Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 11/Section 01
Some Remarkable Examples of Monsieur Vincent's Charity
To illustrate what we have just said of the charity of Monsieur Vincent we will in this first section give some examples, chosen from many others which filled the life of this great servant of God.
During the recent troubles in the kingdom, the people of Montmirail were distressed at the prospect of mistreatment at the hands of the soldiers. They did know where to turn to safeguard their persons and their belongings from the ravages and annoyances of the soldiers. Monsieur Vincent wrote to the priests of this Congregation working in the region to do all they could to protect these poor people. The priests in turn pointed out that they were themselves in danger and would be at risk in attempting to help others. Monsieur Vincent replied: "We must come to the help of our neighbor in need. Since everything you own you have received from God, his divine majesty has the right to take it from you when he so wills. Rising above your fears, you are to come to the help of this poor town however you can." <Ftn: CED V:44.> This they did, helping the poor townspeople save most of their goods and their household furniture from the soldiers, leaving all that might happen to themselves in the hands of God's providence.
The priests of the Congregation of the Mission, who direct a seminary under the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Toulouse, became involved in a lawsuit about the seminary. <Ftn: The seminary at Cahors. The lawsuit concerned the abbey of La Fauvette.> The Prince de Conti urged a solution to the difficulty by having the priests submit the case to arbitration in the city of Toulouse. Nevertheless, a bishop concerned with the seminary, and a supporter of the priests of the Mission, did not approve of the arbitration and ordered the priests to break it off. <Ftn: Blessed Alain de Solminihac, the bishop of Cahors.> They soon informed Monsieur Vincent, and sent him the letter which the bishop had written them. One of the priests then pointed out to Monsieur Vincent that the Prince de Conti, then in Paris, should be informed that the Priests of the Mission were not the ones responsible for breaking off the negotiations. <Ftn: Guilbert Cuissot, superior of the seminary at Cahors.> Monsieur Vincent replied: "No, this course of action would reflect badly upon the bishop, which we must not allow to happen; this would give the priest reason to complain about the bishop. It is preferable that we take the blame, and let the recriminations fall upon us. We must never do anything to work to the harm of our neighbor."
The greatest example of charity, as our Lord pointed out in the Gospel, is to give our lives for those we love. On several occasions Monsieur Vincent, who had this virtue in the highest degree, freely risked his own life in the service of his neighbor. Some time after the priests of the Mission moved into Saint Lazare, God permitted a plague to strike the house, and the sub-prior was among its victims. As soon as Monsieur Vincent learned of this, he went to visit the priest, to console and encourage him, and to offer to render any service within his power. He approached his reeking bedside, and remained there as long as he was permitted to do so. At this same time, a young boy at Saint Lazare was stricken. Several were thought that the boy should be transported to the hospital of Saint Louis, but Monsieur Vincent would not allow it. The boy was to be cared for at Saint Lazare. Monsieur Vincent saw to it that one of the brothers was assigned to take special care of the sick child.
Once, while in the faubourg Saint Martin, Monsieur Vincent came upon six or seven armed soldiers, swords in hand, chasing a man of the working class and just about to kill him. He had already been wounded and it was all to obvious that he would not escape death. None of the bystanders wanted to risk the anger of the soldiers in attempting to help the victim, but Monsieur Vincent thought nothing of risking his own life in assisting his neighbor. Moved by a spirit of charity, he threw himself among the soldiers, using his own body as a shield against their swords, allowing the man to escape. The soldiers, astonished at this display of courage and charity, allowed themselves to be persuaded by his remonstrances, and they gave up their evil intent.
Another example of this same virtue, as remarkable as it is rare, has been reported by several persons from both within and outside the Congregation, and especially by the superior of the priests of the Mission of Marseilles, who heard the story from several persons of that town. Long before he established the Congregation, Monsieur Vincent emulated the charity of Saint Paulinus, who sold himself to ransom from slavery the son of a poor widow. It happened that once Monsieur Vincent came upon a convict in the galleys who had been forced to abandon wife and children to a life of abject poverty. He was so moved by compassion at the wretched state to which these persons were reduced, that he resolved to do everything in his power to help them. He was unable to find any way to help, however. Then, moved by extraordinary charity, he thought he would take the place of the poor convict to enable him to go to the help of his impoverished family. He convinced the authorities to allow this exchange, and freely accepted the very chains of this poor man whose liberty he had secured. After some time, his extraordinary virtue manifested in this episode was appreciated, and he was released from servitude. Later, people, perhaps correctly, thought that the swelling in his legs may have come from the chains used to secure the convicts in the galleys. Once, a priest of the Congregation asked Monsieur Vincent if these things had really happened, that he had once taken the place of a galley slave. Monsieur Vincent merely smiled, but gave no answer to the question. <Ftn: This account is still much debated.>
We can surely say that this act of charity was most admirable. Yet we can say with even more certainty that Monsieur Vincent gave greater glory to God by using his time, talents, goods, and his very life in the service of all convicts, not just of the one he replaced on the galley bench. Through his own experience he knew their sufferings and needs, and he worked to secure both bodily and spiritual help, in sickness and in health, for the present and for the future, far beyond what he could have accomplished if he had remained chained among them.
It is not hard to accept the idea that he was minded to give up his personal liberty in favor of an abject slave in imitation of Saint Paulinus if we reflect upon his later years. Following the example of Saint Paul, he was willing in a certain sense to allow himself to become accursed for the sake of his brothers. <Ftn: Rom 9:3.> A remarkable example of his occurred during the time Monsieur Vincent was a chaplain of Queen Marguerite. We owe this account in part to what he said one day in a conference to his community, and in part to the recollections of several reputable persons reported after his death.
I once knew a famous professor, who for a long time had defended the Catholic faith against heretics in the exercise of his role as diocesan theologian. Because of his learning and piety, Queen Marguerite had even invited him to court, which required his leaving his other responsibilities. Since he no longer preached or catechized he fell prey to serious temptations against the faith. Incidentally, this warns us of the danger of idleness, either of body or mind. Just as the fields, no matter how good the soil, will yield weeds and thorns if they are not cultivated, so too our souls cannot long remain at rest or in idleness without feeling the rise of passions and temptations which lead it to evil.
This theologian, realizing that he was in this sad state, came to me. He admitted that he was undergoing violent temptations against the faith, and was even assailed by blasphemous thoughts against our Lord Jesus Christ. He was in such despair that he felt tempted to hurl himself from a window to his death. He was in such a bad way that he had to be excused from reciting the breviary or celebrating mass, or even reciting any other prayer. Beginning even the Our Father raised a multitude of evil spirits to torment him. His imagination was so drained and his mind so exhausted at the effort to resist these temptations that he could no longer function. In this extremity he was advised to observe a simple practice. He should lift his hand or even a finger in the direction of Rome, or even toward any church, signifying whenever he made this gesture that he professed his faith in all that the Roman Church taught. What was the outcome of all this? God at length had mercy on this man, for when he fell sick he was suddenly delivered from all his temptations and the blindfold fell from the eyes of his soul. He began to see anew the truths of faith but with such clarity that it seemed he could almost touch them with one of his fingers. He finally died, giving thanks to God for allowing him to fall into these temptations only to be delivered by great and admirable insights into the mysteries of our holy religion. <Ftn: CED XI:32-34.>
We know of this episode from a talk which Monsieur Vincent gave to his confreres on the subject of faith. He does not mention anything at all of the means he used to deliver this man from his violent temptation. Only after his death did it become known that it was by his own prayers and self-offering to God that this deliverance came about. This it how it happened, according to the written account of a trustworthy person, someone unaware of the conference of Monsieur Vincent cited above.
Monsieur Vincent took it upon himself to help this man who had revealed his troubled spirit. He counseled him to perform good acts to obtain the grace of deliverance. Later, it happened that this person fell sick, during which time the evil spirit redoubled his efforts to gain his soul. When Monsieur Vincent recognized his pitiable condition he feared that the man would succumb to the violent temptation of infidelity and blasphemy, and would die poisoned by the implacable hatred of the devil toward the Son of God. Monsieur Vincent prayed earnestly that God in his goodness would deliver the sick man from this danger, and in a spirit of penance he offered to take upon himself whatever sufferings divine justice might require. In this, he imitated the charity of Jesus Christ who took our infirmities upon himself that we might be cured, and who bore the sufferings we deserved.
In his hidden providence, God accepted this offer of Monsieur Vincent, and heard his prayer. He delivered the sick man from his temptation, calmed his soul, enlightened his darkened and troubled faith, and gave him such sentiments of reverence and gratitude toward our Lord Jesus Christ as he had never before experienced.
At the same time, God in his divine wisdom permitted this same temptation to trouble the soul of Monsieur Vincent. This beset him for a long time after. He had recourse to prayer and self-denial to rid himself of this trial, but these had no other effect than to allow him to bear these torments from hell with patience and resignation, always with the hope that God would pity him.
Since he realized that God wished to try him in permitting the devil to attack him so violently, he had recourse to two remedies. The first was to write out a profession of faith which he placed over his heart as an antidote to his trials. He specifically repudiated any thoughts contrary to faith, and entered into a sort of pact with the Savior that every time he placed his hand over his heart and upon this paper, as he often did, he intended by the gesture to renounce temptation, all without saying a single word. At the same time he raised his mind to God and easily diverted it from the thoughts which troubled him. In this way he confounded the devil without directly confronting him.
The second remedy he used was to do the exact opposite of what the tempter suggested, striving to act by faith in rendering honor and service to Jesus Christ. He carried this out particularly in his visits to the sick poor of the charity hospital in the faubourg Saint Germain where he lived at the time. This charitable practice is among the most meritorious in Christianity since it bears witness to faith in the Savior's words and example and to the desire to serve him. Jesus himself said that what was done to the least of his brethren he would regard as done to himself. <Ftn: Matt 25:40.> God allowed Monsieur Vincent to draw such grace from this period of temptations that not only did he never have occasion to confess any fault in this regard, but on the contrary the remedies he used were the source of innumerable blessings drawn down upon his soul.
Three or four years passed in this severe trial which bore down upon Monsieur Vincent, and he groaned before God under their weight. Yet, seeking to strengthen himself more surely against the attacks of the devil, he thought of taking a firm and unbreakable resolve to honor Jesus Christ and to imitate him more perfectly than ever before by committing his entire life to the service of the poor. No sooner had he done this than, by a marvelous effect of grace, all the suggestions of the evil one disappeared. His heart, which had been so troubled for such a long time, was suddenly freed, and his soul filled with such abundant light that he admitted on several occasions that he seemed to realize the truths of faith with remarkable clarity. <Ftn: The authenticity of this account has been debated on chronological and psychological grounds.>
Thus did that temptation cease. The result of his decision was that one might say that God in his grace drew forth from his servant all the great works he did for the aid and salvation of the poor and for the greater good of his Church. Besides the one who gave this account, several other worthy persons still living have told us the same thing. Monsieur Vincent had told it to them in confidence when he wished to help them overcome similar temptations in their own case. He spoke of what he had experienced in these situations to bring them to use similar remedies and to obtain relief in the trials they were undergoing.