Saint Vincent and the Church in his Time
by: Luigi Mezzadri, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute: Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006
Many researchers make the mistake of isolating Saint Vincent from his time. A statue needs a niche. Saint Vincent needs the Church of his time or rather the Church and his time, otherwise understanding him would be impossible.
We shall, therefore, consider three different aspects: the condition of the Church in the 17th century, the notion of the Church in Saint Vincent and the action of Saint Vincent for the Church.
The condition of the Church in the 17th century
We need to consider two things: the juridical condition and the real situation. The Church, as it was recognized by the Assembly of the States General of 1615, was of the “first order” in the French Kingdom. It, therefore, enjoyed prestige and privileges. It had autonomy in the fiscal and judiciary fields. It was undisturbed in the spiritual sphere and the laws of the Church were protected by the state.
At the beginning of the 17th century in France, there were 14 archdioceses and 105 dioceses; some were very small (Grass had 23 parishes) and others were very large (Rouen had 1380 parishes).
The criteria that guided the choice of bishops were, according to importance, the following: political, intellectual, moral.
Very many dioceses were given by the king as a reward for the services of the family or of the individual. The Pragmatic Sanctions permitted some “sweet and benevolent supplications” on the part of the king for the election of his candidates. For example, a son of the king’s lawyer whom evidently he wanted to reward for the favor he had done for the monarchy was placed at Rouen.
For this reason, dioceses were quite often the property of great families (phenomenon of the “Episcopal dynasties”). As the Amboise had control of Rouen, Langres, Albi, Clermont in the 15th and 16th centuries, in the same way at the end of the century and the beginning of the new one, the de Gondi’s had inherited Paris. The La Rochefoucauld, Bethune, Potter, Estrees and Fouquier were other dynasties that settled in different dioceses. Since Richelieu considered the virtuous nobility a requisite for a good bishop, most of the bishops were thus nobles.
Many of them held several benefices. Cardinal Estouteville during the years 1440-1450 was bishop of Courserams, Mirepoix, Nimes, Beziers, Lodeve, from where he could get important revenues able to support a rich way of life and to pay the expenses incurred in obtaining a cardinal’s hat. They were many indeed yet never as numerous as the ten dioceses of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Proverbial was the wealth of Mazarin, an obvious result of an accu¬mulation of benefits.
The second criterion was an intellectual one. University degrees were considered a very important document for the career. Etienne Poncher, bishop of Paris, was connected with the intellectuals of his time. Guillaume Briconnet transformed Saint-Germain-des-Pres, where he had been the abbot, into a cultural center, before founding the “Cenacle of Meaux.” As for the French episcopate, it was observed that more than two thirds were the king’s advisers with a good preparation, mainly juridical.
The third criterion was a moral one. It would be unfair to reduce the episcopate of this period only to picturesque characters of amoral, wealthy and intriguing prelates. Claude de Seyssel (1450¬1520) was high profile figure towards the end of the 15th century. He was saddled with good juridical and classical studies carried out in Pavia and in Turin. He joined the service of Louis XII, king of France, and when he was about fifty he became a clergyman. He was an upright and faithful servant of the king as well as of the Church. In 1507, the king told the chapter of Marseille that he wished them to elect his friend and faithful adviser (Master of Appeals in the Council of the State) as bishop of the city. Then he transferred to Turin where he died a holy death. He was the historiographer of Louis XII. He wrote many historical treatises and his most important treatise was the Tractatus de Triplici Statu Viatoris, which was one of the first works about bishops that had a pastoral character.
At the time of Saint Vincent, we remember Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Francis de La Rochefoucauld, bishop of Clermont, Blessed Alain de Solminihac, the holy bishop of Marseille Jean-Baptiste Gault. Henceforth, the number of bishops that was distant from the religious world, pleasure-seeking and licentious was definitely diminishing. Not all bishops naturally were models. What had changed was that most of the bishops had begun to exercise their authority again. Thus, in the 17th century, there was a generation of bishops who were authoritative and demanded commitment to reform, who were dreaded and dreadful. The crosier was no longer just a symbol, but also a threat. In times of “dispersion” and uncertainty, even this can be useful.
The Lower Clergy
We cannot speak of “vocation” at least up to the time of the “Spiritual Exercises” of Saint Ignatius. One could be in the clerical state through the tonsure (beginning at seven years of age) that was usually given after confirmation. The family made the decision regarding states of life. In making their decision, the parents had the following models:
1. sacrificial model: the family would choose one of their children and “offer” him to God.
2. cultural model: one enters the clerical state in order to dedicate himself to studies.
3. social model: one or more of the sons were sent to the clerical state to gain social prestige.
It was this last model that Vincent’s family followed in choosing the priesthood for him.
In fact, many who were tonsured would remain in this state of life which conferred some privileges. They could be recognized by the manner of cutting the hair, by the simple and long dress, by marriage “with a virgin and only wife.” The number of these tonsured was great indeed. From September 1506 to April 1507, Agen had 1028 tonsured. On Apri110, 1520 at Mende, they tonsured 411 persons. In Paris, up to the middle of the 15th century, there were 400 tonsured per year. Only ten (10) years later, they became 360. At Rouen, the tonsured in 1410 were 3000, but at the end of the century they became 1300. They represented one third of the total population.
How many of these were able to reach the priesthood? In Paris in the sixties of the 15th century, the ratio would be 1 to 15. Nevertheless, the strange phenomenon was that when the number of tonsured diminished, the priestly ordinations increased. At Rouen the ordinations became three times as much. At the end of the century they had about 200 ordinations per year. In Paris about the middle of the 15th century, there were 20 new priests every year and in 1645 they became 27. In Toulouse, the priestly ordinations were 50 annually.
Of course, many priests came from the outside to be ordained. In the year 1506-1507 at Agen, they ordained 690 priests, but only half of them belonged to the diocese. It was like getting a priest every year more or less for each parish. If we consider the other half of those ordained in Agen, we find that 96 were from Cahors, 66 from Sarlat, 31 from Bazas, 22 from Rodez. In the year 1521-1522 at Angers, the newly ordained were 417. At Poitiers, they also ordained 1600 presbyters. If we consider only the secular priests, they were 5%of the whole population.
All this created a huge concentration of presbyters and tonsured. It seems that in Limousin alone, there lived 10,000 priests so that sometimes a village had 30 to 40 priests.
One of the reforms, therefore, was to control the number of ordinations. In Avignon there was a huge number of ordained priests, so they started to limit the number. In 1600, the bishop of Bezier wrote to Rome that he could not introduce the entrance examination for the assignment to the various parishes due to the ignorance of the priests.
What was the formation of those who prepared themselves for holy orders? The major part of those who had been tonsured entered the orders through a sort of apprenticeship under a parish priest. Those who stopped at the tonsure served during the mass, assisted at the altar (sacristans), sang the office of the dead or they became school teachers. For them there was no formation.
Those who aspired to become presbyters, first of all, had to show they had a little private income of at least 15 to 20 lire annually acquired through a benefice, a titled real property or coming from the family or a generous benefactor.
Then the candidate learned to carry out the rites and to read the missal… nothing more. After all, the greater number of these priests did not carry out a pastoral service but simply the celebration of the masses and the offices of the dead. There were therefore two kinds of priests: “the priests of the Mass” and “the parish priests.” The former lived with their families, worked in the fields like the rest or, at most they were employed in some lucrative activity. To enter the orders it was enough to be of legitimate birth (that was the time of the bastards), to know how to read and to sing.
According to the statutes of Tournai of 1366 an examination was provided. This was administered by the archdeacon two days before the ordination. The candidate had to know the formula for the administration of the sacraments, the fourth book of the Summa of Pietro Lombardo, the 2nd and the 4th book of the Decretali, plus, naturally, the rights and the duties of the ecclesiastical state.
A special formative modality was the one of the pueri cantors. They had in many cathedrals some small schools for those youths that provided the service and the singing in the cathedral. In the beginning these schools were supported by the canons, but later many of these schools had revenues from some chapels or vacant benefices. But they were certainly not in the position of solving the problem of the formation of the secular clergy.
Towards the middle of the 14th century, some conscientious bishops started looking for a solution to the problem of the formation of the presbyters. The bishop of Utrecht, having given an examination to his clergy, discovered that out of over 300 candidates, only three were qualified.
For the “permanent formation” there was a series of books, as the collection of sermons, manuals for confession and pastoral work, at a modest level but useful.
Before the foundation of seminaries there were colleges. In Paris, the College of Montaigu was famous. It was a university college founded in 1344. There they lived a life of poverty while the director was John Standonck (1450-1504). He first of all restored discipline. Then he founded, close to the college, the house of the poor, a kind of seminary ad erigendum gentem novam (to build a new generation). There were in it eighty young people who aspired to the priesthood or the consecrated life. They were supported by the fees paid by the well off students. They would get a room, white bread and a candle daily. The study was intense, but the approach was defective, as it gave too much importance to nominalism, without being open either to Saint Thomas or to humanism. Erasmo, who complained about the kitchen, Saint Ignatius and Calvin studied in that college though at different times.
The college, with its monastic and conservative set up, was successfully realized. Standonck founded four other colleges at Cambray and Valenciennes (1499), Malines and Lovanio (1500) after the same model, thus prefiguring a possible congregation. At the head of each house there was a minister pauperum (minister of the poor). The new candidates did not make any vow, but only a promise of obedience. They wore a dress of rough cloth, of different colors, black for the theologians and gray for those who studied in the arts faculty. No meat was served at table and no wine, except a little quantity that was added to the water for the theologians. Life was poor; fasts were rigorous. Discipline was severe. At night, they had to get up by turn for the matins. Every day Mass was compulsory and so was half an hour meditation. Each student had to record in an exercise book during his free moments the spiritual sentences that had struck him most.
For a while, this initiative was successful. Almost 300 boarders became religious in various communities, such as the Carthusians, Carmelites and Franciscans. Nevertheless such initiative had no future. The model was medieval and monastic. It could be enough for those who were searching for certainties, not for those who were committing themselves to the risky journey of the new century.
The Council of Trent had ordered the institution of a seminary in each diocese. At Reims a seminary had been existing since 1567. Other dioceses founded seminaries some years later, like Pont-a¬Mousson (1579), Carpentras (1581), Aix (1582), Bordeaux, Embrun Valence (1583), Sarlat (1584), Avignon and Cavaillon (1586), Toulouse (1590), Vaison (1594), Agen (1597), Auch (1609) Macon, (1613), Rouen (1615), Lucon (1617). In fact in 1644 there were seminaries only in Bordeaux, Reims and Rouen. All the others had disappeared and their work had vanished.
Without seminaries the quality of the clergy was poor indeed. Bourdoise remembered what he had been told in 1607: “You have to learn to read well so that you may sing well in the Church. It is a beautiful thing when a priest knows to read and to write.”
The ignorance of the clergy was a well documented argument since pastoral visits left a rich documentation. In many places the weaknesses of the priests were very well known. A priest that would give a helping hand in the manual work and that would participate in a good long drink with his parishioners, in some regions like La Rochelle or in Auvergne, was very welcome. But this kind of clergy would not preach, nor hear confessions, or if they would, often they did not know the formula of absolution. The catechism was neglected. At Treguier, for example, it was said that the priests were not teaching it.
One of the reasons why the Congregation of the Missions was founded was the abandonment of the countryside. This can easily be explained. In the region of Toulouse, half of the clergy before 1631 were nonresident. In 1624, the Bishop of Treguier discovered that the priests did not take care of their churches. During pastoral visits in the diocese of Chartres from the years 1628-30, it was found that the tabernacles either did not exist or they were dirty. Often the parish priests did not know whether the hosts were consecrated or not. Even worse, in many cases, the visitors saw that the ciboriums were full of worms.
4. Pastoral Life
The members of the parish personnel were many. It included the parish priest, the chaplains, the chaplains of the minor chapels, the “recipient priests” (filleuls ou communalistes) and the “obituaries.”
The parish priest took care of the parish which was often joined to other parishes or benefices. Thus, the parish priest did not reside in his parish. A substitute priest who received compensation far below the regular income would take his place.
Then there were the parish chaplains, who somehow helped in the pastoral service. They should not be confused with the chaplains of the minor chapels who did not have any pastoral care, but were in charge only of the liturgy. These latter were still different from the obituaries who were in charge of celebrating the masses for the dead, and who, therefore, received a stipend.
In some places, there were the “recipient priests” (filleuls ou communalistes). The communities of the “recipient priests” (pretres-filleuls) were part of the parishes and were made up of priests who were born in the parishes and who were receiving pension from the income of the parish. In the diocese of Clermont, these communities of pretres¬filleuls were created towards the end of the 12th century. In 1535, there were 104 communities of this kind in the diocese, most of which were founded in the 15th century. They were composed of a variable number of priests. One third of them was made up of a couple of priests only. But there were communities also with a big number of members. Aurillac, for example had 30 priests in 1344, 48 in 1439 and 100 in 1508. They were receiving a pension of 45 lire per annum.
These “recipient priests” (pretres filleuls) administered the revenue of the parish. The parish priests could choose his collaborators among them. The city consuls used to entrust to them the school and the ministry of charity.
To examine concretely the pastoral life, we bring a specific case that has been carefully studied. It concerns the diocese of Clermont in France. Through it we can see a microcosm of parish life starting from the problem of income. Parishes could survive with two kinds of income. The first was the rent which was very low, i.e. between 2 to 4 lire for the parishes in the mountain, 35-40 lire for the city parishes. Then there were the extras that included the rights of the altar and those of the Church. The administration of the sacraments (rights of the altar) ensured a certain income. The offering for baptism was 3 cents for the head of the family and 1 cent for the other members. For the celebration of marriages, the spouses had to pay at the door of the church 5 coins, a quarter of the wedding bread, a quarter of the wine, a leg of the pig, a piece of beef and a chicken. In Borgogne the rule was that they had to provide the food for the celebrant for the day and the next. If the bridegroom wanted to get married in another place, if he was a landowner he had to pay 10 coins and 1 chicken, if not, he had to pay 5 coins and bring a chicken as a gift. The contribution for a funeral was very precise. In the beginning of the 16th century a hostel owner had to pay 16 soldi (coins), for other adults, only 5 coins; for children, only 2 coins and 6 denarii. The rights of the Church included different kinds of taxes, usually to be paid in kind. For the pastoral Sunday service, i.e. for a simple Mass and a sung Mass, they had to contribute to the parish priest a measure of oatmeal. At Longpre’, at the end of the 14th century, each parishioner had to contribute to his pastor a measure of rye for the annual service, plus a copper for the Gospel of the Passion. In some cases the tax included a lunch for Christmas, for the parish priest, his chaplain, his acolyte and the sacristan of the Church. On the same occasion, they also had to feed the 3 dogs and the horse of the parish priest.
Essentially, what was the income of a parish? In Pierrefite¬sur-Loire, a parish of 100 families, we know that annually they had an income of 25 lire from the administration of the sacraments and 30 lire from the rights of the Church., The greater the income, the greater were the taxes. Among them there was the “free gift,” a tax that the monarchy imposed on the Church. This was not a due, but was considered a “free gift” even though it was a must. Naturally the episcopate subdivided this amount among the various parishes. For the “free gift” in 1535 the required amount varied between 7 coins and 6 denarii to 50 lire for the better off parishes. Then there were the rights of patronage that varied between 5 coins in Vilplaix to 10 lire in Theil. On the occasion of the synod, the bishop would ask for a tax (paree synodale), like for the pastoral visit (droit de procuration). The former was between 6 denarii and 5 coins, while the latter, according to the documentation, varied between 4 and 48 coins.
In exchange for this income the parish priest was bound to assure the spiritual care of the people. At Monetay-sur-Allier the parishioners had signed an agreement with the parish priest by which the latter had to celebrate a low mass and a solemn mass every Sunday and feast day. In addition, the parish priest was bound to celebrate the marriages and the funerals and to administer baptisms. He had to preach the Gospel from the feast of the Holy Cross in May to the Exaltation of the Cross in September. When the weather threatened the harvest with hailstorms, excessive cold, etc., he had to hold processions and special prayers. Finally, the parish priest was bound to provide a good and sufficient paschal candle, the incense, for feast days and the blessed bread for the feast of the Circumcision.
At Molinet every Sunday the parish priest had to sing the Libera Me before and after the Mass, blessing the tombs with holy water? In another parish there was an absolution for the dead before and after the Mass. As we can see, the activity for the dead was very intense, so much so that, during a synod, the priests of a parish asked the bishop to exempt four priests from participating because they were very busy with the services for the dead.
At the center of the pastoral life there was the Eucharistic celebration. When the people had arrived in Church, all had to wait for the beginning of the celebration until the lord of the place and his family would arrive. If he was very late, it could even happen that the parish priest could not say Mass. There were nevertheless the chapels for the parishioners who were living very far from the parish. When they did not have their own chaplain, the celebration took place once a year. Finally there were the processions. These took place almost every Sunday and sometimes these were occasions for meeting parishioners who lived far away.
Finally in presenting the Church, we have to avoid two extremes: the exaltation (“the beautiful time long ago”) and the indignation (“everything was bad… and here comes Saint Vincent”). At the beginning of the 17th century there was an acceptance of the Council of Trent (1615) and there was an institutional, spiritual, missionary and educational renewal.
The institutional renewal included the nomination of worthy bishops (Saint Vincent contributed a lot to this most especially during the years when he was a member of the Council of Conscience).
As for the spiritual renewal, Bremont spoke of a “mystical invasion.” Here we remember the influence of the Rhine-Flemish spirituality, of the Italian (Savonarola) and of the Spanish (Saint Theresa). We cannot ignore the group of Madam Acarie, the Company of the Blessed Sacrament and the Tuesday conferences.
The missionary renewal included the founding of the missionary communities: the Oratory of Berulle, the Congregation of the Mission, the Eudists, the Seminary for the Foreign Missions (1663) and intense missionary campaigns in France and in mission countries (Madagascar, French Canada, England, Vietnam).
In the educational field there was a flowering of colleges (Jesuits, Oratorians, Ursulines), and of schools (starting with the “Little Schools of Port-Royal and continuing with those of many male and female religious communities).
The notion of the Church in Saint Vincent
Feel with the Church
Saint Vincent, participating in the Tridentine Renewal, believed in the value of certain fundamental themes e. g. the Church as perfect society, visible, indefectible, blessed with an infallible magisterium. For him the Church was the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the holy Ark of Salvation so that those who are not members of the Church cannot be saved. The Church is also the place where we pray, where we venerate the relics, where we get the indulgences, where pilgrimages are encouraged. It was then a Church in which “practices/ activities” were important, but where also interiority was required. This Church had come out wounded from the religious wars. First of all, she had a rival in the Protestant Church which had been officially recognized by the Edict of Nantes (1598). On one side, there was the “Church,” the Catholic Church; on the other side, there was the “religion” from where derived the words religionari, “Calvinists,” “reformed.”
This Church was being reformed and Saint Vincent participated in this reform (which means giving back the “form of Christ”) — episcopal, monastic, clerical reform. He understood, nevertheless, that his mission had to be inside the Church, in obedience to it, in favor of the poor, who hungered for the Word and for bread. The Church then was the place for preaching and for the mission of charity.
Saint Vincent presented the Church as the Body of Christ, but his vision was neither theoretical nor political: “How How can I commiserate with his illness, if not by participating in it together in Our Lord, who is our head? And all of us make up a mystical body, but we’re all members of one another. It has never been heard that a member, not even among the animals, was insensitive to the suffering of another member, or that one part of a person’s body may be bruised, wounded or injured and the other parts don’t feel it. That’s impossible. Every part of us is in such sympathy with one another and so interconnected that the pain of one is the pain of the other. Since Christians are members of the same body and members of one another, with even greater reason should they sympathize with one another. Quoi! To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That’s to be lacking in charity; it’s being a caricature of a Christian; it’s inhuman; it’s to be worse than animal! He was not interested in presenting the Church as “unique” like Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam, but as the extension of Christ, of which the poor are the privileged portion.
The Church was also presented as the Kingdom of God. “We have to realize that, by these words, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice,’ Our Lord is asking us not only to seek first of all the kingdom of God and His justice in the way we’ve just explained; I mean it doesn’t suffice to act in such a way that God may reign in us, seeking His kingdom and His justice in this way, but, in addition, we should desire and see that the kingdom of God is brought and extended everywhere, that God reigns in all souls, that there’s only one true religion on earth, and that the world may live other than its doing, by the strength and power of God and the means established in His Church, and, lastly, that His justice may be sought and imitated so well by everyone through their holy lives, that He may be perfectly glorified by them in time and in eternity. So that’s what we have to do: desire and work for the spreading of God’s glory. I say ‘His glory’ and ‘His kingdom,’ and I use the terms interchangeably because they are one ant the same: God’s glory is in paradise and His kingdom is in souls. So then, let’s have this constant desire that the kingdom of God may be extended, and the zeal to work with all our might at it so that, having obtained the kingdom of God on earth, we may go to enjoy it in heaven. Let’s keep this lamp always lit in our hearts. O Messieurs, how fortunate we are to be in a Company whose purpose is not only to make us worthy of His reign in us, but that he may be loved and served by everyone and that the whole world may be saved!”
Another image was that of the Church as Spouse. This idea of the Church as Spouse did not put the accent on the mystical union with the Word in prayer, but on the fidelity that the faithful should show towards the Church, since it does not change in matters concerning the faith. The theme of the Church was a question for Saint¬Cyran. For the reformer, the Church has ceased to exist for the past 500 years. Saint Vincent never accepted this thinking and fought against it throughout his pastoral ministry.
Saint Vincent’s vision of the Church nevertheless was not free from preoccupations. He was afraid that it would be transferred else¬where. “We have to adopt these sentiments, my dear confreres, and fear that the kingdom of God may be taken from us. What we see before our very eyes is a deplorable misfortune: six kingdoms taken the Church, namely, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, England, Scotland, and Ireland; and, besides that, Holland, a large part of the Germanies, and several of those great Hanseatic towns. O Sauveur! What a loss! And with all that we’re still on the eve of seeing the great kingdom of Poland lost, if God, by His mercy. Doesn’t preserve it from all that. It’s quite true that the Son of God promised that He’d be with His Church until the end of time; but He didn’t promise that this Church would be in France or in Spain, etc. He did say that He wouldn’t abandon His Church and that it would last until the end of the world, in whatever place it may be, but not specifically here or elsewhere. And if there were a country in which he should have left it, it seems like none should be preferred to the Holy Land, where He was born, where He began His Church, did so much and performed so many miracles. Yet, it was this land, for which he did so much and in which He took such pleasure, that He deprived of His Church first of all, in order to give it to the Gentiles.” The Church in fact was attacked by many enemies. Those outside the Church were the Protestants. But there were also enemies inside; in the first place, would be the priests. This explains his involvement in the reform of the presbyters, his work in the seminaries and the mission. He felt deeply with the Church and wanted that his Vincentian Family be specially attuned with and for the Church. After all, the Church was his home, where he felt at ease, his mother, and the anticipation of the Kingdom of God. It was in fact a Vincentian, Guglielmo Pouget (1847-1933) who formulated the expression used by John XXIII in his opening remarks at Vatican II: “one is the substance of the old doctrine contained in the deposit of our faith, another is the formulation with which we clothed it.” This blind but farsighted man, accused of modernism (he was removed from teaching in 1905), but venerated by Jean Guitton, Chevalier, Latreille, Garrone responded to the suspicions and accusations against him with love. From Saint Vincent he had learned to make of historical criticism an instrument of asceticism. According to Giordani, Saint Vincent, since he was in the Gondi house, “was trying to make of that affluent family a little Church.” Similarly at Chatillon, “he had succeeded to make of the Church a home, of the parish a community…. He had made of Saint Andrew the heart of the village, of the sacraments, the heart of the souls. He had revived the Church…. The new sense of community, awakened the debt of solidarity and was pushing from isolation to communion.” Vincent, according to him, was one “who not only believed and felt with the Church, but lived her. His ideal therefore was to rebuild the Church in souls.”
Church and Salvation: Jansenism
While the Greek Church was reflecting on the doctrine of the nature of God (the Trinity) and on the Incarnation (against the Nestorians and the Monophysitists), the Latin Church was preoccupied with problems like divine grace and human freedom, of the means of salvation and man’s response to it. Saint Augustine proposed a solution that emphasized the role of grace and predestination. Luis de Molina (1535-1560), a Spanish Jesuit, tried to reconcile predestination and free will while valuing human freedom. With the “revival” of these doctrines, the Spanish Dominicans entered the fray, accusing the Jesuits openly of being Pelagians, since Pelagianism denies the role of grace in salvation.
Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638), better known as Jansenius, was a doctor of theology and a professor of Louvain. He was a friend of Jean du Vergier de Hauraunne, the parish priest and future abbot of Saint-Cyran who was also a friend of Vincent de Paul.
Jansenius had undertaken the writing of a treatise entitled Augustinus, where he expressed a rigorous view of the role of God in salvation. His idea was fully appreciated by those residing in the Cistercian Abbey of Port-Royale and those that frequent its surroundings. This abbey was firmly governed by Angelique Arnauld, the protagonist of the events of September 25, 1609, when the free access to monasteries was prohibited to visitors. In 1625, Angelique temporarily left her residence “Des Champs” (Port Royale des Champs) and transferred to the neighborhood of Saint Jacques. In 1648, she and some of her companions returned to the quiet little valley of Des Champs.
During the first decades of the 17th century this monastery was under the rule of Saint-Cyran who not only was against the Jesuits but also against Richelieu. Richelieu had just consolidated his powers after the famous “Day of Dupes,” November 10-11, 1630 (which had caused the disgrace of the uncles of Louise de Marillac — Louis and Michel. Louis was beheaded and Michel died in prison). He was at the point of declaring war against Spain and was very sensitive to all sorts of opposition. On the other hand, Saint-Cyran came as the heir of Berulle, stalwart supporter of the Spanish alliance during the thirty years war, (if France and Spain had become allies, the Catholics in Germany would have been the victor); while Richelieu, whose only concern was the interest of France, wanted to ally himself with the Protestants against Spain and Austria.
According to Saint-Cyran, “formerly the penitents did penance and the blameless did the same… and the Fathers of the Church said that penance was the remedy of one and the glory of the others.”
He then looked for ways from among his circle of clientele, twenty or thirty persons of them who had confided to him, for a method of saving souls from sin and to bring about a conversion. This method consisted of a delay in absolution after penance has been done, without approving nevertheless long suspensions even for religious nuns who requested a delay of 3 to 4 months in imitation of the first Christians. The goal of this method was to give a psycho¬logical shock, similar to that of a spiritual retreat. This came from his theory of the necessity of contrition within the sacrament of Penance, which cannot be verified except by the fruits of penance, that is to say, for a period of expiation in proportion to the sin.
Such orientation was the exact opposite of that favored by the Jesuits: that is, of frequent reception of Holy Communion.
It was an ordinary happening that provoked the controversy. Saint-Cyran had written a letter to Anne of Rohan, Princess of Guemene, with a concise instruction on the use of the sacraments. It counseled in particular a period of “waiting” before receiving communion. This document was conveyed by Madelaine de Souvre, Marchioness de Sable, to her confessor Pierre Sesmaison, a Jesuit. (1588-1648). Sesmaison had a different way of dealing with his penitents and thus wrote a counterresponse.
The Princess of Guemene sent the written pamphlet to Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) requesting for an answer. This response triggered a triple controversy. The 1? was the historical plan between Arnauld and the Jesuit Denys Petau. The 2nd was the religious plan concerning the legitimacy of the young theologian and 3rd the political plan of whether they will seek the intervention of the monarchy. In the end, no condemnation occurred as demanded by the anti-Jansenist. Instead, the preface written by Barcos was censured.
Vincent’s opposition to Saint-Cyran’s views was clear and sure. Vincent, who had been a friend of Saint-Cyran, was in the position to know the man. He could not accept the continued criticism thrown to the Church by Saint-Cyran, nor had he thought that the way to the re-evangelization of Europe was through the preaching that Christ did not die for all mankind; that human nature was intrinsically ruined by sin and therefore all human acts not animated by grace were worthy of damnation.
Vincent was of the opinion that Richelieu had more than one reason for disagreeing with Saint-Cyran. Not only did Richelieu fear Saint-Cyran’s politics which was diagonally opposed to his own but also for his important doctrine that could change the balance of power.
In 1638, the all-powerful Richelieu had Saint-Cyran arrested and conducted an investigation against him. If he succeeded in obtaining negative testimonies against his doctrines from persons like Vincent, he would have succeeded and have him in his hands. Vincent was therefore called to be a witness. On the one hand, Vincent knew that Saint-Cyran was culpable but on the other hand, he did not like to play the political game of the Cardinal. The issue was not therefore the doctrine of the Church but an issue of power. Vincent made a testimony, so prudent that they could not draw any valid accusation from it. It was a “masterpiece” of charity, according to Bremond. On the other hand, Saint-Cyran did not have the same scruples as Vincent, judging him as “prudent but may make mistakes through lack of insight and understanding concerning matters of doctrine and learning.”
As to the “frequent communion” of Arnauld, we have two letters of Vincent de Paul to his confrere Jean de Horgny. Vincent could not accept the restriction on the celebration of masses and the receiving of communion that “deprive the Blessed Trinity of praise and glory, the angels of delight, sinners of pardon, the just of help and grace, souls in purgatory of refreshments, the Church of the spiritual favors of Jesus Christ, and themselves of medicine and a remedy.” Arnauld, by favoring abstention from receiving communion in the spirit of penance, seems to put on the same level the merits of the individual and the opus operatum.
Furthermore, Vincent did not admit that the current practice of the Church was decadent. He loved the Church too much to accept the position of Arnauld. “…we do know that throughout Europe, the Sacraments are approached in a manner condemned by M. Arnauld, and that the Pope and all the bishops approved the custom of giving absolution after confession and of doing public penance only for public sins. Is it not insufferable blindness, in a matter of all Christendom the ideas of a young man, who, when he did his writing, had no experience in the direction of souls?”
Vincent’s opposition to the Augustinus became stronger still. The initiative to have some propositions of the Augustinus condemned was for the Sorbonne to work on. In the beginning there were seven propositions and these propositions have been submitted by Nicolas Cornet (1592-1663) to be examined by the theologians. The Jansenists saw in this action a condemnation of Saint Augustine. Unofficial negotiations were done. The strategy succeeded. By the Bull Cum Occasione (1653) only five propositions were condemned.
The center of the opposition was then left to Port-Royale. The climate that prevailed in the two Port-Royale was exemplary. Trials and hardships form the character. That was why Jacqueline Pascal said this famous quotation: “Since the bishops have the courage of women, women should have the courage of the bishops.”
The condemnation of the five propositions did not bring peace, not even a truce. Arnauld admitted that the propositions were errors but he denied they were of Jansenius. By doing this, he let the errors pass from supernatural anthropology to ecclesiology. Has the Church the right to pass judgment on the interpretation of an author in his formulation of a proposition? Thus an attack on the morals of the Jesuits started especially in the Lettres Provinciales of Pascal (January 23, 1656-March 24, 1657). Through a new sentence, Rome affirmed that the five propositions had been condemned in the sense understood by Jansenius (Quaestio facti: Bull Ad Sanctum Petri Sedem, 1656). There followed a period of fighting and tension, of formulation and protest that were partially calmed under Clement IX with the Paix Clementine (1669). The flame was extinguished but the ember was not completely put out. The controversy resumed at the beginning of the 18th century with a new vigor and will spread further than Paris. This became an extremely important event in the Church.
Until his death, Vincent de Paul fought to stump the effects of Jansenism and to preserve his communities. In this, he acted in agreement with some of the greatest representatives of the French Church: Condren, Olier, Eudes to name some. They differed from those who were against Jansenism from political motivation, like Richelieu, Mazarin, Louis XIV and from theologians who opposed the “spirituality.” They were against Jansenism not because they were well versed in doctrines and morals or because they were averse to international politics of both Cardinals, but because of their love for the Church and the salvation of the little ones.
Vincent could not accept that a simple theologian can proudly proclaim himself as a reformer of the Church. Worst, he could not accept that the merciful image of God cannot be preached to the suffering people of the 17th century, instead of the severe face of God who did not die for all. On hearing a theologian affirm that anyone who did not know the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation can be saved, Vincent commented that, “I am afraid that I will be condemned for not instructing unceasingly the poor people.” For him, the image of a kind and merciful God is the hope of the poor. He could not, therefore, abandon them to themselves and to an austere and false preaching.
During the 18th century, the Congregation of the Mission was implicated in the affair of the Unigenitus. In 1713, Pope Clement XI condemned 101 propositions of Pasquier Quesnel, a Frenchman of the Oratorian Order. Four Bishops called for a Council and unleashed a strong opposition. Some adherents were Cardinal de Noailles and a big group of the clergy. Rome also asked the Congregation of the Mission to accept the Bull. The Superior General Fr. Bonnet took a neutral position which was unacceptable to Rome. The Italian missionaries revolted. Since 1697, they had opposed the leadership of the French General, Nicolas Pierron and asked that a Vicar General be nominated independent of the General in Paris. But neither the Holy See nor the French government agreed. This incident inflamed hearts once again. During the Assembly of 1724, they could no longer postpone the decision. The Visitor of the Latin province, Bernardo della Torre, was placed in charge by the Secretary of State of the Pope, Cardinal Paolucci to tell Fr. Bonnet that the Pope was informed of the “bad reputation of the Congregation of the Mission that circulated in France due to the large number of its members imbued by the new doctrine and who were reluctant to accept the Constitution Unigenitus, bringing with it a great danger that sooner or later a large part of the kingdom will be contaminated, since many seminaries in France were under the direction of the said Congregation.” Della Torre would have acted together with the Visitors of Turin and Poland. But this time, Fr. Bonnet made the decision and accepted the provisions of the Unigenitus. At the same time he imposed it on all the confreres of the Congregation of the Mission. Many confreres, around thirty of them, refused to accept it and were sent out of the Congregation. Thus, the unity of the Congregation was saved and Jansenism was stopped. Saint Vincent de Paul would not have acted any differently.
Church, Eucharist and the priesthood
Models of the Priesthood
Saint Vincent tells the story of a meeting with a Huguenot. The path of conversion of the latter had proceeded well, when the interlocutor of the saint brought up for discussion a question: “You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see the rural Catholics abandoned to Pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other, we see towns filled with priests and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I’ll never believe it.”
Christians were accustomed to seeing such a clergy who exercised their trade for which no particular requirements — cultural or moral, or pastoral—were needed. Or better still, the criteria existed but were not controlled by anyone because no one was in charge of formation and because the ills of the priesthood originated from those of the episcopate.
The Church of France, after having experienced the uselessness of a military option (the religious wars) was tempted at the beginning of the 17th century by politics (through affiance with Spain or by the activity of the Cardinal Ministers), by the controversialists (they argue in order to convert) and by the Tridentine Reformers.
But the way was blocked in various manners. As for the Tridentine reformers, it was a fact that the clergy had “accepted” the Tridentine decrees in a unilateral way. But they did not become laws of the state because of the noted reluctance of Gallicanism.
Something more was needed. In order to be efficacious, the reform needed talent and sanctity. This was found in a small nucleus of priests who focused on an extraordinary theology, rich in thought and spiritual inspiration, original and traditional that was called the “French school.” Much has been written on the existence of such school. It was easy to deny it on the basis of a concept of a school that was a little too reductive. More than a school of a philosophical character in which the disciples elaborated common and consequent doctrines, we must refer to the French School of Spirituality as artistic. School in this case is not therefore an institution but a style, an inspiration, and a magic moment. Thus, it was not so much a school of thought but a training ground for holiness.
We will not, therefore, address the problem of the diverse conceptions of the priesthood in these authors. For this there are different works. We will look instead at the spirituality of the priest¬hood of this school. The spiritual doctrine of this school is not born from an abstract reflection. Berulle, Vincent de Paul, Condren, Olier and Eudes were not professors or “official theologians” in love with abstract strategies of thought. They were pastors who turned to the church and not to an elite. Their spirituality was for all. It would be reasons from life and from history that would push them to be preoccupied with the clergy. They did it then in thought and deed.
A spirituality of adoration
The doctrine of this school was based on Pseudo Dionisius that at that time was considered not an author of the 5th century but the disciple and practically the spokesman of Saint Paul. From Mistica Teologia (Mystical Theology) comes the apophatic (cannot be said) character of the knowledge of God, a profound “ignorance” in which is perceived what God is not. Here then comes the necessity of overcoming and purifying all affections and knowledge in order to penetrate the darkness and to arrive at the experience of the Encounter. From the gerarchie (hierarchy) came the image of the realization of union and of sanctification that is carried out in two movements: ascending (that is purification, illumination and divinization) and descending (that is communication of grace to inferior orders).
The result is a vigorous consciousness of the greatness and holiness of God that requires an attitude of adoration and of total oblation. Man is nothing, Berulle wrote, he must empty and annihilate himself in order to be filled with God. A force of mutual attraction like that between a planet and the sun is established between man and God. Man then must “adhere” to Christ in order to realize a relationship of intimacy, a “bond” that expresses belonging, offering, obedience and union.
Against the abstract tendency of certain Nordic spirituality that claimed an effacement of the humanity of Christ, the French School proposed the centrality of the Incarnation and focuses on the immense and unexpected reality of the coming in flesh of the Son of God which constitutes Christ as the only mediator, the adorer of the Father. With the hypostatic union “God will be man as long as God will be God and there will always be a Man-God.” In the Incarnate Word dwell the religious and the servant, the adorer and the missionary, that is, the different faces of the Catholic priesthood.
The spirituality of the priesthood oscillates in fact between two different theologies, from which are born different ways of under¬standing the same figure and ministry of the priest.
On one side, there is the theology of Pseudo Dionysius (Pseudo Dionigi); in this theology the priest comes from among men and is placed over them, inasmuch as he is inserted in that complex celestial-terrestrial hierarchy from which the sanctification of men comes and through which the glorification of God passes.
On the opposite side, there is the Augustinian vision that puts the accent not so much on the priest as head, but on his service. The priest, taken from among men, is not above them but is for them in fraternal service. More than being head, he is a brother; more than commanding, he helps them from within.
In the Augustinian line, the priest is a man for the mission; while in that of the opposing view, he is rather a man for worship. It is clear that there are two polarizations that are very schematic; that define a tendency rather than enclose the thought of an author. It would be useful to gather the different facets of the so called French school of spirituality.
The great reformers of the French clergy of the 17th century (Berulle, Condren, Vincent de Paul, Olier, Eudes) introduced into empty lamps the oil of prayer, but these lamps were made to illumine the steps of men.
The consequences for spirituality were exciting. It put in relief, first of all, the need for sanctity. Saint Vincent said: “There’s nothing greater than a priest, to whom Christ gives all power over His natural and His mystical Body, the power to forgive sins, etc. O Dieu! What power! What dignity!” And he added: "People wonder whether all the disorders we see in the world should not be imputed to priests. This could scandalize some, but the topic demands that I show, from the extent of the evil, the importance of the remedy. We’ve had several conferences on this questions, which we treated in depth, to discover the sources of so many misfortunes; the result, however, was that the Church has no worse enemies than priests. It’s from them that heresies have come; take those two heresiarchs Luther and Calvin, who were priests, and it’s through priests that heretics have prevailed, vice has reigned, and ignorance has sent up its throne among the poor people. All that is due to their dissoluteness and failure to oppose with all their might, in accord with their obligations, those three torrents that have inundated the world.” It was necessary “to terrorize the souls” of the aspirants to the priesthood showing them the greatness of how much they would have received.
A priest who is not holy is a false priest. Pierre de Berulle (1575¬1629) had recourse to the Pseudo Dionysius in order to prove such exigency. In the pyramidal areopagetic vision, the bishops and the priests must purify, illumine and light the fire in their subordinates. But to achieve this result, the priest must be an “instrument united” to the Son of God and must act in the Spirit of Jesus United sacra¬mentally to Christ, the priest must find in the Word his spiritual “sustenance,” he must be “pure capacity for Him, filled with Him, tending toward Him.” Like the humanity of Christ, he is the instrument of God on earth. Priests are like an assumed humanity that renders the priests (as a) place of adoration of the Word. For him, “the sacerdotal state is at the origin of every sanctity that must be there in the Church of God.” The priest must make “solemn profession of piety.”
Jean-Jacques Olier (1680-1657) confided in his Memoires having received this consignment from Christ: “I want that you live in perennial contemplation… I want that you bring contemplation among the clergy.”
This did not deal only with teaching the priests how to pray, as if it would be sufficient to transform them into men of the rite but to render them “experts in the mysteries of Christ.” The underlying idea is that the Word of God wanted to “deny himself as God,” to give himself a human face enveloped in fragility, dressed in the sorrows and the limitations of man in order to enkindle in the world a great desire for prayer.
From here was born that sacerdotal school of prayer that, soaked in grace, gave back life to the French Church. The priest must live in a “spirit of prayer” to guide all that he does: “Nothing is obtained from God and from the neighbor without the virtue of the Holy Spirit that is activated in prayer.” And again, “it is in prayer that the priest draws life for himself and for the people. In prayer lie his peace and his joy…. Finally, it is in holy prayer that the priest, full of charity, is found to be clothed with all the magnificent riches of God. By means of it he enters not only into the consciousness of the mysteries of God the Father and of his Son, but in the enjoyment and participation of their ‘state.’ He enters into the strength of the Father, the splendor of the Son and the ardor of the Holy Spirit.”
Saint John Eudes (1601-1680) in his numerous writings al¬ways had pastoral aims, coming from a great vision of baptism that he calls “contract of affiance” in which God makes us children in the Son, gives us our own life and establishes a mystery of universal communion. He wants that “we continue and contemplate” his earthly life according to the example of Mary. The summit of communion is attained in Jesus, God and man, the one and eternal priest, host and sacrificer.
By virtue of baptism, all the faithful “offer” and are “offered.” They are victims and priests. The ministerial priesthood is not, how¬ever, “something more” but is an existence that is changed from “within,” in order to realize fully the role of shepherds (pastors). The priest is a being made Church who exists “for the Church.” He who signed Saint Vincent de Paul “missionary priest” teaches that “his principal exercise is that of announcing without fear, in public and in private, in words and in deeds, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In another passage, he wrote: “You are living in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who walk on the earth… representing His person, are made His substitutes.” The priest is, after the Virgin, the most precious in the hands of Christ: “You are the saviors of the world whom the Savior had left here below in His place to continue and to accomplish the work of universal redemption.”
This role of “added” humanity, of “extended” existence, is translated in these very attractive images: “You are the noblest part of the mystical body of the Son of God. You are the eyes, the mouth, the tongue, and the heart of the Church of Jesus: or to say it better, you are the eyes, the mouth, the tongue, and the heart of this Jesus himself…. You are his heart: for it is by means of you that he gives true life, the life of grace on earth and the life of glory in heaven to all the true members of his body.”
A spirituality of sacrifice
Condren (1588-1641) was the successor of Berulle as guide of the Oratory. While the founder spoke of “elevation,” Condren organized his teaching on sacrifice. He took back the ideas of his time on sacrifice: sanctification, oblation, putting to death (uccisione), consummation and communion.
Nothing is worthy of God except the unique sacrifice of Jesus. For this, the Father sent His Son in order to offer the perfect sacrifice because only God and an act of God are worthy of God. Christ was completely conformed to the mind of the Father in the sacrifice of the cross which is therefore the “title of the infinite greatness of the Father.” It is with the Incarnation that the way of Christ’s sacrifice begins. First, the Son of God had as his home the bosom of the Father. Abandoning it, he took on mortal flesh destined for sacrifice.
But there is no sacrifice without “separation.” It is here then that Christ appears not enveloped by the pleasure of the Father but as object of his justice. The Incarnation means exile from richness, greatness and Trinitarian glory in order to abase himself in ignominy, in poverty and in suffering. In this abasement there is no diminution of sanctity, inasmuch as the greatness of Christ dwells in humility.
Therefore, he does not wait for the cross to offer Himself. He experiences four “baseness”: littleness, indigence (poverty), dependence and uselessness, from infancy, “exiled from the Holy Land and exiled in a foreign land and enemy of God.” He who “was from eternity independent from His Father,” on earth “is destitute in a certain way from his eternity in order to restore the honor taken away from the Father by man who wanted to become eternal and similar to God.” At baptism in the Jordan in particular, Christ was weighed down by our faults. It was, therefore, a “baptism of humiliation,” or “a ceremonial confession that he who receives it is a sinner.” Condren defines the liturgy of John the Baptist as a “true investiture,” sees in the water the sign of the purifying blood of the Cross. In the desert Christ is “exiled” into solitude unworthy of Him: “the Holy Spirit sends Him away into a solitude of humiliation.” Again on the cross “He is abandoned to the beasts, that is, to the pagans.” Yet from the abandoned Christ comes a glance of love and obedience to the Father. It is on the cross that He shows Himself as king. He cannot be king like God, because the king is of the same nature as his subjects, therefore He is king like man, but a man of sorrows who burns with love for the Father, suffers in order to honor Him and suffers because He is pierced with love for us.
The same conditions are realized in the mass. The priest must be clothed with sentiments of self-oblation, annihilating himself in Christ and dying in his unique immolation. Therefore, sacerdotal (priestly) sanctity is greater than that of the simple Christian. In communion he shares in Christ as His members, in the sacrifice he consecrates himself in His person. It is Christ Himself who consecrates in us; the priest does nothing else but lends his own tongue, his own hands, his own spirit for an action so divine. And because there is one priest and one sacrifice, the priests form one and only priest, and they are associated with Christ’s priesthood. Therefore, the priest must offer the mass like Christ, with love for the cross, and with the disposition of sacrificing his own self, and of dying for God.
In the Holy Sacrament, Condren sees the extreme of the sacrifice. The abasement of the Incarnation, the abandonment of the cross would not be sufficient: in the tabernacle He wants to dwell with us forever. For this Condren wrote: “I believe that in this century God will give to His Church an understanding of the Holy Sacrament much more than before.” Christ cannot abase Himself much lower than in “making Himself visible as bread.”
For this theology, he was accused of pessimism. But such a judgment does not take into account the particular sense of the Catholic mystical tradition. Like other mystics, Condren’s position is in the logic of gift, of offering, of abandonment and of welcome. He recommended to his priests: “Remember that the sacrifice that you offer is not only the sacrifice of the Son of God, but that of the Head and of His members, of Jesus and of His Church: since he communicates his priesthood, and this he offers with Him and him with it.” The priests have therefore an expanded life; they are members of Christ and of the Church, in a state of offerers and victims, but for the honor of the Father and the salvation of souls.
A spirituality of mission
The sublimity of these considerations must not make us conclude that the ideal of the French school would be that of a priest far from the world. The zeal for souls is a constant for these teachers.
Olier, a mystic because he is a parish priest and parish priest because he is a mystic, offers us a marvelous passage: “The priest must live in a state of intimate resurrection and of profound recollection in God, with our Lord Jesus Christ, so that he may feel himself infinitely far from every creature…. (However,) the priest, living interiorly with God, busy in his divine essence, heeds all the needs of his neighbor, listens to all, feels the ills of all, without having taken anything upon himself, without any object changing his sanctity and his concentration in God…. He listens only to conceive, sees in order to know, feels in order to have greater pity on the afflicted, and to share in every sorrow, because he would like to carry them all.” It is, therefore, the “vocation of heaven on earth… of an immortal and risen man,” that, in adoration he finds the need for the mission.
Saint Vincent’s view of the priesthood completes and enriches this panorama not on the level of ideas but of realization. Berulle intended to found a company of priests to render homage to the eternal condition of the priesthood of Christ. Vincent instead wanted “to honor” Christ seen mystically in the poor. The encounter with the poor becomes the memory of Christ.
His ideal of the priest is situated within the mystery of charity. Like Christ, the priest must have as his only preoccupation the salvation of souls. He does not insist on the sacrificial character, on being “victim and priest;” the axis of his priestly (sacerdotal) spirituality is that which passes from Christ and reaches out to the poor. “It’s not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor doesn’t love Him.”
Here is the idea of a priesthood that makes itself evangelizer and bread, in order to meet the twofold hunger of man. Here is the welding of corporal and spiritual assistance: “If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do you, who do you think is going to help them? So then, if there are any among us who think they’re in the Mission to evangelize poor people but not to alleviate their sufferings, to take care of their spiritual needs but not their temporal ones, I reply that we have to help them and have them assisted in every way, by us and by others … this is to preach the Gospel by words and by works and that’s the most perfect way; it’s also what Our Lord did, and what those should do who represent Him on earth, officially and by nature, as priests do.”
The priest envisioned by Vincent is a man for others, not bound to a place, to a church, but with a missionary dimension in his heart. “The priests are called to the most holy ministry that there is on earth, in which they must exercise the two great virtues of Jesus Christ, that is, religion towards the Eternal Father and charity towards men.”
The universal dimension is born from his being the one who offers the sacrifice, who preaches the Word, who conducts those who are far to the Church and the lost to the faith. That which is proper to the priest is not commanding, organizing, judging, but spreading love. The priest is an instrument of love. He wants to speak of love in order to evoke love. “We priests have been chosen by God as instruments of His immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls … Our vocation is to go, not just to one parish, not just to one diocese, but all over the world, and to do what? To set people’s hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did. He came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with His love. What do we have to desire but that it may burn and consume everything. My dear confreres, let’s reflect on that, please, It’s true then, that I’m sent not only to love God but to make Him loved. It’s not enough for me to love god, if my neighbor doesn’t love him … Now, if we’re really called to take the love of God far and near, if we must set nation on fire with it, if our vocation is to go throughout the world to spread this divine fire, if that’s the case, I say, if that’s the case, brothers, how I myself must burn with this divine fire.”
It implies a new way of understanding the Church that it is not a place for the exercise of authority but for charity. This does not deal with destroying but with constructing, not with sending away men, but of making them feel an atmosphere of a Church animated by love and warm with love. For this I repeat that we are called (there¬fore to be missionary is a vocation to love and for love) to “bring far and near the love of God.” It does not deal with making followers, with rendering men subjects of the Word, but with rendering them capable of loving. The great poverty of man is not to know how to love. Therefore, the missionary service is that of giving love, so that the poor may be capable of loving, of giving charity because from it charity can be generated. After all, when he helped the provinces devastated by the war, the saint was attentive not only to helping the poor get out from their situation of need, but also to enabling them to help others in return. The first thing the missionaries he sent should have done was to found the “charities.” He understood one very beautiful thing: the poor of yesterday must be the rescuers of tomorrow. The priest is like Moses: he is sent to save his own people, because even he had been saved.
Eudes, a missionary who never denied himself the difficulties of the mission, described in pages vibrant with love the picture of the missionary priest: “He is an evangelizer and an apostle whose principal obligation is to announce tirelessly, in public and in private, with works and words the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Or even: “He is a living image of Jesus Christ in this world, of Jesus Christ who watches, prays, catechizes, works, perspires, cries, goes from one city to another, from one village to another, suffers, agonizes, dies and sacrifices Himself for the salvation of all souls created in His image and likeness.”
In conclusion I would like to remember two books of one confrere of ours, Jose Maria Ibanez Burgos (1937-1998). In his first work, he maintained that the appeals of misery were appeals of God. A vision of faith opened the eyes of the saint and induced him to continue the mission of Christ and to be invested with His spirit. The axis of his thought was therefore Christ-Church-Poor, where the poor are caught in the twofold material and spiritual poverty. Therefore, first of all, “the Vincentian Christ,” he writes, “is the Son of God incarnated in history, descended from heaven on earth to do the Father’s will and to save men. The Father’s love and the misery of men led Him to the annihilation of the Incarnation, to the infamous torture of the cross. For Saint Vincent it is not possible to continue the mission of Christ if Christianity is not inserted in this movement of the incarnation.” Naturally, so that the action of man might be assumed by God, union of the will of man with that of God is indispensable. When man is united in the same will and not wanting any but God, human action is “not anarchic development and conquest of the instinct of conservation and power, but a display of the vitality that enriches the others at the same time that it realizes human existence.” From here springs the full value of the theme of work that is never an end in itself: “the value and driving force behind the work are oriented and supported by the contemplation of the divine life and the earthly existence of Jesus Christ.” For Saint Vincent, the Father and the Son have the face of the worker: they are dedicated to an eternal work, that is that “domination of man over nature” and at the same time “submission to the Creator.”
The second pole of his attraction was the Church. It was not certainly Vincent that would “invent” charity according to what Anouilh put on the lips of the chancellor Seguier (in the film “Monsieur Vincent”). Together with the “mission” dimension, it is natural for the Church to open herself up to “charity.” The initiatives were multiplied. Many initiatives for the poor were streaked with pessimism and severity. The severity utilized against the poor reflects the pessimism that invaded the French Catholic culture of the 17th century. “The poor were converted into victims of a process of purification of the absolutist society and of the abstract and disincarnated theology that dominated in the Church. This society forgets that if the prison is opened for introducing the poor inside; it is itself closed in the prison of her obsessions and resists the one who wants to discover the true face of the poor, Jesus Christ, who solicits help and removes from us egotistical pleasure.” The error committed by the century of assistance had been that of desiring the structures without filling them with content, as Saint Vincent did. The latter “from the experience of a badly organized charity” drew out the motive to initiate “a charitable movement of mercy, of tenderness, of feminine love.”
He put into focus the importance of the evangelization of the poor, who were for him a sign, a presence and a call. The encounter with the poor was for him the moment of discovering the Gospel of Jesus, sent to the poor. He worked for a radical conversion of the attitude of the Church that was tempted to be the “center of power.” “It was the poor,” he (Ibanez) concludes, “who marked the rhythm of his existence; they emptied him of himself in order to be filled with God.” The poor led him to show a movement of compassion, of action, of life and of faith. The saint was therefore led to love the poor as God loves them “who does not love them according to their merits but because they are poor and he is the liberator from every oppression.” What the author calls “the Vincentian revolution of charity” was not made up of words but it was the result of thought and action together and had as its aim to unite men in order to bring them to God.
In 1982, the same author (Ibanez) resumed the line of his reflections. According to him, Saint Vincent, despite having the temperament and the flair of a statesman, was essentially a “mystic of action.” It was his profound, living, dynamic faith and together with his openness to life and to his encounters that opened him to “realism.” He understood that in prayer he encountered not only God but also His love. But this love is open even to men. Here he discovers that the will of God is “a will to serve man.” He reverts to a text of Saint Francis de Sales who wrote: “Ecstasies are of three kinds: one intellectual, the other affective, the third operative. The first is light, the second fervor, the third action; the first is made of admiration, the second of devotion, the third of works.” Taking inspiration also from Bergson, Maritain and Bremond for whom mysticism is not only ecstasies, visions, raptures, the author concluded to have discovered in mysticism the secret of the saint’s action. Terms like “indifference,” “passivity,” “not doing” reveal a great, mystical depth “lived and experienced in action.” “The originality of Saint Vincent’s spirit—of the mystic or Vincentian spirituality — is rooted in Jesus Christ incar¬nated and annihilated in history in order to realize the will of the Father that is a will to serve man.” Only by entering into the dynamism of the Incarnation does man “empty” himself, redeem himself and enter into the movement of salvation that saves because it renders us saviors.
All this makes us understand how, at the origin of the charity of Saint Vincent, there was prayer, but especially the Eucharist. It opened him to value the gift of the Church and in the Church he found the poor. He intuited the mystery of the Church of the Poor. And it is this that he wanted to transmit to us.
1. Dizionari essenziali: Dictionnaire du Grand fiecle, a cura di E Bluche (Paris, 1990); Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana (Salamanca, 1995); Dictionnaire de l’Ancien Regime, a cura di L Bely (Paris, 1996); Dizionario storico spirituale vincenziano, a cura di L Mezzadri (Roma, 2003).
2. M. Aubrun, La paroisse en France des origines au XVeme siecle (Paris, 1986); J. Chelini, Histoire religieuse de l’Occident Medi’eval(Paris,1991); AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993); E Rapp, Reformes et inerties, in AA.VV., Histoire du Christianisme, VII: De la reforme a la Reformation (1450-1530) (Paris, 1994), pp. 143-207.
3. Per quanto riguarda it ruolo di s. Vincenzo nella riforma dell’episcopato: P. Blet, Vincent de Paul et repiscopat de France, in Vincent de Paul. Actes du Colloque International d’Etudes Vincentiennes (Paris, 25-26 Septembre 1981; Roma, 1983), pp. 81-114.
4. Richelieu, Testament politique (Amsterdam, 1688), p. 54.
5. Analisi in P Broutin-H. Jedin, L’Eveque dans la tradition pastorale du XVIeme siecle (Paris, 1953).
6. V. Tabbagh, Effectifs et recrutement du Clerge seculier franca/s: in AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 181-202.
7. Ibid., p. 183.
8. Pia tardi si dira: preti da messa e preti da confessionale.
9. M. Aubrun, La paroisse en France des origines au siecle (Paris, 1986), p. 162.
10. P. Demouy, Les Pueri chori de Notre-Dame de Reims. Contribution a Phistoire des clergeons au Moyen Age, in AA.VV., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 135-149.
11. A. Prosperi, Di alcuni testi per clero nell’Italia del primo Cinquecento, in Critica storica 7 (1968) pp. 137-168.
12. R. G. Villoslada, La Universidad de Paris durante los estudios de Francisco de Vitoria, (Roma, 1938).
13. A. Degert, Histoire des seminaires en France jusqu’a la Revolution, 2 vol. (Paris, 1912); M. Venard, Les seminaires en France avant Saint Vincent de Paul, in AA.VV., Vincent DepauL Actes du colloque international d’etudes vincentiennes (Paris, 25-26 Septembre 1981; Roma, 1983), pp. 1-17; E. Preclin-E. Jarry, Le lotte politiche e dottrinali nei secoll XVII e XVIII (1648-1789), a cura di L. Mezzadri (Storia della Chiesa di Fliche- Martin XIX/1) (Torino, 1974); La Chiesa nell’eta dell’assolutismo e dell’illuminismo (Storia della Chiesa di H. Jedin VII), (Milano, 1978); R. Taveneaux, Le Catholicisme dans la France classique 1610-1715, 2 vol. (Paris, 1980); Histoire de la France religieuse, a cura di J. Le Goff e R. Remond, II: Du christianisme flamboyant a l’aube des Lumieres (Paris, 1988).
14. Cit. da E. Labrousse-R. Sauzet, La lente mise en place de la reforme tridentine (1598¬1661), in Histoire de la France religieuse, p. 390.
15. R. Germain, Revenus et actions pastorale des pretres paroissiaux dans le diocese de Clermont, in AA.W., Le clerc seculier au Moyen Age (Paris, 1993), pp. 109-111.
16. R. Germain, Revenus cit., pp. 101-119.
17. II clero francese pretendeva per diritto divino di essere esente da ogni contributo pecuniario in favore del regno. Se lo faceva, non era per obbligo, ma per una sua spontanea decisione, per spirito di conciliazione e di compiacenza verso it sovrano. Era una liberta teorica. Ogni qualvolta it clero o una parte rifiutava veniva richiamato all’ordine. II “dono gratuito” variava a seconda the ci si trovasse in pace o in guerra.
18. La festa della S. Croce di maggio era Ia festa dell’Invenzione della Croce (3 maggio); quella di settembre era la festa dell’Esaltazione (14 Septembre). Si veda a questo proposito it “Glossario di date” in A. Cappelli, Crono/ogia, cronografia e calendario perpetuo (Milano, 1930), pp. 109-124.
19. E’ noto l’uso di seppellire in chiesa. Questo spiega l’abbondanza e Ia ricchezza di parecchie cappelle nelle chiese soprattutto degli ordini mendicanti.
20. M. Aubrun, La paroisse, p. 173.
21. Conference to the CM’s, Conference 207, pp. 589-590.
22. Op. cit., Conference 198, p. 478.
23. Op. cit., Conference 154, p. 332.
24. Coste III, Letter 1043, pp. 318-330.
25. Op. cit., Letter 1064, p. 365.
26. Ibid., p. 362.
27. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 18, p. 44.
28. Cespressione coniata da G. Leturneau, e stata ripresa da H. Bremond, ma ha avuto fasi di favore alterni. Da parecchi e stata contestata per la sua indeterminatezza.
29. J. Galy, Le sacrifice d’apres l’Ecole franca/se de spiritualite (Paris, 1951); M. Dupuy, Berulle et le sacerdoce. Etude historique et doctrinale. Textes inedits (Paris, 1969); Le Traite des Saints Ordres (1676) compare aux ecrits authentiques de Jean-Jacques Olier (1657), a cura di G. Chaillot R Cochois, I. Noye (Paris, 1984); S. Nowak, J. J. Met; docteur du sacerdoce dans l’Ecole francaise, in Bulletin de Saint Sulpice 10 (1984), pp. 25-60; L Mezzadri, Jesus-Christ, figure du Pretre-Missionnaire, dans POeuvre de Monsieur Vincent, in Vincentiana 30 (1986) pp. 323-356; A lode della gloria. II sacerdozio nell’Ecole francaise. XVII-XX secolo, a cura di L Mezzadri (Milano, 1989), J. Parafiniuk, tinsegnamento di S. Vincenzo de’ Paoli sul sacerdozio alla lute del Vatican II (Romae, 1990).
30. G. Moioli, Teologia della Devozione berulliana al Verbo Incamato (Varese, 1964).
31. Ibid., p. 16.
32. G. Moioli, Sulla spirituality sacerdotale ed episcopale in s. Agostino. in La Scuola Catolica 93 (1965), pp. 211-222; L. Mezzadri, La spirituallta delleccIesiastico seicentesco in alcune fonti letterarie, in AA.VV., Problemi di storia della chiesa nei secoli XVII-XVIII (Napoli, 1982), pp. 45-89.
33. Conference to CM’s, Conference 195, p. 606.
35. Opere: CEuvres completes (Paris, 1644; n.ed. Paris, 1960); Opuscules de piete, a cura di G. Rotureau (Paris, 1944); Correspondance, a cura di J. Dagens, 3 vol. (Paris-Louvain, 1937-39). Lavori fondamentali: A. Molien, Le cardinal de Berulle, 2 vol. (Paris, 1947); J. Dagens, Berulle et les origins de la restauration catholique (1575-1610) (Paris, 1952); P. Cochois, Berulle et l’Ecole francaise (Paris,1963); M. Dupuy, Line spiritualite de l’adoration (Paris, 1964); G. Moioli, Teologia della devozione berulliana al Verbo incarnato (Varese, 1964); J. Orcibal, Le cardinal de Berulle: evolution d’une spiritualite (Paris, 1965), M. Dupuy, Berulle et /e sacerdoce. Etude historique et doctrinale. Textes inedits (Paris, 1969); F. G. Preckler, ”Etat. chez le cardinal de Berulle (Roma, 1974); id., Berulle aujourd’hui (1575-1975). Pour une spiritualite de l’humanite du Christ (Paris, 1978).
36. P. Cochois, Berulle et l’Ecole francaise (Paris, 1963), p. 31.
37. M. Dupuy, Berulle et le sacerdoce, 410s.
38. Ibid., 348s. Pieta e lo stesso the perfezione.
39. R. Deville, Jean-Jacques Olier maitre d’oraison, in Jean-Jacques Ober (1608-1657): Bulletin de Saint Sulpice 14 (1988) 98. Sui Memoires (sono 8 volumi autografi, conservati nell’Archivio di S. Sulpice a Parigi): M. Dupuy, Se laisser a l’Esprit. Ihneraire spirituel de Jean-Jacques Olier (Paris, 1982). Su Olier: CEuvres completes, ed. Migne (Paris, 1856); i Memoires finora mss. sono accessibili grazie a M. Dupuy, Se laisser a lesprit L’itineraire spirituel de Jean-Jacques Ober (Paris, 1982); Traite des saints ordres (1676) compare aux ecrits authentiques de Jean-Jacques Ober (+1657), a cura di G. Chaillot, R Cochois, I. Noye (Paris, 1984); Lettres, a cura di E. Levesque. 2 vol. (Paris, 1935). Fra le biografie da ricordare quelle di E. M. Faillon (3 vol., 31873), P. Pourrat (1932), A. Portaluppi (1947). Sintesi molto densa in DS.
40. R. Deville, Jean-Jacques Oiler maitre d’oraison, 99s.
41. Opere: auvres completes, 12 vol. (Vannes, 1905-11); auvres choisies, 8 vol. (Paris, 1931-37); II Cuore di Gest) fornace d’amore (Roma, 1965). Fra le opere sul sacerdozio ricordare it Memorial de la vie ecclesiastique (1681), 'Le predicateur apostolique, e quella dal titolo Du bon confesseur.' J. Arragain, Le cceur du Seigneur: Etudes sur les &fits et l’intluence de saint Jean Eudes (Paris, 1955); J.M.Alonso, El corazon de Maria en san Juan Eudes, 2 vol. (Madrid, 1958); P Milcent, Saint Jean Eudes. Introduction et choix de textes (Paris, 1964); id., Pasteur clans le Christ Pasteur; le pretre selon saint Jean Eudes, in Vocation 240 (1967), pp. 501-14; id., Lin artisan du renouveau chretien au XVIreme siecle. Saint Jean Eudes (Paris, 1985); C. Berthelot Du Chesnay, Les missions de saint Jean Eudes (Paris, 1967); DS 8 (1974), pp. 488-501.
42. DS 8 (1974), p. 497.
43. Ibid., p. 30.
44. Ibid., p. 29.
45. Ibid., p. 26s.
46. Ch. De Condren, Lettres, a cura di P. Auvray-A. Jouffrey (Paris, 1943); D. Amelote, La vie du p. Charles de Condren. 2 vol. (Paris, 1643); J. Galy, Le sacrifice clans l’Ecole francalse de spiritualite (Paris, 1951); L. Cognet, La spiritualita, pp. 210-226; C. Pouillard, Le Pere de Condren. Le Mystique de l’Oratoire (Paris, 1994).
47. D. Amelote, La vie, I, p. 136.
48. C. Pouillard, Le Pere de Condren, p. 44.
50. Ibid., p. 45.
51. Ibid., p. 46.
52. Ibid., pp. 47-51.
53. Ibid., p. 75.
54. Ibid., p. 77.
55. J. J. Olier, Gil ordini sacri. a cura di M.Manzotti (Roma, 1932), pp. 338-361.
56. Conference to the CM’s, Conference 207, p. 583.
57. Op. cit., Conference 195, pp. 607-608.
58. Coste VI, Letter 2334, p. 413.
59. Conferences for CM’s, Conference 207, p. 583; Coste XII, pp. 262-263 (French).
60. P Milcent, lin artisan du renouveau chretien au XVIrm’siecle. Saint Jean Eudes (Paris, 1985), p. 428s.
61. J. M. Ibanez Burgos, Vicente de Paúl y los pobres de su tiempo (Salamanca, 1977).
62. Id., Realismo y encarnación (Salamanca, 1982).