Vincent de Paul and Formation

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[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 43-54. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].

Presentation of the theme

Very early on, during the years of his youth, Vincent was initiated in the methods and the practice of forming young people. When he was studying in Dax, M. de Comet, Vincent’s protector, asked him to tutor his children. We highlight this fact because some years later Vincent, in order to pay for his studies in Toulouse, accepted the offer to teach at a small academy for boys in Buzet. Then, when he was pastor in Clichy, he established a school for clerics … Antoine Portail, who would become Vincent’s collaborator, was part of this experience in Clichy (Vincentiana [1984], p. 667).

At a certain period in his life, Vincent became the tutor of the de Gondi children and it appears that he had limited success there … in fact it seems that Vincent had more influence over Messier and Madame de Gondi than their children. As a result of these experiences Vincent had acquired practical experience as a formator … an experience that would help him later in his life.

Vincent, together with his first collaborators, dedicated themselves to the ministry of evangelization and concretized their objectives and methods. The preaching at that time, with its emphasis on exquisite language and dramatic oratorical effects, was “over the heads” of the poor people who lived in the countryside. In light of this situation Vincent utilized and taught the Missionaries a very simple method for preaching, “the little method”, which enlightened people’s minds and touched their hearts.

During his ministry of evangelization, Vincent came to realize that the ignorance of many good people was in reality the result of the ignorance of the clergy. At that time many members of the clergy had only a passing knowledge of theology and so it was important to provide better formation to ecclesiastics.

It was also at this time that Vincent established the first seminaries: it was recognized that good priests were needed in order to continue and to maintain the good that had been begun during the mission (CCD:IV:48-49) [1]. Speaking in general terms, Vincent felt that it was important for seminaries to be connected to parishes so that those studying for the priesthood would have an opportunity to exercise different ministries and would also be able to participate in the preaching of missions. At the same time, the formators of these future priests were able to continue their own formation. In 1659 Vincent established at Saint-Lazare a program for the formation of formators: a program that included moral theology, catechesis, preaching, apologetics, etc. (CCD:XII:234-235).

For priests who were actively engaged in ministry, Vincent proposed on-going formation by means of the Tuesday conferences. Bishops and pastors were often appointed to their position as a result of their participation in those conferences. Those who were active participants in these conferences spoke with great enthusiasm about this program of formation and this included Bossuet who expressed his experience in this regard (Vincentiana [1984], p. 655).

The practice of charity also demanded a serious formation and Vincent entrusted this task to Louise de Marillac, who became the formator of the Daughters of Charity (SWLM:689 [A.1], 713 [A.55]). Vincent also met frequently with these women and the conferences he addressed to them reveal his concern for their adequate preparation for ministry. His theoretical words were complimented by practical teachings which were often written and addressed to a specific Sister or a specific community house where the Sisters were dealing with some delicate situation. In the film, Monsieur Vincent, J. Anouilh presents Vincent de Paul, only days before his death, giving advice to a young Sister who was about to begin ministry among the poor. This is an imagined scene but it is, nevertheless, a true psychological and spiritual description of the reality with regard to Vincent and formation.

Apostolic activity and the practice of charity could be characterized as pure social work if it was not the fruit of a profound spiritual life. Therefore this dimension of spiritual formation is essential in preparing future priests … this is a task that is proper to the formators of these individuals. Since Jesus Christ is the rule of the Mission (CCD:XII:110) and the gospel of the poor, we ought to allow ourselves to be formed and molded by Jesus … indeed Jesus is the model for our activity (CCD:XI:284-287). Jesus is also our example and our point of reference in the ministry of formation of the clergy. Thus formators ought to know Jesus Christ because he is the true formator (Cf., CCD:I:275-279; XI:83).

The interior life is equally important in the formation for charity. Jesus Christ is “the Lord of Charity” and it is because of our relationship with Jesus that we experience the demand to reach out to those who are poor … indeed, it is Jesus who speaks through the mouths and acts through the hands of those men and women who serve the poor.

Concern for formation has remained a central aspect of the Vincentian tradition. Animated by this spirit, the Congregation of the Mission has ministered in various seminaries throughout the world and contributed to the formation of good priests. Again animated by the same spirit, the Company of the Daughters of Charity has opened schools in order to serve those most in need: primary schools, technical/professional schools, nursing schools… The Ladies of Charity, known today as the AIC, and the Saint Vincent de Paul Society have educated numerous generations in every country in this area of charity and social action. Finally, the Missionaries (priests and brothers) and the Sisters, especially in Latin America, but also in Africa and Asia, have educated individuals who have become leaders in the Church and in society and who have taken on roles of responsibility in the base communities of faith.

Vincent’s heritage implies a concern for formation: personal formation and formation of others. In our world of rapid change, there is a need to continue a personal process of on-going formation. Today we have to and tomorrow we will also have to confront new situations which our initial formation did not prepare us for. Today we have to and tomorrow we will also have to help other men and women confront new problems that will arise in society and in the church.

Vincent was one of those individuals who listened to the voice of others and who consequently adapted himself to the changing needs of the people of his era. We must imitate Vincent and listen to the voice of men and women as they cry out to us today … in this way we can adapt ourselves to the ever changing reality of our world. Indeed, we must focus our life on the life of Jesus Christ (Jesus who was poor yesterday and who will be poor tomorrow) and we must continue to listen to Jesus who continues to be our only Master just as Jesus was Vincent’s only Master.

Vincent de Paul and formation

Vincent breathed the air of his era. A vast renewal movement had begun with the Catholic Reform (1550-1648). The Council of Trent, a divine work of the Spirit, sparked this reform. This resurgence, this religious and mystical springtime, brought about a change in the hearts of people so that they were convinced and believed in spirit and in truth. But all of this required a solid foundation and therefore there was a need for formation. Saint Francis de Sales said: Let us then endeavor to practice these virtues, according to our different vocations, for although we are not called to a state of perfection … we are all bound to practice them, although not all in the same manner. Vincent heard this call and very soon Vincent the founder because Vincent the formator ... the formator with regard to the mission, charity and the spiritual life.

Formation for the mission

Once again the conference-testament of Vincent de Paul (December 6, 1658) allows us to affirm that which is essential, namely, all formation for the mission ought to be done following the manner of Jesus Christ, the formator par excellence, the model missionary.

“…the knowledge necessary for the direction of people…”

“If we’re going to discuss the Rules, we have to read them,” he stated, and when he had the lamp brought closer to him and opened the book, he said, “Here’s the first Rule, which is the logical place for us to start. I will read it in French for the sake of our Brothers who do not understand Latin. We read in Sacred Scripture that Our Lord Jesus Christ, sent on earth for the salvation of the human race, began first by doing, and then by teaching. He carried out the former by practicing perfectly every type of virtue, and the latter by preaching the Good News of the Gospel to poor persons, and giving his apostles and disciples the knowledge needed to guide the people. And since the little Congregation of the Mission desires, with God’s grace, to imitate Jesus Christ Our Lord, as far as this is possible in view of its limitations, both with regard to his virtues as well as in the works he did for the salvation of the neighbor, it is only right that it should use similar means to carry out this devout plan in a worthy manner. That is why its purpose is: (1) to strive to grow in holiness, by doing its utmost to practice the virtues this Sovereign Master was pleased to teach us by word and example; (2) to preach the Good News to persons who are poor, especially to those in rural areas; (3) to help those in the priestly state to acquire the knowledge and virtue necessary for their state. Those are the first words of our rules … the preamble to our rule states that, when Our Lord came on earth to save us, he began to do and then to teach. He did the former by practicing all the virtues … he practiced the second by teaching the divine truth to poor persons and give the Apostles the knowledge necessary for the salvation of the world and the guidance of nations, and to make people truly happy” (CCD:XII:66-67).

“…what was done at the beginning of the Company…”

In accord with the initial practice of the Congregation, the Missionaries, together with the Brothers, have an obligation to catechize the poor: So you, Messieurs, who go on mission and to the rural areas, you see this better than I do right now. I do know well, however, what was done at the beginning of the Company, and that it was exact about the practice of letting no opportunity pass to instruct a poor person, which the men did if they saw that the person needed it; priests, seminarians, and our Coadjutor Brothers all did this, as they came and went. If they met some poor person --- a boy or some good man --- they’d speak to him to see if he knew the Mysteries necessary for salvation; and if they noted that he didn’t, they’ d teach them to him (CCD:XI:343)0

“…no one will be excused from this exercise…”

Vincent viewed himself as a formator for the mission. As a result of his experience he instituted the “little method” and described the spiritual fruits of this method in his conference of August 20, 1655. Vincent moved from theory to practice and was very considerate of the situation of others when making this announcement: We’ll give prepared sermons to those who can’t write them, or who might not have time to do it, so they can memorize them. We’re going to do this to look at each man’s special talent and to see for what he’ s suited. No one will be excused from this exercise; and, take my word for it, only pride can prompt someone to try to be dispensed from it. So then, we all have to do our part to see that this exercise is carried out. I’m well aware that, because of M. Portail’s difficulty in speaking, he won’t be able to do this; M. Alméras, because of his infirmity; M. Bécu, because of his hands --- but not because of his head, for he has a very fine one—and M. Bourdet because of his frail condition; but for everyone else, yes. And I, poor keeper of pigs that I am, will go first --- not in the pulpit, for there’s no way I could get up there, but during a conference, when I’m dealing with some point of Rule or some other topic (CCD:XII:241-242).

---Vincent de Paul, formator: through the conferences that he gave to the Missionaries

We usually practice here [in Saint-Lazare] things we have in common with seminaries, such as repetition of prayer and the conference on some topic of devotion which we use for our discussion one day a week (CCD:XII:235)

---Vincent de Paul, formator: through the preparation of candidates for Orders in major seminaries where he was able to instruct individuals in proper ministerial practices

“…maintain them in the good state in which they have been placed…”

We know from experience that the fruits of the missions are very great because the needs of the poor people in rural areas are extreme. But since they are usually rustic and uneducated, they easily forget what they have been taught and the good resolutions they have taken, if they do not have suitable pastors to maintain them in the good state in which they have been placed. That is why we try also to help form good priests through retreats for the ordinands and through seminaries --- not to abandon the missions but to preserve the fruits produced by them (CCD:IV:48-49).

---Vincent de Paul, formator: the Tuesday Conferences

Father Eudes, together with some priests he brought with him from Normandy, came to give a mission in Paris, which caused quite a stir and produced excellent results. The crowd was so great that the courtyard of the Quinze-Vingts was too small to accommodate the congregation. At the same time, several good priests --- most of whom are members of our Tuesday Conferences --- left Paris to go to other towns to give missions as well (CCD:VIII:366).

---Vincent de Paul, formator: formation in all areas of ministry

You did well to stay at home and to send M. Brtant on mission; it is advisable for Missionaries, who have various ministries, to go from time to time from one to another in order to be prepared for all of them without omitting any (CCD:VIII:324).

Formation in charity

There is no doubt that Vincent did not separate mission and charity. According to the situation these are two points of focus. Indeed, the Daughters of Charity are formed for the Mission. The rule of the Sisters at the hospital in Angers (1641) is very clear about this: The Daughters of Charity of the Sick Poor are going to Angers to honor Our Lord, Father of the Poor, and His Holy Mother, in order to assist, corporally and spiritually, the sick poor of the Hotel-Dieu of the town: corporally, by serving them and giving them food and medicine; spiritually, by instructing the patients in things necessary for salvation and seeing that they make a general confession of their entire past life so that, by this means, those who will die may leave this world in a good state, and those who will recover may take the resolution never more to offend God (CCD:XIIIb:108).

“…Marie … uneasy…”

Clearly, service on behalf of the poor, that is, charity, is the primary task. Therefore professional formation ought to be progressive, realistic and adapted to the specific situation: Marie has replied to me quite earnestly, lovingly, and humbly that she is ready to do what you wish and in the way you wish. She is only sorry that she does not have enough common sense, strength, or humility to be of use for it; but, if you tell her what she has to do, she will follow your instructions completely (CCD:I:211).

“…some are suitable for nursing the sick, others for schools…”

You see, dear Sisters, you can't all be alike; some are suitable for nursing the sick, others for schools. It's up to Superiors to decide what you're suited for. All of you aren't qualified to let blood, for there are some whose hands are too clumsy. Everyone's fingers aren't the same, so you can't all do the same thing (CCD:IX:513).

Nothing is acquired once and for all, therefore formation is an on-going process: It will be well to continue and to have Sisters prepared to teach the catechism, with one asking questions and the other giving the answers. However, the others who are present must listen with great reserve and respect. The Sister who presides listens to the answers and explains to them anything that's not clear enough and that they might not understand. If any mistake is made in this, she must inform the Superioress. This is a means of forming yourselves, dear Sisters, and if you make good use of it, you'll be able to teach catechism to poor persons (CCD:X:501-502)

It is necessary to make time for this formation and yet one should not have to sacrifice one’s ministry: You see, Sister, Holy Scripture states that well-regulated charity begins with oneself, and the soul must be preferred to the body. Now, the Daughters of Charity must teach poor persons the things necessary for their salvation; therefore, the Sisters themselves have to be instructed first before being able to teach others (CCD:X:503).

“…There is no better catechism…”

The Sisters ought to be school teachers, nurses or catechists: MademoiseIle, there's no better catechism than BeIlarmine's; and even if all our Sisters should know and teach it, they would be teaching only what they're supposed to teach, since they are there to instruct others, and they would know what Pastors should know. Do you know what maintains those two or three Sisters of Mme. de Vilieneuve? It's understanding the meaning of that catechism; they teach it and thereby do incredible good. It would be well to have Bellarmine read to our Sisters and for you yourself to explain it to them, so that all of them may learn it thoroughly in order to teach it; for, if they have to teach it, they also have to know it, and there's no better way to learn it more thoroughly than from that book. I'm glad we spoke about this, for I think that will be very helpful reading for them (CCD:XIIIb:300).

The Director of the seminary has the primary obligation with regard to formation and therefore, Sister Julienne Loret received the following exhortation from the Council that met on October 30, 1647: O Sister, what do we want to do with you? This is the first and most important responsibility after that of the Superioress. It's a question of forming young women who can serve God in the Company, helping them to put down deep roots of virtue, teaching them submission, mortification, humility, and the practice of their Rule and of every virtue (CCD:XIIIb:294-295).

Formation in the spiritual life

Firm resolution to be pronounced by the servants of the poor

Vincent de Paul, a man of action, was also a mystic. As a missionary par excellence, he referred to the condition of soul when he stated: Let us strive to make ourselves interior men so that Jesus Christ may reign in us (CCD:XII:111). He also asked the lay members of the Confraternities (Folleville, Paillart and Sérévillers) to make a firm resolution with regard to their service: To make this association more enduring, the Assistants, as has been said, will make and pronounce the following firm resolution in the presence of the Rector, after Vespers on Pentecost or on the next day, in the chapel of the Charity, saying it in the following manner: "I ... Servant of the Poor of the Association of the Charity, elected as one of its Assistants, take the firm resolution, in the presence of the Rector of the association, to observe its regulations and to do my utmost to foster its preservation and growth, with the help of God, which I ask of Him for this purpose. Made in …. , on...." (CCD:XIIIb:53).

“…the presence of God…”

Vincent taught the Daughters of Charity the meaning of developing an integral life: leaving God for God encompasses the fullness of the interior life: Always begin all your prayers by an act of the presence of God; otherwise, an action will sometimes fail to be pleasing to Him. You see, Sisters, even though we don't see God, faith teaches us that his holy presence is everywhere, and this is one of the means we should propose to ourselves --- I mean his presence in all places, permeating everything, even the very depths of our hearts. This is even more true than the thought that we're all here present because our eyes may deceive us, but the truth that God is everywhere will never deceive us (CCDLIX:4).

“…Holy Mass…”

Go to Holy Mass every day, but do so with deep devotion; conduct yourself in church with great reserve and be an example of virtue to all who see you (CCD:IX:5).

“…leave God for God…”

Remember that when you leave meditation and Holy Mass to serve poor persons, you lose nothing, Sisters, because to serve those who are poor is to go to God, and you should see God in them (CCD:IX:5).

“…a sheep produces a sheep…”

Vincent’s spiritual directives are perhaps best expressed in the advice that was given to Antoine Durand who at the age of twenty-seven was named superior of the Agde Seminary (1656): O Monsieur, how great --- how very great --- do you think is the duty of direction of souls to which God is calling you? What do you think the occupation of the Priests of the Mission is, obliged as they are to oversee and guide persons whose motivations are known to God alone? Ars artium, regimen animarum: the direction of souls is the art of arts. That was the work of the Son of God on earth; it was the reason why he came down from heaven, was born of a Virgin, gave every moment of his life, and, in the end, suffered a very painful death. That’s why you must have a very high esteem for what you’re going to do. But how can you carry out this ministry of guiding souls to God, of halting the torrent of vices of a people or the faults of a seminary, of inspiring sentiments of Christian and priestly virtues in those whom Providence will entrust to you to contribute to their salvation or to their perfection? There’s certainly nothing human in that, Monsieur; it’s not the work of a man, it’s the work of a God, grande opus. It’s the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ; consequently, all human diligence can do here is to spoil everything, if God doesn’t take a hand in it. No, Monsieur, neither philosophy, nor theology, nor discourses can act in souls; Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us--- or we with him --- so that we may act in him and he in us, that we may speak as he did and in his Spirit, as he himself was in his Father, and preached the doctrine he had taught him; those are the words of Holy Scripture. So, Monsieur, you must empty yourself of self in order to clothe yourself with Jesus Christ. You know that ordinary causes produce the effects of their nature: a sheep produces a sheep, etc., and a human another human; likewise, if the man who directs and forms others and speaks to them is animated with only a human spirit, those who see him, listen to him, and strive to imitate him will become totally human: no matter what he says and does, he’ll inspire them with only the appearance of virtue, and not the substance; he’ll communicate to them the spirit with which he himself is animated, as we see that masters impress their maxims and ways of acting firmly on the minds of their disciples. On the contrary, if a Superior is filled with God and with the maxims of Our Lord, all his words will be efficacious; virtue will go out of him that will edify others, and all his actions will be so many beneficial instructions that will bring about good in those who are aware of them. To reach that point, Monsieur, Our Lord himself has to imprint firmly on you his stamp and his character. For, just as we see a wild stock, on which a seedling has been grafted, bear the fruits of the nature of this same seedling, we, too, wretched creatures, even though we’re only flesh, hay, and thorns, yet if Our Lord imprints his own character on us, and gives us, so to speak, the sap of his Spirit and grace, uniting us to him like the vine branches to the vine stock, we do the same as he did on earth --- l mean we carry out divine actions and, like Saint Paul, filled with this Spirit, beget children to Our I Lord (CCD:XI:310-311).


Something important to which you must faithfully devote yourself is to be closely united with Our Lord in meditation; that’ s the reservoir where you’ll find the instructions you need to carry out the ministry you’re going to have. When you have a doubt, turn to God and say to Him, “Lord, You who are the Father of Lights, teach me what I must do on this occasion.” … Furthermore, you must have recourse to God through meditation in order to preserve your soul in His fear and love; for, alas, Monsieur, I am obliged to tell you --- and you must know this --- that people are often lost while contributing to the salvation of others. The person who forgets himself while being occupied with external things does well on his own account (CCD:XI:311-312).


Another thing I recommend to you is the humility of Our Lord. Say often: “Lord, what have I done to have such a ministry? What works of mine correspond to the responsibility being placed on my shoulders? Ah, my God, I’ll spoil everything if you yourself do not guide all my words and works!” Let us always view all that is human and imperfect in ourselves, and we will find only too much for which to humble ourselves, not only before God, but also before others and in the presence of those who are subject to us (CCD:XI:312-313).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

Jesus Christ formed his disciples for the mission and Vincent de Paul did the same thing. As followers of Vincent are we aware of the fact that constant adaptation is indispensable if we want to respond to the needs of people. Does our professional and apostolic life evolve according to the demands of the mission?

Jesus often separated himself from the apostles to pray. In fact there were times when he would spend the entire night in prayer. Friendship with God or some individual person supposes knowledge of that person. What does it mean for us to grow in and deepen our knowledge of God? … our knowledge of others?


[1] Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1985-2010. Future references to this work will be cited in the text with the letters, CCD, followed by the volume number and then the page number [The numbering follows the English edition of this work]; (CCD:IV:48-49).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM