Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 10
His Zeal for the Glory of God and the Salvation of Souls
Monsieur Vincent had devoted himself to studying and imitating perfectly all the virtues of Jesus Christ. He particularly excelled, however, in zeal, reproducing in himself a living image of the divine Savior. It could well be said of him, "the zeal for the house of God had devoured him," <Ftn: Ps 69:10; John 2:17.> for his life was consumed by the flames of the ardent desire to procure the glory of God. He continually looked for ways to undertake, to sustain, and to suffer everything to prevent any offenses against God, and to offer reparation for sins committed against his divine majesty, or to work for an increase in his honor and service. As Saint Augustine said so well in response to a question he posed for himself, "Who is this person, devoured by zeal for the house God? Whenever someone ardently desires to prevent offenses against God, and sees such an offense against his divine majesty, he does not rest until he has done everything in his power to offer some sort of reparation. If he cannot do so, he sorrows in his heart, and feels great distress at seeing God so dishonored." <Ftn: PL 35:1471.>
The life and works of Monsieur Vincent, and what type of person he was, have been reported in Books One and Two. It could truly be said that he did not live for himself, but for Jesus Christ, whose honor and glory were incomparably more dear to him than his own life. His works can easily be used as proof of his zeal, since they were undertaken solely to destroy sin, and to help make God known, served, loved, and glorified in every place and by every person. This is what he worked so hard for in his missions, in the establishment of confraternities, conferences, and seminaries. In a word, he accomplished and suffered so much during his life until he was finally consumed in the flames of his own zeal.
To speak more specifically, the zeal of this great servant of God made him feel very keenly the offenses committed against the divine majesty. We cannot adequately express how much he was moved by this, or what efforts he made to prevent these offenses, and what penances he did as reparation for the sins committed. He was particularly disturbed when he learned about some miserable sinner dying in this sorry state, because a soul had been lost for all eternity. When speaking, if he emphasized the value of the single soul which had cost Jesus Christ so much, he drew tears from the eyes of his hearers.
To prevent this loss of souls, of those so dear to the divine Savior, there was nothing that he was not prepared to do or to suffer. He exhorted his confreres to cultivate in their hearts this same zeal which animated him. He spoke of these things while addressing his community on the occasion of the plague striking the missionaries working in Genoa.
By the grace of God, it was necessary that they suffer, and they were happy to suffer in their service of God by working for the salvation of souls. We must, gentlemen, have a similar disposition, and the same desire to suffer for God and for the neighbor, and to pour out our lives for this. Yes, gentlemen and my brothers, we must be committed to God without reserve, to him and to the service of our neighbor. We must strip ourselves of everything for their benefit, giving our very lives for their benefit, always prepared to give all and suffer for the sake of charity, to go where it will please God to send us, to the Indies or any other place even farther away, and finally to offer our lives willingly for the spiritual good of our dear neighbor, and to further the empire of Jesus Christ in souls.
Even as old and decrepit as I am, I should also adopt this attitude, even being ready to go to the Indies to gain souls for God knowing that I would probably die on the way. Do not think that God asks us for the strength of a healthy body. No, he asks only for our good will, and a true and sincere readiness to seize every opportunity to serve him, even at the risk of our lives. We should cultivate in our hearts a desire to sacrifice ourselves for him, even to suffer martyrdom. This desire is as effective and as agreeable to his divine Majesty as if we actually shed our blood. The Church adopts this same thought in honoring as martyrs several of the saints who were exiled for the faith, and who died in exile from natural causes. How learned in this science of suffering are our confreres working in foreign lands! Some serve the sick, even during the plague. Others serve in the armies in time of war, some suffer hunger, every discomfort, excessive labor, and sufferings. Notwithstanding, they remain firm and unshaken in the good they have begun. Gentlemen, let us acknowledge the grace God has given to this poor and wretched Congregation to have such people among us, members so faithful and constant in their sufferings for the service and love of his divine majesty. <Ftn: CED XI:401-03.>
These words of Monsieur Vincent allow us to see how in his heart he desired to sacrifice his life as a martyr, or of going to foreign lands to be consumed as a missionary. He would have done so if it was not for the extreme pains in his legs and the other ailments from which he continually labored. He did manage, six or seven years before his death, when he was around eighty years old, to give a mission during the Jubilee. <Ftn: See CED IV:589. By judging the year of his birth to be 1580 or 1581, he was seventy-two or seventy-three at this time.> He worked with much success, to the great edification of all who saw this venerable man. Despite all his infirmities, he gave himself completely to catechizing, preaching, and hearing confessions, and the other similar exercises of the mission. His age, infirmities, and other responsibilities did not allow him to continue in this holy exercise which he loved so well. Once, writing to one of his priests, he spoke of his sentiments in this regard:
- "How blessed are they who give themselves to God in this way. They do what Jesus Christ did, and imitate him in his practice of poverty, humility, patience, zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls! In this way they become true disciples of this Master. They live purely with his spirit, spreading the good odor of his life and the merits of his actions for the salvation of souls, for whom he wanted to give his life. <Ftn: CED IX:589.>"
In this same spirit and with this same zeal he urged his confreres in their work undertaken for the service of our Lord. This is what he wrote to one of his priests, whom he had sent to a foreign land, and who had much to do and suffer in the service of the Lord:
- "O Monsieur, what consolation I have to know that you are wholly devoted to God and to your vocation, which is truly apostolic! Love the happy chance that has fallen to your lot, and which will attract to yourself an infinity of graces if you respond well to it. You will undoubtedly have much to overcome, for the evil one and corrupt human nature will join to oppose the good you will attempt to do. They together will attempt to make your difficulties seem more than they really are. They will try to persuade you that grace will be lacking when you need it most, to discourage you, and break you down. They will raise up persons to contradict and persecute you. These will perhaps even be ones you think of as your best friends, and to whom you look for support and consolation. If that should happen, Monsieur, you must take courage. Take it as a good sign, for you will be more like our Lord, overwhelmed by sorrows, abandoned, denied, and betrayed by his own disciples, and seemingly abandoned by his Father. How happy are they who lovingly carry their cross, following such a master! Remember, Monsieur, and be convinced that no matter what happens, you will never be tempted beyond your strength. God himself will be your support and strength the more completely you put your trust and hope in him alone. <Ftn: CED IV:280-81.>"
Writing to another missionary whom he had sent to a most laborious and difficult assignment, he said:
- "Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who so gently and yet strongly inspires the mission you have undertaken for the faith. Blessed also be the Lord who not only came to this world to redeem the very souls whom you are teaching, but also to merit the graces you need for your own salvation and for those you serve."
These graces have already been prepared for you, and the good God who gives them desires nothing so much as to give them to those who will make good use of them. Therefore, what is he waiting for except for you to destroy all traces of the old man, and for the people themselves to leave the darkness of ignorance and sin? I would hope that, for your part, you would spare neither your labor, your health, or your life. You gave yourself to him for this, and risked the long voyage you undertook. Therefore, nothing remains but for you to begin your work earnestly. To both begin well and to succeed, you must act in the spirit of our Lord. Unite your actions to his and dedicate them to his greater glory, to give them a totally noble and divine purpose. In this way, God will shower all manner of blessings upon you and your work. You may not live to see them, at least not in their full extent, since God for good reasons hides from his servants the fruit of their labor. Nevertheless, he causes them to be effective. A farmer has to work many hours before seeing the fruit of his work, and sometimes he sees nothing of the abundant harvest his sowing has brought about. This same thing happened to Saint Francis Xavier. In his lifetime he never saw the results of his work, nor the great development which the holy works had produced after his death, nor the marvelous progress of the missions he had begun. This consideration ought to keep your heart at peace, and strongly centered in God, in the confidence that all will be well, despite everything you may see to the contrary. <Ftn: CED V:456-57.>
Speaking once to his community in this same spirit, he said:
- "See what a beautiful field God has opened for us in Madagascar, the Hebrides, and elsewhere. Pray to God that he will move our hearts with a desire to serve him and to give ourselves to him to do with us what he will. Saint Vincent Ferrer <Ftn: Also spelled Ferrier.> drew courage from the thought that priests who would come to join him would, by the fervor of their zeal, convert the whole world. If we do not merit the grace from God to be this sort of priest, let us ask him at least to be the precursors and models for such persons. But be that as it may, we must hold it for certain that we cannot be true Christians until we are ready to lose everything and to give our lives for the love and glory of Jesus Christ. We should then resolve together with the holy apostle to choose suffering and even death rather than to be separated from the love of this divine Savior. <Ftn: CED XI:74-75.>"
On another occasion, when he told his community of some of the persecutions which the missionaries in Barbary were enduring, he continued:
- "Who knows if God did not send this accident to test our faith? Do merchants fail to put to sea because of the perils they might face? Do soldiers not go to war for fear of scars or of the death they may meet? Should we fail in our duty as helpers and saviors of souls because of the troubles and persecutions we may encounter? <Ftn: CED XI:75.>"
Thus, by his ardent zeal, he encouraged those of his community to continue their work in the service of our Lord. Since his zeal was truly disinterested, he rejoiced at the blessings God gave to the missions. Others accomplished what he would have liked to have done himself, had his age and infirmities allowed him. He was also very happy at the good done by other communities in the services they rendered to the Church. A person of some importance wrote of this as follows:
- "Monsieur Vincent always rejoiced when he heard of the great successes and progress of other religious communities. Far from harboring any envy or jealousy, he publicly proclaimed his high esteem for them, and often praised them. He would occasionally offer them help of all sorts. His zeal compared with that of Moses, saying with him Utinam omnes prophetent ["Would that all were prophets"]. <Ftn: Num 11:28-29.> and he wished to extend to others the graces he had received from God. And in truth, what did he not do either directly or indirectly to renew this apostolic and ecclesial spirit which we see flourishing in the Church today? He relied on everyone for this task--the tongue of one, the mouth of others, the favor of the wealthy, the care of the little ones, the prayers of the virtuous. In a word, his zeal was boundless, and nearly everyone felt its effects. And it wasn't just the tiniest orphans and the aged poor who spoke about it."
Likewise, he often spoke favorably of the religious of the holy Society of Jesus, praising God for the great things they had done in all parts of the world in spreading of the Gospel and for the establishment of the reign of Jesus Christ his Son. Once, speaking to his community on this topic, and moved by his usual zeal and humility, he said:
- "My brothers, let us be like the poor peasant who carried the traveling bags of Saint Ignatius and his companions on their tiring journeys. When he saw them fall to their knees when they arrived at the place they were to stop for the night, he did the same. When he saw these saints pray, he prayed too. When these holy personages once asked him how he prayed, he replied, "I pray that God will grant what you are asking for. I am like a poor beast who does not know how to meditate. I pray he will listen to you. I would like to pray like you do, but I don't know how, and so I offer him your prayers."
O gentlemen and my brothers, we must think of ourselves as porters for these worthy workmen, as poor ignoramuses who can say nothing worthwhile and as outcasts among men. We should think of ourselves as the gleaners who clean up after the great harvesters. Let us thank God that he agreed to accept our puny services. Let us offer our small handfuls along with the plentiful harvests gathered by others, and be ready to do all we can in the service of God, and for helping our neighbor. Since God had given such a beautiful insight to this poor peasant that he should be remembered in history, let us hope that our feeble efforts will contribute to God's being honored and served, and that his divine Goodness will accept our offerings and bless our insignificant efforts. <Ftn: CED XI:289-90. This text differs in some details from that of Abelly.>
If Monsieur Vincent showed his ardent zeal in so many ways, he also showed his strength and constancy. He persevered in the holy enterprises which God had inspired him to undertake, despite the difficulties, opposition, losses, and all the other grievous situations which he encountered. Among all the missions he began, one of the most difficult both personally and for his Congregation was certainly the mission to the island of Madagascar, of which we spoke in Book Two. We saw how this mission had cost him the lives of many of his best workers, most of whom died soon after their arrival, before they could begin the work they had been sent to do. Others were shipwrecked on the way, and some fell into the hands of the those at war with France. In sum, it seemed that nature and men united to oppose his efforts to help and instruct these poor natives. After so many accidents and losses, a person less virtuous than Monsieur Vincent would have bent under the weight of so many reverses, and would have abandoned this good work under the pretext that it was impossible.
The courage and zeal of this holy man enabled him to spring back, like the palm tree when flattened by the storm, which later stands straight again. The more he saw the opposition of creatures, the more he showed his constancy and the resolution of persevering in these good works undertaken for God's glory. Instead of these losses and opposition leading to discouragement, they provided the stimulus to encourage his confreres. They showed themselves even more anxious and more willing to go to this same mission, even knowing the fate which probably awaited them there. He wrote to one of his priests on this subject:
- "Man proposes, but God disposes as he sees fit. The measures we have taken to support the mission in Madagascar have been so thwarted that it seems we cannot be sure of anything in the future. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we should do what we can to fulfill this plan, since it refers to the glory of the master, whom we serve and who often gives to perseverance the success that he refuses to our initial failures. He is also pleased to test his workers before confiding more important things to them, and to have them earn, by their faithfulness and hope, the grace to plant these same virtues in the souls of destitute people. <Ftn: CED XII:510-11.>"
As he said in another letter:
- "We have wept at the news of the deaths of our dear deceased sent to us by the Madagascar mission. I cannot deny that this news has greatly afflicted us, and has given us the amazing opportunity to adore the incomprehensible judgments of the conducts of God. This affliction, however, cannot diminish our resolution to help this people, any more than all the previous losses, and the unfortunate accidents which have happened since we first arrived. <Ftn: CED VIII:156-57.>"
On another occasion the superior of the mission at Marseilles reported it was becoming very difficult to continue the mission in Barbary. It seemed that it would take all the resources of the Congregation to support this single mission, and to overcome the difficulties raised by the Moslems in dealing with the missionaries. Monsieur Vincent responded that he could not bring himself to leave this work, for, as he said:
- "If the salvation of a single soul is of such importance that we should risk our life to obtain it, how can we abandon so many out of fear of the expense? I would consider the men and money well spent if there should be no other good coming from these missions than to make this barbarous and cursed land see the beauty of the Christian religion. We send men there across the seas who are willing to leave their own country with its conveniences, and who open themselves to a thousand outrages. They do this to console and help their afflicted brothers. I believe that the men and money are being well spent. <Ftn: CED VII:117.>"
Zeal inspired in Monsieur Vincent the courage and strength to persevere in the holy enterprises he had begun. Thus it was a source of great pain for him to see that some among his own confreres were lukewarm, or allowed themselves to be overly influenced by natural sentiments and self-love. They would give way to discouragement and inflame others to do the same. We will conclude this chapter by giving an extract of a conference he gave to his Company on this matter:
- "It is impossible for a lukewarm priest and missionary to be successful, or to come to a happy end. What sort of wrong do you think that these cowardly souls could do in the Company? What harm these lazy ones do to themselves and to others, whom they discourage by their bad example and by their impertinent remarks! "What good is done," they say, "by so many different kinds of works, so many missions, so many seminaries, conferences, retreats, assemblies, and trips made to help the poor? Just wait for Monsieur Vincent to die, and we will be done with all that! How can we support all these activities? Where will we find the missionaries to send to Madagascar, to the Hebrides, to Barbary, to Poland? Not to mention the expenses of such burdensome and distant missions?"
We must answer these questions in this way: if the Company at its birth and from its cradle had the courage to seize opportunities to serve God, and if the first missionaries were so fervent, should we not trust that it will be fortified and grow in time? No, no, gentlemen, if God gives us new opportunities to serve him we must, with his grace, respond generously. These lazy and mistrusting ones are capable only of discouraging others, and for this reason you be on your guard against such people. When you hear them speak the way they do, speak up with the words of the holy apostle: Jam nunc Antichristi multi sunt in mundo, "Antichrists are already in the world," <Ftn: 1 John 2:18.> and they are these anti-missionaries who set themselves up to oppose the designs of God. Alas, gentlemen, we still feel the effects of the first graces of our vocation poured out upon us. We already have reason to fear that by our laxity we will become unworthy of the blessings God has so abundantly given the Company up to now, and those he has bestowed upon the projects which his providence has confided to us. We must fear that we will fall into the unhappy state we see in some other communities. This is the greatest unhappiness that could possibly happen to us. <Ftn: CED XI:193-95; Abelly's text differs from Coste's.>
Lastly, since zeal deals with the sanctification and salvation of souls, as well as with the glory of God, we will see in the following chapter what his dispositions were in regard to his neighbors. We will see how perfect his charity was toward them, to appreciate more fully the grandeur and extent of his zeal.