Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 34
Index of Abelly: Book One
The Establishment of the First Internal Seminary, at Saint Lazare, for the Congregation of the Mission
The fathers of the desert followed a well-known maxim of receiving no one into their congregations unless he were well known and of proven virtue. This maxim has since been observed in all communities, both secular and regular, which have been established from time to time in the Church. As one of the most experienced of these ancients said so well, gold should not be worked or finished until it has been tested. <Ftn: John Climacus, PG 88.> Aspirants to the perfection of the religious state, to which they feel called by God to dedicate themselves to his service, ought to pass various tests both to know themselves better and to dispose themselves better to work for the goal they proposed to themselves.
During the first years, when Monsieur Vincent began to work on the missions he did not yet realize the designs of God nor what God may have wanted to accomplish with him and by him. He did not specify any definite program of training for those who wished to join him in his efforts. He was satisfied with the good will that brought these first members to him. At best, he invited them to make a retreat both to strengthen their own resolution and to implore the help of divine grace. Some time later he felt some spiritual exercises ought to be added to the retreat, which was prolonged somewhat more than was usual at the time. Gradually seeing his Congregation take form, and knowing the importance of admitting only well-intentioned subjects called by God, he decided that those who came must first pass some time in a seminary <Ftn: I.e., novitiate for the Congregation of the Mission.> under a director who would form them in the practices of the virtues and introduce them to the spiritual life.
The first director chosen was Monsieur Jean de la Salle, one of the three priests who had first joined him, whom he supplied with a daily timetable and a few general regulations. This seminary was begun in June 1637 in the house of Saint Lazare, where it has remained ever since, always blessed by God. Ordinarily there were about thirty or forty seminarians, both priests and clerics. This was the first seminary exclusively for the priests of the Congregation of the Mission. The others, mentioned earlier, were for ecclesiastics who were not members of the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent referred to it as spem gregis ["hope of the flock"] and as the nursery of the missionaries. His confidence in the paternal Providence was such that he never doubted about adequate numbers of applicants for the seminary. He took as a maxim that God would choose and call whom he would. Just as the first missionaries of the Son of God, his apostles, did not choose themselves but were selected by this divine Savior who called those he wished, so too those who would give themselves to God to work, in imitation of many great saints, at instructing and converting the people must be chosen and called by this same Lord.
For this same reason Monsieur Vincent never wanted to say a single word to anyone to attract him to the Congregation. He forbade his confreres to persuade anyone to enter. This is what he said on this matter:
Ordinarily, God chooses the weak to do his great deeds. We have in our own Congregation some who were admitted with much difficulty and misgivings because they offered little hope, but today we see them as good laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. Some are superiors who direct their missions with prudence and grace. We must praise God for them and admire his influence over them. Oh, gentlemen, be careful when you receive people into the house for their spiritual retreat that you never say anything which would tend to attract them to our Company. It is up to God to call them and provide the initial inspiration. Even more, when you see they are inclined this way, be careful that you do not decide for them that they are to be missionaries, either by your counsel or by your exhortations. Say only they must turn more and more to God to seek his will and to think over carefully such an important matter. Point out to them the hardships they can expect if they embrace this state in life and how they must be prepared to work and suffer for the sake of God. If they still persist, they should be referred to the superior to speak more fully about their vocation. Leave this to God, gentlemen, and remain humbly in expectation and in dependence on the good pleasure of his Providence.
By his mercy, this is what we have done in the Company up to the present, and we can say that whatever has come to us has been sent by God. We have sought neither men, goods, nor foundations. In the name of God, keep it like this and allow God to sustain us. Follow his initiative, please, and do not attempt to anticipate his direction of us. Believe me, if the Congregation follows this path, God will bless us.
If you see that any of the retreatants have the thought of going elsewhere to serve God in some other community, O God! do not prevent them, lest the anger of God fall upon our Company for trying to arrange something contrary to his holy will. And tell me, if you will, if the Company up to the present has not acted this way, in never trying to persuade others to join us, no matter how promising, unless they were sent to us by God and have been considering this vocation for a long time. The Carthusian priests and other religious communities have sent us several young men to make a retreat when they have applied there. They are cautious.
What then? Here is a young man with the thought of becoming a Carthusian. He was sent here on retreat to consider before the Lord what he is being called to, and you try to persuade him to remain here! What is that, gentlemen, if not trying to hold on to what does not belong to us? Or to enter a Congregation which God does not call him to, or which he has not even given a thought to? What would be the effect of this, other than to draw down the curse of God upon our Company? O poor Company of missionaries if you ever fell into this sad plight! But by the grace of God you have not, and never will. Pray to God, gentlemen, pray to God to confirm this Company in the grace he has given us up to now of seeking nothing but his holy will. <Ftn: CED XI:425-27.>
Another day Monsieur Vincent received a letter from a priest of the Congregation. <Ftn: Jean de Lestang.> It informed him of a most virtuous ecclesiastic whom he thought a good candidate for the life of a missionary. This person even seemed to show some inclination towards the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent replied:
I have not sent your letter to Monsieur N. [Serre], <Ftn: Louis Serre later joined the Congregation.> for it persuades him to enter our Company, but we have a contrary maxim, never to ask anyone to join our community. God alone will choose whom he will, and we are well convinced that a missionary called by him will do more good than many others without a true vocation. We must pray that he send good laborers for the harvest, and live so our good example will attract many others, if God so wills. <Ftn: CED VIII:286-87.>
This is the way Monsieur Vincent spoke, and this is the way he acted. Some people spoke or wrote to him, each in his own way: Monsieur, I am putting myself totally into your hands to do whatever you consider God is calling me to. Tell me, then, what should I do? Should I quit the world for this or that state? I am convinced that God sent me to you to know his will. I am indifferent to what I should do, so I will follow your suggestion as a most assured manifestation of the will of God.
There were many such cases, but this humble and wise servant of God almost never would suggest or prescribe the state of life they should embrace. As he used to say, he feared he would be anticipating God's Providence and presuming on the direction of his sovereign will rather than humbly and faithfully following it.
The solution of your uncertainty is a matter that must be resolved between God and yourself. Continue to pray for his inspiration about what you are to do. Make a retreat for several days for this purpose and be persuaded that the resolution you come to in the presence of the Lord shall be most agreeable to his divine Majesty and most helpful to yourself.
If those who came to him after deciding to leave the world, but remained undecided about which order to join, would suggest two, he would send them away to have them consider before God which to choose. If the Congregation of the Mission was one of the two, he would say, "Oh, Monsieur, we are a poor Company unworthy to be compared to this other congregation. Go, in the name of the Lord. You will be much happier there than with us." <Ftn: CED XII:316.>
For those who came determined to enter the Congregation, he was most hesitant to accept them. He would ask, "How long have you been thinking of this? How and on what occasion did this thought first come to you? What is your occupation? What motive leads you to seek to be a missionary? Are you disposed to go wherever you might be sent, even to the most remote foreign lands? Are you ready to endure all hardships?" He would point out the difficulties likely to come about in their new state.
He would send them away several times without giving any decision, and even with little hope of being accepted, to test their vocation and virtue. He would put them off for a long time, obliging them to come back several times to get to know them better. He would never give them a definite answer no matter how satisfied he was of their dispositions and their perseverance until he had them make a retreat to discern God's will. If they persevered in their first objective he would have them meet some of the older members of the community. If these men judged them suitable for the Congregation he finally would accept them for the seminary. There they would receive two years of training in humility, mortification, devotion, recollection, punctuality, and other practices conducive to a life of virtue, and to honor, as he used to say, the infancy of our Lord. He hoped they would become prayerful to prepare themselves for the unction of the Spirit of God, which would preserve in them the fire of charity in their hearts among all the trials and labors of the missions. <Ftn: See CED XI:126-28; XII:63-64.> After successfully completing the seminary program the candidates were finally admitted to the Congregation. If they had not completed their studies, they did so to have the requisite learning befitting their state.
He wrote out in his own hand a short summary of the dispositions they should possess as a member of the Congregation of the Mission.
One who wishes to live in community should resolve to live as a pilgrim upon earth, making himself a fool for Jesus Christ. He should be converted, mortify all the passions, seek God alone, submit himself to everyone as the least of all, be persuaded that he has come to serve and not to govern, to suffer and work, not to live in ease and laziness. He should realize that a person is purified like gold in the furnace and that he cannot persevere unless he humble himself before God. In doing so he should be persuaded that he will achieve true contentment in this life and eternal happiness in the next. <Ftn: A nearly literal translation from Book 1, ch. 16, of the Imitation of Christ.>
In these few words the saintly man touched on many things. We can safely say he preserved the community from those who, not finding their ease or satisfaction in the world, hope they might settle down to a life of peace and repose in the Congregation of the Mission.
Here is yet another word on the dispositions he desired to see in his confreres, which he spoke to his community on an occasion when word was received of a missionary maltreated in a foreign country. <Ftn: Jean Barreau, consul at Algiers.>
Please God, my brothers, that all who come to the Company come with the thought of martyrdom, with the desire to suffer death and to consecrate themselves totally to serve God either in a foreign land or here at home or wherever it shall please God to use this poor little Company. Yes, with the thought of martyrdom. Oh, how often we should ask this grace of our Lord! Alas, gentlemen and my brothers, is anything more reasonable than to give one's life for him who has so freely given his for us? If our Lord has loved us so much as to die for us, why do we not have the same affection for him and show it, should the occasion present itself? We see a list of popes who one after the other have been martyred. Isn't it astonishing to see businessmen, for a little profit, cross the seas and run a thousand risks? Last Sunday I met a man who said he had been persuaded to go to the Indies. When I asked him if it were not dangerous, he admitted it was. He knew one merchant who had returned, but another who had not. I then said to myself, if this person, for a few precious stones and a trifling gain, is willing to risk so many dangers, how much more we should be willing to do so to gain the precious jewel of the Gospel and to win souls to Jesus Christ? <Ftn: CED XI:370-71.>
Index of Abelly: Book One