Vincent de Paul and Zeal

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[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 363-373. 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

In the book of Revelation the faithful witness forewarns the angel of the Church in Laodicia and states: So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:16).

During the sixteenth century those who allowed themselves to be consumed by an intense ardor for the cause of God (those whom a recent author in the title of the book that he published referred to as “rabid believers in God”) … these individuals do not merit the reproach of lukewarmness, but rather could be viewed as fanatics. Under the guise of religion the civil wars in France during the sixteenth century created thousands of victims and endangered the very existence of the France. That intense zeal was revealed more as a political passion then a concern for religion … the sword was clutched in one hand and the cross or the Bible in the other … there was nothing especially evangelical about all of this.

When peace was established, the passion for the things of God faded away and was replaced by a prevailing indifference. With the exception of some few individuals, the greater majority of the people who identified themselves with the Church sought their own peace and serenity … with regard to their service on behalf of people and the Lord they sought their own self-interest. These persons wanted to obtain heaven but they certainly did not want to put aside the things of this earth.

At the time when the young Vincent de Paul returned from Périgueux where he had been ordained a priest, he was still very concerned about his future and about his career within the church … he was much more concerned about those matters than about building up the kingdom of God. The disappointments, the dashed hopes, not even the various adversities that he experienced, brought about any radical change in Vincent. Nevertheless, the year 1617 and the two decisive events (Châtillon and Folleville) led Vincent to the discovery of the situation of the spiritual and material poverty in which so many people were enveloped. This discovery marked the future ministry of Vincent. Soon thereafter, in 1618-1619 Vincent was in Paris and met Francis de Sales (who was considered a saint) whose apostolic zeal had brought the inhabitants of Chablais back to the faith.

With the help of some good priests Vincent began to dedicate himself to the evangelization of the people who lived in the villages in the area surrounding Paris. He did this with such enthusiasm that he found it difficult to return to Paris … he found it difficult to abandon the countryside where there were so many people in need of help.

The flame that some poor people had ignited in Vincent’s heart during the year 1617 would continue to burn throughout his life. In fact, Vincent wanted to spread this divine fire throughout the world (cf., CCD:XII:215). Vincent became angry when he saw so many religious, idle and comfortable, living in the city Paris.

Vincent, consumed by zeal, communicated this passion to his followers. One day he told them that in his view the true Missionaries were those who were so passionate in their practice of the virtue of zeal that they were willing to die of weariness in service of their brothers and sisters.

He cited various examples: the two Missionaries from Genoa who died while caring for those afflicted by the plague; the missionaries in Algiers who became overwhelmed by their work with the Christian slaves; the zeal of those who volunteered for the mission in Madagascar, those who were inspired by the example of M. Nacquart and M. Bourdaise (and yet with so many deaths during a period of thirty years this mission never seemed to succeed) … these are true Missionaries.

At the same time Vincent did not have enough scathing comparisons when speaking about laziness and the spirit of indolence … he referred to such individuals as “wet hens”, “skeletons of a missionary” “snails” who spend all their energy enclosing themselves in their shells. As old as he was, almost eighty years old, Vincent spoke about his willingness to set out for some distant mission in order to proclaim the gospel.

Vincent, however, did not exhort the Missionaries to practice the virtue of zeal in an excessive manner. He spoke firmly to his confrere, Pierre Escart, who wanted to do too much: the zeal you have for the advancement of the Company is always accompanied by a certain harshness, which even goes as far as bitterness … it is easy to go from the deficiency to the excess of the virtues, from being just to becoming rigid, and from zealous to inconsiderate (CCD:II:84).

Vincent told the confreres working in Sedan (a city that was part Protestant) to be very prudent and not get involved in temporal and secular affairs and to resist the temptation to become involved in disputes (Cf., CCD:II:493-497).

The missionary zeal that Vincent instilled in his followers would continue to animate them during the following years and centuries and would lead them to take up the front line positions in the apostolic endeavor of evangelization. Without mentioning the more illustrious members who have been raised up on the altar, we mention here: Jean Le Vacher, martyr while serving the Christian salves in Algiers; Pedrini who traveled for eight years in order to arrive in China; De Andreis, founder of the Company in the United States; Durando, whose energy enabled him to reorganize the Turin Province; Dom Viçoso whose holiness enlightened the Brazilian Church during the nineteenth century; Bishop Gnidovec, the bishop of Madedonia in the twentieth century; Sister Rosalia in the midst of the poor in Paris; so many other “Sister Rosalia’s” throughout the world, in the jungles of Zaire and in the refugee camps of Thailand, etc.

Even today the many new initiatives that arise everywhere in the Church are signs that our apostolic zeal has not died and that the flame, ignited by Jesus, continues to burn brightly. Still the wisdom and the reflection of Vincent are all the more necessary in our time as we attempt to struggle for the building up of the kingdom of God.

Saint Vincent and Zeal

In the August 23rd, 1659 conference on the five characteristic virtues of the Missionary, Vincent spoke about zeal and stated: Is there anything in the world more perfect? If love of God is a fire, zeal is its flame. Zeal is unconditional in the love of God … Let us examine our conscience … do we experience that [zeal] within ourselves? Oh, what a happiness if we do! If we do not, let us admit that we are in the wrong and say that we are not Missioners; for, true Missioners are simple, humble, mortified and filled with ardor for their work (CCD:XII:250-251).

Those words make two facts very clear:

• First, in “the Vincentian hierarchy” zeal occupies a preferential place: is there anything in the world more perfect? … zeal is unconditional in the love of God.

• Second, as always Vincent is very specific and concrete and even though he compares zeal to the ray of the sun he quickly provides us with a “practical definition”: ardor in one’s ministry.

We also highlight here the phrase, do we experience that [zeal] within ourselves? What a happiness if we do! If we do not … According to Vincent it is here that we discover one of the important characteristics of zeal. Thus we are not dealing with an abstract concept or conviction but rather we refer to a warmth and an enthusiasm that should be communicated to others.

The manner of perceiving zeal appears to be deeply rooted in Vincent’s experience. Before 1617 Vincent was very aware of what he called “insensitivity”, “comfort”, and “idleness”. Folleville and Châtillon had unchained his zeal and Vincent engaged in a process of evangelization on behalf of those who were poor. Yet it was the missions in distant lands that provided Vincent with the opportunity to express his ideas about this virtue which he viewed as making one a true Missionary.


In the texts that follow one will find echoes of a painful, yet fruitful experience.

“…Since he was no longer preaching or teaching the catechism…”

I knew a famous theologian, who had long defended the Catholic faith against heretics in his capacity of Canon Theologian of a diocese. When the late Queen Marguerite sent for him to be with her because of his learning and piety, he had to leave his ministry; since he was no longer preaching or teaching catechism, he was assailed in his idleness by a violent temptation against faith. This teaches us, in passing, how dangerous it is to remain idle, either in body or in mind, for just as the land, no matter how fertile it may be, if allowed to be fallow, it immediately produces thistles and thorns, so our soul cannot remain idle very long without experiencing certain passions or temptations that lead it to do evil (CCD:XI:26-27).

“…Insensitivity, my brothers, insensitivity…” We certainly go to church to pray, sing, say Mass, and perform the other liturgical functions, but all these functions are performed without feeling, tastelessly, and without devotion. What’s the cause of this callousness? We haven’t been carrying out the ceremonies with a view to their purpose, which is to stir the people to devotion. We aren’t moved when we strike our breast at Mass. Insensitivity, brothers, insensitivity! Let’s be zealous in edifying the people, making them see how the Word of God should be treated, by treating it properly ourselves. For, take my word for it, they act respectfully in Church and take the Word of God into account if they see that we ourselves esteem it. Ah, my dear confreres! If we’re faithful to performing the ceremonies and prayers, we’ll receive this sensitivity from God, which will help us to inspire one another to devotion, and we’ll take pleasure in these ceremonies. But if, on the contrary, we lack this sensitivity, we’ll fail to edify our neighbor … Insensitivity also causes us to be unmoved by the physical and spiritual miseries of our neighbor; we lack charity and zeal and don’t sense offenses against God. Let’s not be like those Missioners who aren’t zealous! lf we send them to give a mission, they go; if they have to work with ordinands, they do it; it’s the same for retreatants; but how do they do it? Where’s their zeal? That zeal is assailed by callousness, so let’s strive to be animated by the spirit of fervor; let’s perform all the ministries of our Institute and be zealous in doing them courageously and fervently; let’s have compassion on the many souls that are perishing and not allow our laziness and insensitivity to be the cause of their loss (CCD:XII:260-261).

“…We look for the shade…”

We look for the shade; we don’t want to go out in the sun; we are so much in love with our comforts! During the mission we are at least in church, sheltered from the bad weather, the heat of the sun and the rain, to which those poor people are exposed. And we cry for help if someone gives us something to do that is the slightest bit out of the ordinary. My room, my books, my Mass! Well, enough of that! Is that what it means to be a Missioner, to have all our comforts! (CCD:XI:190).

M. Duval, a great theologian of the Church, used to say that a priest must have more work than he can do; for, as soon as idleness and sloth get hold of a priest, every vice rushes in from all sides: temptations of impurity and so many others! Shall l dare say what . . . I’ll have to think about that; maybe for another time. O Savior! O my good Savior, may it please your Divine Goodness to keep the Mission free of that spirit of laziness and of seeking its own comforts, and give it an ardent zeal for your glory, which will make it accept everything joyfully and never refuse an opportunity to serve you! We are made for that; and a Missioner --- a true Missioner, a man of God, a man who has the Spirit of God --- must find everything good and indifferent; he accepts everything, he can do anything (CCD:XI:191).

“…I think it is a weakness of the will…”

In order to cure your ailment, however, we have to know what it is. As for me, I think it is a weakness of the will and a weariness of mind regarding the things God is asking of you. This is no surprise to me because all persons are naturally in that state. And if you ask me why there is this difference between them, since some are fervent and others lax, I reply that the former surmount the repugnances of nature, and the latter do not make enough effort to overcome them. The former are at peace, since their heart is not divided because they have given it totally to God, but the latter are uneasy because, while wishing to love God, they still love other things apart from God --- those bodily comforts that make the soul sluggish in the practice of virtue. This engenders and nourishes idleness, which is the vice of the clergy. It is the state of which God has the greatest horror. Yes, tepidity is a state of damnation (CCD:VIII:126).

The joy of evangelization

After the events of Folleville-Châtillon, Vincent experienced a joy in serving the poor and was not disturbed or upset by any inconveniences and/or disappointments. In a certain sense, zeal for Vincent consisted of a joy in sharing: What happiness, Messieurs, what happiness! To do what Our Lord came from heaven to earth to do (CCD:XII:4).

“…It is not enough for me to love God…”

Give me a man who loves God alone, a soul elevated in contemplation, who never thinks about his brothers; that man, finding it very agreeable to love in this way a God who appears to him the only thing loveable, stops at savoring this infinite source of sweetness. And then you have another who loves the neighbor, no matter how rough and crude he may be, but loves him for the love of God. Which of these loves, I ask you, is the purest and least self-interested? Doubtless it is the second, and in this way it fulfills the Law most perfectly. He loves God and the neighbor; what more can he do? The first loves only God, but the other loves both. We really must give ourselves to God to imprint these truths on our soul, to organize our life according to this spirit, and to do the works of this love. There are no people in the world more obliged to do this than we are, nor any Community that should apply itself more to the external practice of heartfelt charity. And why? Because God has raised up this Little Company, like all the others, for his love and good pleasure. They all aim to love him, but they love him in different ways: the Carthusians by solitude, the Capuchins by poverty, others by chanting his praises; and we, my dear confreres, if we have love, we should show it by bringing people to love God and the neighbor, to love the neighbor for God and God for the neighbor. We’ve been chosen by God as instruments of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls. Ah, if we only realized what this holy zeal is! We’ll never see it clearly in this life; for, if we did, how differently we’d act --- at least a wretched man like me would. So, 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. I have to love my neighbor as the image of God and the object of his love, and to act in such a way that people, in their turn, love their Creator, who knows them and acknowledges them as his brothers, whom he has saved, and that by mutual charity they love one another for love of God, who has loved them so much as to hand over his own Son to death for them. So then, that’s my obligation. O mon Dieu! How many faults I’ve committed against that! How little I’ve realized the importance of my Rule and have paid so little attention to the active and passive charity to which God calls me! Each of us must be convinced of that before God. Let’s all say to Him, “O my God, I’ve been remiss on that point; forgive my past failings and grant me the grace of having your holy love imprinted very clearly on my heart, and that it may be the life of my life and the soul of my actions, so that, being apparent outside of me, it may also enter and work in the souls with whom I come in contact” (CCD:XII:214-215).

“…Let us work; let us work…”

When you, Messieurs, want to support an argument with a passage from one of the Fathers of the first centuries, you say, “This passage is given by a certain Father who lived in the first century or by a certain Father of the Church who lived in the early centuries.” That’s what you say. In the same way, people will say of those now in the Company. This was done in the time of the first Priests of the Mission; that’s what they did; such and such virtues were in force in it, and so on (CCD:XI:390).

O wretched man that I am, who talk and do not act! I tell others what they have to do, and do nothing myself! Pray for me, Messieurs, pray for me, Brothers, that I may be converted … let’s give ourselves to God then once and for all, let’s work, let’s work, let’s go to the assistance of the poor country people who are waiting for us. By the grace of God, some of our houses are almost always at work --- some more, some less --- giving a mission here or there, going from this village to that, always at work, by the mercy of God (CCD:XI:391).

“…See the great zeal of those poor Sisters…”

The Queen has written to Mlle. Le Gras and to me to send others to Calais to help those poor people, and we’re going to do that. Four are leaving today for that purpose. One of those poor Sisters, who’s about fifty years of age, came to see me last Friday at the Hotel-Dieu, where I happened to be, to say she had heard that two of her Sisters had died in Calais, and she was coming to volunteer to be sent in their place, if I agreed. “Sister,” I said, “I’ll think it over.” And yesterday she came here to find out what answer I had for her. See the great zeal of those poor Sisters, in volunteering like that, my dear confreres! Isn’t it wonderful how they offer themselves to go to risk their lives as victims, for the love of Jesus Christ and the good of their neighbor? As for me, I don’t know what to say about it except that those poor Sisters will be our judges on Judgment Day. Yes, brothers, those Sisters will be our judges at the Judgment seat of God, if we aren’t prepared, like them, to risk our lives for God. And, believe me, the man who hasn’t yet reached that stage is still a long way from holiness. O miserable man that I am, I, who do not feel disposed --- or feel so little disposed --- and attracted to this very high degree of virtue, how must I not fear, my dear confreres, how must I not fear! And how should the members of the Company who are in this same state not fear along with me, if they’re not in that disposition, a disposition which, you see, is one of the most excellent interior degrees we can have --- yes, the most excellent! That’s why those who don’t find themselves in this state must constantly ask God to put them in it, that is, in the disposition of being ready and willing to give their lives for Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:35-36).

This heart that causes us to go everywhere

From the moment that Vincent addressed the issue of availability for service, especially service in distant missions, Vincent’s zeal appears to have become more intense. The Missionaries in Genoa, Poland, Barbary, and especially in Madagascar, became examples for the Congregation and reminded the confreres to never give ear to those whom Vincent called “cowards” … our vocation is evangelizare pauperibus.

“… These are true Missionaries…”

What have our Missioners in Barbary and Madagascar undertaken? What have they carried out … A single man takes on the care of a galley where there are sometimes two hundred convicts: instructions, general confessions to the healthy and to the sick, day and night, for two weeks; and at the end of that time, he gives them a party, going himself to buy a steer and have it cooked; it’s their delight; one man alone does all that! Sometimes he goes off to the farms where slaves are placed, and he goes in search of the masters to ask them to allow him to work at the instruction of their poor slaves; he takes them on their free time and helps them to know God; he gets them ready to receive the sacraments, and at the end he gives them a treat and has a little party for them. In Madagascar the Missioners preach, hear confessions, and teach catechism constantly from four in the morning until ten, and from two in the afternoon until nightfall; the rest of the time is spent praying the Office and visiting the sick. Those men are workers, they’re true Missioners! May God in his goodness be pleased to give us the spirit that animates them, a big heart, vast and ample! Magnficat anima mea Dominum; our hearts must magnify and amplify God, and may God amplify our souls for that, may he give us a broad understanding in order to be truly aware of the greatness and extent of the goodness and power of God; to know how far our obligation to serve and glorify him in every possible manner extends; a fullness of will to embrace every opportunity to procure the glory of God. If we can do nothing of ourselves, we can do everything with God. Yes, the Mission can do anything because we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ. That’s why no one can excuse himself on the grounds of his powerlessness; we’ll always have greater strength than is needed, especially when the occasion arises; for, when it does, a man feels like a completely new man (CCD:XI:191-193).

“…This heart that causes us to go everywhere…”

Let’s ask God to give the Company this spirit, this heart, this heart that causes us to go everywhere, this heart of the Son of God, the heart of Our Lord … that disposes us to go as he went and as he would have gone, if his Eternal Wisdom had deemed it advisable to work for the conversion of poor nations. He sent the Apostles to do that; he sends us, like them, to bring fire everywhere ... Let’s all ask God fervently for this spirit for the whole Company, a spirit that will take us everywhere, with the result that, when someone sees one or two Missioners, they can say, “Those are apostolic persons ready to go to the four corners of the world carrying the word of God.” Let’s ask God to grant us a heart like that; there are some who have it, by the grace of God, and all are servants of God, but to go there and not to be deterred! O Sauveur! That’s really something! We must have a heart like that, everyone having the same heart, detached from all things, so that we may have perfect trust in the mercy of God, without wondering, or worrying, or losing courage. “Will I have this item in that country? How will I get it?” O Sauveur! God will never fail us! Ah, Messieurs! O Dieu! When we hear talk of the glorious death of those who are there, who wouldn’t want to be in their place? Who wouldn’t want to die like them, to be assured of an eternal reward! O Sauveur! Is there anything more desirable! So then, let’s not be bound to this or that; let’s be courageous! Let’s go wherever God may call us, he will be our provider, let’s not fear anything … blessed be God! Let’s all pray for that intention (CCD:264-265). “…I myself, old and infirm as I am…”

My dear confreres, we should all be so disposed and have this desire to suffer for God and our neighbor and to wear ourselves out for that purpose. How happy are they to whom God gives such dispositions and desires! Yes, Messieurs, we must be all for God and the service of the people; we have to give ourselves to God for that, wear ourselves out for that, and give our lives for that, strip ourselves naked, so to speak, in order to be clothed with him --- at least, we should desire to be so disposed, if we aren’t already --- we should be ready and willing to come and go wherever God pleases, whether to the Indies or elsewhere; lastly, to devote ourselves willingly to the service of our neighbor and to extend the empire of Jesus Christ in souls; and I myself, old and infirm as I am, must, nonetheless, have this disposition, even to go to the Indies to win souls to God there, although I were to die on the way or on board ship (CCD:XI:357).

“…Behold the Antichrist is born…”

A lax Missioner will say, “What good are so many missions? Go to the Indies, go to the Hebrides! Go, go --- it’ s too much! To prisons, to the Foundlings, to the Nom-de-Jesus! All that is too much to take on; we should give it up; when M. Vincent is dead, there will really be a lot of changes; we should give up all those ministries; otherwise how can we do it all? The Indies, the Hebrides, the prisons, the Foundlings, etc.!” The result, Messieurs, will be that we’ll have to say, “Farewell to the missions, farewell to the Indies, farewell to the Hebrides, the prisons, the Nom-de-Jesus, the Foundlings, Barbary --- farewell to all that!” And who’s the cause of all that evil? A coward or some lax Missioners filled with love of their own convenience and ease. O my dear confreres, when you see that you can well say, “Farewell to all those ministries!” Saint John said, “When you see people like that among you, consider them Antichrists.” I say the same to you, brothers: when you see a lax Missioner talking that way, or inclined to have us abandon all those benefits I just mentioned, say boldly, “Behold the Antichrist.” Yes, brothers, he’s an Antichrist. Say, “Behold the Antichrist is born; there he is!” And if, when the Company is still in the cradle (for the Company has just been born and is still in the cradle), if, I say, that’s the way things are, and it has nevertheless been assisted by the grace of God until now, taking on so many good works that are so pleasing to his Divine Majesty, and which he’s been pleased to bless, how much greater reason should it do so when it’s more advanced in age and has acquired greater strength than it now has! We see that, if a child has enough strength and courage, even though young and frail, to set out to bring something to a successful close, with what greater reason to do it when he’s older, even twenty-five or thirty years of age. That’s how it should be with the Company of the Mission … Blessed be God! May God be forever blessed and glorified! May it please His Divine Majesty to grant us the grace that the misfortune I just mentioned may not happen to the Company! (CCD:XI:184-185).

“…Our vocation is: Evangelizare pauperibus…”

I’m bringing up these problems, my dear confreres, before they occur because it may happen that they’ll arise. I can’t go on much longer; I’ll be passing on soon; my age, my poor health, and the abominations of my life don’t permit that God will let me remain long on earth. So then, it could happen that, after my death, troublemakers and cowardly men may come along ... But, my God, but, my Lord, didn’t you send Saint Thomas to the Indies and the other Apostles throughout the world? Didn’t you make them responsible for the care and guidance of all peoples in general and many persons and families in particular? No matter; our vocation is: Evangelizare pauperibus (CCD:XII:79).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM