Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 11/Section 06
His Charity Towards the Members of His Own Congregation
We have seen in the previous parts of this book how charitable Monsieur Vincent was. Who can doubt that this virtue in him was well ordered, when we realize that the virtue which does not have this quality can hardly be called charity at all. According to the doctrine of Saint Thomas and other theologians, charity demands that we have a special love for those closest to us, those Providence has put in our path. Monsieur Vincent had such an intimate union with those God had given him as his spiritual sons that he could say with the apostle that he had given birth to them by the Gospel in Jesus Christ. <Ftn: 1 Cor 4:15.> He carried them in his heart and loved them most tenderly, after the example of the love Jesus Christ had for his apostles and disciples.
By imitating his divine master, he showed this love by the instructions, urgings, encouragement, and consolation he gave them, and by bestowing on them every good a child might expect from attentive parents. He often addressed them in moving talks, animated with the spirit of Jesus Christ, not only in the regularly scheduled meetings, but also on all sorts of other occasions. He would take the trouble to say a word of edification to one, sometimes after mental prayer, or on the occasion of some letter he may have received, or maybe on hearing some good or bad news, or possibly to recommend something special to their prayers. Like a good and wise father of the family he freely distributed the bread of souls, which is the word of God.
This way of acting was not limited to his Congregation in general, but was directed towards each confrere in particular. He spoke sometimes to one, sometimes to another, according to circumstances. He would encourage one in his difficulties, to another he would offer sympathy in his sufferings. He would admonish someone for his failings, or give some prudent advice in times of perplexity. On all occasions he was generous in instructing and encouraging his followers about the best means of progressing along the way of perfection. When absent from them he wrote in a similar fashion, taking the trouble amid the constant flood of pressing and important affairs to carry on an almost unlimited correspondence with them. He warned, instructed, exhorted, consoled, and encouraged. These letters alone allow us to see his boundless charity towards his own confreres.
Since one of the principal and most important lessons Jesus Christ gave his disciples was that they should love one another, his servant Vincent de Paul often repeated this to his own followers. He often made it the subject of his conferences with them. He has even left a hand-written copy of a talk, something he did for no other subject. On this question of fraternal charity, he said among many other things: "It is a sign of predestination, since by this virtue one is recognized as a disciple of Jesus Christ."
One day, on the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, while exhorting the priests and brothers to love one another by recalling the words of the apostle filioli diligite alterutrum ["Little children, love one another"], <Ftn: Based on 1 John 4:7.> he said: "The Congregation of the Mission will endure only as long as charity reigns in it." He roundly cursed anyone who would destroy the virtue of charity and thus cause the ruin of the Congregation, or even a lessening of this virtue, thereby making the Congregation less perfect than it might otherwise be. <Ftn: CED XII:435.>
He then said:
- "Charity is the soul of the virtues, and the paradise of communities. The house of Saint Lazare will be a paradise if charity is found there. Paradise is none other than love, union, and charity. The blessed in heaven are wholly taken up with the love of the divine. Nothing is more desirable than to live with those we love, knowing that we in our turn are loved as well."
He also said:
- "Christian love begotten of charity is not only superior to natural inclination, a product of the sensible appetite and usually more harmful than helpful, but is beyond even rational affection. Christian love is a love by which we love one another in God, for God, and as God wills. It is an affection which makes us love our neighbors for the same purpose God loves them, to make them saints in this world and blessed in the next. As a result of this love we must see God alone, and nothing but God, in each of those we love."
Those who would live in a community without support and without charity would be at the mercy of the humors and vagaries of those with whom they lived. They would be like a ship without anchor or rudder, traveling among reefs, at the mercy of wind and wave battering it from all sides and finally destroying it.
- "The missionaries ought not limit their mutual love to a merely interior sentiment or to their words only. They should show this by their deeds, and by coming to the aid of their confreres in a spirit of good will, being always disposed to their welfare.
- He ardently desired that God would inspire this charity in the hearts of all the members of the Congregation, since, he said, "by mutual support the strong will support the weak, and the work of God will be accomplished." <Ftn: Abelly's version differs considerably from CED XII:260-76.>"
Because detraction is the chief enemy of charity and this vice occasionally intrudes into even the most saintly community, the charitable father of the missionaries fought this vice to the end. To prevent it from finding a place among his missionaries, he often exhorted them to be vigilant and on their guard. He compared this vice to a ravenous wolf seeking to destroy the flock. He asserted that one of the greatest ills that could overtake a community was to harbor someone who slandered, murmured, and who found it necessary to speak to everyone of his own unhappiness. He said also that anyone who lent an ear to the slanderer was as guilty as the original offender, as the ancient fathers taught.
To warn his confreres against this vice, for which he had an extreme horror, he gave conferences on this theme from time to time. He referred to all the occasions and temptations which might lead to this failing. Once, he repeated this same talk on seven successive Fridays, and had the members of his community discuss it among themselves. After each talk he collected the results of these discussions in his efforts to eliminate this scandal from his Congregation. At the end of the seven weeks, he summarized in a forceful presentation all that had been said.
It was not by words alone that Monsieur Vincent expressed his affection for his confreres. In all sorts of encounters he manifested an openness of heart and a paternal affection for all, from the greatest to the least among them. He wanted all to be aware of his high regard for each of them. When anyone came to speak with him, either out of some particular need or for any other reason, he welcomed him cordially. He stopped whatever else he was doing to listen to what the person had to say. If he could not give his visitor the time he needed, he appointed another time for him to return, when he would have the leisure to hear him out. The priests and brothers openly spoke to him of their desires, sufferings, their evil inclinations, and even their faults. He listened in a way that showed his affection, like a doctor receiving a patient. He replied appropriately to each one according to his needs and expectations, always happily, for he had a special gift of knowing how to send away happy everyone who came to him. He was able to console and edify each of his visitors. He was blessed with a marvelous spirit of adaptability, becoming all to all, adjusting to the dispositions of each one who came. He would often lapse into the language of the region from which they came. He would speak Picard with those from Picardy, Gascon with someone from Guienne, Basque with a Basque, and even a few words of German with someone from that country.
This is the way he spoke with those who came to see him, but he did not limit this cordiality to these meetings. Whenever he had occasion to refer to any of his confreres, he showed his respect and esteem. He would praise them for their life of virtue, and speak honorably of even the least among them.
On this subject we recall that one day the father of one of the brothers of the community came to speak of his son. "He is much more important than I am," said Monsieur Vincent, "and many others say the same thing." On another occasion he said to one of his members who brought up the temptation he was experiencing of wanting to leave the Congregation, that he felt as bad when someone was leaving the community as if he were losing an arm or a leg. He was heard to say on several other occasions while speaking to the members of his community that he loved the vocation in which he lived more than his own life, and that when someone announced his withdrawal he felt as though he was being cut to the quick.
Once, he threw himself on his knees and remained in this posture for nearly two hours at the feet of a priest of his Congregation thinking of leaving the community. He begged him, in the name and for the love of our Savior Jesus Christ, not to succumb to this temptation. "No," he said, "I will not rise until you agree with what I am asking. I want, at least, to be as insistent on this point as is your tempter, the devil."
If he would notice that someone was depressed, he would do all in his power to bring him out of this condition, or at least do something to relieve and console him. He would sometimes say some little pleasantry to distract him, or invite him to his room as a mark of his esteem. He might assign him to some occupation suitable for the relief of his symptoms.
Once, there was a servant in the house, not a member of the Congregation, but one for whom Monsieur Vincent had a special regard. The servant unfortunately had some words with a brother of the house, whereupon Monsieur Vincent immediately dismissed him. It was pointed out to him that this servant was capable and even necessary for the good running the house, but Monsieur Vincent was adamant. He would not allow a servant to speak disrespectfully to a brother. Monsieur Vincent did help him find another position with the good letter of recommendation he wrote for him.
One day a brother came to Monsieur Vincent to complain that one of the officials of the house had treated him rudely. He was received with great kindness and meekness, and Monsieur Vincent said to him: "You were well advised to come to tell me this. I'll handle it. Come at any time to see me whenever you have a complaint, for you know how fond I am of you." These gentle words, according to the brother himself, calmed his spirit, and left him with further reason to admire the goodness of his superior.
Another brother came to speak about some doubts he was experiencing. He expressed the fear that he might be disturbing Monsieur Vincent, but he replied: "No, brother, have no fear that you are bothering me. You must realize that one appointed by God to be at the service of others is no more put out by the demands made on him than a father would be in regard to his children."
He wrote the following to a priest of the Congregation who feared that the information he had given about himself would diminish Monsieur Vincent's good opinion of him.
Thinking of your remark that possibly your confidences might lessen the esteem I have always had for you, I must assure you that this is not the case. I am aware that these enemies occasionally attack even the most virtuous, and that the thoughts of leaving the community are Providence's way of proving those whom he loves the most. He often leads them by ways of difficult and thorny paths to merit the extraordinary graces he has in store for them. Rather than having had the least thought to your disadvantage, I have thought of you as being even more faithful to God. This is especially so because you have resisted these temptations, and despite all your work, you have not neglected your ordinary spiritual exercises. In addition, after your letter to me explaining your case, you have willingly accepted the response I sent.
One day a priest of the Congregation was speaking of the state of his soul to Monsieur Vincent. Among other things he remarked that he had formed an aversion against him and was angry at him. At these words the charitable father rose, embraced him tenderly, and congratulated him for being able to speak so frankly: "If up to now I have not given my heart to you, I do so now, totally."
Another priest went to see him in his room. The priest was downcast, and was resolved to quit the community. He stated that his mind was made up, and he wanted to return to his own region. Monsieur Vincent smiled, and looking upon him with kindness and tenderness said to him, "When do you plan to leave? Are you going by foot, or will you take a horse?" The priest was so surprised by this response that Monsieur Vincent had given to distract him from this temptation, when he expected some sort of severe reprimand, that he was completely freed from this wish to leave.
Another of his priests who worked in a remote province wrote that the brother with him wished to withdraw from the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent replied:
- "I always expected that this good brother would be tempted by the demon of sloth, and he perhaps may remember that I warned him about this. Please help him, and encourage him to repel this temptation. But do it gently, by way of persuasion rather than by direction, as you know you are in the habit of doing. Those tempted in this way have a greater need of being treated, or should I say pampered, even more gently and charitably than those who have a physical ailment."
Another brother wrote several times to ask permission to leave the Congregation. Each time Monsieur Vincent wrote in a way that showed his fatherly love, and encouraged him to remain. We will record here only the ending of the last letter, to show the tenderness he displayed towards the members of his community.
No, my dear brother, I cannot consent to your leaving, for I see that it is not God's will that you do so. Also, your immortal soul, so dear to me, would be in peril. If you do not believe me, please, at least do not leave the Congregation except through the same door that you entered. I mean to say, before taking a step of such great importance, make a spiritual retreat. Choose one of the three houses closest to you. Be assured that you will be well received wherever you decide to go. The goodness of your heart has earned my love for you, with no other goal than the glory of God and your own sanctification. You are aware of this, I know, and you know also that I am entirely yours, in the love of our Savior. <Ftn: CED III:484.>
When he would send one of his confreres to a mission assignment, he would always send a note to the superior, asking him to take care. He would usually say, "I hope that he will have much confidence in you when he sees the goodness, support, and charity which our Lord has given you for those whom he now confides to your direction."
He wrote to one of his priests, who in his devotion to God had agreed to serve in a remote place:
- "Reflecting on the extraordinary graces God has conferred on you, by calling you to serve the people in that distant place, I embrace you in spirit with joy and tenderness. You deserve this, as a soul chosen by God from among all the people in the whole world, and as one who has left all to follow this call, to bring a great number of these people to heaven. Who would not love a soul so detached from temporal things, from his own selfish interests, and even from the care of his own body to carry out the designs of God, his only ambition? But who would not care for the body, which serves to bring light to the blind, and raises the dead to life again? This is why I beseech you, Monsieur, to look upon your body as an instrument of God for the salvation of many, and to care for it for this reason. <Ftn: CED V:565-66.>"
Another time he wrote a similar letter to several of his priests at work together in a foreign land, urging them to care for their health.
You are aware that your health will be in danger in this new climate until you have acclimated yourselves. I warn you about going out in the full sun, and suggest that in the beginning you use your time in a study of the language. Become like little children again as you learn to speak. In that spirit allow yourselves to be guided by Monsieur N., who will act as a father to you, or by Monsieur N. Please look on them as taking the place of our Lord, and as our Lord acting through them. Even should you lack the help of either the one or the other, you shall experience the special help of God himself, for has he not said "that even if a mother forget the child of her womb I will not forget you?" <Ftn: Isa 49:15.> You ought to be convinced that he will have care for you, my dear fathers, watching over you, keeping you, protecting you. You have abandoned yourselves to him and placed all your trust in his protection. Be careful, gentlemen, to love one another, and help each other. Support one another and you shall see that God, who has chosen you for his great purposes, will preserve you for carrying out his designs. <Ftn: CED V:434-35. The missionaries were probably going to Madagascar.>
Monsieur Vincent had the custom of falling on his knees to embrace those he was sending to the missions, or those who were returning. He saw to it that they were not lacking in anything they needed. Above all others, he showed his great love particularly for the sick. He would graciously ask about the state of their health, and often would suggest remedies for their illnesses. When circumstances dictated, he would send for the doctor, or for those able to be up and about, he would send them to the doctor to be examined. He saw to it that the infirmarians took care of the sick, and directed the superiors of the various houses to spare no expense in taking care of the sick. He was often heard to say that it was better to sell the sacred vessels of the altar rather than deprive the sick of anything they needed. To those who complained that the sick were a drain on the community, he would say that, on the contrary, they were a blessing on any house where they were. <Ftn: CED XI:73; XII:29.> Despite all his other preoccupations he never failed to pray for them, and to recommend them to the prayers of the community. As often as he could he visited the sick. On his various trips he would ask about them, the care being taken of them, and whether they lacked anything they required. He would not allow among his community any lack of charity or tenderness of heart towards the sick.
One of his priests wrote on this matter:
- "I personally experienced the charity he showed to the sick during two serious bouts of illness I had while in the house of Saint Lazare. God would have done me a favor if he had then called me from this world, for it seemed to me that I was well disposed to die by the help and prayers of Monsieur Vincent, who visited me several times. He did not want to spare anything when it had to do with the sick because, as he used to say, they deserve more because of their sufferings than others do by their work. I often heard him say that it would be preferable to sell the sacred chalices to help them. When he came to visit he would discreetly ask about the treatment they were receiving. He relieved their pain by his compassion, and during their convalescence he would tell some interesting stories for their amusement, often with a moral attached."
In keeping with his priorities, he neglected nothing in the spiritual care of the sick, besides the attention paid to their physical needs. For those not too ill, he gently and paternally suggested that they not omit their usual spiritual exercises, "lest the sickness of the body extend to the soul, and make it lax and unmortified."
Lastly, we can be sure that his solicitude for the welfare and care of the sick extended to those in health as well. We are assured of this by the account we have of a missionary working in Champagne for the relief of the poor. The missionary wrote to ask, among other things, if a cap could be sent to him. None was to be found in the house, but this charitable father took his own off his head and asked the brother, who told us of the incident, to send it to the priest. When it was suggested that perhaps someone could go into town to buy one, Monsieur Vincent replied: "No, my brother, we must not make him wait, for he may be in a hurry for it. Please send it, together with the other things he has asked for." <Ftn: The brother was Louis Robineau.>
Not content with expressing his love and appreciation towards his own, he extended this concern to their relatives in as many ways as he could. When he learned that any suffering had come to the relatives of the priests or brothers of his Congregation, he wanted all to sympathize and help the families as much as possible. He himself was the first to sense their grief and offer his consolation in the best way he knew how.
Speaking to his community, he said: "We pray God for the N. family, which has experienced such a loss. We should sympathize with the brother who suffers, for we owe this to one another." Sometimes, according to the circumstances, he would say, "I request the priests who have no particular intention for their mass to offer it for the grieving N. family. I plan to do the same in the mass I am about to celebrate, and I would like the brothers to receive communion for this same intention." Besides his prayers for the relatives of the members of the Congregation, he provided other more tangible help when they found themselves in reduced circumstances.