has conferred on me, which would suggest that I should keep quiet were it not that you have bidden me speak. Here then are my poor thoughts on the matters you brought to my attention, which I offer simply with the greatest respect. I cannot begin better than to thank God for all the graces he has granted you, begging him to further his own glory by bestowing success on you and your ministry which you carry out with such extraordinary zeal and devotion."
I am sure that you will be happy to know that your reverend brother has just finished a retreat with our priests at Richelieu. The superior there told me that your brother had greatly edified the small community there by his devotion, wisdom, and modesty. He has experienced such satisfaction at the exercises of piety that he plans to celebrate the feast of Christmas with them. Since I know well, Your Excellency, that nothing is closer to Your Excellency's heart than that your close relatives give themselves to God, I pass along this information to you. I know that you will be pleased to hear it. I, too, rejoice with you. I realize also that since you are working so hard to bring about God's kingdom in your diocese, he is doing the same for your own family. <Ftn: CED IV:165-66.>
Responding to another prelate who wrote expressing similar difficulties, he wrote:
- "I have received the letter which you did me the honor of writing. I have read and reread it, Your Excellency, not to reflect on the question you raise but to admire your judgment which appears to me to be more than human. Only the Spirit of God dwelling in your sacred person could lead you to the combination of justice and charity such as you propose in this affair. It remains only for me to thank God for the sacred light he has given you, and for the regard you have shown to me, your humble servant. The problems you bring to my attention are so far beyond me that I think of them only with great hesitation. It is only because I wish to obey your request that I can bring myself to reply. <Ftn: CED IV:171.>"
On one occasion Monsieur Vincent became painfully aware that a bishop with whom he was friendly was involved in a lawsuit. He suggested a possible compromise to conclude the affair and at the end of the letter he wrote:
- "In the name of God, Bishop, pardon me if I get involved in your affairs not knowing if my initiatives here are agreeable to you. Perhaps you will not be pleased. It cannot be helped because I acted only out of my regard for you, and to see you free of the cares and distraction these annoying affairs must cause you. I would very much like to see you return with tranquility of mind to the direction and sanctification of your diocese. For this grace I often offer to God my poor prayers."
One thing pains me deeply, Bishop, and that is that you have been described to the council as a bishop so given to litigation that this is a common impression in many minds. For myself I admire our Savior Jesus Christ who disapproved of lawsuits. He did endure one, which he did not win. I do not doubt, Your Excellency, that if you are involved in litigation, it is only because you are defending your rights. I am sure that all the while you also preserve your interior peace amid all the contradictions of these affairs, looking solely to God and not to the world. You are committed to pleasing his divine Majesty without regard to the remarks of others. For this I thank his divine goodness, for this trait is found only in those souls intimately united to him. But I must also tell you, Bishop, that this unfortunate opinion which the council has of you is likely to do you harm, and prevent your getting what you ask. <Ftn: CED II:434-35.>
This good bishop did not accept the compromise suggested by Monsieur Vincent in this letter. Monsieur Vincent did not argue the point, but wrote later in these terms:
- "Your Excellency, I humbly beg of you to allow me once more to suggest another compromise. I know well that you do not doubt for a minute the affection of my poor heart for you. Yet you may take offense at my lack of intelligence, and at my insistence in presenting a second compromise when the first has already been rejected.
- Nevertheless, this promise does not come from myself, but from the court secretary whom I have seen for the last two days to plead your cause. I spoke of the graces God has given you, and through you to your diocese. He replied that he was your humble servant, and that of all the people in the world he was the one who respected and esteemed you the most. In this spirit he asked me to tell you that if you would accept his advice you could settle all your difficulties. He gave me several reasons for this, among others that it would be to your benefit for a great prelate to settle the case in this way, especially in what relates to your clergy who are moved by a spirit of revolt and by their annoyance at petty grievances. He is aware of the sentiment of the council, and fears the probable outcome of these events. Several of the members of council are unaware of your saintly life and the noble motives which guide your decisions. They may thus decide against you and your dignity in this case. Bishop, please excuse my boldness in writing. My suggestions come not from me but from your own court advocate, one of the wisest men of the times and one of the best judges in the whole world. There are more people who come to him for advice than come even to the heads of the civil courts, and anyone would think himself happy to have him as an advocate. I pray God that he will restore peace to your diocese and contentment to your spirit. You know the influence you exercise over me, and the singular love God has given me for your service. If you think proper to ask me to render you any help at all, I shall do so with all my heart. <Ftn: CED II:435-36.>"
Monsieur Vincent wrote to congratulate a saintly bishop who had taken the trouble to attend the ordination retreats every day and to give a conference:
- "I thank Your Excellency most humbly for the honor you have bestowed on your seminarians by your presence and instructions during the ordination retreats. I thank God for the favor he has bestowed on those privileged to hear you, and to see a bishop in the exercise of his ecclesiastical office. I hope they will carry the memory of this all their lives, and that they will continue to benefit from it for many years. Besides, I have received the letter with which Your Excellency honored me, first with joy because it comes from your hands, but second, with sorrow since it also speaks of what happened at your synod. In this, Bishop, I appreciate the action of God who thereby tests the virtue of one of his greatest servants, but also I admire the good use Your Excellency has made of this trial. I pray the divine Goodness to strengthen you more and more in this matter, so that your patience will bring all this to a happy end, to the shame of those who dared oppose you. <Ftn: CED IV:194.>"
Several people were complaining to the king that a certain bishop was not fulfilling the duties of his office. The king issued a lettre de cachet. <Ftn: A letter sealed by the king, giving permission for some action to be carried out without publicity.> Monsieur Vincent became aware of this, and of the anguish it caused the bishop in question. He therefore wrote to console him:
Your Excellency, I am so sorry to hear that you have received a letter from the court. I was greatly astonished to hear about it. I hope that I may find myself able to speak in your defense. Be assured that I will use every opportunity to do so when God will give me the means. I have always tried to make known, in every place and circumstance, the full esteem and reverence I have for your sacred person. Every time I consider the help you have been to our poor missionaries in their efforts for the instruction and salvation of your people I am moved anew. Our fathers are happy and content to work under your kind direction. <Ftn: CED V:50-51.>
He wrote to an archbishop on another subject:
- "Your Excellency, I blush for shame each time I read the letter you did me the honor of writing, and more so at the way Your Lordship abases himself before a poor swineherd who is now a miserable old man filled with sin. I regret that I have given you cause to plan to come here by refusing your request for additional men. You may be assured that I wrote not from any lack of respect or submission, but solely because of the impossibility of obeying your wishes at this time. Please give us a six-month delay, and we shall then be greatly pleased to satisfy your request, which at present it did not please God to allow. In God's name, Your Excellency, please excuse our poverty. Save your visit to Paris for a more important occasion. It would be a blessing of God to receive Your Lordship, but I would be very embarrassed to have you go to all that trouble for no reason. Your Excellency knows well that no one in the world is more disposed to receive your orders than we, and me particularly, whom God has placed under your sovereign rule. <Ftn: CED VIII:20-21.>"
He wrote to another archbishop about some of his people enslaved by the Barbary pirates:
- "Your Excellency, I have received your letter with the respect and reverence owed to one of the greatest and most worthy prelates of the kingdom. I have a great desire to fulfill all that you were pleased to ask of me. I thank God for your desire to deliver your people from this slavery. You show an immense charity in a work most agreeable to God, to deliver them from this imminent peril, and you give a good example to other bishops in going after the stray sheep and bringing them back safely to the flock. Many are living in this dangerous condition. For our part, we are happy to respond to your request and will send some of our priests to help ransom the slaves. I have written today to the consuls of Tunis and Algiers asking for passports so that they can go there in safety, as you have asked. <Ftn: CED V:146-47.>"
Since Monsieur Vincent was so concerned about seeing the Church served by good and holy bishops, he was disturbed at seeing some persons so zealous in their commitment to those afflicted by the plague that they endangered their own lives and thereby risked depriving the Church of their services. He felt moved for the sake of the greater good of all to write to them to ask them to temper their zeal. One of these zealous bishops replied that he would not spare himself, and that he was willing to die in the ministry if necessary. Monsieur Vincent admitted his error in having suggested that he moderate his activities, and congratulated him for his fervor and zeal in his ministry. Your Excellency, I did suggest moderation. This was only to preserve your service for a longer time and to avoid depriving your diocese and the entire Church of the incomparable blessing of your care. If my thought is not in keeping with your own ideas, I am not surprised. The human sentiments inspiring me are far beneath the eminent state to which the love of God has brought you. I am still too earthly, but you are above nature. I think less of deploring my own faults than of giving thanks to God for the holy dispositions he has given you. I beg of you most humbly, Your Excellency, to beseech him not to give me these same dispositions but rather only some small portion of them, perhaps even a few of the crumbs which fall from your table. <Ftn: CED IV:31.>
Before finishing this chapter we must consider another letter of Monsieur Vincent written to a holy bishop who wished to serve in person the plague stricken. He first, however, wanted to take counsel of Monsieur Vincent before becoming personally involved. He received the following response, which may serve as useful advice in similar situations:
- "Your Excellency, I cannot express the anguish I feel at the disease that has overtaken your city. The confidence you have placed in me overwhelms me. I pray with all my heart that God may turn away this scourge from your diocese, and fill me with his spirit in replying to your request. My humble thought, Your Excellency, is that a prelate who finds himself in this predicament ought to conduct himself in such a way as to attend to the spiritual and temporal welfare of all the people of his diocese, especially during times of public calamity. He ought not be tied down to one place or to one occupation, nor to any situation that would limit his availability to others. The reason is that he is not bishop of only this or that place but of his entire diocese. He should divide this burden as much as possible. But if it is not possible to see to the salvation of souls by the help of pastors or other clergy, then I think he is obliged to risk even his life for their salvation. He should entrust the care of the others to God's adorable Providence."
This, Your Excellency, is what one of the greatest prelates of this kingdom did, Bishop N., who urged his pastors to endanger themselves for the welfare of their parishioners. When the plague would break out in a particular place he would immediately go there to encourage his priests in their service to the people. He would advise and instruct them on the best way to alleviate the sufferings of the afflicted. He did not visit the sick in person, however, unless he found that he could not provide care for them from the local parishes. Saint Charles Borromeo acted otherwise. This appears, however, to have been by a special inspiration of God, or else because the plague was within the city of Milan itself.
Because it is difficult to do in a large diocese what can more easily be done in a small one, it seems, Your Excellency, that it would be good to plan on visiting the regions where the sick are, to encourage your pastors. If this proves impossible or if you are in danger of capture by the army in this time of war, you might send the archdeacons or other clergy for the same purpose. As soon as you learn of the epidemic striking another place you might send other priests there to encourage the pastors and to give some physical help to the stricken.
The queen of Poland learned that the plague had stricken the city of Krakow, and that as soon as a case of this illness was discovered, the homes of the plague stricken were quarantined. This, of course, led to both the well and the sick greatly suffering from hunger and the cold. The queen sent a large sum by two of our missionaries, with orders to look after the feeding of the victims in their homes, but these priests were careful not to come in contact with the sick.
Some religious ran this risk by administering the sacraments to the sick. The queen may not have stopped this scourge, but at least she greatly diminished the ravages of the plague, and greatly consoled the people of that city, the capital of the kingdom. The city of Warsaw, where the king now lives, has also been stricken. One of our priests informed me that he had directed two of our missionaries, a priest and a brother, to give the same help there.
The poor stricken people of countryside are for the most part abandoned by all and in great need of help, particularly food. It would be something worthy of Your Excellency's piety, if you could send alms to all the stricken places, so that the good pastors could provide bread, wine, and even some meat to the poor people. They should be alerted to the time and place where the distribution will take place. If there is question about the honesty of certain pastors, the distribution could be handled by neighboring pastors, or by some worthy laymen of the parish. You can usually find some persons in every parish for this service, especially if they do not have to come in direct contact with the sick. I hope, Your Excellency, that if God blesses this work, our Savior will be much glorified by Your Excellency's life and even death, and by the edification your people will experience by all this. The one essential thing is that you must not shut yourself up out of harm's way.
The missionaries I have sent you, Bishop, have told me that the Lord has given them the grace of committing themselves to the care of the plague-stricken, either those in their own neighborhood, or all over the city, as obedience and necessity will require. I have written them to be at your call, and I beg you most humbly to dispose of us as your great goodness will deem appropriate.
Many religious have offered to serve the sick, so I don't doubt that you will discover some in your city. Perhaps you will find enough to take care of the city itself. You might even be able to send some to the country places as well, instead of the archdeacons and priests I spoke of earlier. You will see, Your Excellency, by the broadside I enclose, what the archbishop of Paris has done to help the stricken people there. It will give you some ideas on how you might help your own people. <Ftn: CED IV:520-23.>
After receiving this letter, this good prelate wrote to Monsieur Vincent as follows:
- "Upon receiving the offer of the services of your priests to serve the plague-stricken, I must say that since they work for the entire diocese, I shall not expose them to the danger of infection without an extreme necessity. I shall follow your advice in all points. I shall be careful myself not to risk danger unless I see clearly that such is God's will. I had put off doing anything until I had heard from you, but now the time for reflection is past, and I shall put into action what you suggest. <Ftn: CED IV:528.>