Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 24
The Leadership Style of Monsieur Vincent
The leadership style of Monsieur Vincent has become evident in this book on his life and virtues, and his words and writings show with what rectitude and sanctity he directed all his steps. Nevertheless these items have been spread throughout this work. We have thought it best, for the edification and satisfaction of the Christian reader, to gather together what would be most appropriate in a single chapter.
In the first place, if we consider the end he proposed either for himself or others, it was always to act for the greater glory of God, and to accomplish his most holy will. This was the sole end this good servant of God proposed to himself in all his plans and enterprises. This goal dominated his thoughts, his desires, and his intentions. He strove to bring others to this same view, by his advice, counsel, exhortations, and by every spiritual and temporal help he could manage. He strove for nothing but that God's name be blessed, his kingdom advanced, and his will accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. This is the way he looked at things, and the way he strove to act throughout his life.
To achieve this, his main and nearly universal method was to conform himself entirely to the example of Jesus Christ. He knew very well that he could not walk nor lead others on a surer path than that traveled by the Word and Wisdom of God. He had engraved his words and actions upon his own mind, modeling himself in all he did and said upon the prototype of all virtue and sanctity. His holy Gospel was etched in his heart. He carried it in his hand like a great light, so he could say with the prophet: "Your word, O Lord, is like a lamp unto my feet, to enlighten my path which leads to you." <Ftn: Ps 119:105.>
Walking then in this clear divine light, he strove with the help of grace primarily for his own salvation and perfection, in imitating the virtues of his divine Master. He had learned from the Gospel that it profits us nothing if we gain the whole world but lose our own soul. He knew the truth that the proper measure for the love we must have for our neighbor is the love we have for ourselves.
After this fundamental concern for his own salvation and perfection, he next thought that he could best conform himself to his divine Savior by devoting himself entirely to the service of others. He wished to help them attain salvation and the sanctification of their souls, redeemed by the Savior's blood and death. He spared neither time nor effort, nor his very life, in the various works of charity of which we have spoken at length in the three parts of this work. He gave himself in such a holy and perfect manner that it was evident that this came from God, with the Holy Spirit as the true source and director of his soul. This will appear more clearly when we examine the excellent qualities and properties of his leadership.
In the first place, his leadership was always marked by a great humility, Monsieur Vincent's first and most faithful adviser. Although he had a clear and capable mind, he always mistrusted his own thoughts. He turned to God in every situation to ask his for light and help. Then he would seek the advice of others, even of his inferiors, and he advised his confreres to act in the same way.
One day he wrote to the superior of one of the houses of the Congregation on this topic:
It is not a fault to seek the advice of others. On the contrary, it is helpful, and sometimes even necessary to do so when the matter is important, or when we are not well informed about it. In temporal affairs, we take the advice of lawyers or other knowledgeable persons. In matters concerning the house, the appointed officers are consulted, or even other members of the community, when this is judged useful. As for myself, I often ask the brothers, and take their advice in matters pertaining to their work. When this is done with the necessary precautions, the authority of God which resides in the superior is not compromised. Because of the good order that results, his authority is even more respected and loved. Please act accordingly, but remember that when it is a question of changes of personnel or of other major matters, the superior general should be consulted. <Ftn: CED IV:35-36.>
He wrote in another letter to urge a superior to act similarly:
Live together cordially and simply, in such a way that in seeing you together, it could not be guessed who the superior was. Do not take any action, in anything important, without taking their advice, especially that of your assistant. As for myself, when I have to make some difficult decision affecting spiritual things or on matters having to do with priests, I gather the community to ask their advice. If it is a case of temporal affairs, I consult with those in charge of the department concerned. I ask the advice of the brothers in charge of various parts of the house because they know their business. This helps the superior decide, and God will bless the steps he takes after this consultation. This is why I beg of you to act this way yourself, to be more successful in your office. <Ftn: CED VI:66.>
After consulting and carefully weighing what had been said, he was firm and consistent in carrying out the decisions which had been reached. He would not listen to any contrary thoughts which might come to his mind. He wrote to one of the superiors, in a letter on this topic:
Once we have commended something to God, and taken counsel, we should remain firm in what we have decided, rejecting as a temptation all thought to the contrary. We must have confidence that God will not blame us, for we have a ready-made excuse: "Lord, I have referred the matter to you, and have taken counsel. This is all I could possibly do to determine your will."
The example of Pope Clement VIII illustrates this point. A matter of great importance had been brought to him, dealing with an entire kingdom. <Ftn: The issue was the abjuration of Henry IV and his accession to the French throne.> An entire year passed before he was ready to give an answer to the delegates sent to him. He prayed to God about the matter, and consulted with learned men in whom he had much confidence. At length, he decided in favor of the Church. However, he later had a dream in which our Lord appeared with a severe countenance, reproaching him for what he had done, and threatening to punish him. When he awoke, shaken by this sight, he mentioned the dream to Cardinal de Toledo. <Ftn: Francisco de Toledo, created cardinal by Clement VIII in 1593; he died in 1596.> He prayerfully considered it, and finally told the pope that he felt he should not pay any attention to it, for it was an illusion of the devil. He had no reason to fear, for he had prayed and taken counsel. That is all anyone could do. This good pope accepted this advice, and no longer worried about it. <Ftn: CED V:318.>
Although Monsieur Vincent sought insight and advice from others, he did not then consider himself dispensed from using all possible attention and vigilance to work against the evil and obtain the good of those under his direction. He was ever alert to what was going on among his confreres, to be aware of what was likely to be asked of them. He acted with much prudence and circumspection, a characteristic of leadership in which he excelled. All who knew him realized how careful and considerate he was in what he said and did, especially when it had to do with directing others, or when it was a question of being obliged to give his advice on some matter. He was so reserved and circumspect in his words that he almost never gave an absolute opinion. He would state his thoughts simply, as though in some way accepting the judgment of those who sought his advice. He would say, "It seems to me that this might be looked at in this way," or, "Perhaps it would be well to do this or that," or, "If you decide to do so, perhaps God will bless it," or other similar ways of speaking. He used these expressions, avoiding more forceful or categorical ways of speaking, and a manner of expressing himself that would convey his wisdom or the prudence of having sought his advice. He said nothing absolutely, "I advise you to do so and so," or rarely, "It is my advice that . . ."; he would prefer to say, simply, "There is my thought," or, "That's the way it seems to me." However, when it was a matter clearly contained in the Gospels, he did not hesitate. He took his stand absolutely with this oracle of truth.
He held it as a principle that any advice given too quickly was an expression of one's own personal judgment rather than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whom he preferred to consult before responding. Occasionally he was pressed to give his opinion in certain important matters which did not allow any delay. Rarely would he do so in some important cases, but even then he would not answer until he had raised his mind to God and asked his light and help. Otherwise, he would base his answer on some passage of Holy Scripture, or on some action of the Son of God that had a bearing on the matter under discussion.
Once, needing to make a recommendation on a capable candidate to become consul in Tunis in Barbary, he thought of Monsieur Husson, a lawyer of the Parlement of Paris, who then lived in Montmirail, a town in Brie. He had all the qualities necessary for the post. He wrote to the lawyer, expressing his thoughts for and against the appointment, but left him at liberty to accept the appointment or not.
The lawyer wrote a letter which spoke of his uncertainty. To come to know what God wished of me, I went to see Monsieur Vincent. My concern was that I might be leaving Montmirail too readily, or perhaps staying out of stubbornness. To avoid either of these pitfalls, I felt I must ascertain just what God wanted of me. I saw Monsieur Vincent to clear up the uncertainty, but he at first strongly urged me to seek advice elsewhere. I insisted that I would speak only with him. Finally, on Easter Sunday, 1653, he said, "In the mass I have just said, I have offered to the Lord your doubts, pains, and tears. Immediately after the consecration I threw myself at his feet, asking him to inspire me. Then I thought about what at the hour of my death would I have wished I had done. It seemed to me that if I were to have died at that very moment I would have been happy to see you go to Tunis, because of all the good you can do there. On the other hand, I felt that I would have been very sorry if I had dissuaded you from going. That's what I think. You can go or not go, just as you think best."
I must say this advice showed me things as clearly as if God spoke to me as I believe he did through Monsieur Vincent. He showed himself to be little attached to his own opinion and to the advice he had given, and gave it only at my strong insistence.
He did not want to choose the missionaries to work in foreign lands by himself. He considered only those who had some time before, by an interior disposition and movement from God, told him of their desire to serve on foreign shores, and who had even asked him more than once for this assignment. He felt that a man called by God was likely to be more successful than many others who did not have a true calling to this work.
To the prudence and circumspection he exercised in his leadership, he joined strength and firmness to maintain regularity and punctuality. He used to say that those in charge of others ought to be firm in maintaining the observances, and be on their guard lest they be the cause of the laxity of the community by their own lack of firmness or exactitude. Among all the things that might hurt a community, nothing is more dangerous than that a community be governed by a superior who is too soft, who wants to please others, and who seeks to be loved. He added the thought that just as a poor showing in a war is ordinarily laid at the feet of the general of the army, so the failings of a religious community can usually be attributed to the superior. By contrast, a happy community is largely the result of a good leader. He referred to the example of a very regular community which, in the space of four years, fell into disarray because of the lack of concern and laziness of the superior. He ended by these words: "Since so much depends on them, we certainly should pray for them often. They are charged with and responsible for all those under their care."
On one occasion there was a community house composed of people of different dispositions. One group was composed of those less observant of the regulations, and the other was more exact and virtuous. Monsieur Vincent wrote to the superior, who had complained of the matter:
I am upset, and with good reason, at the conduct of the priest and brother of whom you wrote. May God give them the grace to see the dangerous position they are in by following the impulses of rebellious human nature. This is not at all in accord with the spirit of Jesus Christ. How difficult it is for those who fall, (as Scripture tells us) after they have once been enlightened, to be saved! Certainly they have reason to fear an unhappy end if they leave the path God has traced out for them. How can they hope to succeed in the world if they are not called to live there, if they are not helped by the grace of God and by all the spiritual and temporal helps they will lack, if they are not in their proper calling? We should never be surprised at seeing people changing and leaving, for it happens even in the holiest of companies. God permits it to show us the misery of the human condition, and to warn even the firmest and most resolute. God tries the good and gives them the opportunity to practice the various virtues.
You spoke to me of the two discontented confreres who are disturbed by the observances of Fathers N. [Toussaint Lebas] and N. [Julien Dolivet], which weigh on the others. I can easily believe it about those who are less regular and less interested in their own personal advancement and in that of the community. Yes, Monsieur, zeal and exactitude are troublesome for those lacking these qualities, for the virtue of the one group condemns the laxity of the other. I admit that virtue has two closely associated vices, defect and excess. Of the two, excess is more praiseworthy than defect and should be the more encouraged. These two good missionaries practice virtue to a degree the others cannot attain, and so the others imagine it is an excess, but it is not so before God. They blame their way of acting because they lack the courage to imitate them. May God give us the grace to see good, in our Lord, in all that is not really evil. <Ftn: CED VIII:28-29.>
Again, he wrote to one of his priests on a mission:
You are in charge of your companions. I pray that our Lord will give you some share of his spirit and his guidance. Undertake this obligation in this spirit. Honor the prudence, the foresight, the meekness, and the exactitude of our Lord. You will be doing much if you succeed in having the regulations well observed, for this will attract the blessings of God upon all the rest. Begin by keeping to the exact times of retiring and rising, to mental prayer, to the divine office, and to the other exercises. O Monsieur, how rich a treasure is this habitual observance, while the opposite causes no end of trouble! Why is it such a hardship to fulfill your duty in this, when we see people of the world generally keeping such a tight schedule? We rarely see the court officials late in rising or failing to show up when expected. Much less the shopkeepers, who are so regular in opening and closing their businesses. It seems that only we clergy, such lovers of our ease, do things guided solely by our personal inclinations. <Ftn: CED XI:75.>
Monsieur Vincent extended his concern that the rules be observed beyond the houses of the Congregation and the missions where they worked. As many of the priests can testify, he wanted them to observe the rule as much as possible even while traveling. We will give here but one example, from a priest who wrote as follows:
After I received an appointment from Monsieur Vincent to go to a remote province in the company of another priest of the Congregation, he received the two of us in his room on the eve of our departure. He told us what he expected of us during our trip, which would take eleven or twelve days. We were to travel with the stage to Toulouse, together with many different kinds of people. Among many other things, he had four main recommendations: (1) never to omit making our mental prayer, even if we had to make it on horseback; (2) to celebrate mass every day, if possible; (3) to mortify our eyes, especially in the towns, and practice sobriety in eating and drinking among lay people; (4) to present catechism lessons to the servants in the inns, and especially to the poor. <Ftn: CED XI:95.>
Although he was exact even in the smallest details of the rule, and firm in maintaining this among his confreres, this was always accompanied with a mild grace. In this he imitated God himself, for as the wise man of Scripture says, "Indeed she reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well." <Ftn: Wis 8:1.> The superior of one of the houses of the Congregation spoke of this in the following testimonial:
Monsieur Vincent was exact and severe on himself, but was full of meekness and charity towards others. He did everything for them that could be expected. Once he reluctantly refused permission for me to go to the city. Although I sought no reason for this refusal but accepted his decision as my guide, he explained that since several others had already gone, he wanted me to be on hand in the house for whatever might turn up. The next day he called me, thinking that he may have hurt my feelings by his refusal, telling me to go wherever I wished in the city. This was the way he usually acted. He did not give orders to impress you with his position or authority. He would say something like, "Monsieur, or brother, would you please do this or that." <Ftn: CED V:566.>
His custom was to invite to his room on the eve of their departure those setting out for a mission. He would speak to them as a true father, and upon their return he would receive them with open arms and with warm affection. This is what one said, and it surely could be echoed by all the others:
I cannot admire enough the charity and goodness of his great heart. When I was leaving or returning from a trip, the cordial reception he gave me overwhelmed me. His words were so filled with spiritual grace, so gracious and yet so efficacious that they accomplished what he had in mind, with no sense of pressure or constraint.
When he was obliged to refuse something, he preferred that his confreres would surmise as much, without obliging him to refuse outright for fear of giving pain. When someone pressed him to agree to something he did not think proper, he replied, "Would you be good enough to remind me of this some other time?"
Once he wrote to someone who felt the loss of a person working with him: "I have no doubt that the loss of this dear companion and friend is most painful. But remember, Monsieur, that our Lord left his mother. Also, the disciples who had been so united by the gift of the Holy Spirit, separated from one another to serve their divine Master."
Another superior complained to him of the vexations he experienced in his position, from people within and outside the community. He wrote to him, as follows:
I sympathize with you in your troubles, but you should not be surprised by them, or much less let them discourage you. We meet troubles everywhere. Two people living together will find enough to bother them. Were you to live alone, you would find difficulties with yourself, enough to try your patience. So it is that our miserable life is filled with crosses. I bless God for the good use you make of yours, as I am sure you do. I have too long recognized the wisdom and meekness of your disposition for me to doubt that you will fail in these unhappy situations. If you cannot please everyone, you should not let that bother you, for even our Lord could not please everybody. How many there were then, and still are today, who have found his words and actions difficult to accept! <Ftn: CED VIII:100.>
He was aware of the feelings of those he was assigning to difficult tasks or to foreign places in the service of God. Once he wrote to one of his priests:
I am writing to ask you about your health, and what you think of a proposal I have in mind for you. We have been called to send four or five missionaries to N. We have thought of you to lead this group. I would ask you, Monsieur, to pray to God, to listen to what he has to say to you about this. Please write me soon about your health and your attitude toward accepting this assignment. I beg the Lord to give you the grace to respond always and everywhere to his holy will.
He acted in somewhat the same manner toward those at home, but differently according to each one's temperament. Ordinarily, he was lighthearted and cordial, as the following example will illustrate. Once he wanted to send one of his missionaries to Rome. He asked the designated confrere if he was ready to take a pleasant trip in the service of God, without mentioning where. When the priest said that he was ready, Monsieur Vincent said yes, but the trip extends beyond the kingdom. When the priest replied to this that it was all the same to him, Monsieur Vincent then said that it would also involve a sea voyage. The priest replied that to go by land or sea was immaterial to him, for he was ready to go. Monsieur Vincent smilingly said that it was a little matter of twenty-five hundred miles, thus preparing him for the assignment he was to receive. He did the same for others, as the case warranted, to prepare them gently to accept what God asked of them in his service.