Vincent de Paul: a zealous priest

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: J. Ignacio Fernández Mendoza, CM

(This article originally appeared in La Experiencia Espiritual de San Vicente de Paul, XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2011)


On June 16, 2009 Benedict XVI officially convoked the year of the priest which coincided with the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint John Maria Vianney, the Curé of Ars. The celebrations began on June 19, 2009, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and were concluded on June 11, 2010 with a gathering of priests from throughout the world in Saint Peter’s Square … a gathering that was presided over by the Pope. One of the objectives of this year long celebration was to understand anew the mission of the priest within the Church and to emphasize the need for on-going formation.

The title of this presentation is Saint Vincent, a zealous priest. I have written these words mindful of the theme that I was given and also aware of the Year of the Priest which has just been concluded. Here I present reflections on Vincent's zeal, reflections on his concern that was reflected in the various works that he engaged in to promote the reform of the clergy. On another occasion we can reflect on Vincent’s zeal as reflected in his life of prayer, the assistance that he provided for those who were poor, the missions ad gentes, the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission, the Confraternities of Charity, the Company of the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity.

As I wrote these pages I had frequent recourse to the written words of Vincent de Paul [1]. There is no better way to understand Vincent’s activity than to have recourse to the very words that he wrote.

Zeal, as it was lived by Vincent de Paul, was not some purely theoretical concept. Today we would refer to this as pastoral charity, concern for evangelization or passionate commitment to a specific ministry that is carried on and brought to a conclusion with the sweat of one’s brow. In Vincent’s case, zeal refers to the interior fire/flame that illuminated his surroundings; zeal refers to the stream of fresh water that flowed downstream; zeal is the commitment to prayer and to the missionary proclamation; zeal is affective and effective love; zeal is persevering in service to God and the Church in the person of the poor. If love of God is a fire, zeal is its flame; if love is a sun, zeal is its ray (CCD:XII:250). We refer to zeal as the enthusiasm and the courage which is bound up with the love that individuals have for God and for their neighbor.

Priesthood according to Vincent de Paul

The New Testament, more specifically, the letter to the Hebrews, makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the high priest and the eternal priest. It also teaches that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood are a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. The pages of the New Testament point out various aspects of the ministerial priesthood: called to be intimate followers of Jesus Christ, sent to serve, pastors of a specific community, presiders at the Eucharistic celebration, ministers of forgiveness.

During the patristic age and the Middle Ages certain aspects of the nature of priesthood and the ministry of the presbyters were emphasized to the detriment of others. Distinct options were being highlighted: the proclamation of the word, worship, administration of the sacraments, service and governance … and at different times each of these elements was viewed as a function of the priest. According to the Council of Trent the priest, through the sacrament of Orders, becomes part of the hierarchical structure of the Church and receives the power to consecrate the bread and forgive sins. At the same time the Council also confronted, in a decisive manner, the reform of the clergy.

With regard to priestly ministry, Vincent embraced the ecclesial supports of his era but enriched those elements with his point of view. Vincent saw Jesus as the missionary of the Father and he found in Jesus Christ the true model for priestly ministry. Therefore priesthood is above all else missionary and apostolic. Let us recall Vincent’s own words.

Priests are sent forth in the same manner as the Son of God: How indebted we are to God for having sent us, as He sent His eternal Son, for the salvation [of the people] (CCD:VIII:41).

Priests act in the same manner as the Son of God: Whoever say “missioner,” Messieurs, says “Apostle;” so then, we have to act like the Apostles, since we are sent, like them, to teach the people, to whom we must go quite plainly in all simplicity, if we want to be Missioners and imitate the Apostles and Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:244).

The primary concern of the priest is the mission: This is how truly apostolic souls speak and act. Entirely consecrated to God, they desire that His Son Our Lord be known and served likewise by all the nations on earth, for whom He Himself came into the world; like Him, they wish to work and die for them. This is how far the zeal of Missionaries should extend (CCD:VII:348).

The priest places his life at the service of those who are poor: If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them? Aren’t those who are poor the afflicted members of Our Lord? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do you think is going to help them? (CCD:XII:77).

Other priestly functions according to Vincent de Paul

The priest is mediator and intercessor: Recently we said that God expects priests to halt His anger, He expects them to place themselves between Him and those poor people like another Moses … we are like Moses and must continually raise our hands to heaven for them (CCD:XI:191). Priests must answer to God for the sins of the People (Translator’s Note: This reference is found in volume XIb:829 in the Spanish edition but I was unable to find this reference in the English edition).

The priest participates in the priesthood of Jesus Christ: What a high opinion you should have of priests, whose sacred character is a participation in the eternal priesthood of the Son of God, who has given them powers to offer in sacrifice His own Body and to distribute it as food, so that those who eat it may live forever (CCD:XII:86). This state is the most sublime on earth, the very one Our Lord willed to assume and follow (CCD:V:569).

The priest receives faculties to bless the bread and forgive sins: The priests have received a very sacred and incomparable character a power over the body of Jesus Christ that the angels admire, and the authority to forgive people’s sins --- a great subject of amazement and gratitude for them. Is there anything greater? Is there any dignity similar to that? (CCD:XII:89). The distinguishing mark of priests is a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God, who has given them the power to sacrifice His own Body and to give it as food, so that those who eat it will have eternal life. That is a totally divine and incomparable characteristic, a power over the Body of Jesus Christ that angels admire, and a power to forgive the sins of the people, which is a great source of amazement and gratitude to them! What a great thing a good priest is … priesthood is the most important ministry there is for the salvation of souls and the advancement of Christianity (CCD:XI:6).

The dignity of the ecclesiastical state: Is anything in this world as great as the priestly state? Principalities and kingdoms cannot compare to it. You know that, unlike priests, Kings cannot change bread into the body of Our Lord or forgive sins; you know all the other advantages priests have beyond temporal greatness (CCD:XI:7)

The sanctifying function of the priest: By the ministry of priests you are restored to God’s grace; from an enemy of God they make you His child; God gives them authority for what they do with regard to sinners and they have the power to snatch a soul from the hands of the devil and restore it to God (CCD:IX:241).

The mediation of the priest: Priests must be regard as mediators between God and us (CCD:X:315)

Vincent considered himself unworthy of his vocation as a priest. On several occasions he publically confessed these sentiments of unworthiness: If I were not already a priest, I never would become one (CCD:VII:480). As for myself, if I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it --- as I have come to know since then --- I would have preferred to till the soil than to commit myself to such a formidable state of life … the older I get, the more convinced I am of this because day by day I discover how far removed I am from the state of perfection in which I should be living (CCD:V:569)

Situation of the ecclesiastical state according to Vincent de Paul

Vincent was very aware of the real situation in which the priests of that era found themselves. He knew there were holy, well formed and zealous servants of the people of God. Let us listen to one of his appraisals of the situation: Not all priests are leading a disorderly life; Sauveur, no! There are holy priests. Many of them come to us here for retreat: pastors and others who come from a great distance to put their interior life in good order! And how many good, holy priests there are in Paris! There are a great number of them; and there’s not a single one of the members of the Conference who meet here who isn’t an exemplary man. They are all working with unparalleled success … there are also those who give high praise to God by the holiness of their lives (CCD:XI:8). Vincent maintained a relationship with some excellent priests, for example Francis de Sales, Pierre Bérulle, Jean-Jacques Olier, Alain de Solminihac, and many others.

Other priests, however, lived undisciplined lives and were involved in various vices. Vincent had formulated a long list of sins that were committed by the priests: drunkenness, the desire for wealth, lack of vocation, ignorance, libertinage, lack of formation, lack of discipline, slovenly in their appearance. Again let us listen to Vincent’s words.

The bad life of priests: The Church is heading for ruin in many places because of the bad life of priests. For they are the ones causing it to perish and destroying it; and it is only too true that the depravity of the ecclesiastical state is the principal cause of the ruin of God’s Church. Recently I was at a meeting where there were seven Prelates who, reflecting on the disorders that are seen in the Church, were stating loudly that the clergy were the principal cause of this (CCD:XI:279)

The vice of drunkenness: Last week the Bishops had a meeting to find some way to remedy the excessive drinking of priests in a certain province … there is nothing worse or more deplorable than to see priests --- and most of them from one province --- addicted to this vice (CCD:XI:8)

Lack of vocation: It is a misfortune for those who enter the priesthood by the window of their own choice and not by the door of a legitimate vocation. Yes, the number of the former is high because they consider the ecclesiastical state a soft way of life, in which they seek rest rather than work. This has been the source of the scandalous havoc we see in the Church, for the ignorance, sin, and heresies that devastate it (CCD:VII:479).

Idleness and sloth: A priest must have more work than he can do; for, as soon as idleness and sloth get hold of a priest, every vice rushes in from all sides (CCDXI:191).

Ignorance: One day when the late Lady went to make her confession to her pastor, she noted that he did not give her absolution; he mumbled something between his teeth and did the same at other times when she went to confession to him. That bothered her a little, so one day she asked a monk who came to see her to give her the formula of absolution in writing, which he did. And when the good Lady went back to confession, she asked the pastor to say over her the words of absolution written on the paper, which he did. Every time afterward when she went to confession to him, she continued to do the same, giving him the piece of paper, because he was so ignorant that he did not know the words he should have been saying (CCD:XI:163).

Involved in all forms of vice: Assisted by his Vicars General, he is working as hard as he can for the good of his diocese; but with little success because of the large and unaccountable number of ignorant and corrupt priests who make up my clergy and who are unable, either through word or example, to mend their ways. I am horrified when I think that in my diocese there are nearly seven thousand drunken or lewd priests who ascend the altar every day and who have no vocation (CCD:II:473)

Frequent taverns and gamble: The priests of that time were in truth very far removed from the way priests act today: some kept women of questionable character, went often to the taverns, gambled, and did many other things to which M. Vincent brought about a notable change-in their actions and in their morals --- and this took place in a most remarkable way. They sent those women away, thanks to M. Vincent, who put a stop to the communal confessions that were being made aloud, payment that was being demanded for confession (CCD:XIIIa:53-54)

Disregard for liturgical norms: If you had only seen, I do not want to say the ugliness, but the diversity, of the ceremonies of the Mass forty years ago, it would have made you ashamed! I do not think there was anything uglier in the world than the different way people were celebrating it: some began the Mass with the Pater noster; others would take the chasuble in their hands and say the Introibo, and then they would put on the chasuble. Once I was at Saint-Germain-en Laye, where I noticed seven or eight priests who all said Mass differently: one did it one way, the other another way; the diversity was worthy of tears (CCD:XII:212).

These observations of Vincent give us an idea of the situation of ecclesiastics and also point out the urgent need to engage in a process of reform.

Vincent acts

With the proclamation of the decree Cum adolescentium aetas (chapter 18, of the xxiii session) the Council of Trent established minor seminaries. France delayed the enactment of this decree. Various attempts proved to be unsuccessful as a result of the methodology and the social-political circumstances. Nevertheless men of action came to the forefront, men who were concerned about elevating the ecclesiastical state. Pierre de Bérulle, the founder of the Oratorians, instilled in his followers a desire to dedicate themselves to the formation of the clergy. Adrien Bourdoise was also concerned about the reform of the clergy. Mindful of this reform he organized in various parishes, communities of priests to assure the people that they would be served by the clergy.

In light of this situation Vincent de Paul did not remain passive. He embarked on his own path. He had been ordained at the age of twenty and no one would have thought that with the passing of time he would become one of the reformers of the clergy. His contact with eminent ecclesiastics, with good people, and especially with the poor, made him reconsider and look anew on the state of the priesthood. As a result of this new perspective Vincent became part of a group of protagonists who led the reform of the clergy. In Vincent’s case this concern was the result of a strong conviction: the priest participated in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and his mission is similar to that which the Son of God engaged in while on earth. By its nature the priesthood is missionary. All the other priestly functions (prayer, proclamation, sacraments and service) revolve around the priest’s evangelizing mission.

Vincent de Paul undertook four works with the same objective: to promote the reform of the clergy. While this was not an easy task Vincent remained passionate about the challenge. He was enthusiastic about this project, but he approached it with humility and with true apostolic zeal … a zeal which he was insistent about as he counseled his confreres: Let us love God, brothers, let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32).

Retreats for ordinands

These retreats for the ordinands were intended to provide further formation to those who were about to receive orders. The bishop of Beauvais, Agustín Potier, wanted to reform the life of the diocesan clergy and called upon Vincent to instruct in virtue and knowledge those who aspired to the priesthood in his diocese. This occurred during September, 1628. Once the candidates were examined then the retreat began on September 17th and continued until the day of their ordination. On this occasion two professors from the faculty of the University of Paris collaborated in this effort and the ordinands were very pleased with this opportunity. The Bishop informed his brothers in the episcopacy about this event and as a result on February 21, 1631, the Archbishop of Paris, Jean-François de Gondi, arranged for the ordinands in his diocese to make a retreat ten days prior to their ordination. This retreat would take place in the house of the Congregation of the Mission and during the days of retreat it was hoped that the candidates to the priesthood would receive further information about the required dispositions for sacred orders.

Vincent received the ordinands at the Bons-Enfants since at that time Saint-Lazare was not available to him. On January 8, 1632 the Archbishop of Paris permitted the Congregation of the Mission to take possession of Saint-Lazare with the following condition: At the times when Orders are usually conferred in Paris, these same members of the Mission will be bound, without prejudice to the missions, to admit all the candidates for Orders from the Paris diocese who will be sent to them by us, and to provide whatever is necessary for their food and accommodation for the two-week period before the actual ordination days. They will also engage them in spiritual exercises (CCD:XIIIa:278-279).

These retreats involved many person. It should be remembered that beginning in 1638 candidates from the Diocese of Paris and candidates from other dioceses who resided in Paris participated in these retreats that were held six times a year. Vincent ignored the confreres of his community who had reservations about this ministry and instead, placed this work in God’s hands. Saint-Lazare, assisted in part by the Ladies of Charity, was able to cover the costs of this ministry. The same did not occur in Rome: Even though we provide room and board for [the ordinands] gratis in Paris, we cannot do so in Rome (CCD:VII:269).

The retreat revolved around norms that regulated the activity of everyone: the ordinands, those giving the conferences, and the Missionaries who lived in the house. During the retreat different material was explained: censures, the sacrament of Penance, laws and sin, the commandments, the theological virtues, the sacraments, the creed, prayer, and the manner in which one should pray, the vocation to the ecclesiastical state, identification with the priestly spirit, minor and major order, holiness of life, chant, preaching and the catechism.

During the retreat the ordinands dialogued in groups about the material presented in the different conferences. One of the Missionaries was a member of each group. The ordinands were instructed in the liturgical ceremony of Orders which they were about to receive and were also prepared to make a general confession. They recited the Divine Office together. During the meals one of the Missionaries, who resided in the house, read from a spiritual book. After each meal the retreatants had an hour of free time. After ordination, which took place on a Sunday, the newly ordained returned to their place of origin.

When the Missionaries presented their conferences they had recourse to the material contained in a pamphlet entitled, Entretiens des ordinands, a manual that was prepared with the collaboration of Vincent de Paul, Olier, Perrochel, Pavillon and others. This manual contained what each ordinand ought to know and practice in order to exercise his priestly ministry (CCD:234-242). This was the only manual that was used. At times those who gave the conferences were bishops or pastors or professors from the Sorbonne, persons who were not members of the Congregation. Very soon Vincent began to show a preference for the Missionaries as presenters of this material and he demanded that these conferences be simple, clear and practical.

Retreats for the ordinands were extended to different places throughout France: Paris (first at the Bons-Enfants and then later at Saint-Lazare), Crécy, Our Lady of Rose, Agen, Le Mans, Cahors, Saintes, Troyes, Lucon, Richelieu, Reims, Noyon and Angulema. These retreats also spread to Italy: Genoa and Rome.

Vincent showed himself to be a good organizer, one who was concerned about even the smallest detail. Each retreat had a director and two persons who gave the conferences … one presented a theme in the morning and the other spoke during the afternoon. There was a time when Vincent questions whether the ministry with the ordinands was proper to the Congregation. He feared the popular missions might become marginalized. The Archbishop of Paris was able to dispel Vincent’s doubts and in fact Vincent later requested Pope Urban VIII to include retreat ministry among those proper to the Congregation. In order to obtain firsthand knowledge and experience of these retreats distinguished personalities came to Saint-Lazare: Olier (founder of the Society of Saint Sulpice), Bossuet (a noted preacher), Jean-François de Gondi (later the cardinal of Retz).

The frequent allocutions of Vincent to the Missionaries concerning the retreats for ordinands reveal his zeal, interest and passion for this ministry. In order to open some new doors and provide a beneficial service to ecclesiastics, Vincent became fully involved in this ministry and was able to motivate the bishops and the members of his own community. His tenacity, tested during difficult moments of his life, is admirable. He frequently exhorted the members of his community to collaborate in this ministry. Desiring to obtain the best results he encouraged all the confreres to utilize every available means, even though some of these might, at first sight, appear to be insignificant … here Vincent was referring to welcoming the retreatants, respect, humility, service, creating an atmosphere of prayer and silence within the house, liturgical celebrations carried out in a prayerful manner. Given the fact that these retreats enabled the individuals to live a better life as priests, Vincent considered this ministry to be in accord with the vocation of the Mission.

It should be stated that Vincent was convinced that the retreats for ordinands were the work of God that was entrusted to the little Company. At the same time the bishops encouraged and promoted this ministry and the objective that was intended: to improve the life of ecclesiastics in order to guarantee the fruitfulness of the missions. It was for this reason that Vincent asked the community at Saint-Lazare to pray for the Lord’s blessings on this ministry so that it might be brought to a successful conclusion.

Vincent speaks

May this apostolic work be successful: We are on the eve of that great ministry God has entrusted to us … we must, on our part, put all our effort into making a success of this apostolic plan which aims at preparing future priests for Major Orders and to carry out their ministry properly; for some will become pastors, others canons, others provosts, abbots and bishops --- yes, bishops (CCD:XI:7, 8).

It is an idea that comes from God: Oh, Your Excellency, surely this is a thought that comes from God! It’s an excellent means for gradually restoring order to all the clergy of your diocese (CCD:XII:383).

Our wretched Company has made a great contribution: The secular clergy are receiving a great deal from God at present. They say that our wretched Company has made a great contribution to them by means of the ordinands and the gathering of priests in Paris … We have among the ordinands a Councillor from the Great Council, and a Master of Accounts, who wishes to remain such. They are becoming simple priests out of devotion (CCD:II:37-38).

May God bless this work: This is so difficult and lofty a work that God alone can bring about any progress in it. That is why we have to ask him constantly to bless the modest services we will be trying to render the ordinands and the words we say to them (CCD:XII:16).

Let us welcome into our houses those who desire to receive Orders: in order to perform it better, the Providence of God has added that of taking into our houses ten days before ordination those who are to take orders. We feed and support them and during that time teach them practical Theology, the ceremonies of the Church, and how to make and practice mental prayer according to the method of our blessed Father, the Bishop of Geneva. We do this for those who belong to the diocese in which we are established (CCD:I:553). We try also to help form good priests through retreats for the ordinands and through seminaries --- not to abandon the missions but to preserve the fruits produced by them (CCD:IV:49).

Be willing to give conferences: It is good for you to devote more time to the ordinands’ retreat so that you and the Company will be ready to give the conferences and hold the repetitions and not use anyone else for that purpose (CCD:II:318).

Let us receive the ordinands in our houses: At home we give spiritual retreats and receive the ordinands into our house for tens day preceding the Ember days to prepare them for Holy Orders (CCD:IV:106).

Let us maintain a spirit of humility: As long as we maintain ourselves in the spirit of humility, we have good reason to hope that God will continue to entrust us with directing the ordinands; but, once we begin to act with them as master to disciple, without respect and humility, we can say farewell to that ministry (CCD:XI:138).

The retreats for ordinands have produced many fruits: it has pleased the goodness of God to grant a very special and unimaginable blessing to our ordinands' retreat. It is such that all those who have made the retreat, or almost all, are leading lives such as ought to be led by good and perfect ecclesiastics. There are even a number of them, outstanding by reason of their birth or the other qualities which God has granted them, who are living as regular a life in their own homes as we do here, and who are as interior and even more so than many among us, were it myself alone. They live by a schedule, make mental prayer, celebrate Holy Mass, and make their examens every day as we do. They work hard visiting the hospitals and the prisons, where they teach catechism, preach, and hear confessions, as they also do in the colleges, with very special blessings from God (CCD:I:203-204).

Tuesday Conferences

The Tuesday Conferences had multiple and complementary objectives: to build upon the foundation that had been established in the diocesan seminaries and during the retreats for the ordinands, to create bonds of charity among the priests and to orient the members of these groups toward pastoral activity proper to their state.

As the priests became involved in their ministry, they also needed support in the same manner as the ordinands. There was a need for continued spiritual development and their good intentions, that were obvious at the time of their ordination, had to be preserved. At the same time it was important to prevent these priests from becoming victims of the world’s allurements. There had to be a way to preserve them on the path they had set out on and for this there was nothing better than a series of gatherings for on-going formation.

Several ecclesiastics spoke with Vincent about the possibility of forming an association of priests that would help them to live in a manner that was appropriate to their vocation. They proposed gathering at Saint-Lazare in order to reflect on the virtues and the functions proper to them as priests. Vincent saw the hand of God in all of this and as can be observed in the bull that established the Congregation of the Mission, Vincent took ownership of this proposal of on-going formation: They do their best to have these rectors of parish churches meet together once a month, when this can be done conveniently be reason of proximity and without detriment to their responsibilities, to treat cases of conscience and administration of the sacraments (CCD:XIIIa:299). He hoped that this idea, applied to the diocesan clergy, would provide many advantages. He submitted a report about this proposal to the Archbishop of Paris and in 1633 this idea was approved.

At every moment this ministry was seen as most important for the Mission. God wanted to use the Congregation in order to initiate these conferences among the priests. Vincent recalled that fifty years ago Cardinal Sourdis brought priests together in Bordeaux in order to study different aspects of moral theology (CCD:XI:10-11), but not to reflect on the virtues proper to the priestly state. Thus Vincent de Paul established these conferences in order to assist the priests as they reflected on their life and also in order to make them aware of the evils that they needrf to guard against. The Congregation of the Mission could not underestimate such as effective means: If there are any persons alive who are obliged to make good use of and benefit from conferences, I think they are the priests of the Congregation of the Mission because God has turned to them to introduce into the world of the clergy this manner of discussing particular virtues in this way. When I came to Paris, I had never seen anything like these conferences, at least on the virtues proper to their particular state and how to live their vocation well … God has inspired the Congregation of the Mission to stir itself up and to become devoted to the practice of virtue though the conferences (CCD:XI:10-11).

The founder of the Conferences utilized a provisional rule in which he began by pointing out that the objective of these gatherings was to honor the life of Jesus Christ, to honor his eternal priesthood and his love for the poor. He also pointed out the order that should be followed during these gatherings, the place and time of the meeting: Saint Lazare or the Bons-Enfants on Tuesday of every week. Thanks to M. Clément Dheuze we have a copy of the regulation for the members of the Tuesday Conferences in Paris that was signed on September 18, 1642 (CCD:XIIIa:140-143).

The Conferences had a director, a prefect, two assistants and a secretary. The role of director always fell upon the superior general of the Congregation. Once established in diverse places, the members related among themselves by means of visits and letters. They felt closely united around the same ideal and around Vincent de Paul. The name give to this gathering was derived from the day on which the priests met. These meetings took place every week at three in the afternoon from the feast of All Saints until Easter. At the conclusion of each gathering, the one responsible announced the theme of the next gathering. We mention here some of the themes that were used for reflection: liturgical feasts, current events in the country, the feast of All Saints, the beatitudes, lent, virtues of priest who died, causes for the Church’s decline as well as causes for the decline of the ecclesiastical state.

At Vincent’s request the tone of the interventions during these gatherings was one of simplicity, honesty, and humility … thus following the outline of the little method. These conferences spread quickly throughout France. In Paris there were two groups: one at Saint Lazare and another at Bons-Enfants where many ecclesiastics from the Sorbonne participated. These meetings were held on Thursday, a day of rest at the university. Outside of Paris there were gatherings in Puy (1636), Noyon (1637), Pontoise (1642), Angulema (1647), Angers, Bordeaux and other places.

Apostolic works

The members of these conferences, beside seeking to develop their spiritual life, were guided by Vincent as they engaged in various apostolic works (some works were permanent while others were temporary). At times the priests collaborated with the Missionaries in preaching popular missions and at other times the priests organized their own popular missions. They also took responsibility for providing pastoral assistance at the Hotel-Dieu where they catechized and prepared the infirm to make a general confession. The role of director of the General Hospital fell upon a priest from the Conference and the other priests supported the Sunday ministry at the hospital.

Outside of Paris, through the collaboration between the Missionaries of the Congregation and the priests who were members of the Conferences, missions were given during the years 1634-1637 on the lands that surrounded the Abbey of Pébrac where Olier resided. Speaking about this experience M. Olider wrote to Vincent: Paris, Paris, you are detaining people who might be converting a number of worlds! Alas! how many good works without fruit, how many false conversions and holy sermons lost for the want of the dispositions that God is pouring out elsewhere! Here, one word is a sermon and nothing seems useless to us. Here, the prophets have not been murdered; I mean that their preaching has not been despised as in the cities (CCD:I:325).

We should also remember two other missions that were given in Paris. The first, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, took place during January and February, 1638 and the Missionaries of the Congregation and the priests from the Tuesday Conferences participated in this mission. The members of the royal court, including the monarchs, were present during the mission and despite the difficulties, the mission was seen as a success: The mission in Saint•Germain is coming to a close with a blessing although, in the beginning, they had occasion to practice the holy virtue of patience. There are very few in the King's household who have not gone to confession with the people, and with a devotion worthy of giving edification … I had great difficulty sending men to that place while the court was in residence but, since His Majesty had done me the honor of informing me that he wanted it that way, we had to surmount our difficulties (CCD:I:441-442).

The second mission took place in 1641 at Saint-Germain des-Pres. This was a neighborhood that had a bad reputation because many marginalized individuals gathered together there. On several occasions Vincent invited the members of the Conference to undertake this mission but he was greeted with silence. Vincent knelt before them and again begged them to engage in this mission and received a positive response. The priests took responsibility for this mission and with Vincent’s guidance they adopted a simple style of preaching. A miracle was produced as everyone sought forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.

During a period of two and a half months a mission was given in the city of Metz and as a result of this a conference of priests was established in that place.

On different occasions Vincent had recourse to the members of the Conferences when he needed preachers for the retreats for ordinands and retreats for the priests.

The Tuesday Conferences proved to be very successful and the participants included priests, pastors, professors and students from the Sorbonne, as well as some bishops (Louis Abelly among others). Vincent stated: There is not a single one of the members of the Conference who meet here who is not an exemplary man. They are all working with unparalleled success (CCD:XI:8). Among the participants in the conferences some twenty became bishops. The Conferences continued to function until the end of the eighteenth century and these groups proved to be very unique institutions.

Vincent de Paul praised the members of the Tuesday Conferences and saw these priests as a complement to the Congregation: If the plan regarding the bishops-elect were to succeed, that would be splendid. Those who have been trained here stand out among the other prelates, so much so, that everyone, all the way up to the King, notices something different about them. This is why His Majesty has informed me through his confessor that I should send him the list of those who seem apt for this dignity (CCD:II:427). Both entities (the Congregation and the Confraternities) pursued the same objectives: the formation of ecclesiastics and the evangelization of the poor.

Vincent initiated the Tuesday Conferences and was convinced of their importance in reforming the clergy. He invested much energy in this ministry and involved the bishops, his own confreres and the diocesan clergy in this work. Once again we see his ingenuity and his tenacity as he moved forward with this new project. Viewing this ministry as one that was desired by God, Vincent persevered in this work.

Actually we could classify the Tuesday Conferences as gatherings for on-going formation or for reflection on the meaning of priestly spirituality. Various people were involved in this initiative and no one had foreseen the establishment of this work. According to Vincent this was a work of God and as a result the Congregation of the Mission took on a new responsibility … one that God desired. Vincent was very concerned about this ministry. A large number of the participants were from among the most distinguished members of the clergy. Perhaps this was the reason that simple procedures and methods proved to be so pleasing to them. The director (Vincent) placed two challenges before the members: group reflection on themes related to priestly life and ministry and the promotion of pastoral activities, especially new missions.

As happened before, Vincent created an enthusiasm among the Missionaries for this ministry. He reminded them that as a new ministry this work had the support of the bishops and that these conferences had been initiated in various dioceses. Vincent was impressed and moved by the evolution of these conferences. Many participants in these meetings expressed their satisfaction with the results that they had obtained. At the same time the objectives of the Congregation and the Conferences seemed to coincide with one another. Both entities were concerned about priestly formation and the evangelization of the poor. The Tuesday Conferences were a complement to the Congregation of the Mission.

As we listen to Vincent’s evaluation of the Tuesday Conferences we are able to appreciate his concern and his zeal for the reform of the clergy through these conferences.

It is a new work: Until we began it, nothing was done on the virtues proper to one’s state among members of the clergy like us --- or at least I never saw or heard of it (CCD:XI:11).

We are obliged to serve them: It is to this insignificant Congregation that God has been pleased to turn in this age in order to establish it outside the Community, not only as a fitting antidote for good priests, who, in the service of souls, remain exposed to the corrupt air of the world but also to help them to become more perfect in their vocation (CCD:XI:11).

In all simplicity let us follow the “little method”: The Company of externs that comes to hold conferences at Saint-Lazare makes profession of dealing with subjects in a simple way. As soon as someone brings forward more doctrine or embellishes his language, people immediately complain to me to do something about it. The last person who complained was M. Tristan, a doctor in theology (CCD:II:264-265).

Nothing moves me more: I must confess that, in my own experience, nothing touches me more or moves me so deeply; and nothing of what I hear, read, or see makes a great impression on me than these conferences (CCD:XI:11).

The gathering of priests in this city continues to get better: The priests' assembly in this city keeps on getting better and better, it seems to me. Three bishops have just been drawn from among them: M. Godeau for Grasse, M. Fouquet for Bayonne, M. Pavilion for Alet (CCD:I:413).

The prelates have high regard for these gatherings: The prelates of the Assembly have taken the resolution of establishing clerical conferences in their diocese and have been pleased to adopt our own system (CCD:II:614).

The virtue of simplicity is very visible there: Sometimes at the Tuesday Conference, which is composed of secular priests, talks are given that discuss the spirit of that same group; most of them ---almost all --- used to say that the spirit of simplicity was easily perceived there. That is true, and anyone who sees how they act would say that simplicity reigns there, for each man relates simply and before God his thoughts on the topic that has been proposed (CCD:XII:247).

I cannot participate in the conference at Bons-Enfants: The condition of my legs, which is getting worse, is the reason why I am no longer allowed to go to the meeting,• now that it is being held at the Bons-Enfants. The five conferences since All Saints' Day were on the first five beatitudes, and they are supposed to continue with the other three, following the usual method (CCD:VII:405).

Virtues of the deceased Jean-Jacques Olier: those priests who meet here chose as the topic of their discussion last Tuesday what each one had noted about the virtues of the late Abbé Olier, who was a member of their Company (CCD:XI:350).

Fifteen conferences to evaluate the state of the Church: Fifteen conferences were held here to find the cause of the wretched state of the Church and the clergy, so attached to possessions and the desire to accumulate wealth (CCD:XII:304).

Reflection on the meaning of Lent: I was made aware of that recently in one of the conferences for those men who meet here. The topic of their discussion was what should be done to spend the time of Lent in a holy manner. It was a very common topic that they were accustomed to discuss every year (CCD:XI:80).

Collaboration during the popular missions: Several good priests --- most of whom are members of our Tuesday Conferences --- left Paris to go to other towns to give missions as well (CCD:VIII:366).

In Italy: The desire of the members of the Genoa Conference to have a priest of the Company present for their talks. M. Blatiron will bring a copy of the rules and practices observed by the Paris group. When it has been read by those members, you and he will see with them what adaptations will have to be made for this association (CCD:IV:229).

A gathering modeled on that of Paris. M. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet wrote to Vincent and stated: God has been pleased to establish here a company closely modeled on yours, since God in His goodness allowed the Rules for it to be found among the papers of that excellent servant of Gad, M. Blampignon. It is looking forward to the honor of having you as Superior, since we have been led to hope for the favor of being associated with that of Saint-Lazare and that you and those priests will approve this (CCD:VII:170).

A gathering of priests in Pontoise: The little company of the Pontoise conference of priests has urged me to write to you to express the satisfaction we all feel about our little meetings (CCD:II:283).

As Vincent was dying he blessed the Tuesday conferences. A short time before he departed this world Vincent was asked by M. Dehorgny to bless the Tuesday conference and the clergy who participated in these gatherings. Vincent responded affirmatively. It was as though Vincend had culminated his lengthy journey as the director of the Tuesday Conferences. He had created them and had accompanied them with extraordinary zeal.

Vincent de Paul collaborated in the reform of the clergy through retreat for ordinands, the Tuesday Conferences, seminaries, and retreats for the clergy and laity.


Saint-Lazare often received priests who went there to make a personal retreat. Vincent organized times of retreat for groups of priests and other individuals who wanted to reform their lives as priests or laypersons. In the practical order few lay persons took advantage of this opportunity. Vincent opened the doors of Saint-Lazare to every class of people.

Spiritual retreats existed in the Church in advance of the seventeenth century. It was Ignatius of Loyola who gave a new structure to retreats. Vincent in a certain sense made retreats a more common experience as he offered refuge to everyone who wanted to pause and reflect and evaluate their life as a Christian.

There were retreats in which only the clergy participated and at other times the participants were lay persons and still at other times both the clergy and laity participated together. These were individuals who wanted to reform their life and make a general confession.

The practice began at the Bons-Enfants and was continued in other houses of the Congregation, especially in Saint-Lazare and in Rome. There were a large number of participants in these retreats. According to Louis Abelly, Saint-Lazare alone received 700-800 persons a year. From 1635 until the time of Vincent’s death 20,000 retreatants had been welcomed at Saint-Lazare.

Let us pause and contemplate Vincent as he confronts this new challenge. No one had thought of the retreats. It was a work of God’s providence. Many clergy and lay persons came to Saint Lazare to put some order in their life as Christians, to make a general confession, and to place themselves on the path of salvation. Vincent warned the Missionaries about the possibility of discouragement and the loss of their original zeal. He invited them to thank God for the opportunity to be able to exercise a ministry that was helpful to so many people. The retreats were like a continual mission and in fact many clergymen and lay people took advantage of the hospitality that Vincent offered.

The retreats involved a significant financial burden. The majority of the retreatants had to be provided with free lodging and meals. Such was the situation at Saint-Lazare and the other houses of the Congregation. Vincent also had to confront those confreres who complained about the financial expenses. On one occasion, a Brother, who saw the house filled with visitors, told Vincent that the number of retreatants was excessive. Vincent responded and said: Brother, this is because they want to be saved … if we had thirty years to exist, but because of receiving so many retreatants would be able to manage for only fifteen years, we should not stop receiving them because of that (CCD:XII:385).

Vincent frequently exhorted the confreres to bear with the inherent problems of having so many people in the house and to have a high regard for the retreat ministry. He felt obliged to motivate the Missionaries in order to assure the continuation of this ministry.

Vincent’s zeal is revealed once again as he began this new ministry of retreats that were open to everyone. The retreatants approached the houses of the Congregation in search of a higher good: salvation. For Vincent this motivation, this search for salvation, was decisive. Despite the financial difficulties he moved forward with courage and perseverance and his enthusiasm proved to be contagious as other Missionaries became involved in this ministry.

Once again we have recourse to the various testimonies that reveal Vincent’s incredible spirit and his passionate concern for a ministry that he believed in ex toto corde.

God has called us for this: The Company began without this intention and with no thought of having these retreats; nevertheless, it crept in imperceptibly … according to Saint Augustine, practices whose authors are unknown come from the Apostles and consequently, from God. The same is true for this retreat ministry, for it has no author --- God is the author (CCD:XI:142-143).

Saint-Lazare is the theater of mercy: Let us thank God a million times, my dear confreres, for having been pleased to choose the Saint-Lazare house to be a theater of his mercies (CCD:XI:14).

Many come here: How highly we must esteem the grace God grants us of bringing to us so many persons in order to help them work out their salvation! There are even many soldiers who come here, and one of them said to me a short time ago, “Monsieur, I will soon have to go into certain situations, and I want to put myself in a good state beforehand” … By the grace of God, we now have in this house a good number of persons on retreat (CCD:XI:12).

The laity are received in this house: Others come from ten, twenty, or fifty leagues away for this purpose, not only to recollect here and to make a general confession but to decide on a choice of life in the world and to take the means of saving themselves in it (CCD:XI:13).

Clergy from everywhere come here: We also see a number of pastors and other clergy who come here from everywhere to set themselves aright in their vocation and to advance in the spiritual life (CCD:XI:13).

We are willing to receive all these individuals in a charitable manner: All of them come without having to worry about bringing any money with them, knowing that they will be well received without it. Speaking of that, someone was telling me lately that, for those who do not have any, it was a great consolation to know that there was a place in Paris that was always ready to take them in through charity, whenever they presented themselves with a genuine intention to put themselves on better terms with God (CCD:XI:13). It is true that this is a great expense, but the money cannot be put to any better use, and, if the house goes into debt, God will know how to get us out of it, as we have good reason to hope from his Providence and his infinite goodness (CCD:XII:385-386).

A day will come when there is no longer any interest in this work: Let me tell you, my dear confreres, that I fear that the time may come when it will no longer have the zeal which, until now, has caused it to welcome so many persons for retreat. And then what would happen? There would be reason to fear that God might now only withdraw from the Company the grace of this ministry but even deprive it of all the others (CCD:XI:12). So, the priest of the Mission, who formerly would have given life to the dead, will no longer have anything but the name and appearance of what they once were (CCD:XI:14). This Mission, which is now like a beneficial pool, where so many come to bathe, will be nothing but a cistern contaminated by the laxity and idleness of the men who live in it (CCD:XI:14)

The grace of perseverance: Vincent de Paul personally asked for divine assistance and requested the Missionaries to ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Lazarus, for the gift of perseverance in the ministry of retreats, a ministry loved by God (CCD:XI:14).

Diocesan Seminaries

In order to renew the clergy Vincent promoted the three works that we have just explained. These means, which in themselves were good, did not produce the desired results. It was the seminaries that would improve the situation of the clergy in a definitive manner. This being the case, Vincent became aware of the need to provide for the young men who experienced a call to the ecclesiastical state. Thus in accord with the teaching of the Council of Trent and mindful of the Church's situation in France, Vincent collaborated in the promotion of diocesan seminaries.

At the same time Vincent viewed the ministry of seminaries as an indispensable complement to the popular missions. The popular missions in the rural areas enkindled the fire of faith, but who would keep the embers burning after the missionaries left the area? Without a doubt good priests were needed. To preach a mission in a particular parish without providing the people with worthy priests was doing only half the work. The formation of competent priests was necessary in order to guarantee the fruits of the mission.

It should be remembered that from the beginning popular missions and the formation of the clergy were seen as activities proper to the Congregation of the Mission: Our Institute has only two principal ends, namely, the instruction of poor people in rural areas, and seminaries (CCD:III:273).

Occasionally some Missionaries complained because instead of dedicating their time to the popular missions Vincent had them ministering in seminaries: Do you not know, Monsieur, that we are as much obliged to form good priests as to instruct country people and that a priest of the Mission who wants to do one but not the other is only half a Missionary, since he has been sent to do both? (CCD:VII:577).

The Vincentian Community, established to provide popular missions, in no way distanced itself from its objective when it added the formation of the clergy to its fundamental ministry. Quite the opposite ... the evangelization of the poor would be truly effective when the people were provided with good pastors.

Again Vincent acts

The Council of Trent referred to seminaries that would receive adolescents who were at least twelve years of age. In conformity with the decision of the Council of Trent, Vincent, in 1636, established a seminary at Bons-Enfants. On May 14, 1644, with deep regret, Vincent expressed his dissatisfaction with the results: Experience shows nevertheless that the manner of carrying it out with regard to the age of seminarians has not been successful either in Italy or in France. Some left before the time, others had no inclination for the clerical life (CCD:II:505). Despite this reality Vincent did not abandon the minor seminary but rather continued to abide by the decision of Trent: The Council’s ruling is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit (CCD:II:505).

Nevertheless, Vincent began at the Bons-Enfants another type of seminary that received young men who were twenty years of age or older. It is quite another story to take them from twenty to twenty-five or thirty years of age (CCD:II:506). Thus the young men in the minor and major seminary lived together at the Bons-Enfants. In 1645 because of a lack of space, Vincent decided to move the minor seminary to a place adjacent to Saint-Lazare which was called the little Saint-Lazare and soon thereafter, in remembrance of the great bishop of Milan, was renamed Saint Charles Seminary. But again the results of this seminary were seen as unsatisfactory because of the lack of perseverance on the part of these young men. Vincent stated: I see so many reasons against this that I doubt very much it is feasible (CCD:V:565). Yet still Vincent maintained the minor seminary with the hope of using this "suspect means" in order to provide good priests to the diocese.

In 1642 the idea of establishing seminaries for young men who were at least twenty years old became widespread throughout France. Vincent de Paul was in accord with this plan. A considerable number of ecclesial entities, the Oratorians, the Sulpicians, the Eudists and a number of bishops decided to create new seminaries. Without a doubt Vincent made a significant contribution to this effort. After many different experiments it was felt that two or three years of preparation was needed for those who desired to become priests. These seminaries would receive individuals promoted to orders or willing to receive orders in a short period of time. At this time Vincent received at the Bons-Enfants young men who aspired to the priesthood as well as priests who wanted to complete their formation.

This type of seminary did not demand the exclusive dedication of the Missionaries When no classes were being given at the University, the Missionaries were engaged in popular missions in the rural areas. Vincent wanted to establish the Congregation in those places where it was possible to engage in both ministries, popular missions and the formation of the clergy ... this enabled the Congregation to remain faithful to its purpose and enabled the Missionaries, involved in the ministry of formation, to dedicate some of their time to preaching popular missions.

The many initiatives in support of the creation of seminaries in France had the political and economic support of Cardinal Richelieu. Vincent received a sum of money to establish the seminary at Bons-Enfants.

Schools to form good pastors

According to Vincent, the seminary was not intended to attain the same prestige as the schools of philosophy and theology. Rather the fundamental purpose of the seminary was to form the aspirants in priestly virtues and instruct them in their ministerial functions: celebration of the Eucharist, administration of the sacrament and knowledge of moral theology in order to exercise the ministry of reconciliation. The intellectual preparation of these individuals remained in the hands of the various university faculties. Vincent de Paul did not pretend to form "intellectuals" but was concerned about forming pious and practical men for the ministry. Therefore two or three Missionaries were sufficient to fulfill the ministry in the seminary. The Missionaries would have to form them in the true spirit of their state that consists especially in the interior life and the practice of prayer and the virtues. It is not enough to teach them chant, ceremonies, and a little moral theology; what is important is to form them to solid piety and devotion (CCD:IV:570). Occasionally when there were no philosophical or theological centers nearby the seminaries were obliged to include certain speculative subjects in their program. Over the course of time and despite Vincent's objections, this occasional situation became the established norm: I still persist in the thought that it is advisable to accept only priests or individuals who are in Orders, and that we should not teach them the sciences, but rather the use of them, in the way we do with the ordinands (CCD:II:214).

It is preferable to use a proven author

Vincent opted for a particular style of teaching. He was not in favor of a professor utilizing and dictating his own notes. He preferred that they use an accepted authors and explain this author in a manner that would enable the students to learn. In this regard there were occasions when there were misunderstandings between Vincent and some professors. Some of the Missionaries felt it was too simplistic to repeat what they found written in some manual. What is most certain is that Vincent did not want the customs of the universities to become the norm in the seminaries. M. Cooding prove to be most reticent in this regard. Vincent wrote him a lengthy letters and tried to convince him that it was better to explain a subject by using an accepted authors (CCD:II:261-268). Those who, after having consulted one or more authors, wrote their own notes and dictated them in class could be ridiculed by the students if they discovered what authors were being used (CCD:II:262-265). In addition, Vincent reminded M. Cooding that this was the common practice in the Spanish schools and universities. They did not compose or dictate their own notes but explained their subject by using a known author: What shall we say about the universities in Spain where they do not know what it is to dictate in class and there they are content to interpret? Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the theologians there are more profound than elsewhere (CCD:II:266).

Seminaries adopted by Vincent

The seminaries administered by the Missionaries followed the Rule that was written by Vincent in 1645 ... it was a very demanding rule. Much of its content was taken from the Common Rules of the Congregation: meditation and praying the Divine Office, examination of conscience and reading the New Testament, celebration of the Eucharist, four hours of class, recreation, chant class, practice of ceremonies, cleaning the house, manual labor. By living this rule those who were in formation accepted a lifestyle that was oriented toward the creation of habits of work and piety and therefore in the future they would be able to guard against becoming relaxed in these areas.

Annecy (1642), Bons-Enfants and Saint Charles ... the houses established between 1643-1659 had two ministries, popular missions and priestly formation in the various diocesan seminaries: Cahors, Adge, Saintes, Le Mans, Saint Méen, Tréguier, Montauban, Agen, Troyes, Meaus and Narbona (1659). The seminaries at Alet, Marsella, Perigueux and Montpellier were administered for a brief period of time and the functioning of the seminaries varied from place to place: some admitted adolescents (CCD:III:372), other had few vocations (CCD:V:625-627), the seminary at Cahors was always prosperous. Alain de Solminihac wrote to Vincent and stated: I also thought you would have been consoled to see our seminary, where you would have found thirty-five seminarians who would have given you satisfaction. Your men who have seen it say that it is the finest in the kingdom, and someone recently told me that good order is observed there even better than in Paris (CCD:III:461). In the different seminaries the number of seminarians fluctuated (CCD:III:174-175). The numbers, however, are quite impressive especially when we consider the fact that the seminaries had just begun to function.

Once again Vincent de Paul placed all his efforts at the service of the ministry of priestly formation ... a formation that was broader in scope than previous schema. At all times Vincent avoided acting alone. Thus he motivated his Missionaries to discover the value of priestly formation through their ministry in diocesan seminaries. He utilized various means: exhortations, repetition of prayer, conferences, and letters. At the same time this ministry of formation was seen as proper to the Congregation. The bishops, as they established seminaries in their dioceses, needed help. Vincent considered this situation as a call from God that was being extended to the Congregation. The priests, formed in the seminaries, would be the ones who, in the future, would guarantee the perseverance of the people in their faith. The missionaries who were destined for the seminaries would be learned men but above all else they would be fervent priests because no one can give what they do not possess. Vincent's zeal, or, that which is the same, his interest and commitment to this ministry, led him to accept a large number of diocesan seminaries. He created a unique form of seminary. He proposed that in these seminaries the young men should be taught to use the knowledge they had acquired and then clothe themselves in the virtues necessary for priestly ministry.

Let us now listen to some of Vincent's words with regard to the collaboration of the Missionaries in the ministry of priestly formation in the seminaries:

It is the best way to reform the ecclesiastical state: The most agreeable news you can give me is that God is pleased to bless the seminary and increase its numbers, both because of the obligation of your house to devote itself to this good work and procure its advancement and because it is the only way to reform the ecclesiastical state, fallen so far from its pristine perfection (CCD:VI:444).

Seminaries for adolescents do not produce good results: The Council's ruling is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit. Experience shows nevertheless that the manner of carrying it out with regard to the age of seminarians has not been successful either in Italy or in France (CCD:II:505).

Some exceptions are possible: It is another thing to find in the mission intelligent, pious children who ask to become members of our Company, for I think it would be well to give them a try (CCD:V:565).

The bishops want seminaries for young men. Thus God will make use of this Company: for the common people, through the missions; for the clergy who are starting out, through ordinations; for those who are already priests, by not admitting to benefices or vicariates anyone who has not made his retreat and been instructed in the seminary; and for benefactors, through the spiritual exercises (CCD:II:173).

Our Institute is engaged in two ministries: You must not neglect seminary work to make the missions your chief affair alone both are equally important, and you are under the same obligation to each of them --- I mean that the whole family, which was founded for both purposes. Please take them equally to heart, Monsieur (CCD:V:494). Do you not know, Monsieur, that we are as much obliged to form good priests as to instruct country people and that a priest of the Mission who wants to do one but not the other is only half a Missionary, since he has been sent to do both? (CCD:VII:577). Forming good pastors and diocesan priests who will subsequently go to instruct the poor people in rural areas and exhort them to lead good lives is, indirectly, to work for their salvation. At least this should be our intention and our hope. (CCD:V:88).

We accept houses with two ministries, but there are some exceptions: it is not expedient for us to take any establishments of this type that do not provide for at least two priests who work in the missions. Otherwise, the plan of assisting the poor would come to nothing (CCD:II:506). If you say that in Cahors we only run the seminary, I admit that … it is the only one of our houses involved with the seminary alone; all the others, thank God, give missions as well (CCD:IV:49).

Some minor seminaries: The diversity is apparent in the fact that we are devoted to the service of the poor common people and of the clergy; to the latter through retreats for those preparing for Holy Orders, others for young boys aspiring to the priesthood, as in the seminaries of the Petit Saint-Lazare, Saint Méen, Le Mans, and the two we are going to open in Agen (CCD:III:372).

The theology taught at Bons-Efants is of little use: I heard that the scholastic theology being taught at Bons-Enfants is of little or no use; and I thought about eliminating it, especially since they go from the coll?ge to [the Coll?ge de] Navarre or the Sorbonne to study scholastic theology. So, two classes of moral theology should be taught and give them practice in the functions (CCD:XIIIa:200).

You do the work of the Holy Spirit: Oh! how fortunate you are to be the instrument of Our Lord in forming good priests … in this you do the work of the Holy Spirit. Who alone enlightens and inflames hearts (CCD:VI:360).

Despite your age, a formator in the seminary: My soul is deeply moved when I think of you and of the choice He made of placing you, young as you are, in such a lofty ministry as that of leading priests to perfection. I thank Our Lord for having merited this grace for you, and ask Him to fulfill in you His eternal plans (CCD:III:136). Continue, dear Brother, to give yourself entirely to God to procure His glory and the salvation of your neighbor and to work for the poor people by forming good seminarians, who will be the light of the world and the dispensers of the treasures of heaven and earth (CCD:III:464).

No one gives what they do not possess: One of the things required most in a seminary, as experience shows, is to have spiritual persons of deep piety to inspire the seminarians with this spirit, for no one can give what he does not have (CCD:VI:71).

Better to use an approved author than to dictate your own notes: We had serious consultation with seven men of the Company regarding the matter of dictation. Five of them hold a negative opinion, so we shall continue to interpret an author without dictating, as we have successfully begun to do. These are the reasons: The first is taken from the standpoint of the knowledge one wishes to impart, which will be more reliable than that taken from the writings of an individual, since it is that of an approved author. The second, from the standpoint of the prelates and the public, who would much prefer an approved and selected author rather than the writings of a young man who has proven his capabilities only during his studies. The third, from the standpoint of the Company, because it has more subjects who will be able to interpret an author than men who will be able to compose and dictate; and thus it will be able to serve the Church in more places and be less subject to envy. The fourth comes from those who will do the teaching, for whom it will be much easier, whatever people say, to interpret rather than to compose and dictate (CCD:II:269).

A parish together with a seminary: True, we have objected to taking responsibility for parishes, especially in episcopal towns and in places where there is a Parlement or Presidial Court, but experience has taught us that wherever there is a seminary, it is good for us to have a parish to train the seminarians, who learn parish functions better by practice than by theory. We have the example of this in Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, where all the priests who leave there are ready to serve in a parish because they have had practice in that one. For lack of a similar experience, those at the Bons-Enfants Seminary are not so ready, although we have tried to train them for this (CCD:VII:268).


Congratulations Vincent de Paul! We applaud you. You were a good man! Even after a long and difficult journey, even after seventy-five years of life you were not complacent and you proclaimed the following words: I cannot restrain myself and must tell you quite simply that … in the midst of my petty infirmities [I wish] to go and finish my life near a bush, working in some village. I think I would be very happy to do so (CCD:V:204). Your zeal and your concern to do good to all those who were your neighbor, to your brother priests, was beyond all imagination. There was great reason to refer to you as a hardened worker. We know this; we recognize this; we admire it. You gave us an example.


[1] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2012l. Future reference to this thirteen volume work will be noted with the letters CCD, followed by the volume number, and then the page number, for example, CCD:XIIIb:3. These reference will appear in the text.

Translated by: Charles T. Plock, CM