Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 01/Section 01/Part 04

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The Advice of Monsieur Vincent to his Missionaries on How They Should Deal with Heretics when on Mission

Since heretics lived in places where missions were given, particularly in such provinces as Guienne, Languedoc, Poitou, and others, where the weeds had taken root more than elsewhere, Monsieur Vincent was deeply concerned about them. His limitless charity was such that he hoped for their salvation as much as for anyone else's. He wanted his missionaries to bring about their conversion, if possible. To succeed in this he laid down several rules of conduct that experience proved to be effective.

First, he felt that contentions and disputes in matters of religion, particularly those carried on in an argumentative spirit with sharp exchanges, were totally unsuitable for encounters with heretics. He recommended to his confreres to avoid absolutely all invective, all reproach. In this connection he said that the learned can gain nothing in dealing with the devil through pride, since he is better equipped than they in this regard. On the contrary, humility easily overcomes him, because he does not have this weapon in his arsenal. He added that he had never seen or heard of a single heretic being converted by subtle arguments, but only by kindness and humility.

Although Monsieur Vincent did not want his missionaries to dispute with heretics, he still wanted them to be prepared in the theology of the contested points. They should be ready to give a reason for the faith they held, according to the maxim of the prince of the apostles. This study would enable them to sustain the truth and refute the contrary errors. All the while they would deal amicably with the heretics, replying gently to their objections, and more to convert them than to confound them. He directed his priests to attend conferences on these points and to make a special study of current heresies. This is what he wrote, in 1628 from Beauvais to the priest he had left in charge of the College des Bons Enfants during his absence.

How are things going with the Company? Are all in good disposition, and happy? [1] Are the regulations well observed? Are the students studying the points of theology which are in such dispute? Are you following the schedule? I beseech you, Monsieur, pay attention to this. Take care that your students learn the matter in the shorter Becanus very well, for I cannot tell you how useful this little book is. [2]

I must tell you how God used this miserable person (this is the way he referred to himself) to convert three heretics since I left Paris, using the most basic arguments of kindness, humility, and patience in dealing with these poor unfortunate souls. It took two days to bring one around, the other two, less. I wanted to say all this to my own confusion, so the Company can see that if God has used the most ignorant and most wretched of his flock to do this, how much more can we expect from the others. [3]

It was his maxim to join to teaching and study of the controversies the virtues of humility, gentleness, and patience when one conversed or conferred with heretics. He wanted them to be treated with respect and affection, not to flatter them in their mistaken beliefs, but more readily to win over their hearts. Above all, he felt that the virtuous and exemplary lives of Christians, especially of priests and missionaries, were more powerful arguments than any others in leading them to renounce their errors and return to the true religion. He often spoke of this in his letters, such as in this one, written to the superior of the house at Sedan: [4]

When the king sent you to Sedan, he did so on condition of your never disputing with the heretics, neither from the pulpit nor in private. He knows that this does little good, and often produces more noise than fruit. A good life and the good odor of the Christian virtues attract people to the right path, and confirm Catholics in their beliefs. This is the way our Company can profit from its stay in Sedan. It will add to good example the carrying out of our usual functions, instructing the people in our usual way, preaching against vice and bad morals, speaking of the virtues, showing their necessity, their beauty, their practice, and the means of acquiring them. This is what you should do. If you wish to speak on the issue in dispute, do so only if the day's Gospel gives you occasion to refer to this. You can then speak of the truths denied by the heretics, but do not mention them by name nor even refer to them. [5]

A brother of the Congregation of the Mission, trained as a surgeon, offered to contribute his skill and charity to evangelize the island of Madagascar. Monsieur Vincent sent him to La Rochelle to take ship there, in December 1659, together with several priests of the Congregation. This brother learned that several Huguenots were embarking on that ship for the same destination. He was most distressed at the news, which elicited this reply to his letter to Monsieur Vincent.

I was grieved to learn several heretics will accompany you on your voyage to Madagascar, and that you anticipate great difficulty in traveling with them. God is the Master of all, and he has allowed this to come about for reasons of his own which we do not know. Perhaps it was to compel you to be more reserved in their presence, more humble, and more devoted to God and charitable towards your neighbor, so that seeing the beauty and sanctity of our religion they may be inspired to return. You must carefully avoid any sort of dispute or argumentation with them. Show yourself always patient and well-mannered towards them even if they murmur against you or argue against our beliefs and practices.

Virtue is so beautiful and so lovable that they will be forced to admire it in you if you practice it well. It would be well not to distinguish between Catholics and heretics in the services you give to God on this ship, for by this they will know you love them in God. I hope your good example will benefit both groups. Take care of your health, please, and that of our missionaries with you. [6]


  1. The original letter reads: "Is everyone in a good mood? Is each one happy?"
  2. An abridgement in Latin of the famous and influential Manuale Controversiarum by the Belgian Jesuit, Martin Becanus (or van der Beeck).
  3. CED I:66.
  4. See also CED I:295.
  5. CED VIII:526.
  6. CED VIII:182-83. Letter to Brother Philippe Patte, born 1620 at Vigny in the diocese of Rouen. He was received into the Congregation in 1656. He died in Madagascar in 1664.

This page:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Section Section One/Part Four: The Advice of Monsieur Vincent to his Missionaries on How They Should Deal with Heretics when on Mission

Index of this section:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Section One/Index: His Missions in General

Index of this chapter:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter One/Index: The Missions of Monsieur Vincent

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two