Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 08/Section 01
His Special Devotion Towards the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar
One of the greatest and most characteristic of the devotions of Monsieur Vincent was that towards the most Holy Eucharist, considered not only as a sacrifice, as we have already spoken of in this chapter, but also as sacrament, under the species by which the Son of God becomes truly present in our churches, and accomplishes in a true and marvelous manner what he had promised, to remain with us to the end of time.
This devotion of Monsieur Vincent was manifested first by the great respect which he displayed in those churches where the blessed sacrament was kept, and by his affection for these places honored by Christ's presence. We have an account of this from a very trustworthy person: <Ftn: Brother Louis Robineau.>
I several times noticed when Monsieur Vincent was in prayer before the blessed sacrament that his true and sincere devotion could be clearly seen in his exterior behavior. He always prostrated himself on both knees, with such a humble attitude that it seemed he would willingly lower himself to the center of the earth if by this he could show even greater respect for the sovereign majesty of the divine presence. In seeing the respectful modesty of his countenance, it could be said that a person was seeing Jesus Christ through his eyes. The impression made by his whole manner, so devout and religious, was capable of awakening the faith of the most tepid, and arousing in even the most unfeeling sentiments of piety for this adorable mystery.
This respect and devotion was shown not only during his prayers. He exhibited the same modesty no matter what the occasion, whenever he found himself in church in the presence of the blessed sacrament. As much as possible, he would never speak in these holy places. If he thought it necessary to do so, however, he would have the one he wanted to speak to first leave the church. He would act this way with persons of rank, even bishops, yet never failing in the respect he owed these persons.
This esteem for those places honored with the divine presence was such that on days he was not too occupied with the business of the community, or obliged to go to the city, he would go to the church, and remain there as long as he could, sometimes for hours, before the blessed sacrament. Like another Moses, he above all had recourse to the holy tabernacle and the oracle of truth when confronted with the thorny problems that arose during his administration of the community. It was noticed, especially on those occasions when he would receive letters which he felt would bring some particularly good or bad news, that he would go behind the altar in the church of Saint Lazare. He would kneel there with head uncovered, and open and read the letters in the presence of our Lord. He would do the same wherever else he was. One day he was given a letter in the court of the palace in Paris, which undoubtedly had news of the outcome of an important matter related to the glory of God. Although this happened at a time when he had much difficulty in walking, he went up the stairs to the upper chapel of the palace, where the blessed sacrament was kept. He found the chapel locked, but nevertheless he knelt at the door to read the letter. He undoubtedly did so to express more perfectly his submission to whatever would be revealed to him as the will of God manifested through the letter. He wished to sacrifice to God any sentiments of joy or sadness which whatever its contents the letter might arouse in him.
When he was obliged to leave Saint Lazare on some business, before leaving he would go to prostrate himself before the Lord in the blessed sacrament to ask God's blessing upon his mission. Upon his return, he would again stop in the chapel, as though to give an account of his activities in the city. He would thank God for the graces he had received, and humble himself for any faults he may have committed. He did this, not in a formal or routine manner, but with a true spirit of worship and piety, remaining before the blessed sacrament in a humble and devout posture. He proposed this same practice to his community, saying it was only right for them to fulfill this duty to the master of the house.
When on his visits to the city he would come upon the blessed sacrament being carried through the streets, he would kneel, no matter where he happened to be. He would remain in this posture as long as the procession was in sight. If the procession went along the same street he was traveling, he would follow it bare headed, at a distance, because his difficulty in walking would not allow him to do otherwise.
On the trips he made to the villages and towns, he had the custom of dismounting from his horse to visit and adore the blessed sacrament in the church, if it were open. Otherwise he would do so in spirit. Once arrived at his destination for meals or for spending the night, he would first go to the local church to pay his respects and homage to the blessed sacrament.
In his serious illnesses, when he could no longer walk or support himself well enough to celebrate mass, he still communicated every day, if it were at all possible. In these daily communions he showed such affection and veneration for the presence of the Lord in this sacrament that he seemed transported outside of himself. In this connection, speaking once to his community on the effects of this divine sacrament upon those who approached it with appropriate dispositions, he said, "Do you not feel, my brothers, do you not feel divine fire burning in your breast when you receive the adorable body of Jesus Christ in communion?" He spoke these words out of the abundance of his own heart, and this allows us to deduce what he, in his own experience, tasted and felt in his communions. This appreciation led him to exhort everyone to prepare themselves well for the worthy and frequent reception of the holy communion of the body of Jesus Christ. He did not want his confreres to abstain from communion without serious reasons. When a person of piety came to him for counsel and guidance after omitting receiving the sacrament because of some interior trial, he wrote to her:
- "You did not do well in abstaining from communion because of the interior trial you experienced. Do you not see that this was a temptation, and that by doing this you laid yourself open to the influence of the enemy of this adorable sacrament? Do you suppose you will become better disposed, and more suited to unite yourself to our Lord by withdrawing from him? Surely, if you think like this you would be greatly mistaken, and would be living an illusion. <Ftn: CED I:111. Abelly altered the original letter in several ways. For example, he expanded the final sentence; the genuine expression of the writer reads: "Oh! Surely, that is an illusion." It was addressed to Louise de Marillac.>"
On another occasion, he spoke to his community on the same topic:
- "You should lament seeing that this devotion to the blessed sacrament is declining among Christians, due in part, no doubt, to the new opinions. I have spoken with the superior of a saintly congregation and with another man who was a great director of souls, and I asked if there was a decrease in the number of those who came to confession and to holy communion. They told me that there was a great reduction in the number of those receiving these sacraments. The daily bread which our Lord wanted us to pray for, and which was received every day by the early Christians, has been discouraged by the new doctrines of our own times. This should not surprise us, for these doctrines appeal to our natural inclinations. Those who follow their own inclinations follow these new opinions which surround them, and which seem to dispense them from taking the trouble to put themselves in the required dispositions for receiving holy communion often and worthily. <Ftn: These "new opinions" were those of the Jansenists. They were most popularly formulated in the work of Arnaud, De la fréquente communion, which discouraged the faithful from the frequent reception of the Eucharist. Vincent had already worked for the condemnation of Martin Barcos and his work, on the two heads of the Church, De l'autorité de S. Pierre et de S. Paul, 1645. Vincent was actively involved in the negotiations with Rome for the condemnation of Arnaud's work. When the condemnation finally came from Rome, Vincent invited the community to give thanks to God. CED XI, 321-22. See also VI, 88-89.>"
He added that he had known a good pious woman who had, upon the advice of her director, accustomed herself to receive communion on every Sunday and Thursday. Later, she put herself under the direction of a confessor who followed the new teachings. By some curiosity and the promise of a greater perfection, he limited her to receiving only once a week, then once a fortnight, then once a month. After eight months of this, she stopped one day to reflect on her life, and found things to be in a deplorable state. She was filled with imperfections, and subject to a great number of faults, given to vanity, quick to anger, impatient, and prey to the other passions. All this had come about since she had abstained from frequent reception of holy communion. She was astonished and moved by this, and said to herself, "What an unhappy state I am in! How I have fallen! How has it happened about that I am now subject to all these disorders and outbursts? What has brought about these changes in me? It undoubtedly has been caused by my leaving off and abandoning my original devotion, and having heeded the advice of these new directors. I now know from the unhappy results of my own experience that they are very dangerous. O my God, who has opened my eyes to recognize this, give me the grace to leave them completely!" Afterward, she left these new directors, and renounced their dangerous teachings which had so upset her and nearly brought her to her ruin. She returned to wiser counselors. They brought her back to her previous practice of the frequent reception of the sacraments with the required dispositions, and she found in them peace of conscience and the remedy for all her faults. <Ftn: See his letters to Jean Dehorgny on Jansenism: CED III:318-32, 362-74. The conference is not reported in Coste.>
Monsieur Vincent used this example several times to illustrate the great blessings inherent in the frequent and worthy reception of the blessed sacrament, in which our Lord gives us not only an abundance of grace, but himself as well, the source of all graces. Monsieur Vincent, this devout servant of Jesus Christ, felt very keenly the love and charity of God towards his creatures. Thus, he often exhorted his confreres to thank God for such an incomprehensible blessing, by expressing themselves in their frequent adorations, humiliations and glorifications of the Son of God residing in this blessed sacrament. Because of their own inadequacies, he urged them to pray to their guardian angels to help them in rendering this homage.
In this same spirit he wanted the members of the Congregation to show all external marks of reverence towards the blessed sacrament. He would reprimand those he saw lacking in this reverence. He was so careful of this that if he saw someone passing before the main altar of the church where the sacrament was kept, and not stopping to make a full genuflection, or making it too hurriedly, he would speak to the offender in private, or even in public, if he judged it expedient. He would say that we ought not appear before God as puppets, making light gestures and reverences without soul and spirit. Once, when he saw a brother making only a partial genuflection, he called him aside and showed him when and how to make a proper act of reverence. He was always personally exact in this, and made the proper genuflection as long as he was able, even up to the time that he needed help in rising from his genuflection. When he grew older, and the trouble with his legs no longer allowed him to do so, he publicly asked pardon before the whole community. He said that his sins caused him to be deprived of the full use of his legs.
Once, as he did on many other occasions, he said with his usual humility, that he regretted that his age and infirmities prevented him from making the proper genuflection. He went on to say:
- "If I should see the Company failing in this regard to show you what I would think of this, I would force myself to kneel down, no matter the cost, and not knowing how I could get up again myself. The faults committed in a community are the fault of the superior. The faults of the Congregation, in this matter, are important, because it is a duty of worship, and an exterior mark of the interior respect we must have for God. If we fail first in this matter, making only a small or half genuflection, the priests from outside who come here for retreats will feel that they too are not obliged to do any differently. Those in our own Congregation who succeed us, and will be guided by what we do, will do as they see us doing, and so all will fall into decadence. If the original is defective, what will the copies be like? Gentlemen and my brothers, please pay attention to this in such a way that our interior reverence will show in our external actions. God ought to be adored in spirit and in truth, and all true Christians should do so in imitation of the Son of God in the Garden of Olives. He prostrated himself in an attitude of profound interior humility, out of respect for the sovereign majesty of his Father. <Ftn: CED XI:207.>"
Since he so deeply believed that there should not be the least lack of even the exterior respect owed to the adorable sacrament, he was very displeased and filled with sorrow when he heard of the profanations and indignities against this holy sacrament committed by the soldiers and heretics during the wars. We cannot adequately describe his feelings, his sorrow, or the tears he shed, and how many extraordinary penances he endured to atone, as much as he could, for the disrespect shown to the person of Jesus Christ. Not content with his personal efforts, and what he was able to persuade his friends to do, such as sending ciboria, chalices, and other vessels to the devastated churches, he wanted the members of his community to join in the reparations. On pilgrimages, they would visit, in a penitential spirit, those churches where the sacrileges had been committed. The priests of the Congregation would celebrate mass, and the other members, joined by laymen, would receive communion. Afterward, missions would be given in the villages or other desecrated places. The missionaries sought to move the people to penance, and to practice other works of piety to appease the wrath of God, and to repair, in some way, the injuries and offenses committed against his sovereign majesty.