Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 13/Section 01
Some examples of Monsieur Vincent's practice of the virtue of humility
A virtuous priest who knew Monsieur Vincent well, said most correctly that he had never seen any ambitious person with greater desire of advancing his career, of being well regarded, and of arriving at the summit of honors, than this humble servant of God had of doing just the opposite. He sought to see himself abased, regarded as abject and contemptible, and ready to embrace all humiliations and confusions. He seems to have treasured this virtue, seizing every opportunity to practice it, and taking care to humble himself on every conceivable occasion.
Besides what we have already said in this chapter, we shall give several more particular examples in what follows.
He was far from parading the gifts and talents he had received from God, but on the contrary he strove, as much as possible, as we have already said, to hide them. When he had to reveal these gifts in the service of God and the neighbor, he displayed only what was strictly needed. His maxim in this regard is the more worthy of being respected as it is rare among men. Although we have written of it elsewhere, it bears repeating, for it deserves to be known and practiced by all.
If I do a public action and can make myself look good, I will not do so. I will refrain from pushing myself forward, not doing what would likely give me a certain reputation. If two thoughts come to me about a particular topic, if charity does not require me to do otherwise, I will speak of the lesser of these, to humble myself, and retain the better as a sacrifice to God in the secret of my heart. Our Savior takes pleasure in the humble of heart, and in the simplicity of our words and actions. <Ftn: CED XII:211-27.>
When he had to speak of the works which God had accomplished by him, or the blessings showered upon his direction of them, he would do so in the name of the Congregation, not of his own. He would say, for example, "God used the Congregation for this or that purpose. His infinite goodness bestowed such and such a grace upon the Company." When he spoke of what he planned to do in carrying out some project, he would speak in the plural, saying, for example, "We will seek to supply a remedy for this need, or, to accomplish this purpose we will send this or that help." He spoke this way in a spirit of humility, not wishing to make it appear that he was the one responsible. He would not say, for example, "I will remedy this, or I will look to that, or I will send such help," or similar words, such as are often used by those who have some power and authority. He would say: "Please, thank you, I beg your pardon, I am responsible that these things did not work out as well as we had hoped, or that such an unfortunate situation developed," because these expressions are in some way humiliating. He wanted to save for himself whatever smacked of abjection or lack of success.
He had a marvelous ability to attribute good to others, and to turn any praise directed to himself to another. He acted as if he had taken no part in the happy outcome, giving any praise and all honor to God and to the neighbor. If there was any excess in his actions, it was in heaping too much praise on others, and too much disparagement on himself. When he referred to himself it was in such humble terms that it was sometimes embarrassing to hear him.
Once, responding to a person of great piety who recommended herself to his prayers, <Ftn: Marie-Henriette de Rochechouart, superior of one of the Paris Visitation monasteries.> he said: "I shall recommend you to God since you ask me to do so. Yet I need the help of good friends more than any person in the world because of the miseries that overwhelm me. They make me look upon the good opinion people have of me as a punishment for my hypocrisy, since it makes me pass myself off for other than I am." <Ftn: CED V:580.>
A worthy bishop, noticing that Monsieur Vincent humbled himself in all things, could not help saying that he was a perfect Christian. This humble servant of God answered: "Oh, bishop, what are you saying? Me, a perfect Christian? I should be considered as a reprobate, and the greatest sinner of the universe."
A new member of the Congregation of the Mission spoke in a conference in the presence of Monsieur Vincent. He said he was mortified in profiting so little from the marvelous good example he saw in the founder. Monsieur Vincent allowed these words to pass so as not to interrupt him. After the conference, however, he commented in public: "Monsieur, we have this practice among us not to praise anyone to his face, in his presence. I am truly a marvel, but a marvel of malice, more wicked than the demon, who has no more reason to be in hell than myself. I do not say this by way of exaggeration, but according to the way I really see things." <Ftn: CED XI:119.>
A person given to Jansenism <Ftn: The Abbe de Saint-Cyran.>once spoke to him in an effort to persuade him to come over to that party. When he finished speaking, but with little to show for his efforts, he became angry. He reproached Monsieur Vincent, saying he was a true ignoramus, and he was astonished that his Congregation would tolerate him as superior general. Monsieur Vincent replied that he himself was astonished at the same thing, because, he said, "I am even more ignorant than you know."
Once he consoled a student of the Congregation who was tempted to despair. When he answered some difficulties troubling him against hope by urging him to have confidence in God, he added: "If the devil returns with this same evil suggestion, use the same response I have just explained to you. Say to this unhappy tempter it was Vincent, an ignoramus who never finished school, who taught you that."
A priest of the Congregation wrote to Monsieur Vincent that the superior of the mission where he lived was not sufficiently cultivated for that particular place. Monsieur Vincent replied, saying much good of this virtuous superior, and then added, "And me, what should I do: How have I been tolerated in the position I hold? I am more crude, more ridiculous, more stupid than any among whom I live. I cannot say six words in succession without showing my ignorance and lack of prudence. Even worse, I have none of the virtues of the man we are speaking of." It was his custom in meetings of all sorts of persons, especially when there was some honorable reference to himself, to insist that he was a simple peasant, a guardian of sheep. He enjoyed saying the same thing to gatherings of the poor, to show them that he was of the same stock. In this connection, a peasant came to the door of Saint Lazare once, asking to see him, but the porter told him Monsieur Vincent was busy speaking to noblemen. This good man replied: "This could not be Monsieur Vincent, for he often said he was a simple peasant like myself."
Once, Monsieur Vincent accompanied a priest to the door at Saint Lazare, where a poor woman called out, "My lord, an alms, please." Monsieur Vincent replied, "My poor woman, you do not know me well. I am a poor pig farmer, the son of a poor villager." Another time he was met by a woman at the door as he bade farewell to some noble visitors. She begged an alms, and said she had been formerly the servant of Madame his mother. Monsieur Vincent replied, in the presence of his guests, "My good woman, you mistake me for someone else. My mother never had a servant, but was a servant herself, being the wife, and I the son, of a peasant."
A young man, the relative of a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, declined to sit beside him out of respect for him. Monsieur Vincent said, "Why, Monsieur, do you make such a big thing out of sitting next to a swineherd, and the son of a peasant?" The young man was very surprised at this.
Once he visited a person of rank, who wished to accompany him to the door at the conclusion of their business. He did what he could to dissuade him. He said, among other things: "You know well, Monsieur, that I am the son of a poor villager, and in my youth I tended the sheep in the fields." <Ftn: This common saying occurs in several places: CED II:3, 171; IV:215; VIII:138, 320; IX:15; X:681; XII:21, 270, 297.> The lord, a man of some learning, reminded him that one of the greatest of the kings who ever lived was David, who too was taken from this same occupation. Monsieur Vincent seemed confused and humbled by this response.
In the assemblies of piety which he attended, his humility led him always to defer to the opinion of others, and to prefer them to his own, even though his own were the more cogent. One day at an assembly of the Ladies of Charity of Paris, at which he presided, the participants deliberated on some matters of importance about helping the poor. One of the ladies in the group noted that, with his usual humility, he adopted the opinion of others. She could not refrain from chiding him gently that he was not firm enough in holding to his own view, even though it was clearly superior. He replied in keeping with his humility: "May God forbid, Madame, that my wretched thoughts prevail over those of others. I am pleased that God works his marvels without me, miserable man that I am."
The attraction he had for the virtue of humility, and the treasures of grace he found in its practice, moved him to extend to his Congregation the sentiments he had. This is why he usually referred to it in unflattering terms. In this spirit, he once replied to a priest who asked to be received into the Company, preferring it to all others, as the best route to take to the kingdom of heaven. "Your own goodness makes you say that, and makes you think this way. But the other communities are truly holy, while ours is the miserable one, and more miserable than miserable."
To another, who asked the same favor, he said, "What, Monsieur, you want to be a missionary? What makes you look to our tiny Company, for we are poor specimens?" The one he spoke to later mentioned that he was greatly edified at the humility of Monsieur Vincent, who spoke the way he did about his own Congregation at the very moment others were asking to enter.
Not satisfied with simply speaking this way, he tried to inculcate this spirit of humility into the Company from its very first days. While still living at the College des Bons Enfants, he fell to his knees before the seven or eight priests who then composed the community. He admitted in their presence the gravest sins of his past life. These priests were stunned by this action. They admired the action of grace in their superior which enabled him to overcome the natural inclination which all men have of hiding their failings, and to adopt rather the stance of attempting to destroy any natural esteem they may have had for him. He had the custom, also, on the anniversary of his baptism, of kneeling before the community to ask God's pardon for all the sins he had committed during the time the divine Goodness had allowed him to spend on earth. He would beg the Company to pardon the scandal he may have caused, and to pray to God for his mercy.
Besides, when he felt that something was not up to his ideals, he would humble himself. He did this even for interior failings, such as the first movements of impatience which had not manifested themselves exteriorly, or perhaps for some words lacking in meekness to an individual, or even for the least inadvertences.
Once, he suggested to one of the brothers of the house at Saint Lazare to give lodging to a poor person passing through. This brother opposed the idea with reasons and hesitations. Monsieur Vincent felt he had to speak more firmly to have him carry out his orders, but later his humility caused him some remorse. He went to the garden, where some older priests of the Congregation were gathered, to ask pardon of the Company for the scandal he continued to give, and which he only recently had given in speaking rudely to a brother of the poultry yard. One of the priests who was present for this humiliation added: "What he did was known to everyone. That same evening, however, I went to his room as was my custom, after the community's general examination of conscience. I saw him kissing the feet of that brother."
It was not on this occasion alone, but on a countless number of others that he was seen at the feet of his inferiors, even the least in the house. We will give here only a few examples.
Once, thinking he had offended a brother by having suggested too strongly that he must have patience in a matter that arose, he would not say mass until he had begged pardon of this brother. Not finding him in the kitchen, he went to the cellar to express his regrets for having caused him some uneasiness. Once on a fast day he stopped by a poor inn during one of his trips. He asked for a bit of oil to put on some dried mussels he had been served, but almost immediately his humility made him fear that he had given bad example to his traveling companions. He immediately fell to his knees before them, asking their pardon.
Another time, traveling with three of his priests, he enlivened the time by some stories of what had happened to him some time before. His audience was deeply interested, but just as deeply surprised when he stopped in the middle of a sentence. He struck his breast and said he was a miserable sinner, filled with vainglory and pride, knowing only how to talk about himself. He changed the subject, and once they arrived at their destination he begged pardon of them, on his knees, for the scandal he had given, in speaking of himself.
When he took sick at Richelieu in 1649, the brother infirmarian from Saint Lazare was summoned to take care of him, because he was well acquainted with what had to be done. He welcomed the brother and received him with much affection, but Monsieur Vincent said that he sorry to have caused him the trouble of coming such a distance for nothing but a carcass. Later he felt that he had not been sufficiently generous in his welcome. He fell to his knees to ask pardon, not only at Richelieu, but again at Saint Lazare when he returned. In the presence of his assistant, who reported the event, he said, "Do you see this good brother, Monsieur? He came all the way to Richelieu to help me, and I was not as welcoming as I should have been. I ask his pardon, in your presence, and ask you to pray to God for me not to commit such faults in the future."
Once a nephew of his came from his native town of Dax to Paris. The porter of the College des Bons Enfants, where he then lived, alerted Monsieur Vincent that his nephew wished to see him. At this, Monsieur Vincent felt the first movement of some uneasiness at his arrival, and asked to have him shown to his room. Almost immediately, he changed his mind, and went himself to receive him humbly at the door. The canon of the village of Dax was in the College des Bons Enfants at the time, and he continued the story.
I cannot pass over an act of virtue of Monsieur Vincent which I witnessed on the occasion of his nephew's visit. He instructed the porter to go to the street to meet the young man, dressed in the typical garb of peasants of his region, and bring him to his room. At once this good servant of God overcame his reluctance to receive him. He came down from his room to the street, embraced him, kissed him, and led him to the garden where he had called all the members of the community. He described his nephew as the most respectable man of his entire family, and had him meet all the priests and brothers. He would do the same for persons of rank who visited him. In the first spiritual exercise after this event, he accused himself publicly of having some shame at the arrival of his nephew, and of wanting to take him unnoticed to his room just because he was a peasant and so poorly dressed.
He went further in his practice of humility in the first ordination retreats held at Saint Lazare for, speaking to these candidates for the ecclesiastical state, he brought up some humiliating things from his past. He mentioned that one of his relatives had been condemned to the galleys. He repeated this on several other occasions, but the truth was this relative was distant, more than the fourth degree of kindred removed.
While he was so anxious to obtain humiliations for himself, he was equally receptive to those which came from others. One of the chief magistrates of Parlement one day was reported to him to have said in public that the missionaries of Saint Lazare hardly gave missions any more. Monsieur Vincent was astonished at this. His contact replied that the magistrate spoke without knowing that the missionaries had for a long time been giving countless missions, and even now were continuing to do so. He urged Monsieur Vincent to inform the magistrate, otherwise he might continue to berate the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent replied to this, "we must leave him alone. I will never justify myself except by letting my actions speak for me."
When a house of the Congregation had been seriously hurt, though innocent of any cause, Monsieur Vincent showed himself joyous rather than sad. He exhorted the community to thank God for this trial and to ask the grace to make good use of it. "To be treated the way our Lord was, is true happiness."
To establish the spirit of humility well in the Company, he proposed as a subject of prayer for the community once a month, for several years, a meditation on the horrors of pride. He said:
- "The Congregation cannot subsist without the virtue of humility. When this virtue is lacking in a company, each one thinks of his own particular house, and this leads to partiality, schism, and destruction. If the missionaries should ask for one thing from the Lord, it is humility. They should be sad and weep when they receive applause, for our Lord has said: Vae cum benedixerint vobis homines. Cursed shall you be, when men shall praise you. <Ftn: Luke 6:26. CED XI:114.>"
His humility became most evident chiefly in his service in the court, for it was shown in the circumstances where honors were commonplace and well deserved for virtue and good conduct. In the beginning when he was summoned to the Council with the late Prince de Conde and several other lords, the prince invited him to sit beside him. He replied, "My lord, you do me too great an honor even allowing me to be in your presence, for I am but the son of a poor swineherd." At this, the prince quoted a verse from the poet: Moribus et vita nobilitatur homo, ["Man is ennobled by his morals and life,"] adding, "I did not just learn of your ability." He then brought up in this first meeting some disputed points. Monsieur Vincent responded so directly to them that the prince said, "Ha, Monsieur Vincent, you tell everyone you are an ignoramus, and yet you have given us a solution to one of our greatest problems with the Huguenots in just a few words." He then proposed several other difficult cases in canon law. Monsieur Vincent answered with the same assurance. This led the prince to say he understood perfectly why Her Majesty had invited him to serve on the Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs, having to do with benefices and other church matters.
While this service at the court was most important and honorable, and brought him into immediate contact with the queen mother during the regency, he never wore a new cassock in going to the Louvre. He dressed the same as he did in preaching and instructing poor peasants, always neat, but in a simple and humble decorum.
Speaking once of his position at court, he said: "I ask God that I may be regarded as a simpleton, as I am, so as not to have to continue in this position. In that way I would have greater leisure to do penance, and give less bad example to our little Company." This position weighed heavily upon him, not because of any lack of appreciation for Her Majesty, for whose service he would willingly have given his life, but because of the people he had to deal with. He accepted the difficulties which arose, and the calumnies that came his way, never seeking to justify himself, and still less to complain of his lot. Far from resenting those who caused him trouble, he humbled himself before them, and begged their pardon for any supposed failing against them. This occurred with a person of some standing who treated him with contempt, and also with a young gentleman who in an outburst called him an old fool. He knelt before both, asking pardon for having incited them to such conduct.
On another occasion he prevented the king from appointing an unfit person to a bishopric. His action caused the man's relatives to be most resentful. They then invented a calumny against him, adding just enough detail to convince the court of the truth of this charge. These things came to the ear of the queen, who at the first opportunity asked him, smiling, if he knew what people were saying. He replied quietly: "Madame, I am a great sinner." When Her Majesty retorted that he ought to justify himself, he replied: "Such things and more were said against our Lord, and he never justified himself."
During this same time he was at court, one of his friends alerted him to what a priest, who happened to die soon after, was spreading about the city. He was even reporting to one of the most qualified of people in Paris that Monsieur Vincent had bestowed a benefice upon someone, in return for a library, and a large sum of money. This good servant of God was at first moved to respond to this calumny, and took up his pen, as he later recounted, to write a justification of his actions. As he began to form the first letters, he recollected himself, and thought of what he was about to do. "O miserable one! What are you thinking of? What, you want to justify yourself? We have just heard of a Christian falsely accused in Tunis, who lived three whole days in sufferings, and finally died without uttering a word of complaint, although he was innocent of the crime he was accused of. And do you want to excuse yourself? No, it shall not be so!" He put down his pen, and took no action to justify himself.
To progress more in humility, he devised another tactic to further it. He brought together in Paris in 1641 some of the oldest and leading members of the Congregation to deliberate on some important matters. <Ftn: This assembly took place in October of 1642.> After several conferences, he recalled the faults of his administration, his incapacity for governance, and the need to have someone else chosen as head of the Congregation. "Since you are now assembled, the office of superior general is in your hands. In the name of God, elect someone from among yourselves to be our superior." With that he left the place of the meeting, to a small chapel adjacent to the church, where he prayed turned toward the main altar of the church. <Ftn: See CED XIII:296 for formal minutes.>
The assembled priests were surprised at this suggestion and, seeing no reason to debate it, sent to have him return to the assembly. He was found, after much searching, in the chapel, on his knees. He was informed that no one else was willing to assume this responsibility. The members earnestly requested him to return, to resolve some of their other pressing business. He excused himself, and used new persuasions to urge them to a new election, saying he had resigned, and they must choose someone else to replace him. This was reported to the others in the assembly, but they left in a body to urge him to continue as superior. They said, finally: "You are the one whom we elected as our superior general, and as long as God preserves you upon this earth, we will have no other." He did all he could to resist, but finally he bowed his head, accepting the will of God and submitting himself anew to this burden. While retaining for himself all that was painful, he would not accept any of the honors and titles going with the office, not even using the term Superior General of the Congregation except in public acts, or in Letters Patent, when it was absolutely necessary to do so. Instead, he would add after his name, on some letters or documents, "Unworthy Priest of the Congregation of the Mission," or "unworthy superior." He wrote to some of his priests that at the beginning of their letters to him, they should leave no more blank spaces, as signs of deference, than he used in writing to them. He wanted no such signs of respect from his inferiors, in their dealings with him.
In this connection, one of the older priests of the community of Saint Lazare proposed that Monsieur Vincent should be shown some special marks of reverence as their common father and superior general. When he approached, all should stop, and bow or make a sign of reverence until he had gone by. When Monsieur Vincent realized this, he put a stop to it at once. When it was pointed out that this was a common usage in the other orders, he said: "I know this well, and we must respect their reasons for doing so. For my part I ought not to be compared to the least of men, I who am the worst of the lot."
The chair that was placed in the choir of the church of Saint Lazare when he officiated, was raised above the others. He would not agree to this, saying it was proper to do this for Their Excellencies, the bishops, but not for a miserable priest such as he was.
He always used the humblest vestments for the sacred liturgy. Once the queen mother, with her usual piety, presented Saint Lazare with some silver vestments on the occasion of the birth of the king. <Ftn: Louis XIV, son of Anne of Austria and Louis XIII, was born September 5, 1638.> Her Majesty sent them with the request to use them on the feast of Christmas, but when Monsieur Vincent saw the rich vestments ready for use he objected, and asked for the usual ones. No matter what was said his humility would not allow him to be the first to use these splendid vestments. The deacon and subdeacon, too, used the common ones, for the sake of uniformity.
He was not happy at the little services given him because of his age or sicknesses. He would thank those who helped him with such profusion he repaid with interest what he had received. On the contrary, he was delighted when he could serve others, either at table or even in the kitchen, doing the most humble tasks.
His humility went so far as to have him ask the blessing of his inferiors. This is what he wrote once to one of his priests, speaking of another who was dangerously ill. "Alas, Monsieur, I am anxious about the condition of our dear sick! What a loss for the Congregation if God should call him from this life! But may his holy will be done. If he is still alive when you get this, embrace him for me, and tell him of my sorrow, and recommend me to his prayers. Ask his blessing on the entire Company, and especially for me, who ask it prostrate in spirit at his feet."
We should not be surprised that he acted this way, in view of the low opinion he had of himself. He judged and proclaimed on all occasions that he was unworthy of the office of superior general and of the character of the priesthood. He said on several occasions that if he had not yet received orders, and knew his own unworthiness as he now did, he would never have consented to ordination. He would have chosen rather the humble condition of a brother in the Company, or even a simple farmer, as his own father was. Although he very worthily fulfilled all the functions and duties of the priesthood, his great humility had a deep effect on his spirit. Far from presuming on his own merits, he felt himself as an obstacle to good, and feared being responsible before God for heresies, disorders, and public calamities, because he had not prevented them, as he felt he should have as a priest. This he stated on several occasions, and this is what he wrote to Monsieur de Saint Martin, canon of Dax, his long-time friend. We present his letter here, because it gives us a good insight into his humble opinion of himself and his high regard for the priesthood.
I thank you for your care of my nephew, whom I must say I have never thought should become a cleric, and even less that I should do anything to encourage him. This state is the most sublime upon earth, the one our Lord took and exercised himself. If I had known what was involved when I first dared enter it, as I now know, I would have preferred to be a common farmer than to enter such an exalted state. I have said this more than a hundred times to the poor peasants, when I have encouraged them to be content with their lot. I have told them I would be happy in their state. As I grow older, I think this way even more. Every day I see I am farther from the perfection I should attain. Certainly, priests of our time have good reason to fear God's judgments. Besides their own sins they must answer for the sins of their people, and must make satisfaction for them. The worst of all is that God shall hold them responsible for the scourges he has sent the Church, such as the plague, war, famine, and the heresies which attack it from all sides. We would say more, Monsieur, that the evil life of priests has brought about all these disasters which have so despoiled the bride of the Savior and so disfigured her that she is scarcely recognizable. What would those Fathers of the Church say now, who saw her in her pristine beauty, if they were to see the impiety and profanations which we see? Those fathers, in their day, thought few priests would be saved, although those of their time were in their greatest fervor.
All these considerations, Monsieur, lead me to think that it would be more suitable for this poor child to give himself to the profession of his father rather than to undertake the sublime and difficult state in which we are, for those not called are almost surely lost. Since I do not see any assured signs of a vocation, I suggest you advise him to continue to work as a peasant to gain his livelihood. Exhort him to fear God, to make himself worthy of his mercy in this life and in the next. This is the best advice I can give.
Please look into the work of Monsieur N., who said recently in a conference he gave here, speaking of a pastor in Brittany who had written a book on this subject, that today's priests, such as they are, are the greatest enemies of the Church of God. If all priests were like you and he, there would not be so much truth in it. <Ftn: CED V:567-69.>