Antoine Portail - Five portraits
|Antoine Portail CM
|November 22, 1590
Antoine Portail was born on November 22, 1590 in Southern France near the city of Arles in a village called Beaucaire. He was nine years younger than Vincent de Paul.
Portail, the man
It seems that Vincent and Portail met in Clichy. Vincent, at the age of thirty-one, was the young pastor who administered the parish where twelve years after his ordination he first exercised his ministry. It was a glorious era which Vincent will recall many years later when in a conference he says: I had people who were so good, so obedient that I would add I don’t think the Pope himself is as happy as a pastor in the midst of such good hearted people (CCD, IX:507).
Vincent’s pastoral ministry awakened the call of a vocation in a group of young men who gathered together around him. Among those was Antoine Portail. At that time he was twenty-two and is the first person of this group that we know by name.
Young men live adventures. We know that one day a group from the neighboring village of Clignancourt, probably young men also, became embroiled in a fight with Antoine Portail; perhaps a quarrel among young men of the town. One of the attackers was imprisoned, but the Christian attitude of forgiveness adopted by Vincent and Monsieur Portail led to the application of justice and the attacker was freed.
We do not know why Portail, who was born in Southern France near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, was in Paris. Perhaps he was looking for an opportunity to advance in life or perhaps, as Collet says, he had gone to Paris to study at the Sorbonne University.
The fact is when Vincent returned to Paris from Ch?tillon in December 1617, he was required by the de Gondi family, among other things, to continue with the education of their children. He placed one condition on this work and asked that someone be appointed to help him in this task of educating the de Gondi children, leaving Vincent with more time to dedicate himself to the service of the poor. The one chosen to assist Vincent was Antoine Portail. His work was so highly valued that in her last will and testament Madame de Gondi left Monsieur Portail 300 pounds.
In 1622, at the age of 32, he was ordained.
Monsieur Portail was a timid man. We know that he had personal contact with people, especially the poor, but when dealing with large groups of people, the situation changed. It was only at the age of forty that he went into the pulpit to preach. When he does this in 1630, Vincent congratulates him:
- You have begun late; so did Saint Charles. I wish you a share in his spirit, and I hope God will give you some new grace on this occasion. I beg Him with all my heart that it may be the one you wrote to me about at the end of your letter, that of being an example to the Company (CCD, I:82-83).
He was at Vincent’s side for fifty years, from the time at Clichy to the time of his death in 1660. He was continually dedicated the proper ends of the Congregation --- ends that Vincent was discovering and putting forth.
Death surprised him in 1660. Nine days of illness was enough, as Vincent noted in a circular letter that he sent to all the houses:
- God has been pleased to take from us good M. Portail. He died on Saturday, the fourteenth of this month. It was the ninth day of his illness, which began with a sort of lethargy that developed into a constant fever and other complications. Throughout it, his mind and speech remained quite clear. He had always been apprehensive about death but, on seeing it approach, he faced it with peace and resignation, saying to me on several occasions when I visited him that he no longer felt any trace of his past fear. He died as he had lived, in the good use of suffering, the practice of virtue, and the desire to honor God and to end his days, like Our Lord, in the accomplishment of His Will. He was one of the first two men engaged in the missions, and he always contributed to the other works of the Company, in which he rendered important services.
- Consequently, were it not that God disposes all things for the best and causes us to find our good where we think we will receive harm, the Company would have lost a great deal in losing him. There is reason to hope that this good servant of His will be more useful to us in heaven than he might have been on earth (CCD, VIII:288).
Portail: Disciple and Collaborator
The first scene in which we encounter Portail as a collaborator of Vince can perhaps be situated in the year 1622. Vincent is travelling to Marseilles where he will take on his responsibility as chaplain of the galley slaves and Portail stays behind in the parish and continues to minister to the poor, especially those condemned to the galleys, a work which had been begun by Vincent. Here he comes to know the crude reality of poverty and violence. We also know that he frequently spent time living with them.
On March 16, 1624 Portail, in Vincent’s name (for he was designated for this responsibility), takes possessions of the Coll?ge de Bons Enfants. In reality it was only the two of them. For the work of the missions a third persons was contracted. When they left to preach missions on the de Gondi estate and in other parishes, the keys to the house were entrusted to a neighbor.
Vincent was always aware that Monsieur Portail played an important role in the origin and the development of the Congregation. In a conference in 1658, when he recalls the humble origins of the Company he speaks of God’s action:
- Who established the Company? Who sent us into the work of preaching missions, retreats for the ordinands, conferences, spiritual exercises of various other sorts? Was it I? By no means! Was it Monsieur Portail with whom God associated me from the very beginning? Certainly not, for we never thought of it, never planned it. Who then is the author of these works? It is God --- God in his fatherly Providence and his great goodness.
In recognizing that God is the author of all of this he did not disparage the role that Monsieur Portail played in the establishment of the Congregation. When someone would ask Vincent if this was his work, he would resolve their doubt and say: Neither Portail nor Vincent.
Portail would always be the confidant with whom Vincent could share his concerns. We cite here only one example of many that could be mentioned. In a letter dated 1635 Vincent writes to Portail and says:
- Since your departure six people have joined us. O Monsieur how I fear large numbers and expansion (CCD, I:304).
In fact Portail was more than a confidant. As the years passed, when Vincent was old and infirm, he considered Portail his care giver. In a letter from the Duchess of Aiguillon she reproaches Portail for allowing him to engage in excessive work out of apostolic zeal:
- I am surprised that Monsieur Portail and the other good priests at Saint Lazare allow Monsieur Vincent to work in the rural areas under the heat of the sun and with the years that he has. They allow him to be outside in this heat and it seem to me that his life is too precious and too useful to the Church to allow him to squander it in this way.
Monsieur was a true spiritual disciple of Vincent. He knew Vincent’s interior attitudes and knew the source of his zeal that was manifested in everything --- the source was Jesus Christ. Here is the written testimony that the superior of one of the houses has left:
- The love that Vincent felt toward Out Lord was never lost sight of. All his actions, thoughts and words were in conformity with the Lord. I can truly say, and we all know this, that he never spoke without making reference to some words or actions of the Son of God --- so filled was he with his spirit and so in accord with his commands. Often I admired how he was able to apply the words and the example of the Divine Savior and this we see in his counsel and recommendations. I have heard it said by one of the elder priests, Monsieur Portail who knew him and dealt with him for over forty-five years, that Vincent was one of the most perfect images of Jesus Christ that he ever knew on earth. He never heard Vincent say anything that was not related with that which had been given to him as an example and so he would say to his followers: I give you an example. What I have done you should also do.
This testimony is the expression of the impact of the master on the faithful and close disciple and there is no doubt that this impact marked the whole life of Monsieur Portail.
Portail, the missionary
When the Act of Association of the First Missionaries was signed on September 4, 1626, Antoine Portail was one of the four priests who signed the document. The others were Vincent, of course, and two priests from the Diocese of Amiens, François du Coudray and Jean de la Sallle (who had lived with the other two for a few months. The first thing that they did was travel to Montmarte where they prayed for divine assistance. Vincent was indisposed at that time and could not travel with them.
At that time Vincent was forty-five years old while the others of this small group were relatively young. Portail, the oldest of the three, was thirty-six years old. After them came others: Jean Bécu, Antoine Lucas, J. Brunet, Jean d’Horgny. Among all of them, Portil would become the more perfect disciple of Vincent de Paul,
He was truly the right arm in all of Vincent’s works. With this confidence Vincent entrusted him with the task of visiting the houses of the Congregation and providing the members of these houses with norms and suggestions that arose as a result of conversation with the members of the house. This was like sending a living rule which provided a contrast for all that was being done in the different communities. The simplicity of his example was a silent and humble invitation.
It is true that he was not the only one visiting the houses. Fathers Lambert, Almerás, d’Horgny and others also visited the houses. But there is no doubt that Vincent confided in Portail. In 1630 Portail wrote to Vincent expressing his proposal of being an example in the Companny. Vincent responded by saying that this proposal was also his own desire.
In March, 1646 Portail began a series of visits along the French coast that would keep him occupied for three and a half years. On March 20th of the same year, a short time after his departure, Vincent writes him to tell him some things that he had forgotten to communicate to him. In fact, Vincent formulates a questionnaire about the defects that Portail might encounter in his visits to the houses. It was like a program of themes that he wanted Portail to be aware of. Portail began his visits in Le Mans. From there he went to Saint-Méen, Richelieu, Saintes, Notre Dame de la Rose, Cahors (where Vincent writes him and praises him for his work of visiting the houses:
- I unceasingly thank God for the good order you have established in our houses [CCD, III:133].
Portail visits the houses in Rome and finally ends his visitations in Merseilles and returns to Paris at the end of September 1649. His return filled him with much joy because of the happiness of encountering his beloved and venerable companion and because of the welcome that his companions offered him. A long poem in Latin verse was composed by the Latinist, Father de la Fosse to celebrate the return of Monsieur Portail and has been preserved. This poem is an expression of the affections that united the missionaries. In 1655 Portail would visit the house in Northern and Eastern France: Sedan, Brienne, Montmirail.
From the beginning he participated in the popular missions. In the mission campaign of 1635 he and Father Antoine Lucas gave missions in the region of Cévennes, a stronghold of the Calvanists. A small incident humbles the missionaries and when Vincent is informed about this he writes a letter to Monsieur Portail, perhaps one of his most important letters in which he praises the missionaries and expresses his strong conviction:
- Must not a priest die of shame for claiming a reputation in the service he gives to God and for dying in his bed when he sees Jesus Christ rewarded for his work by disgrace and the gibbet. Remember Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ (CCD, I:276).
The concern for preaching according to the “little method” made all the missionaries (from the time of their formation) careful in their preparation of sermons. There were meetings in the house of Saint-Lazare in which a theme was proposed and all who were present would take notes so that they could later write a sermon on the proposed theme. Coste recalls the fact that Monsieur Portail wrote a rather lengthy volume on the method of preaching and catechizing. He used his notes from these gatherings to compose this work.
In the famous Assembly of 1642 Vincent resigned as Superior General but then accepted to continue when the whole Assembly presented themselves in the Church where he had sought refuge. They begged him to continue in his role and named two assistants. One of whom was Portail and the other was Dehorgny. This fact could be interpreted as a sign of the esteem in which the members of the Assembly held Portail. Monsieur Portail was also elected to the commission of four who were charged with the definitive redaction of the Rules of the Congregation. Portail would meet occasionally with Frs. Almerás and Dehorgny in Rome where they would oversee the process of having the Common Rules approved by the Holy See.
Vincent deferred to him at the time of handing out the Book of Common Rules. We know this because of the detailed description that is provided to us in one of his conferences which was recorded by Brother Ducournau who was charged by the Assistants with the task of putting into writing all the conference of Saint Vincent. This was a great day for the Congregation and especially, for its Founder. It was May 17, 1658 and Vincent was very emotional. At one moment he took the book of rules in his hands and asked the Lord to bless the missionaries so that they might be faithful to the Rule. When the time came to distribute the Rule he did not hesitate:
- Come, Monsieur Portail, you who have always borne with my infirmities; may God bless you (Conference of May 17, 1658).
All the others followed him; they knelt down, received the book from Vincent’s hand, kissed him, kissed his hand and then kissed the floor.
Without any doubt we can affirm the fact that Monsieur Portail perfectly incarnates the missionary as envisioned by Vincent de Paul
Portail, first Director of the Daughters of Charity
When Vincent de Paul was talking to the Daughters of Charity about their origins he used the same arguments as those when he spoke with the missionaries.
- It’s not Mlle Le Gras, it’s not I, it’s not M. Portail, it’s God! (CCD, IX:472)
It is significant that here he mentions Monsieur Portail. It was logical that he should refer to himself and Louise de Marillac, but Portail. There is no doubt, however, that Monsieur Portail had and continued to have a great role in everything that referred to the foundation of and the consolidation of the Daughters of Charity:
- That, dear Sisters, is how God brought this work into being. Mademoiselle never thought of it, neither did I, nor did M. Portail, nor that poor young woman (Marguerite Naseau) either (CCD, IX:473).
M. Portail was the first Director of the Daughters of Charity, a service which he rendered until his death. In the exchange of correspondence between Louise and Vincent, Portail’s name appears frequently. He acts in Vincent’s name or receives information from Louise to communicate to the Superior of the Mission. Some important events with regard to the history of the Company, such as the demolition of a house in 1642 and reports about the physical repairs that had to be done in the Motherhouse --- all of this is communicated first hand to Vincent de Paul through M. Portail.
When Sisters are having difficulties in their vocation, Louise at once recommends that they talk to M. Portail who through the ministry of reconciliation encourages and guides them. He is entrusted with the task of preaching retreats to the Daughters and explaining to them the meaning of the vows. M. Portail’s opinion has much weight when decisions are made. We frequently read in the Letters of Louise to Vincent words such as:
- M. Portail has given his approval. They are good girls (SWLDM, p. 525. The Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac will be referred to here as SWLDM followed by the page number).
- I believe that M. Portail has spoken to you about them since they are presenting themselves with his approval (SWLDM, p. 519).
When Louise writes to the Sisters she often makes the following recommendation:
- Do not forget to include our most honored father, M. Portail and the whole Company in your prayers (SWLDM, 518).
M. Portail was also concerned about promoting vocations to the Company of the Daughters of Charity. When he is visiting the houses of the Sisters and the Missionaries in Le Mans, he sends two young women to Paris to enter the Company. When he is in Angers he sends four young women to Paris. He was concerned about their numbers but he was more concerned about their spiritual life. From Le Mans he writes to Louise de Marillac and states:
- I praise the God of mercy who has worked in your community, purifying it of ill-temper and making it holy and healthy.
He collaborates in the redaction of some rules that he suggested be read and explained in conferences. He revises the rules that have to be approved by the Archbishop of Paris and even suggests how they should be bound together in book form.
Four months after his departure from Paris to begin his visit of the houses of the Sisters, Louise de Marillac writes him:
- I must tell you, in all truth, that your absence is costing the entire Company daily, every day we experience it more and more (SWLDM, p. 148).
In the same letter she adds:
- We truly await for your help before God. All our sisters, your dear daughters, are most particularly joyful in hearing that you remember them and they greet you with all their hearts. They assure you that they are praying for you; their Sister Servant would be most ungrateful if she failed to do so (SWLDM, p. 148).
Later, when he is in Rome, Louise once again explains the role that M. Portail has in the Company:
- I wish to present to you the need which you poor Daughters of Charity have of your return and so that, in your illness, you do not mistake Paradise for Paris. What would we do, Monsieur? …Return quickly, Monsieur, to help us acquire this perfection, and in the meantime, continue your charitable care for us at the altar and in your prayers (SWLDM, p. 202-203).
On July 4, 1657 Louise writes to some of the Sisters and exhorts them to completely trust their Director:
- I beg you, my dear Sisters, to follow the directions M. Portail gives you concerning your confessions. Fear nothing regardless of whatever advice others may give you (SWLDM, p. 555).
Louise was concerned about M. Portail’s health as she was for Vincent’s and there is frequent reference to this fact in her letters. She writes to the Sisters:
- By the grace of God, Monsieur Portail is also fairly well, although he has had a very bad cold. We must ask God to watch over the health of both of them for His glory (SWLDM, p. 544).
- We have good reason to thank Our Lord for the good health that He, in His goodness, gives them [M. Vincent and M. Portail], because we need them so much (SWLDM, p. 550). Many other references could be added here on this matter.
On his return from Rome M. Portail was in Marseilles and on May 16, 1649 Louise writes him a letter in which she speaks about the role that he has played in the Company:
- I know that your heart filled with charity will accept the humble thanks of both our sisters and me for the holy admonitions and testimonies of good will which you gave us in a general letter to the sisters and in a personal letter to me. They were a great joy and consolation to us. Your letter was read while we were waiting for the conference, and God knows, Monsieur, that tears were shed. It was the hope of seeing you soon which comforted us, although we have awaited this happiness for a long time! I beg you in the name of God, Monsieur, not to contribute to this delay so that when it pleases Divine Providence to show us mercy, we will have this happiness (SWLDM, p. 286-287).
When visiting the houses, as occurred in Angers (1646), M. Portail left in writing a series of orders and recommendations on the part of M. Vincent. There were twenty-three points that reflect the meaning of the vocation of a Daughter of Charity. These were given in the form of a review and reflection on the essential elements of their vocation and could be seen as valid for any period in the history of the Company.
Louise will consult with M. Portail on the situation of specific sisters. In these communications, related to those of M. Vincent, the impression is given that the Company is a matter of these three individuals (Louise, M. Vincent, and M. Portail). His virtue is valued and on one occasion Louise tells him:
- I beg you most humbly, Monsieur, to thank Him, thus making up for our ingratitude. How your humility has taught my pride a lesson! (SWLDM, p. 163).
Her confidence in M. Portail enables her to ask him to obtain as much information about M. Vincent and to communicate this news to her:
- Since you are going to Gascony, oh Monsieur, do not forget to find out all you can, so that you can answer all the question I am going to ask you in an effort to know better the person who is the dearest in the world to us (SWLDM, p. 163).
This respect for Vincent is a type of complicity between the two of them: the person who is dearest in the world to us.
A sister, when giving witness after the death of Louise, confirms what we have just said: God has desired to reveal in our beloved Mother the meaning of detachment from people because during her illness she never saw once neither our good Father nor Monsieur Portail, the two persons whom she loved most dearly. Imagine what a great pain this was for her!
Portail, A spiritual man
M. Portail learned what it meant to be a priest from the hands of M. Vincent. It could be said that he reflects the virtues of his master. He assumed these virtues and lived them in a steadfast and pious manner, to the point that he became a point of reference for all those who came to Saint-Lazare to prepare for the priesthood or to deepen themselves in the grace they had received. Olier himself, the future founder of the Sulpicians, placed himself under the direction of M. Potail.
M. Portail valued prayer and the time of spiritual retreat. He frequently sought refuge in the house on the back of the land around Saint-Lazare where the missionaries made their retreats alone. Saint Louise recalled this reality several times in her letters to the sisters.
As a man of prayer, he prepared in 1644 the book of meditation that was always used by the Congregation. M. Portail probably did this work even though there are some who attribute this work to M. Almerás. In 1624 Jean Buys, a Dutch Jesuit, had published his “Manual of Pious Meditations” in Latin. Vincent always valued this book as a great guide for prayer. In 1644 Vincent asked that the French edition of this work be adapted so that it could be used by the diocesan priests who made their retreats at Saint-Lazare. These adaptations were made and ninety new meditations were added.
M. Portail seemed to know instinctively how to deal with the normal difficulties of community life, especially the coming together that is implied in the ministry of popular missions. This was not always easy. There were individuals with strong temperaments and thus difficult to engage in dialogue. Mr. Portail was lucky to have someone at Saint-Lazare, M. Vincent, who helped him. Such was the case with M. Antoine Lucas, young, impetuous and engaged in the ministry of popular missions with M. Portail. Vincent writes to him and appeals to his age and his years as a member of the Congregation telling him that he must be an example by putting aside his superiority and in charity unite himself with his confrere.
In the writings of the Congregation, M. Portail is remembered because of his profound humility. He had a good teacher and was also a good disciple. Collet writes:
- When the servant of God left the Coll?ge de Bons Enfants, he was followed by M. Portail, a priest from the Diocese of Arles who had for fifteen years been his devoted disciple. This first companion of Vincent had hardly proven the rectitude of his motivation when he united himself to M. Vincent and only death would separate them. He had a good relationship with M. Vincent and imitated his humility. He made such great progress in this virtue that even though he was very talented, wrote well and could have studied at the Sorbonne, yet he desired nothing but to be unknown and despised.