THE young Priest who was to become known to the world as St. Vincent de Paul, founder of modem philanthropy, missionary, Chaplain to the King’s Galleys, Father of Foundlings, originator of District Nursing and the greatest beggar of all history, was born in France in 1576. This was an age when the bitterness of the Protestant burnt deeply against the intolerant cruelty of the Catholic ; the massacre of St. Bartholomew was of recent memory. The conflict between Henry of Navarre and the Guises was still raging, the Thirty Years’ War broke out while he was a young man and the terrible struggle between the nobles of France known as the Fronde darkened his latter years. It is impossible to picture the condition of the country and the abject poverty of the peasants, a poverty which during his lifetime became acute famine. Men starved without hope, for until M. Vincent started his work no system of relief existed. Truly it was an extraordinary age in which to attempt to establish a reign of universal charity.
Vincent was brought up on a farm ; we know very little of his early life, not even when he determined to be a Priest; but he must have shown ability because his parents, small farmers living in the country near Dax, saw to his education. He was ordained in 1600 shortly after Henry of Navarre became King of France. And then an astonishing episode lights up the rather obscure beginnings of this life. In order to discharge some of his pressing debts he journeyed to Marseilles, intending to return by sea ; on his way home, however, his ship was captured by pirates and he with his companions was sold as a slave in Tunis. He remained a slave for two years. His first master was an old alchemist who took a great liking to him and taught him many secrets of his magic craft. Then he was sold again and bought by a Frenchman who had abjured his faith and become a Muslim with several wives. Vincent had not long been of their household when he converted one of these wives and made such an impression on another, that she, a Turkish woman, scolded her husband for giving up “so pure a faith ”—and with such vehemence that he decided to return to his religion and offered to set M. Vincent free and take him back to France. On their arrival the master was received into his Church and the former slave entertained by the Papal Vice-Legate from Avignon and by many Cardinals, though not for his piety but for that secret magic he had learnt in Tunis!
After this singular adventure M. Vincent came to Paris and might well have remained an obscure Priest in his little parish of Clichy, where he knew great happiness, but he was not destined for a quiet life as events were to show. In 1610, two years after his arrival in Paris, the notorious Marguerite de Valois in one of her moods of repentence, wanted an Almoner to dispense her charities and he was brought to her notice and into touch with work among the poor and the sick. Almost immediately he became a public figure, officially connected with Court life yet identified with poverty, and so a link between the rich and great and those whom M. Vincent was so proud to serve. Always we see him thus, moving from the glitter and pride of one life to the dark horror of the other, to that other life where his heart was, for all his life he dreaded the limelight as acutely as he welcomed obscurity.
He says in one of the many Conferences he gave to the Sisters of the Poor, women of the working class whom he recruited as District Nurses, and who undertook the vast toil of nursing all over France in a country ravaged by wars : “ My Daughters, if we are to do our work, we must be hidden ” and later he says : “ Remember to be quite ordinary, for it keeps us humble.” This passion to be hidden and this hunger for humility guarded him always during his enforced association with the very rich, the great nobles and princesses, an association which had to be maintained, for was he not a notorious beggar and to beg one must be near the source of wealth.
Actually, he was moved by love no matter with whom he had to deal, for he had his own method of preparing himself, a preparation he needed far more in the face of wealth than poverty. This method he said, which seemed simplicity itself, had been of great service to him ; he only saw God under various aspects, in all those persons with whom he was called upon to deal. The arrogance of the noble was a rather thicker veil than the sins and ignorance of the peasant, otherwise he was their servant because he recognised their divinity whatever disguised it. No wonder that they loved him and flocked to serve him. The superb de Rougemont, hero of innumerable duels gave up all his great wealth and embraced the life of austerity ; but it was not enough, he had also to break the sword he treasured to satisfy the love with which the Saint had filled him. And princesses carried soup through the streets of Paris until M. Vincent had organised his Sisters of the Poor; then he left it to the Ladies of Charity to collect vast funds by which half the population of France was later to be saved from starvation. Indeed there was no end to the miracles that were worked by him. Service in obscurity, love of men through love of God and a passion for humility are all part of his secret alchemy, but there are other formulas in the long preparation of this Saint who did not start his real work until he was nearly fifty.
A story is told that when he first lived in Paris he was wrongfully accused of theft and that he bore the shame of this with complete resignation for six years, until the real thief confessed. Clearly he had learnt more than alchemy while a slave in Tunis ; he had in fact learnt a great secret, an inner alchemy. He discovered how to prove his quality by the test of his violent experiences ; as his old master submitted ordinary metal to the heat of the furnace in order to extract the gold, M. Vincent learnt to accept every event of his life as metal accepts flame and so he was fashioned into a weapon strong enough for all the demands even his life made upon him. And his life continued for many years to offer these tests, to all of which he responded, not just by resignation but by a glad acceptance which is so much more vital in that it is recognition of an opportunity given by God rather than sad acquiescence.
He had already met de Berulle, a famous spiritual director of the time who accepted him, directed him and whom he obeyed implicitly. This was of great significance for M. Vincent knew he must grow pliant under direction if he was to fulfil his spiritual destiny, and all the subsequent events of his life shoW that from now on he gave himself to the divine purpose. As was said of him, he “ ceased to be a man who belonged to himself.”
Before many years a demand was made. De Berulle asked him to give up his quiet parish work and accept an appointment in the house of the great Philippe de Gondi, Comte de Joigny and General of the King’s Galleys. M. Vincent, in spite of his many activities was at heart a contemplative, also he dearly loved his parishioners, so when he was asked to exchange the peace of Glichy and the ordered life of a parish Priest for the racket of life in such a household and the constant demand for his services he may well have felt dismay. But acceptance was by now engrained in him and he obeyed : had he not done so his greatest work might never have been accomplished.
So he went to the great chateau of Montmirail, only one of the many houses of this tremendous family whose estates included more than eight thousand souls, and he went as tutor to their unpleasant small sons, in which capacity his biographers agree he did not excel! But he shortly became the spiritual director of Madame de Gondi and it is because he stayed at his post, or rather returned to it after flight, that his real powers are discovered. For fly he did, after four years of it. He fled from the undue reliance placed on him by Madame de Gondi and from the excessive admiration given him as the result of the famous sermon on Repentence he preached at de Folleville.
He fled to the parish of Chatillon where he again discovered the peace he had known at Clichy. And it was here that he made the first move in the creative work for which he is famous. M. Vincent had the simplicity of goodness, a simplicity akin to genius ; he was firmly convinced that the very rich had only to be told of the extreme poverty of the very poor, to give and give again ; they just did not know of it, he felt, and he had only to bring to it their attention! Such complete trust in man’s innate goodness evoked an immediate response and all through his life he never begged in vain.
He was not however destined to stay at Chatillon. Madame de Gondi, anxiously seeking his return, wrote the most agonising appeals which failed to move him, whereupon she went to his Director, de Berulle and M. Vincent obeyed once more and returned to Montmirail. This time it looked a life sentence for he had to promise never to leave again, so long as she lived. But it was now recognised that something very wonderful lay hidden and Madame de Gondi showed spiritual perspicacity when she persuaded him that he must prepare to preach not just in one parish, not just on her vast estates, but to all France. Die congregation of the Mission Priests was the outcome of the eleven years he spent in the de Gondi household ; and of all the enterprises of this astonishing man, the Mission Priests lay nearest to his heart. In 162S Madame de Gondi gave him a small house in Paris known as the College des Bons Enfants and here he was to collect and train men to go as Missionaries into country places, to struggle against the apathy and appalling ignorance of the unhappy peasants. He was made Superior, but he had to direct it all from a distance because of his promise to Madame de Gondi.
The very next year, however, Madame de Gondi died, and M. Vincent was free to take up his post in Paris, where he spent the remaining forty years of his life. In 1632 he moved with his little group of Priests to the vast establishment of St. Lazare which rapidly became the centre of all the spiritual and philanthropic work of his most creative years and it was here that he laboured until his death in 1660.
It is the beginnings of all enterprises which hold the clue to the secret of their success. The plan was quite simple ; in little groups of three these young men set out to preach the gospel of Christ in villages devastated by war and famine and neglected by their pastors who were often as ignorant as their flock. Indeed M. Vincent said that the “ Church has no enemies so dangerous as the Priests themselves ” and therefore he gave his young men these instructions : “ Deliver the Church from the contempt and degradation that has come upon her ” and “ bring the love of God to combat the savage ugliness of so many parts of France.”
He makes it clear in his many letters of direction to his Sons that this work they are asked to do is beyond the capacity of men. “ For you by yourself ” he wrote “ this task is impossible, but for you with the help of God nothing is too difficult.” From the very outset of the Missions he recognises the appalling difficulty of the task ; how could the tide of wickedness be stemmed ? But there was no hesitation and he undertook it because, as he said, “ The thought of this was never mine, this is the work of God, man has no part in it.” His humility was so true that it is said he never allowed himself to pray for the success of this work to which he had dedicated his life, because if it was the work of God it should be left in His hands completely. He was always afraid to “encroach on the purposes of God,”—“ do not try to outstrip the divine Providence but when Providence shows the way then we can run.” And Providence did point his way for mostly he is seen at full speed followed by his many Sons and Daughters. Men said he was mad, but then they said, “Of course, is he not a Gascon ?”
It is his teaching about prayer which gives the clue to the power of transmutation, the secret magic by which his Sons and Daughters became such potent weapons against ignorance, wickedness and apathy ; for the mainspring of his whole life is his reliance on prayer (“ Prayer guided all his actions and prayer sustained him,”) by prayer he was ruled and by it upheld : “ The worth of everything we do depends on what our prayer has made it.” In all his letters of direction and the many Conferences he gave, he is definite and urgent about the supreme importance of prayer in the life of the men who had to bring the light into dark places and show in their own fives the power and virtue of the good they preached. It was moreover his sense of the danger of their mission and their unprotectedness that led to his insistence on one of the few rules of his Order, the rule that every member should rise for prayer at the same hour, namely four a.m. This rule it may well be believed, caused constant protests and special pleadings and it needed all M. Vincent’s power of persuasion to enforce it. These men who journeyed about France were far from St. Lazare and their work did not permit them to rely on the order of a monastic fife. Also the difficulties of travel and the disorder of the country meant many hazards and delays. Here are quotations from one of his letters in answer to many protests, in which we see not only the urgency of his demand but also his humour, for the ready wit of a Gascon fights up all his writings.
“ I can hear you say, what, must I get up at four, even when after a long journey we have come in very late, this is enough to make us all ill”. Or : “I have a terrible headache, a toothache, an attack of fever, that has kept me awake all night, must I get up at four ? You forbid any extra rest ? ” Yes, he replied, yes, unless you are ordered to hospital.
Here are the reasons he gives for this strict injunction, and in them we see how profound is the man’s spiritual acumen. First, it is the fulfilment of the rule and has the virtue of obedience, which when done with alacrity makes a fit offering to God ; and by so doing, the first act of the day is given to the Lord, otherwise the Devil, prowling round our beds, would make off with it ! Then nature soon becomes accustomed to regulated sleep and many physicians assert that mind and body are better if sleep is curtailed. In any case he adds life is too short for the worship of God, do not make it shorter through sloth. Furthermore, God does not bestow His favours equally at all times and the morning hour is the best as it is the quietest. Finally, it is by rising at the same hour that the division of distance is broken, all become recollected in this spiritual companionship and “so our vocation will deepen.”
“ Remember ”, he says—“ the reality of our vocation depends on prayer and the reality of prayer depends on getting up ! ”
What is the secret alchemy of this man ?
First, he practised an absolute trust that by the acceptance of each event of his life he would be open to the full power and transforming effect of the will of his Lord. Every demand made on him hid the word for which he waited and pointed the way he should take : “For ourselves it is enough if we have humility and patience as we await the ordering of His Providence.” These words contain the rule of his life and are implicit in all the teaching he gave to his Sons and Daughters. “ Let us wait for His commands and not try to forestall them.” This meant that he never hurried forward, never undertook any work unless impelled to do so ; as his biographer says, never was there so great an apostle of delay.
Then, by recognition that in man God alone counted, alone was the reality behind the sin and the arrogance, by that recognition he gained love which never failed him, love which blest his every undertaking and struck love from those he served, so that they were carried out of the disguise of faulty lives into the light of their true nature. Such love gave men back their self respect and confidence, for in love only is redemption. Also, by this recognition of his indwelling Lord he abjured utterly his own self-directed acts ; “ Until man sees his own uselessness and understands that all his ability and experience are nothing unless God works in him ” until that is known “ however much he works there will be no real results.”
And finally, after years of this constant self ruling, assurance came to him and he went forward with the confidence of a man who knows he is moved by a power not his own. He had prayed “ Ruinez en moi, Seigneur, tout ce que vous y deplait ” and his prayer was fulfilled. He had become the channel for the infinite power and mercy by which he was upheld and to manifest which he had been born. He was indeed “ one of those souls, a marvel of love, which God brings into being and allows to walk among men—that they may have proof of His existence.”
Is it any wonder that when Vincent de Paul died, at his post in Paris at the age of eighty-five, “ many tears were shed in many places.”