Vincent and Formation

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Vincent and Formation

Formation in The Life And Writings of St. Vincent de Paul by Robert Maloney, CM

Historians have often highlighted St. Vincent's organizational skills. He did not, however, merely organize; he formed the groups and persons that he assembled. In fact, the letters, documents, and conferences in the fourteen volumes of his extant works are, for the most part, aimed at the formation of those whom Vincent had gathered together in the service of the poor.
Below, I list, with a few brief comments, some of his principal formational activities.[fo1]

The sons of Monsieur Comet

In 1595, Vincent went to Dax to study at the Collége des Cordeliers. While studying reading, writing, grammar, and Latin in preparation for beginning his studies in theology, he caught the attention of Monsieur de Comet, a lawyer at the Presidial Court in Dax, who invited Vincent into his home as a tutor for his children. Thus, at the remarkably young age of 14 or 15, Vincent began, in a sense, his career as a teacher and formator.

The Academy in Buzet

Two years later he went to Toulouse to begin his studies in theology, remaining there for seven years. When his finances ran low, he took up teaching in a small academy for boys in Buzet, a village about 21 miles from Toulouse. He earned the reputation of being an excellent teacher and because of his popularity was able to transfer the school to Toulouse itself where he continued to instruct boys until he finished his studies.


During his 16 months as pastor at Clichy, in 1612-13, Vincent became very aware of the need to offer more adequate training to candidates for the priesthood. He opened a school where he began to form a dozen youngsters who wanted to become priests. Among these was his future faithful companion, Antoine Portail. At this early date, Vincent's interest in the formation of the clergy is already evident.

The De Gondi household

Around 1613 the De Gondis hired Vincent as the tutor for their son Pierre. Vincent had full responsibility for his intellectual, moral, and religious formation. He was also in charge of the household staff and gave them religious instruction. In addition, he taught catechism and evangelized the peasant farmers on the De Gondi estates. At the same time, he became spiritual director of Madame De Gondi. In a sermon, given probably in this period, he spoke of the "infinite usefulness"[fo2] of the catechism in forming others.


We all know the story of the bedside conversion of a peasant in 1617 that had such an influence on Vincent's future. Vincent always regarded the sermon he gave the next day, January 25, 1617, as the first sermon of the mission. What is important to note in this context is that the popular missions preached by Vincent and his newly founded community were a formative experience. Catechesis, or basic Christian instruction, played a very significant role in the course of all the popular missions. In fact, late in his life, Vincent wrote to a Priest of the Mission:

"I have been deeply saddened by the fact that, instead of giving the regular catechism instruction in the evening, you have given sermons during your mission. This should not be done: (1) because the person who preaches in the morning might have difficulty with that second sermon; (2) because the people have greater need of this catechetical instruction and derive greater profit from it; (3) because, in giving this catechetical instruction, it seems there is, in a certain sense, greater reason to honor the manner Our Lord Jesus Christ used to teach and to convert the world; (4) because it is our custom, and Our Lord has been pleased to bestow immense blessings on this exercise, which offers a greater means to practice humility." [fo3]

Vincent insisted that there be two catechetical sessions each day during the missions, one around midday ("le petit cat?chisme") and another in the evening ("le grand catechisme").[fo4]


Later in 1617, Berulle asked Vincent to accept the parish in Chatillon because the negligence and scandalous lives of the local clergy were paving the way for conversions to Protestantism. Seeing the poverty of the local people, Vincent formed the first group of Ladies of Charity. Many other groups followed. Throughout his life Vincent accompanied these groups as their principal formator, writing rules for them[fo5] and addressing them individually or communally on numerous occasions.

The Visitation Nuns

Shortly before his death, Francis de Sales asked Vincent to take over the direction of the Visitation nuns. From 1622 on, he gave regular conferences at their monastery and was one of the principal counselors of Jane Frances de Chantal. Unfortunately, we have no copies of Vincent's talks to the Visitation nuns.

The Congregation of the Mission

Vincent also gave regular conferences to the members of the Congregation of the Mission. These were one of the principal means for the ongoing formation of the community from its foundation in 1625 until Vincent's death in 1660. They have become, along with the Common Rules he composed, one of the principal sources for the heritage of the Congregation through the centuries.

The Daughters of Charity

From 1633 on, Vincent also gave frequent conferences to the Daughters as part of their formation. Many of these were transcribed in one way or another. They form one of the principal fonts for understanding the life, mission, and spirituality of the community. The principal elements in the Common Rules of the Daughters also come from Vincent's pen, though they were finally edited, approved, and published by his successor, René Alméras, in 1672. Vincent often talked to the Daughters of Charity about the need to teach the catechism. [fo6] He encouraged them to open schools for poor girls. Numerous such "little schools" were opened in France during his and Louise's lifetimes, [fo7] as well as one in Poland.

The formation of the diocesan clergy

I have written elsewhere at length on this subject. [fo8] Vincent's work for the reform of the clergy included retreats for ordinands, the Tuesday Conferences, retreats for priests, and seminaries. His influence on diocesan priests and on future bishops in France was enormous. He founded 20 seminaries. He took part in the Council of Conscience for a decade, advising the king on the selection of bishops. Many of the great spiritual leaders of the time took part in the Tuesday Conferences which he organized. Abelly states that more than 12,000 ordinands made their retreats at St. Lazare during Vincent's lifetime. Numerous others made post-ordination retreats there and in other houses of the Congregation.

Spiritual Direction

Above, I mentioned Madame De Gondi and Jane Frances de Chantal. One must immediately add, of course, Louise de Marillac. There were many others. A large number of Vincent's letters are, basically, spiritual direction for his priests, brothers, sisters, and friends.

From Fr. Robert Maloney, C.M. former Superior General The Challenges to Formation Today 10 Characteristics