Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
St. Vincent de Paul’s Most Rich Personality
Saint of the Day, Monday, July 19, 1971
Today is the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, confessor. He fought against Jansenism. In his time, almost all the French bishops were Jansenists, and he fought for the nomination of good bishops. He promoted a crusade against the Berbers. His relic is venerated in our chapel, 17th century.
Tomorrow is the feast of the great Saint Elias, our very special patron saint.
The biographical sketch of Saint Vincent de Paul, they gave me to comment on is taken from the Roman Breviary, fascicle VIII.
“Vincent was born to poor parents in Pouy, Landes [France], on April 24, 1581. From childhood, he shepherded his father’s flocks. But his lively intelligence caused his family to send him to study among the Cordeliers of Dax.”
Cordeliers were Franciscans of that time.
“Then he went to Toulouse to get a doctor’s degree and was ordained a priest in 1600. After being captive in Tunis in 1616, he was included in the corps of chaplains of Queen Marguerite de Valois. He was for some time the parish priest of Clichy and Chatillon-les-Dombes.
“Appointed grand chaplain of the galleys of France by the King, he worked with wonderful zeal for the salvation of officers and rowers.
“Nominated by St. Francis de Sales to govern the women religious of the Visitation, he carried out this mission for 40 years with such prudence as to fully justify the judgment of the holy prelate, who declared that he knew no priest worthier than Vincent.
“But his career was almost entirely at the service of the powerful Gondi family. He evangelized the eight thousand souls who lived in their lands and reduced the extent of the ruins and misery produced by civil or foreign wars.
“Vincent dedicated himself to evangelizing the poor and especially peasants until a very advanced age. For this, he took a special vow approved by the Holy See. He was concerned with establishing ecclesiastical discipline, directing seminaries for the clergy, and multiplying spiritual lectures for priests. He sent evangelizers to the provinces of France and Italy, Poland, Scotland, Ireland, and India.
“Protected by the kings of France, he assisted Louis XIII in his last moments and was called by Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, to be part of her council of conscience.
“He laid the foundations of a new congregation, the Lazarists. And with Louise de Marillac, he created the institution of the Daughters of Charity or Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.
“Overcome with fatigue, the so-called apostle of charity died in 1660. They say there was no misery that he did not help. Christians imprisoned by the Turks, abandoned children, unruly youths, girls at risk of falling, careless nuns, public sinners, convicts in galleys, sick foreigners, artisans without work, the insane, and beggars. The great Monsieur Vincent, as he was known in those days, remembered them all.”
While it is a little late for me to prolong this Saint of the Day, I cannot fail to draw your attention to two aspects of Vincent de Paul’s life.
The first aspect is the almost incredible fruitfulness of this existence, particularly if you take into consideration the various situations through which he passed.
Although born into a poor peasant family, probably illiterate or semi-illiterate, he went to school because of his exceptional intelligence. After studying, he became a priest. As a priest, he became a captive of the Berbers. These pirates traveled around the Mediterranean and sometimes made incursions into European territories taking Catholics as slaves and selling them to Eastern countries.
Wonderfully rescued from the condition of a simple slave (he had risen to the priesthood and fallen to the condition of a slave), he is soon hired as a chaplain to a queen and enters her court. From there he rolls over to become parish priest of two little villages. He then goes to serve a powerful noble family, the House of the Gondis, which had remnants of feudal powers, and there he concentrated his work on the eight thousand souls that made up the populations of the Gondi lands.
Later, he returns to the court and is elevated to one of its highest positions as a member of the Council of Conscience.
The Council of Conscience was an institution that existed in almost all Catholic monarchies of that time and had a very delicate function.
In Catholic countries, the State was always united to the Church, and the bishops often had temporal powers. A diocese was a fiefdom with more or less extensive powers over some lands, which meant that the filling of vacant dioceses fell to the Pope as a matter of principle. Only the Pope can freely appoint and dismiss bishops, but it was the King who usually proposed three names, from which the Pope chose one.
Naturally, when the name was unsuitable, the Pope would demand another three names when he liked none of those indicated. He was not circumscribed to those three. But it was the King who indicated them.
The Council of Conscience was also called the Table of Conscience because they gathered around a table. It was a panel of the most trustworthy, virtuous, discerning, and intelligent people in the kingdom to study which priests had orthodox doctrine and culture, led an upright life, and were fit to become bishops.
As you know, the whole life of a diocese revolves around its bishop, so the designation of good bishops is one of the most important things for the internal life of the Church. That is very easy to understand in our time because you can see well how much harm bad bishops do. So you can gauge well how much good bishops do and understand how a country must earnestly strive to pick bishops from among topnotch priests.
St. Vincent was chosen for this Council of Conscience by Anne of Austria, France’s Queen Mother of France, who was regent during the minority of Louis XIV and greatly influenced the designation of bishops.
However, this man who had risen to such a high office had a task quite different from dealing with courtiers in the palace of the King of France. He was chaplain general of the galleys and had to do apostolate with criminals, evil men chained to the ship that spent their lives rowing. There is a huge distance between a prince and galley rowers, but a smaller distance between being a priest or a pagan slave. Such were the vicissitudes of his life.
Another aspect of his life is the multiple works he carried out; works of charity as director of a religious order then just emerging from the hands of its great founder, St. Francis de Sales. On the other hand, St. Vincent was an outstanding fighter against Jansenism. He was one of those who worked hardest against Jansenism in France and prevented this terrible form of crypto-Protestantism-- true progressivism of that time—from penetrating Catholic circles.
He also raised a crusade against Tunisia and thus was a Crusade leader.
You can see the different aspects of this personality. He was a man capable of dealing with the queen but also with rowing convicts; capable of deserving the queen’s confidence but also finding words that put at ease rowing criminals in the galleys; capable of treating a sick man and also putting together an army to fight the infidels; capable of leading a religious congregation of reclusive nuns who spent their lives in prayer, and at the same time of directing souls at a court while facing all temptations of worldliness.
One can see how he had vast horizons, a personality rich in multiple aspects, capable to impress most varied people deeply. His capacity to adapt to various circles could be the object of a real novel.
Some people read with enthusiasm the life of that Lawrence of Arabia because he was an Englishman who went to Arabia and adapted to its living conditions. What is that compared to the plurality of roles that St. Vincent de Paul had to play and played in such a profoundly brilliant way?
If a great biographer knew how to present the life of St. Vincent de Paul vividly, without straying at all from historical reality but highlighting the aspects that truly show the flame of his life, I am sure his would be one of the most famous biographies ever.
In the Reign of Mary, the TFP should be like a flower that blossoms, and all its petals take on their full size and fully shine in the sunlight. Who knows if in the Reign of Mary—I don’t think this can come about before the horrors of the Bagarre—the TFP will have a special hermitage to write the lives of saints according to the criteria expounded here. That criterion, which I could define, is not the usual criterion employed to write the lives of saints. It is a different approach to a sacrosanct and instrumental issue without which the Church does not fully exercise its role in the salvation of souls. She needs the examples of the saints to attract souls, but those who write the lives of the saints often do so in a faded, tasteless and uninteresting fashion.
Take, for example, this aspect we have highlighted here. While the data to comment on this aspect are here, as far as I know, you will not find a biographer o hagiographer who makes the life of Saint Vincent de Paul revolve around this aspect, which is exactly the one whereby he draws and captures people’s attention, and invites them to dwell on the examination of his great virtues.
Let this vow and desire be exposed here and placed at the feet of the great St. Vincent de Paul. I have the impression that until the end of time, those who write the lives of saints will be tempted to make do it in a white heresy way, and the figure of St. Vincent de Paul has been distorted by white heresy.
In what way? In the sense which white heresy likes to present: a saint always smiling, with a little child by his side. It is fine with me for them to present him smiling. Nor do I have any objection if they put 50 little children there; that is splendid. Far from me to object to doing apostolate with children of whom Our Lord said, “let the little children come to me.”
But let sanctity not be reduced to this! Do not show only this aspect of the saint! Why do they not paint a picture in a church dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul showing him in the presence of Louis XIV, getting the King to sign an edict ordering a crusade against Tunis? But, as you can see, white heresy [loathes] that...
Let’s say, for example, having a parish dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul the Crusader. That would ruffle white heresy feathers in every way. I would like that hermitage to correct this situation by showing both aspects of St. Vincent de Paul—his charity and warlike aspect without hiding either one but showing the beautiful coexistence of the two. Therein lies perfection; therein lies the harmony of the spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
To close, let me say that this saint so full of various aspects, was a member of a secret society. You have to imagine him sneaking into some secret place – [disguised] because he was very well known-- sneaking into this or that hidden place to join others to meet in that secret society.
In the canonical and technical sense of the word, that was not a secret society. What is a secret society in the canonical sense of the word? It is a society hidden from the legitimate superiors or which hides its purposes from the legitimate superiors, and therefore exists without their license. That is a secret society condemned by the Code of Canon Law.
This could not have been St. Vincent de Paul’s society as he could not be on the altars if he had belonged to a forbidden secret society.
It turns out that, given the penetration of worldliness, nascent atheism, and the outbreaks of Protestantism and Jansenism in France, St. Vincent de Paul, together with many other eminent and pious Frenchmen such as Baron Gaston de Ranti, founded a society known and approved by both the King and the Archbishop of Paris. Called the Society of the Blessed Sacrament, it was established primarily to adore the Blessed Sacrament and, secondarily, to secretly fight against Church opponents so they were beaten without knowing where the blows were coming from.
To this society belonged figures of the highest importance either because they belonged to the high nobility, such as the Duke of Ventadour, and for a time, and even the Prince of Condé, a convert to the Catholic religion. The great Bossuet, the famous sacred orator, and others were part of this society, which was much more effective in fighting for religion secretly. Saint Vincent de Paul was an effective and fiery member of this society, and so was St. John Eudes. The two saints shone in this admirable society. Saint John Eudes, the doctor and founder of the cult to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and Saint Vincent de Paul, whose life you have just seen.
You had to imagine the beauty of those meetings. A duke, a prince, a bishop, a marshal, a baron, gathered in a room, with the presence of two saints shining there like suns and cunningly locking themselves in. People watched outside so no one would come near. Prayers. Then they look at what the enemy is up to. They come up with a counterplot. The trick is this; the blow is like that. The arrow that must be shot in the dark against that one is that way--an arrow in the political sense of the word, not in the material sense. The meeting is over, the sacrosanct plot is done, and darts against the adversaries will come out of there. How beautiful.
Imagine this meeting depicted on a painting in a church. How much trembling, how much discomfort it could cause.
Yet, is it not to mutilate the figure of the saint to come and say: “Here is Saint Vincent de Paul, who founded the conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul, helped the poor and this and that, founded such a convent blablabla. It’s over, now pray to St. Vincent de Paul.”
You hear something like that and leave with this resolution: “I don’t want to look like St. Vincent de Paul. I don’t want to sound like the devotees of St. Vincent de Paul. And since I don’t want to look like his devotees, I don’t want to be his devotee because it seems that whoever becomes his devotee becomes that way...”
Let me place this prayer at his feet: May St. Vincent de Paul, after the "Bagarre", inspire some of our people with a desire to become hermits for this purpose. But first, let us make many other saints during the "Bagarre". May Our Lady deign to raise numerous such saints among us. Those that remain will write the lives of the saints.