From Vincentian Encyclopedia

By: Eamon Flannagan, C.M.

[This is one of the 100 articles found in the publication, Diccionario de Expiritualidad Vicenciana, published by Editorial CEME in 1995. This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].

Pardon in the personal experience of Vincent de Paul

In the sacramental rite of Reconciliation we hear the following words: May God grant you pardon and peace. It could be said that in his ministry Vincent de Paul made every effort to mediate God’s forgiveness on behalf of everyone that he met. We know that his activity and ministry revealed God’s mercy and we can also state that his words and teachings gave witness to the same reality.

Pardon as expressed in the counsel that Vincent gave to the Missionaries

Vincent counseled and exhorted the Missionaries to preach repentance and to hear the confessions of the people (Common Rules I:2).

A great motive for the practice of the virtue of gentleness is that such an approach toward people encourages them to return to God [1].

Vincent’s profound understanding of God’s salvation created in him a desire to extend God’s mercy to more and more people, especially the poor and the marginalized. He encouraged and organized his followers because he believed that they were called to reach out and to preach to others because [the salvation of the poor people] depends on your teaching and catechizing (CCD:XI:121). Vincent realized that proclaiming redemption and forgiveness to the neighbor could be very costly. He placed before his followers the example of Jesus who endured cruel torments and was crowned with thorns in order to save humankind (CCD:XI:124)

When Vincent spoke about the origin of the Congregation of the Mission in the Church, he rejoiced because the priests of the Mission brought God’s compassion to the poor. On one occasion he spoke about the possibility of expanding that influence and in that regard he gave witness to his confreres as he himself asked forgiveness for his own faults and for the faults of all the Missionaries (XI:162ff).

Pardon and the pastoral activity of the Congregation of the Mission

In the ministerial experience of Saint Vincent we can clearly see signs of God’s pardon. He gave witness to that forgiveness when he heard the confession of the man in Gannes. That event had a profound impact on Vincent because he saw the great need of the poor country people, that is, their need to receive the grace of forgiveness. That and other similar events inspired a noble woman, Madame de Gondi, to request the young priest, Vincent de Paul, to establish a community of priests for the purpose of sharing God’s mercy with the poor [2]. Soon after, on January 25, 1617, Vincent gave the famous first mission sermon in Folleville and exhorted the inhabitants to make a general confession (CCD:XI:3-4). The Lord blessed his words and a great number of people came forward to confess their sins and receive God’s forgiveness. In fact, so many people presented themselves for confession that Vincent had to ask the Jesuits in Amiens to help him. From there, that movement, like a great wave of goodness, was extended, by the mercy of God (CCD:XI:4) to other neighboring towns.

From the beginning, gratitude for the grace of forgiveness granted at the time of confession was closely related to the preaching and the catechesis that took place during the time of the popular mission. Vincent was so convinced of the value of offering divine mercy to sinners that he became concerned about the condition of the clergy (some of whom did not know the words of absolution) (CCD:XI:163).

Vincent continued to move forward and established a community for the mission whose members unleashed a wave of God’s forgiveness in favor of the poor, in favor of those people who were in need. At the same time he formed other priests who would be able to administer the sacraments in a worthy manner (CCD:XI:164). This prophet initiated the ministry of retreats in the motherhouse and in other places. On more than one occasion he defended that ministry and referred to the possible conversion of the persons who participated in those retreats [3].

The pardon of God and Jansenism

In the long history of Jansenism, Vincent played an important role as one opposed to that heresy. This evangelizer of the poor and of the forgotten ones, viewed that elitist, pessimistic doctrine as the total antithesis of his efforts to renew the Church. The Jansenist view was closely related to Luther’s concept of the virtual corruption of human nature and thus, the restrictive power of salvation. The inability of some people to escape condemnation and the rejection of frequent communion was not viewed favorably by Vincent de Paul who saw the merciful love of God as an answer to the cold, rigid austerity of Jansenism [4]. The proof of his efforts in this regard is seen in the fact that the Jansenists saw Vincent as an adversary who could not be easily ignored [5]. The brief study that Vincent wrote on the subject of grace was a clear refutation of the Jansenist position and highlighted the fact that the saving will of God embraces all people. God gives people sufficient grace but men and women must also do their part. Vincent expressed this idea in the following manner: all the glory from anything is due to him, as to the master writer who holds and guides the hand of the child to teach him how to write (CCD:XIIIa:172).

The pardon of the God and extending pardon to one’s brothers and sisters

With regard to sacramental confession as an element of Vincentian evangelization, we are able to see Vincent’s progressive thinking in that regard. One of the conferences that he gave to the Daughters of Charity was dedicated to that theme (CCD:IX:440ff) and at that time Vincent referred to confession as a means for personal growth as well as a way to obtain the forgiveness of sins. That conference can be seen as a catechetical lesson that is filled with wisdom and that concludes with the powerful affirmation of that doctrine: [a good confession] is the basis of perfection and I would like to think that, if you act in this way, God will shower you with his graces (CCD:IX:448).

The forgiveness that we receive from God should in turn be extended to those who have offended us. Vincent spoke about this profound Christian imperative in the context of personal reconciliation with others. He also referred to the text of Ephesians 4:26, do not let the sun set on your anger (CCD:X:377). Vincent described this process in a gentle and intimate manner and affirmed that that process should strengthen one’s attitude of gratitude: And because we are all poor sinners, let us thank God for having left us such an easy means to be reconciled with one another; let us ask him for the grace to use it well in order to preserve this interior robe (CCD:X:379). This reflection on Vincent’s experience and his message on the theme of God’s pardon should make it clear that this concept held a central place in his missionary vision.

Evaluation: Vincentian Mentality and Present Theology

Vincentian thinking on the reality of pardon is primarily focused on the aspect of God’s mercy. True, there are some references to divine justice and to the fear of God (CCD:XI:348-349; XII:115-116, 315-316), but Vincent did not emphasize punishment as a motivating factor (something that was very much in vogue during the Post-Tridentine era).

Modern theology, in the spirit of Vatican II, emphasizes the love of God as the greatest incentive for conversion and growth in Christian virtue. This has a solid scriptural foundation [6] which is especially clear in the gospels where we see that on many different occasions Jesus healed sinners. The love of the Father is a call to the interior depths of the Prodigal Son who must decide whether to accept that love and thus move toward the embrace of the forgiveness that is offered (Luke 15). One may have sinned greviously but the forgiving Lord extends his healing hand of forgiveness [7]. The Vincentian perspective is in harmony with all of this and is viewed favorably by our modern contemporary mentality because such a perspective takes into consideration the whole person. Vincent wanted the priests to avoid, like the plague, any form of harshness toward sinners (Common Rules XII:11).

It seems that Vincent held the prevalent scholastic opinion which stated that salvation demands an explicit knowledge of the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity. This may have served as an incentive to be zealous and merciful toward those who were ignorant (CCD:X:271). In this regard, however, the present day attitude is more temperate and follows the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council with regard to the universal salvific will of God and the availability of grace for all people of good will, including those who are non-Christian (Lumen Gentium, #16).

As we evaluate Vincent’s doctrine with regard to forgiveness, we must remember the influence of his own conversion as well as the compassion of the Lord that strengthened him at that time. He came to understand the greatness of his calling and the wretchedness of the transgressions of his adolescence and early adult years. Some years before 1612 he was formed with the definitive characteristics of the new man that were in stark contrast to his former way of life [8]. The frequent and repeated revelations of his inclinations toward sin (undoubtedly exaggerated by his humility) reflect the mature convictions that the forgiving God etched in Vincent’s interior. Those who have received much forgiveness can be credible witnesses to God through their words and actions. Such living witness is much needed at the present time.

The good news of Christ begins and continues with the gifts of peace and pardon as our companions. The sinner can rejoice and look toward the horizon, look toward a new life of real fulfillment. Vincent de Paul was grounded in the essence of that gospel reality. With his fruitful life and with his words he shared that gospel reality with us.

Footnotes and References:

All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from: VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14).

[1] Common Rules II:6; Miguez Pérez-Flores and Antonio Orcajo, The Way of Saint Vincent is Our Way, Concord Publishing House, Inc., Mo., 1995, p. 89-92.

[2] Robert Maloney, The Way of Vincent de Paul, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York 1992, p. 22-27.

[3] José María Román, CM, St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography, translated by Sister Joyce Howard, DC, Melisende, London, 1999, p. 358

[4] Roman, op.cit., p.591ff; Pierre Coste, CM, The Life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul, translated by Joseph Leonard, CM, The Newman Press, Westminister, Maryland, 1952, III:167-181.

[5] Coste, op.cit. III:180.

[6] Cf., Xavier Léon-Dufour, Vocabulario de Teologia Bíblica, Herder, Barcelona, see Penitencia (Penitence), Conversión (Conversion). This book was published in English in 1995 by Word Among us Press and titled: Dictionary of Biblical Theology..

[7] V. McNamara, The Truth in Love, Dublin, 1988, p. 172ff.

[8] Stafford Poole, “St. Vincent de Paul, 1595-1617”, Vincentiana, volume 28 (1984), #4-5-6, p. 435ff.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM Edited: Christine Mura, DC