St Vincent de Paul

St Vincent de Paul


Parochial missions are such ordinary recurring events in the religious life of a parish today that they call forth little wonder and even less excitement. They are expected by the faithful and prescribed by Canon Law as occasional parish fixtures. Very few people indeed think of their origins or query their utilities. Generally they are accepted by the people as good things that have come down to us from the remote past. And in some senses of the word missions do date back to ancient, if not even to apostolic, times. When we read of St Paul’s missionary journeys to stir up and strengthen the faith of Christian communities already established in the true faith we are reading of something like a parish mission. So, too, when we read of a St Gregory or a St John Chrysostom making strenuous efforts through a series of special sermons to exhort a group of the faithful to the practice of a fuller Christian life we are reading of something that has the general outline of a parish mission. Later still in history we frequently find friars, especially though not exclusively Dominican and Franciscan, travelling around the country and preaching from the rostrum of the town church or square. More often than not this friar preaching was directed against a particular error in faith or morals peculiar to the place or time. It was done, however, in such a way as to call to our minds the general traits of a mission as we know it. In the middle of the sixteenth century came St Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits, who gave a new impetus to the retreat and mission movement, especially to the retreat movement through the preaching of the “Exercises”. This specialised and systematised preaching of the Jesuits, at the time of which we here speak, rarely reached the common people, and more rarely still the peasantry. Much of it was directed against the errors of the reformers, and it tended to cater for the better educated classes and city folk.

St Vincent de Paul

In the next century, the seventeenth, there appeared the man and the men whom the ordinary people, the working-class man, the small tenant farmer and his labourer, hailed and affectionately greeted as the “Priests of the Mission”. As yet these priests had no official name but, like the tree, were known by their fruits. In the beginning, and for a short time, there was but one such man and one such priest to merit the popular designation. He was none other than St Vincent de Paul. By degrees he attracted and gathered around him a small band of missionary helpers. It was that small group of missioners that was given the popular title even before Roman authority had officially launched a new religious society into the Church under the official title of “The Congregation of the Mission”. How well and truly St Vincent de Paul and his immediate followers earned and merited their name as “Priests of the Mission” is the subject of this paper.

Nobody seriously claims, least of all St Vincent himself, that St Vincent de Paul was the first or only priest of his age to give missions. What may be fairly claimed for our saint is that he took the mission idea, so adapted it, so remodelled it to suit the spiritual needs of the working-class family, especially the needs of the peasantry, that in his hands a mission became a most powerful instrument of grace and blessing to the people. It became the weapon of spiritual regeneration of the age, popular, instructive and effective of the greatest marvels of grace. Eminent ecclesiastics, who were in a position to judge, bear witness to the transformation of the countryside brought about by the missions of St Vincent and his band of associates.

The tone and terms of a letter written in the year 1647 by Jacques Lescot, bishop of Chartres, to mention but one such testimony, is only the more eloquent by being an indirect rather than a direct fulsome eulogy of St Vincent and his missions. In inviting St Vincent to continue missions in his diocese he says:

Nothing is more necessary, nothing more useful. I shall determine nothing, neither the time nor the place, nor shall I limit your jurisdiction in any way. All is yours; in the words of Abraham I only say: Ecce universa coram te sunt (cf Gen 13:9). (Ill 181).

More eloquent eulogies of St Vincent and his missions might be recorded here but the generally admitted success of these missions, their gradual expansion, their nature and quality, is a much more interesting matter.

Extent of his missions

A fairly accurate picture of the extent of St Vincent’s missions may be gathered from the following statistics. His first mission, purely tentative in character, was preached on the de Gondi estates. It was a one man effort in the year 1617 and was so successful as to encourage the saint to try another and yet another. So fruitful in good results were these early efforts, so numerous were those who approached the confessional, that the saint was forced to call in the aid of other priests, secular and regular. As missions multiplied, the difficulty of getting even casual help from the priests around him increased. We do not know how many missions were preached by the saint alone or with the help of other priests up to the date of the foundation of his own congregation in 1625. It is agreed, however, that between 1617 and 1625 he must have given at least forty missions on the de Gondi estates, in addition to those given in many other places.

The Congregation of the Mission

In 1625, when other communities had refused for one reason or another to undertake and pledge themselves to the work of country missions, he himself agreed to found, and did actually found, a new community. The object and end of this new family in the Church was to secure a supply and continuity of priests whose primary duty, after labouring for their own perfection, was to preach missions to the poor, especially the country poor. His own wishes, and those of the devout Madame de Gondi, were beginning to be realised, though not perhaps in the way he had thought of earlier. With the birth of the new community he had associates whom he could mould especially for the missions, priests whom he could send where and when he pleased.

From the birth of this community in 1625 up to the year 1632, when the mother house was at the College des Bons Enfants, St Vincent preached in person, or through his subjects, about one hundred and forty missions. In 1632 the mother house was transferred to St Lazare. From that year, 1632, up to 1660, the year of the death of our saint, the house of St Lazare alone gave about seven hundred missions, including at least three or four in Ireland in the dioceses of Cashel, Emly and Limerick. That picture, however, is not complete until we add the large number of missions given by other houses of the community established in twentyfive different dioceses inside and outside of France, but under the direction of St Vincent. In the light of these facts no one can seriously call in question the accuracy of the verdict of the people of the day that St Vincent had proved himself the priest of the parish mission. He had surely earned his popular title of “Priest of the Mission” on a quantitive basis of assessment.

Quality as well as quantity

The quality of a man’s work, however, is a much safer guide in assessing a man’s work. Let us see if we can trace and find out the qualities and nature of St Vincent’s missions. It has already been noticed in passing that St Vincent’s missions had a very definite rural bias. They were instituted for the poor, especially for the country folk; to their spiritual needs they were adapted and tailored. It would be interesting to examine closely all those human factors which, with the help of grace, determined and fashioned the missionary vocation of St Vincent and gave his vocation the special rural bias that it had. I can but touch on some of the circumstances.

St Vincent was by birth the son of a peasant; in his youth and early manhood he saw the misery, physical and moral, of the countryside of his day. His experience, first as a young priest at Clichy, then as a priest tutor to the sons of a wealthy landlord whose tenants were in misery, confirmed his youthful impressions of the terrible misery of the rural population. As St Vincent was brought around the estates to visit the tenantry he saw only too plainly the urgent and appalling need for a social and religious reform of the peasantry. His further experience as a cure at Châtillon-les-Dombes, short lived as it was, served but to strengthen his earlier impressions and to remove any lingering doubt that still remained. He was never a man of quick decisions; he always awaited the unmistakable signs of God’s hand. Now in 1617 the finger of God pointed in one direction. He could no longer hesitate. He determined to dedicate the remainder of his life to the secrvice of the poor, especially the peasantry.

What form this apostolate of the poor and peasantry was to take was not yet clear even to himself. He must experiment and, if needs be, find out by trial and error. He resolved to begin by preaching a mission to his dear country folk. There was no error of judgement; the mission was found to be a most excellent instrument of his apostolate. Even while its form was yet in the making its value was plainly visible to him. As his experience as a missioner increased, the plight of his country folk was revealing itself in all its stark reality. He soon found that the conditions of his cherished poor were even worse than he had anticipated. unbelievable ignorance in things of the spirit was widespread. Many of the ordinary people did not know even the principal mysteries of our religion, nor the importance, value or conditions of a good confession. Steadily, slowly but surely these circumstances were dictating the quality of the desirable mission.

To be of any real use the mission must be first and foremost instructive, instructive even in the elementary teachings of our religion. It must deal with such fundamental matters as man’s purpose and destiny in life; the obstacles in the way of salvation, and the means provided by God to be used by man in pursuit of his destiny. During the mission these matters were dealt with in a series of sermons, one each day for the entire duration of the mission. The length of the mission was not for a fixed number of days or weeks. The only rule as to duration was that the mission be continued until all the people had been instructed in the necessary truths of the faith and had made a good confession.

Besides this more formal daily sermon, preached in the morning in France, there were two informal instructions per day. One of these followed the line of the little catechism, the other of the bigger catechism. Even then the instruction was not ended, for there was assigned one quarter of an hour each morning, before the sermon proper, in which was given a resume of the previous day’s catechesis.

All the exercises of the mission were linked with the sacrament of penance, either as the preparation for a good confession, or as the result of a good confession expressing itself in the practical amendment of life. A good confession must be the climax of such a mission. Hence the teaching of the Church on the sacrament of penance got pride of place in St Vincent’s instructions. Again and again the nature and importance of this sacrament, its parts, its conditions, were so treated in detail that the hitherto worst instructed in the parish could scarcely fail to grasp what they had to do in order to make a good confession. Such a good confession was the immediate object of the mission, not indeed the ultimate object. Only when all the people were properly instructed, and had made good confessions, were they deemed to have “made” the mission. Enough has been said to indicate that the condition of the people to whom St Vincent’s missions were mainly given gave his missions their first trait, that of being essentially instructive, and instructive even in the elementary matters of our religion.

Style of preaching

If the widespread ignorance of the country folk in matters of their deepest spiritual interest determined the instructive character of St Vincent’s missions as it did, we shall see, too, that the circumstances of these same people added another trait to Vincentian missions. These missions had to be simple in form as well as in matter. Hitherto the style of sacred eloquence as it appeared with his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, that is with many notable orators, really disgusted St Vincent. With many of these supposedly great preachers quotations from Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, were put almost on a level with the words of Christ, St Paul or St Augustine. People sometimes heard as much of the great poets as they did of the gospels: simile and metaphor afforded the preacher an opportunity to display his learning.

St Vincent had little use for studied and calculated elegance in the pulpit. For his very dear country folk flowery language, well balanced literary compositions, humanistic quotations, dramatic high-sounding oratorical devices were as much out of place as were bitter invective or other forms of undignified language. St Vincent did not allow the introduction of controversial topics into the pulpit, nor would he tolerate a harsh word against the heretic. He seems to have been profoundly influenced by the advice of St Paul to Timothy:

Do all you can to present yourself in front of God as a man who has come through his trials, and a man who has no cause to be ashamed of his life’s work and has kept a straight course with the message of the truth. Have nothing to do with pointless philosophical discussions (2 Tim 2:15-16). To reduce this advice of the apostle to practice St Vincent insisted on a great simplicity of speech as one of the chief qualities of his ministers and missioners. The missioner ought to be a simple man, not simple with the simplicity of the goose but with a simplicity analogous to the simplicity of God himself. He ought to be all of one piece, not a dual personality seeking God, as it were, with one hand and himself with the other. He must be singleminded, so singleminded as to shun, as a very great evil, any self-seeking or self-preaching. Does not the gospel itself proclaim: If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light (Mt 6:22).

Only when a missioner’s eye is single is he a real source of light. Then will his simplicity reveal itself in his tone of voice, in his choice of words and phrases, as well as in his manner of handling his subject. The missioner must not shout, bawl or rant in the pulpit. He should use moderate or middle voice, the conversational style. Simplicity of form, however, must not be confused with carelessness or indifference. Carelessness is as much a great error as is over-elegance. To avoid such carelessness the missioner must prepare his instructions with even greater care because they are intended for the less educated.

For St Vincent it was a most serious fault in a missioner if he thought anything was good enough for the country people, if he were so presumptuous as to trust to his fluency of speech or command of language. St Vincent was quick to see where such carelessness would lead, to sermons without order, without precision or clarity, to endless repetitions, to pointless verbiage in which there would be little other than empty declamation.

Such simplicity of matter and form in missions could come about only when missioners had already a great love of God and souls. Simplicity was a product of love, an act of zeal, a re-presentation of Christ to his cherished poor.

“The little method”

Not content with these general and practical instructions on the manner of preaching St Vincent put his ideas on preaching into a condensed formula which he loved to refer to as “the little method”. It breathes the very spirit of simplicity. It is the Vincentian method of preaching, approved and authorised since the days of St Vincent. It contains, in addition, St Vincent’s contribution to that reform of sacred eloquence in the Church at large that began in the Church of France in the seventeenth century.

Here, in condensed form, is St Vincent’s explanation of the little method. A preacher’s first duty is to make himself heard and understood; his second duty is to persuade. Now what do we do when we want to persuade a man to do something? Don’t we point out to him the advantage of doing what we suggest? Don’t we give him the reasons for doing it? Having done so, we tell him what is involved in our proposal, in what our proposal consists. We explain the nature of our proposal. Finally, we point out how he can do what we suggest; we give him the practical means. Nature, motives and means, all set out clearly and simply; such is the little method of preaching of St Vincent de Paul. To follow it it is not necessary to treat the points in the order in which they are here given, or even to make a marked distinction between them. All that is necessary is that they be there - whether overtly or covertly is at the taste of the preacher.

To this teaching on methods of preaching St Vincent added example. Those conferences of his that have come down to us might be taken as models by anyone wishing to know in what the little method consists. In them he shows himself simple in matter and form; he is always interesting, sometimes moving, sometimes even eloquent. This little method, ordered as the suitable method of preaching in the Vincentian Community, by degrees began to be adopted by the clergy at large. St Vincent himself inspired those clerics with whom he came in contact on his missions and through the Tuesday Conferences to the clergy. He inspired many of those with his own love for the little method so that he could say, as he did, on 20 August 1655:

If a man now wishes to be regarded as a good preacher he must preach in this way [the little method] without affectation. People now say of a man who preaches thus that he preaches as well as the best. This man works wonders, he preaches like a missionary, like an apostle (XI 286).

Later he asked the community to thank God for his goodness in giving to the community a method of preaching which all desired to follow. The little method had evidently begun to supplant the more grandiloquent methods of the past. Even Bossuet, in a letter to Pope Clement XI, is witness to the irresistible charm of the Tuesday Conferences - “His [St Vincent’s] words are as the words of God”. But the great orator paid St Vincent a still greater compliment by modelling himself on him. The little method had become a new trait not only in the preaching of missions but also in pulpit eloquence generally. But there is still another trait to be found in St Vincent’s missions.

While the spiritual interests of the people were the first concern of missioners to rural families and workers generally, these missioners of St Vincent could not be indifferent to the temporal needs of a much distressed people. Hence, if the local clergy approved, it was the custom on Vincentian missions to set up charitable organisations of men and women for the relief of poverty and sickness. In a general way these organisations did what the St Vincent de Paul Society, what the Daughters of Charity, what Catholic Social Service guilds now do for the social betterment of the oppressed. This paper is scarcely the place to discuss these forms of Catholic action. I only mention the fact in a passing way as I also mention a final trait of St Vincent’s missions. These missions were entirely free they were not a charge on the parish. The expenses of board and lodging and of travel were all borne from either foundations or donations that came from the wealthy, whose interest had been aroused by St Vincent.

We set out to treat of St Vincent de Paul and parish missions. We had a look at the origins of missions; we have seen where St Vincent came into the picture, how his vocation to parish missions evolved. We saw too that it was the people who gave him his title of Priest of the Mission. We have suggested that it was the needs, the special needs, of the people to whom he generally preached, that gave his missions a quality and a nature that made them something new in the Church of the seventeenth century. For his missions were, firstly, for the poor and working classes of the country; secondly, they were essentially catechetical; thirdly, they were simple in matter and form; fourthly, they were preached in a new style of sacred eloquence; fifthly, they were in some measure a relief to the temporal necessities of the people. Having seen these facts, do we not feel that the popular name “Priests of the Mission”, as well as the official one, has been well and truly earned by St Vincent de Paul and his missioners?