Vincent de Paul and the Church

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 35-42. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].

Presentation of the theme

Vincent’s vision of church as the people of God was formed as a result of his experience in different ministerial positions and this vision of Church was quite different from the Church in which he had engaged in a search for a benefice (a position that would enable him to rejoice in an honorable retirement), quite different from the church in which he wanted to take his place among the hierarchy.

Vincent felt himself called and sent to serve the sick poor in the hospitals, the poor who lived in the rural areas, the galley slaves and prisoners locked up in dungeons, abandoned children, beggars and the elderly, nobles who has lost everything, people in those areas of the country that had been devastated by war, the clergy who had inadequate preparation, bishops who were overwhelmed by their pastoral obligations, unfaithful nations that awaited the proclamation of the gospel. Each one of these groups of people eventually became part of Vincent’s image of the people of God … and all of these people were called to constitute the church.

Even though Vincent first viewed the church from a hierarchical perspective, nevertheless God led Vincent along a path that enabled him to see the Church from a different perspective. The church cannot be identified with the gold and fine silk and wool worn by the cardinals/bishops nor can it be identified with the large landholdings of the monasteries … rather the church identifies herself with the body and blood and the sufferings and the misery of the people. The people of God, often without being aware of it, are intimately related to the mystery of the life, sufferings, death and glorification of the Son of God.

Called to become a member of the Council of Conscience, Vincent was ever mindful of the Church as the people of God, as the poor people of God, especially when he participated in appointing bishops who would serve these men and women.

Vincent had encountered the Son of God in his agony and on the cross … the mystical body of Christ was not a theological abstraction but a reality to which Vincent had dedicated his life. He continually reminded both the rich and the poor of the fact that the Church, beginning with “the little ones”, is a community of the children of God.

Vincent and the church

Ordained in 1600 Vincent did not have any real pastoral experience until 1612 when he was in Clichy. During the first years of his priesthood he tried to establish relationships with the nobles and the wealthy and viewed the church as a hierarchical society in which he hoped to occupy a permanent position … perhaps even become a bishop. Slowly, however, as a result of various pastoral experiences, his vision of the church was purified, deepened and broadened..

The experience in Clichy (1612) – the discovery of “the people”

Even though the events had occurred some forty years before, Vincent spoke about the occurrences in Clichy as some of the greatest graces and discoveries in his life. His priesthood seemed to recover meaning and strength as he found himself in the midst of the people of God. He no longer aspired to ecclesiastical honors but considered himself to be happier than Cardinal de Retz and the Pope, himself: I was once a country Pastor (a pretty miserable Pastor!). I had such good people, who were so obedient in doing what I asked of them that, when I told them they should come to confession on the first Sunday of the month, they didn't fail to do it. They came to confession, and I saw from day to day the progress these souls were making. That gave me so much consolation, and I was so pleased with it, that I used to say to myself, “Mon Dieu! how happy you are to have such good people!” … And one day Cardinal de Retz asked me, “Monsieur, how are you?” I said to him, “Your Eminence, I can't tell you how happy I am.” “Why?” he asked. “Because I have such good people, so obedient to all that I tell them that it seems to me that neither the Holy Father nor you, Eminence, are as happy as I am.” (CCD:IX:507-508).

The experience in Gannes-Folleville (1617) – “the role of the poor in the church”

We are all familiar with the events in Gannes-Folleville. Vincent reacted quickly and the preaching of missions was multiplied but several years were needed to grasp the importance and the significance of this outreach of evangelization to the poor. The following passage offers us an insight into this process and it deals with an encounter with a Huguenot in Montmirail (CCDXI:28-30). The man stated his objection: You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see the rural Catholics abandoned to pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other, we see towns filled with priests and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I’ll never believe it (CCD:XI:28).

We see from the text that Vincent was impressed with those words and realized that his own words would not convince this man. Therefore, the following year, Vincent de Paul returned to Montmirail with M. Feron, at that time a Bachelor of Theology, and later a Doctor of the Sorbonne and Archdeacon of Chartres; M. Duchesne, a Doctor at the same faculty and Archdeacon of Beauvais; and some priests and religious among his friends. He was coming to give the mission in that place and in the neighboring villages. The heretic was curious enough to attend the sermons and catechism lessons; he saw the care that was taken to instruct those who did not know the truths necessary for their salvation, the charity with which the priests adapted themselves to the weakness and slowness of mind of the most unrefined, and the marvelous effects the zeal of the Missioners brought about in the heart of the greatest sinners. Moved to tears, he went to find the saint and said to him, "Now I see that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Roman Church, since such care is taken in the instruction and salvation of poor village people; I’m ready to enter it whenever it will please you to receive me." Vincent concluded: Oh! What a happiness for our Missioners, to verify the guidance of the Holy Spirit on His Church by working, as we do, at the instruction and sanctification of poor persons! (CCD:XI:29-30)

This text, especially the conclusion, reveals the way in which the missions, that were begun in Folleville, took on, in the eyes of Vincent, a dimension of Church. In other words, the evangelization of the poor became a characteristic of the church, a criteria and sign of the reality that the church was indeed guided by the Holy Spirit.

The experience in Châtillon – the laity

According to Vincent’s account, it appears that the significant factor in this new experience was the immediate and generous response of the laity to his exhortation (August 20, 1617): I made a strong plea, speaking with such feeling that all the ladies were touched by it. More than fifty of them set out from the town, and I did the same. When I visited him, I found him in such a state that I judged it wise to hear his confession. As I was taking the Blessed Sacrament to him, I met the ladies returning in droves, and God gave me this thought: Couldn't these good ladies be brought together and encouraged to give themselves to God to serve the sick poor? As a follow-up, I pointed out to them that these great needs could very easily be alleviated. They immediately resolved to see to it (CCD:IX:165-166). After dinner a meeting was held in the home of a good townswoman to see what help could be given them, and everyone present felt urged to go to visit them, console them with their words, and do what they could to help them. After Vespers, I took with me an upright citizen of the town, and we set out together to go there. Along the way, we met some women who had gone before us and, a little farther on, we met others who were returning home. Since it was summertime and the weather was very hot, those good ladies were sitting by the side of the road to rest and refresh themselves. In a word, Sisters, there were so many of them, you would have said it was a procession (CCD:IX:192).

We are aware of the repercussions and the consequences of this new pastoral experience (Confraternities, Daughters of Charity, Ladies of Charity …). Vincent clearly understood the place and the role of the laity in the Church … and he involved countless men and women in service on behalf of those poor men and women.

The experience in Beauvais (1628) – the ministries of service

Vincent also realized the importance of the service role of the priest (the priest was also a members of the people of God). He went to Beauvais where he conducted the first retreat for ordinands. The Tuesday Conferences (1633) and his position as a member of the Council of Conscience (1643) allowed him to extend his action and his influence over the Church of France. Here we make four references.

Vincent wrote to a lawyer from Luval who viewed the priesthood as a career: I would consider it a matter of conscience to do anything to have you take Holy Orders, especially priesthood, because it is a misfortune for those who enter it by the window of their own choice and not by the door of a legitimate vocation. Yet, 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 are attributed to priests (CCD:VII:479).

Vincent wrote to a Missionary who wanted to enter the Carthusians: Take also into consideration the conformity of your present life with that which Our Lord led on earth. This is your vocation, and the greatest need of the Church today is to have workers who labor to lead the majority of its children from the ignorance and vice in which they are, and to give it good priests and good pastors. That is what the Son of God came to do in the world, and you will consider yourself only too happy to be, like him and through him, engaged in this holy work (CCD:III:173).

Vincent wrote again to the same Missionary who decided to remain as a member of the Congregation: I cannot express to you the consolation my soul received from the last letter you wrote me, and from the strength of will Our Lord has given you. Indeed, Monsieur, I think that heaven itself rejoices in this for, alas! the Church has enough solitaries, by his mercy, and too many useless ones, and even more who tear her apart. Her great need is evangelical men who work to purge, enlighten, and unite her to her Divine Spouse. This is what you are doing, through his divine goodness (CCD:III:204).

Vincent also wrote to Alain de Solminihac, the bishop of Cahors, who had inquired about the way to proceed during an epidemic: There is no way, Excellency, I could express to you my distress at the sickness threatening your town, nor how humbled I am at the trust with which you are pleased to honor me. I ask God with all my heart to avert this scourge of nations from your diocese and to make me worthy of replying in his Spirit to your orders. My humble opinion is, then, Excellency, that a bishop finding himself in these circumstances should keep himself ready to provide for the spiritual and temporal needs of his entire diocese during this public calamity. He should not confine himself to one place nor busy himself with any work that might deprive him of the means of providing for others, especially since he is bishop not only of that place but also of his entire diocese. He must divide his care so well that he does not limit it to one particular section of it, unless he is unable to provide for the salvation of the souls in that part through the pastors or other priests. In that case, I think he is obliged to risk his life for their salvation and to entrust the care of the rest to God's adorable Providence. That, Excellency, is how Bishop ... one of the greatest prelates in this kingdom, acts. He has prepared his pastors to risk their lives for the salvation of their parishioners (CCD:IV:500-501).

The experience in Madagascar (1648) – until the ends of the world

The mission in Madagascar, which occupied much of Vincent’s time during his final years, constituted a high point in Vincent’s experience of Church. Beginning in 1625, the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters of Charity extended their outreach within the French empire and beyond. But with the bold move to evangelize the people of Madagascar the possibilities became limitless. Vincent, as a Christian, a priest and a missionary, felt responsible for the whole church, for all the poor people in the world.

On August 30, 1657 Vincent received the bad news about the missionaries who had been sent to Madagascar. Someone in the Company may say perhaps that Madagascar should be abandoned; flesh and blood will use that language and say that no more men should be sent there, but I’m certain that the Spirit says otherwise. Messieurs, shall we leave our good M. Bourdaise all alone there? The death of those priests will, I’m sure, astonish some ... God has called our confreres into that country, and yet some die on the way, and others shortly after arriving there. At this we must bow our heads, Messieurs, and adore the wonderful, incomprehensible ways of Our Lord. Weren’t they called to that country by God? Who can doubt it? … The members of the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith sent us the necessary faculties and even praised the Company’s zeal. Now, this is the Congregation that has authority to send men to these missions, for the Pope, in whom alone resides power to send missionaries throughout the whole world, has given it power to do so. Bishops have jurisdiction only over the territory and within the confines of their archbishoprics or bishoprics, but this Congregation has authority from the Pope to send missionaries throughout the world, and it’s sending us. Now, l ask you, isn’t that a true vocation'? Eh quoi, my dear confreres! After knowing that, could we possibly be so base and unmanly as to abandon this vineyard of the Lord to which his divine majesty has called us merely because four, five, or six men have died? And tell me what a fine army it would be if, because it lost two or three, four, or five thousand men as they say happened at the latest siege of Normandy --- it would abandon everything! What a nice sight an army of runaways and poltroons like that would be! Let’s say the same of the Mission; it would be a fine Company of the Mission if, because five or six had died, it were to abandon the Lord’s work! What a cowardly Company, attached to flesh and blood! Oh, no! I don’t think there’s a single member of the Company who has such little courage, or who isn’t ready to go to take the place of those who have died. I don’t doubt that nature may tremble a little at first, but the spirit, which has the upper hand, says, “I’m willing; God has given me the desire to go; no, this loss can’t make me abandon my resolution” (CCD:XI:372-374).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

A] Does our encounter with men and women strengthen us to live the mystery of the Church as a people, as the people of God who are on pilgrimage … a pilgrimage in which all are invited to engage?

B] How do you see the Holy Spirit as guiding the church today?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM