St. Vincent was a man of faith that worketh by charity (Gal. 5: 6). At the time he came into the world—viz., at the close of the same century in which Calvin was born—the Church was mourning over many nations separated from the Faith, and the Turks were harassing all the coasts of the Mediterranean. France, worn out by forty years of religious strife, was shaking off the yoke of heresy from within, while by a foolish stroke of policy she gave it external liberty. The Eastern and Northern frontiers were suffering the most terrible devastations, and the West and center were the scene of civil strife and anarchy. In this state of confusion, the condition of souls was still more lamentable. In the towns alone was there any sort of quiet, conducive of prayer. The country people, forgotten, sacrificed, subject to the utmost miseries, had none to support and direct them except a clergy too often abandoned by their bishops, unworthy of their ministry, and well nigh as ignorant as their flocks.
St. Vincent was raised up by the Holy Ghost to obviate all these evils. The world admires the works of the humble shepherd of Buglose, but it knows not the secret of their vitality. Philanthropy would imitate them; but its establishments of today are destroyed tomorrow, like castles built by children in the sand, while the institution it would fain supersede remains strong and unchanged, the only one capable of meeting the necessities of suffering humanity. The reason for this is not far to seek: faith alone can understand the mystery of suffering, having penetrated its secret in the Passion of Our Lord; and charity that would be stable must be founded on faith. St. Vincent loved the poor because he loved the God Whom his faith beheld in them. "O God!" he used to say, "it does us good to see the poor, if we look at them in the light of God, and think of the high esteem in which Jesus Christ holds them. Often enough they have scarcely the appearance or the intelligence of reasonable beings, so rude and so earthly are they. But look at them by the light of faith, and you will see that they represent the Son of God, who chose to be poor; He in His Passion had scarcely the appearance of a man; He seemed to the Gentiles to be a fool, and to the Jews a stumbling-block; moreover He calls Himself the evangelist of the poor: evangelizare pauperibus misit Me (Luke 4: 18)." This title of evangelist of the poor is the one that St. Vincent desired for himself, the starting-point and the explanation of all that he did in the Church. His one aim was to labor for the poor and the outcast; all the rest, he said, was but secondary. And he added, speaking to his sons of St. Lazare: "We should never have labored for the candidates for the priesthood, nor in the ecclesiastical seminaries, had we not deemed it necessary, in order to keep the people in good condition, to preserve in them the fruits of the missions, and to procure them good priests."
That he might be able to consolidate his work in all its aspects, Our Lord inspired Anne of Austria to make him a member of the Council of Conscience, and to place in his hands the office of extirpating the abuses among the higher clergy and of appointing pastors to the churches of France. We cannot relate here the history of a man in whom universal charity was, as it were, personified. But from the bagnio of Tunis, where he was a slave, to the ruined provinces for which he raised millions of francs, all the labors he underwent for the relief of every physical suffering were inspired by his zeal for the apostolate: by caring for the body, he strove to reach and succor the soul. At a time when men rejected the Gospel while striving to retain its benefits, certain "wise" men attributed St. Vincent's charity to philosophy. Nowadays they go further still, and in order logically to deny the Author of the works, they deny the works themselves. But if any there be who still hold the former opinion, let them listen to his own words, and then judge of his principles: "What is done for charity's sake is done for God. It is not enough for us that we love God ourselves; our neighbor also must love Him; neither can we love our neighbor as ourselves unless we procure for him the good we are bound to desire for ourselves—viz., the divine love, which unites us to our Sovereign Good. We must love our neighbor as the image of God and the object of His love, and must try to make men love their Creator in return, and love one another also with mutual charity for the love of God, Who so loved them as to deliver His own Son to death for them. But let us, I beg of you, look upon this Divine Savior as a perfect pattern of the charity we must bear to our neighbor."
The deist sect called Theophilanthropy of the 19th century had no more right than had an atheist or any deist philosophy to rank St. Vincent, as it did, among the great men of its Calendar. Not nature, nor the pretended divinities of false science, but the God of Christians, the God Who became Man to save us by taking our miseries upon Himself, was the sole inspirer of the greatest modern benefactor of the human race, whose favorite saying was: "Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ." He observed the right order of charity, striving for the reign of his Divine Master, first in his own soul, then in others; and, far from acting of his own accord by the dictates of reason alone, he would rather have remained hidden forever in the face of the Lord, and have left but an unknown name behind him.
"Let us honor," he wrote, "the hidden state of the Son of God. There is our center; there is what He requires of us for the present, for the future, forever; unless His Divine Majesty makes known in His own unmistakable way that He demands something else of us. Let us especially honor this Divine Master's moderation in action. He would not always do all that He could do, in order to teach us to be satisfied when it is not expedient to do all that we are able, but only as much as is seasonable to charity and conformable to the Will of God. How royally do those honor Our Lord who follow His holy Providence, and do not try to be beforehand with it! Do you not, and rightly, wish your servant to do nothing without your orders? And if this is reasonable between man and man, how much more so between the Creator and the creature!" St. Vincent, then, was anxious, according to his own expression, to "keep alongside of Providence," and not to outstep it. Thus he waited seven years before accepting the offers of the General de Gondi's wife, and founding his establishment of the Missions. Thus, too, when his faithful coadjutrix, Mademoiselle Le Gras, felt called to devote herself to the spiritual service of the Daughters of Charity, then living without any bond or common life, as simple assistants to the ladies of quality whom the man of God assembled in his Confraternities, he first tried her for a very long time. "As to this occupation," he wrote, in answer to her repeated petitions, "I beg of you, once and for all, not to think of it until Our Lord makes known His will. You wish to become the servant of these poor girls, and God wants you to be His servant. For God's sake, Mademoiselle, let your heart imitate the tranquility of Our Lord's Heart, and then it will be fit to serve Him. The Kingdom of God is peace in the Holy Ghost; He will reign in you if you are in peace. Be so, then, if you please, and do honor to the God of peace and love."
What a lesson is given to the feverish zeal of an age like ours by a man whose life was so full! How often, in what we can call good works, do human pretensions sterilize grace by contradicting the Holy Ghost! Whereas St. Vincent de Paul, who considered himself "a poor worm creeping upon the earth, not knowing where he goes, but only seeking to be hidden in Thee, my God, Who art all his desire"—the humble St. Vincent saw his work prosper far more than a thousand others, and almost without his being aware of it. Towards the end of his long life he said to his spiritual daughters: "It is Divine Providence that set your congregation on its present footing. Who else was it, I ask you? I can find no other. We never had such an intention. I was thinking of it only yesterday, and I said to myself: Is it you who had the thought of founding a Congregation of Daughters of Charity? Oh, certainly not. Is it Mademoiselle Le Gras? Not at all... Then it is God Who thought of it for you; Him, therefore, we must call the Founder of your Congregation, for truly we cannot recognize any other."
Although with delicate docility, St. Vincent could no more forestall the action of God than an instrument can forestall the hand that uses it, nevertheless, once the divine impulse was given, he could not endure the least delay in following it, nor suffer any other sentiment in his soul but the most absolute confidence. He wrote again, with his charming simplicity, to the helpmate given him by God: "You are always giving way a little to human feelings, thinking that everything is going to ruin as soon as you see me ill. O woman of little faith, why have you not more confidence and more submission to the guidance and example of Jesus Christ? This Savior of the world entrusted the well-being of the whole Church to God His Father; and you, for a handful of young women, evidently raised up and gathered together by His providence, you fear that He will fail you! Come, come, Mademoiselle, you must humble yourself before God."
No wonder that faith, the only possible guide of such a life, the imperishable foundation of all that he was for his neighbor and in himself, was, in the eyes of St. Vincent de Paul, the greatest of treasures. He who had pity for every suffering, even though well deserved; who, by a heroic fraud, took the place of a galley-slave in chains, was a pitiless foe to heresy, and could not rest till he had obtained either the banishment or the chastisement of its votaries. Pope Clement XII, in the Bull of Canonization, bears witness to this, in speaking of the pernicious error of Jansenism, which our Saint was one of the first to denounce and prosecute. Never, perhaps, were these words of Holy Scripture better verified: The simplicity of the just shall guide them: and the deceitfulness of the wicked shall destroy them. (Prov. 11: 3) Though this sect expressed, later on, a supreme disdain for Monsieur Vincent, it had not always been of that mind. "I am," he said to a friend, "most particularly obliged to bless and thank God, for not having allowed the first and principal professors of that doctrine, men of my acquaintance and friendship, to be able to draw me to their opinions. I cannot tell you what pains they took, and what reasons they propounded to me; I objected to them, amongst other things, the authority of the Council of Trent, which is clearly opposed to them; and seeing that they still continued, I, instead of answering them, quietly recited my Credo; and that is how I have remained firm in the Catholic Faith."
It is time to give the full account which Holy Church reads today in Her Liturgy. We will only remind our readers that in the year 1883, the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the St. Vincent de Paul Conferences of Paris, the Sovereign Pontiff Leo XIII proclaimed our Saint the Patron of the societies of charity in France. (Two years later the same Pope declared him Patron of all charitable organizations in the Catholic world.)
St. Vincent de Paul, a Frenchman, was born at Pouy, near Dax in Aquitaine, and from his boyhood was remarkable for his exceeding charity towards the poor. As a child he fed his father's flock, but afterwards pursued the study of the humanities at Dax, and of theology first at Toulouse, then at Saragossa. Having been ordained priest, he took his degree as Bachelor of Theology; but falling into the hands of the Turks was led captive by them into Africa. While in captivity he won his master back to Christ, by the help of the Mother of God, and escaped together with him from that land of barbarians, and undertook a journey to the shrines of the Apostles. On his return to France he governed in a most saintly manner the parishes first of Clichy and then of Châtillon. The King next appointed him chaplain of the French galleys, and his zeal in striving for the salvation of both officers and convicts was marvelous. St. Francis de Sales gave him as superior to his nuns of the Visitation, whom he ruled for forty years with such prudence as amply to justify the opinion the holy Bishop had expressed of him—that Vincent was the most worthy priest he knew.
He devoted himself with unwearying zeal, even in extreme old age, to preaching to the poor, especially to country people; and to this apostolic work he bound both himself and the members of the Congregation which he founded, called the Secular Priests of the Mission, by a special vow which the Holy See confirmed. He labored greatly in promoting regular (i.e., according to rule) discipline among the clergy, as is proved by the seminaries for clerics which he built, and by the establishment, through his care, of frequent conferences for priests, and of spiritual exercises preparatory to Holy Orders. It was his wish that the houses of his institution should always lend themselves to these good works, as also to the giving of pious retreats for lay people. Moreover, with the object of extending the reign of faith and love, he sent evangelical laborers not only into the French provinces, but also into Italy, Poland, Scotland, Ireland, and even to Barbary and to the Indies. On the demise of King Louis XIII, whom he had assisted on his deathbed, he was made a member of the Council of Conscience by Queen Anne of Austria, mother of King Louis XIV. In this capacity he was most careful that only worthy men should be appointed to ecclesiastical and monastic benefices, and strove to put an end to civil discord and duels, and to the errors then creeping in, which had alarmed him as soon as he knew of their existence; moreover, he endeavored to enforce upon all a due obedience to the judgments of the Apostolic See.
His paternal love brought relief to every kind of misfortune. The faithful groaning under the Turkish yoke, destitute children, incorrigible young men, virgins exposed to danger, nuns driven from their monasteries, fallen women, convicts, sick strangers, invalid workers, even madmen, and innumerable beggars. All these he aided and received with tender charity into his hospitable institutions. When Lorraine, Champagne, Picardy and other districts were devastated by pestilence, famine, and war, he supplied their necessities with open hands. He founded other associations for seeking out and aiding the unfortunate; amongst others the celebrated Society of Ladies, and the now widespread institution of the Sisters of Charity. To him also is due the foundation of the Daughters of the Cross, of Providence, and of St. Genevieve, who are devoted to the education of girls. Amid all these and other important undertakings his heart was always fixed on God; he was affable to everyone, and always true to himself, simple, upright, humble. He ever shunned riches and honors, and was heard to say that nothing gave him any pleasure, except in Jesus Christ, Whom he strove to imitate in all things. Worn out at length by mortification of the body, labors, and old age, on September 27, in the year of salvation 1660, the eighty-fifth of his age, he peacefully fell asleep at Paris, at St. Lazare, the mother-house of the Congregation of the Mission. His virtues, merits, and miracles having made his name celebrated, Pope Clement XII enrolled him among the Saints, assigning for his annual feast July 19. Pope Leo XIII, at the earnest request of many bishops, declared and appointed this great hero of charity, who has deserved so exceedingly well of every class of men, as the special patron before God of all the charitable societies existing throughout the Catholic world, and of all such as may hereafter be established.
How full a harvest sheaf dost thou bear, O St. Vincent, as thou dost ascend, laden with blessings from earth to thy true country! O thou, the most simple of men, though living in an age of splendors, thy renown far surpasses the brilliant reputation which fascinated thy contemporaries. The true glory of that century, and the only one that will remain to it when time shall be no more, is to have seen, in its earlier part, saints powerful alike in faith and love, stemming the tide of Satan's conquests, and restoring to the soil of France, made barren by heresy, the fruitfulness of its brightest days. Centuries after thy labors, the work of the harvest was carried on by thy sons and daughters, aided by new assistants who also acknowledged thee for their inspirer and father. Thou art now in the Kingdom of Heaven where grief and tears are no more, yet day by day thou dost still receive the grateful thanks of the suffering and the sorrowful.
Reward our confidence in thee by fresh benefits. No name so much as thine inspires respect for the Church in our days of blasphemy. And yet those who deny Christ now go so far as to endeavor to stifle the testimony which the poor have always rendered to Him on thy account. Wield, against these ministers of Hell, the two-edged sword, wherewith it is given to the saints to avenge God in the midst of the nations: treat them as thou didst the heretics of thy day—make them either deserve pardon or suffer punishment, be converted or be reduced by Heaven to the impossibility of doing harm. Above all, take care of the unhappy beings whom satanic men deprive of spiritual help in their last moments. If the enemies of the poor man can snatch from his death-bed the sacred sign of salvation, no rule, no law, no power of this world or the next, can cast out Jesus from the souls of thy true devotees, or prevent His Name from passing from their hearts to their lips: neither death nor Hell, neither fire nor flood can stay them, says the Canticle of Canticles. May they gather their heat from the divine fire which thou didst kindle on the earth; may they ever seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, never deviating, in the choice of means, from the principle thou didst lay down for them of "judging, speaking, and acting exactly as the Eternal Word of God, clothed in our weak flesh, judged, spoke, and acted."
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