Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 27
Index of Abelly: Book One
Spiritual Conferences for Clergy
Spiritual conferences have ever been in vogue in the Church, especially for those who want to progress in virtue. The fathers of the desert regarded them as an excellent means for mutual encouragement as they walked the narrow path of evangelical perfection. Entire volumes have been preserved reporting what they discussed in these holy assemblies. These fathers always considered Jesus Christ to be present in these meetings because of his word in the Gospel, that when two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. <Ftn: Matt 18:20.>
Monsieur Vincent was well aware through his own experience of how useful these conferences were, for he had used them with great blessing from the beginning of his Company. He seized the opportunity offered him by God to extend these conferences to other priests, as we shall see in what follows.
Several pious clergymen who had attended the ordination retreats and received many graces in the exercises, had felt a great desire to lead a life worthy of their sacred calling. They hoped to preserve this holy disposition and continue in the way of sanctification. For this purpose they consulted Monsieur Vincent, asking him for his advice on how best they might correspond faithfully to the grace they had received at their ordination. <Ftn: CED I:203-05.>
Monsieur Vincent was the soul of charity and was filled with an ardent zeal for whatever might contribute to the spiritual good of the clergy. Among other things he proposed they should meet once a week to discuss matters pertaining to their state, such as the virtues proper to priests, functions of a true ministry, and other similar matters, all calculated to be most useful for the good of their souls. These conferences would serve to develop a union of hearts among themselves in the service of Jesus Christ and his Church, as a support and mutual encouragement and as a help in their holy ministry.
This proposal seemed to the priests concerned as though it came from heaven itself through Monsieur Vincent. Tuesday was chosen as the meeting day for the conference, which was immediately inaugurated with the blessing of the archbishop of Paris in 1633. <Ftn: It has become commonly known as the Tuesday conferences.> It has continued to the present with much success not only for the personal development of those attending but for the good of the entire Church, as we shall see in Book Two. <Ftn: Ch. 3. Jean Jacques Olier, Louis Abelly, and Jacques Benigne Bossuet and nearly three hundred other priests were received as members of the Tuesday conferences during the saint's lifetime.>
Although this first meeting of priests was small in numbers at the beginning, God blessed it. As a result, it soon became a sacred nursery serving to produce for France several archbishops and bishops worthy of their office and a large number of vicars general, ecclesiastical judges, archdeacons, canons, pastors, and other clergy who most worthily fulfilled their benefices, offices and dignities in the Church. They have spread out to all the dioceses of the kingdom, where all have benefited from their good example, their zeal, and their efforts for the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
These priests certainly did not come to the Clergy Conferences for any temporal advantage or for hope of receiving a benefice. On the contrary, of all the dispositions stressed for the participants, one of the most often emphasized was total lack of self-interest, with the corresponding intention of purely and simply giving oneself perfectly to the service of God in perfect fidelity to one's vocation. This wise and zealous director ordinarily stressed nothing so much as love of humility, of contempt, of poverty and suffering, after the example of Jesus Christ, their divine Master. They were to imitate him by their service to the poor, visiting them in hospitals, prisons, and other such places. When invited by Monsieur Vincent they were to accompany the priests of the Congregation of the Mission to the parishes and villages, to serve the poor country people. They were to undertake the lowest and least esteemed priestly tasks.
God exalts the humble and rejects the proud, and confirms their humble service by raising them up. These Clergy Conferences produced such a change in priestly lives in Paris, even among some priests of noble birth, that they began to devote themselves with such zeal to diverse works of charity that they edified the city. Cardinal Richelieu heard of these developments. <Ftn: Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, 1585-1642. As bishop of Lucon he acted as a spokesman for the clergy at the Estates-General of 1614. Raised to the cardinalate in 1622, he entered the council of the king (1624) and quickly became its head. He guided both foreign and domestic policy. He was the author of royal absolutism, destroying the power of the nobles and of the Huguenot minority. Louis XIII followed his deathbed advice to appoint Mazarin as his chief minister.> As a result, he summoned Monsieur Vincent to explain what was happening in these assemblies and conferences and to talk about the work of the priests of the Congregation of the Mission. He was most satisfied and from this time on developed a high esteem for the person and virtue of Monsieur Vincent, whom he had not known before, as he told his niece, Duchess d'Aiguillon. <Ftn: Marie de Wignerod de Pontcourlay, 1604-1675, whose husband died in 1622, after two years of marriage. Despite her entrance into the Carmelites, the cardinal saw to her worldly advancement and appointment as a duchess. She was a great and consistent benefactress of the Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity and other congregations. She was president of the Confraternity of Charity at Saint Sulpice, her parish. After Monsieur Vincent's death, she had a silver-gilt reliquary made in the shape of a heart surmounted by a flame to enclose his heart.> On several later occasions he met Monsieur Vincent, exhorting him to continue the good works he had begun, and stating that he thought that his Congregation would do great good for the Church, and promised him every protection and support.
The cardinal wanted to know which priests came each week to Saint Lazare, the purpose of these assemblies, what they discussed, the charitable works they supported. When he received a satisfactory response to all these questions, he let it be known that he had a particular interest in having good bishops in the Church in France, who would have all the qualities required in such a high office. He asked Monsieur Vincent who might he think worthy of the episcopate, who might then be proposed to the king for nomination to vacant sees in the kingdom. Monsieur Vincent gave him the names of several. This wise and zealous minister immediately took pen and paper and wrote in his own hand the names in the order they had been given. <Ftn: CED II:386-88. Richelieu kept his word, and after his death, Louis XIII appealed again to Vincent, asking him to recommend suitable candidates for the episcopacy.>
What should be mentioned is that all this took place so discretely that Monsieur Vincent never said a word about it. The priests of the Clergy Conferences never knew a thing of it during his lifetime. Monsieur Vincent was taken up in inculcating a spirit of humility, simplicity, and evangelical disinterestedness, without ever breathing the least word that he had anything to do with their appointment to high office. Rather, he exhorted them incessantly to flee what appeared grand and mighty and instead to seek their own abnegation.
We shall see more in detail in Book Two <Ftn: Ch. 3.> the great good God drew from these assemblies at Saint Lazare, for the sanctification of the clergy and for the service of the whole Church. One of the benefits was that the clergy conferences begun at Paris soon appeared in other dioceses. By the solicitude of the prelates, the pastors, benefice-holders, and priests of the towns and villages began to come together to discuss matters concerning the ecclesiastical state and the obligations flowing from it. All of this proved most helpful not only to reform the clergy but also to edify the people. The year 1642 saw an occasion when Monsieur Vincent was able to establish a second clergy conference in the College des Bons Enfants.
The women of the Association of Charity of Paris, of whom we will speak later, had requested some priests, besides those who lived in the hospital, to help tend the sick. In keeping with his usual charity, Monsieur Vincent welcomed the six at Saint Lazare who were to engage in this work, to prepare themselves by a spiritual retreat. He exhorted them to do well this work of charity and to preserve the spirit of piety and fraternal union among themselves. To help in this he offered some suggestions, chief among which was to meet every week at the College des Bons Enfants for clergy conferences much like those held at Saint Lazare. These good men willingly accepted this suggestion but chose Thursday as their meeting day rather than Tuesday because Thursday was ordinarily not a class day. This allowed those studying theology to come to these weekly meetings without missing any of their classes. Thus it was that this second clergy conference began. It has continued up to the present. It allowed several priests to join the study of virtue to that of knowledge. Thus they would make themselves more capable of serving the Church and giving greater glory to God.
Index of Abelly: Book One