A GREAT HOUSEHOLD
VINCENT remained two years in the house of Father de Bérulle, in the hope of obtaining permanent work. The administration of a poor country parish was, he maintained, the only thing he was fit for, but de Bérulle thought otherwise. "This humble priest," he predicted one day to a friend, "will render great service to the Church and will work much for God's glory."
St. Francis de Sales, who made Vincent's acquaintance while he was with de Bérulle, was of the same opinion. "He will be the holiest priest of his time," he said one day as he watched him. As for Vincent, he was completely won by the gentle serenity of St. Francis and took him as model in his relations with others. "I am by nature a country clod," he would say in after years, "and if I had not met the Bishop of Geneva, I should have remained a bundle of thorns all my life."
At last Vincent's desire seemed about to be fulfilled. A friend of de Bérulle's, curé of the country parish of Clichy, near Paris, announced his intention of entering the Oratory, and at de Bérulle's request chose Vincent de Paul as his successor. Here, amidst his beloved poor, Vincent was completely happy. In him the sick and the infirm found a friend such as they had never dreamed of and any son of poor parents who showed a vocation for the priesthood was taken into the presbytery and taught by Vincent himself. The parish church, which was in great disrepair, was rebuilt; old, standing quarrels were made up; men who had not been to the Sacraments for years came back to God. Such was the influence of the Curé of Clichy that priests from the neighbouring parishes came to learn the secret of his success and to ask his advice.
Vincent was looking forward to a life spent in earnest work among his people when a summons from Father de Bérulle recalled him suddenly to Paris. Nothing less than the resignation of his beloved Clichy was now asked of him by this friend to whom he owed so much. One of the greatest noblemen of France, Messire de Gondi, Count of Joigny and General of the King's Galleys, was in need of a tutor for his children and had commissioned Father de Bérulle to find him what he wanted. De Bérulle decided at once that Vincent de Paul was the man for the position and that, as he was evidently destined to do great work for God, it would be to his advantage to have powerful and influential friends.
Although the prospect of such a post filled the humble parish priest with consternation, he owed too much to de Bérulle to refuse. Setting out from Clichy with his worldly goods on a hand-barrow, he arrived at the Oratory, from whence he was to proceed to his new abode.
The house of Messire de Gondi was one of the most magnificent in Paris. The Count, one of the bravest and handsomest men of his day, was in high favour at Court; while his wife, at a time when the lives of most of the great ladies of the Court were anything but edifying, was remarkable for her fervor and piety. The de Gondi children, unfortunately, did not take after their parents, and the two boys whose education Vincent was to undertake and whose character he was to form were described by their aunt as "regular little demons." The youngest of the family, the famous, or rather infamous, Cardinal de Retz, was not yet born, but Vincent's hands were sufficiently full without him. "I should like my children to be saints rather than great noblemen," said Madame de Gondi when she presented the boys to their tutor, but the prospect seemed remote enough. The violent temper and obstinacy of his charges were a great trial to Vincent, who used to say in later life that they had taught him, cross-grained as he was by nature, how to be gentle and patient.
The position of a man of low birth as tutor in that princely household was not without its difficulties. Vincent was a dependent; but there was a quiet dignity about him which forbade liberties. With the servants, and there were many of every grade, he was always cordial and polite, losing no chance of winning their confidence, that he might influence them for good. His duties over, he would retire to his own room, refusing, unless especially sent for, to mix with the great people who frequented the house.
Madame de Gondi, with a woman's intuition, was the first to realize the sanctity of her sons' tutor and resolved to put herself under his direction. Knowing enough of his humility to be certain that he would refuse such a request, she applied to Father de Bérulle to use his influence in the matter, and thus obtained her desire. At Vincent's suggestion she soon afterwards undertook certain works of charity, which were destined to be the seed of a great enterprise.
The Count, too, began to feel the effects of Vincent's presence in his household. It was the age of dueling, and hundreds of lives were lost in this barbarous practice. De Gondi was a famous swordsman, and although the life he led was a great deal better than that of the majority of his contemporaries, the possibility of refusing to fight when challenged, or of refraining from challenging another when his honor was at stake, had never occurred to him.
Vincent had been some time at the de Gondis' when it came to his ears that the Count intended to fight a duel on a certain day, and he resolved, if possible, to prevent it. De Gondi was present at Mass in the morning and remained on afterwards in the chapel, praying, probably, that he might prevail over his enemy.
Vincent waited till everyone had gone out, and then approached him softly. "Monsieur," he said, "I know that you intend to fight a duel; and I tell you, as a message from my Saviour, before whom you kneel, that if you do not renounce this intention His judgment will fall on you and yours." The Count, after a moment's silence, promised to give up his project, and faithfully kept his word. It was the greatest sacrifice that could have been asked of a man in de Gondi's position, and it was a thing unheard of at the time for a priest to lay down the law to a great nobleman. But the influence of sanctity is strong, and the Count was noble; for him it was the beginning of a better life.
The de Gondis usually spent part of the year at their country house in Picardy, where they had large estates. Here the love of the poor which Vincent had fostered in Madame de Gondi was in its element, and she delighted in visiting her tenants, tending the sick with her own hands, and seconding all M. Vincent's plans for their welfare.
It happened one day that Vincent was sent to the bedside of a dying peasant who had always borne a good character and was considered an excellent Christian. The man was conscious, and Vincent—moved, no doubt, by the direct inspiration of God—urged him to make a General Confession. There was much need, for he had been concealing for long years several mortal sins which he was ashamed to confess, profaning the Sacraments and deceiving all who knew him. Moved with contrition by M. Vincent's words, he confessed his crimes, acknowledging his guilt also to Madame de Gondi, who came to visit him after Vincent had departed.
"Ah Madame," he cried, "if I had not made that General Confession my soul would have been lost for all eternity!"
The incident made a lasting impression on both Vincent and the Countess. Here was a man who for years had been living in deceit and making an unworthy use of the Sacraments. How many others might be in like case! It was a terrible thought. "Ah, Monsieur Vincent," cried the great lady, "how many souls are being lost! Can you do nothing to help them?"
Her words found an echo in Vincent's heart. Next Sunday he preached a sermon in the parish church on the necessity of General Confession. It was the first of the famous mission sermons destined to do so much good in France. While he spoke, Madame de Gondi prayed, and the result far surpassed their expectations. So great were the crowds that flocked to Confession that Vincent was unable to cope with them and had to apply to the Jesuits at Amiens for help. The other villages on the estate were visited in turn, with equal success. Vincent used to look back in later life to this first mission sermon as the beginning of his work for souls.
The result of all this for the preacher, however, was a certain prestige, and his humility took alarm. Monsieur and Madame de Gondi now treated their sons' tutor with the reverence due to a saint. His name was on the lips of everybody; and yet, as Vincent sadly acknowledged to himself, the work for which he had been engaged was a failure. The "little demons" were as headstrong and violent as ever; it was only on their parents that he had been able to make any impression.
Fearful of being caught in the snare of worldly honors, he resolved to seek safety in flight. Father de Bérulle had sent him to the house of Monsieur de Gondi; to him did he appeal in his distress. His work as a tutor had been a failure, he told him; he could do nothing with his pupils, and he was receiving honor which he in no way deserved. He ended by begging to be allowed to work for the poor in some humble and lonely place, and de Bérulle decided to grant his wish. The country parish of Châtillon was in need of workers, was the answer; let him go there and exercise his zeal for souls.
The only remaining difficulty was to get away from the great house. Dreading the outcry that he knew would follow the announcement of his resolution, and the arguments that would be used against him, Vincent departed, declaring simply that personal affairs called him away from Paris.
Only when he had been already established for some time in his new parish did it dawn on the de Gondis that his absence was not to be merely temporary. They were in desperation. Madame de Gondi did nothing but weep, while her husband applied to everyone whom he thought to have any influence with Vincent to persuade him to return. "If he has not the gift of teaching children," he wrote to a friend, "it does not matter; he shall have a tutor to work under him. He shall live exactly as he likes if he will only come back. Get de Bérulle to persuade him. I shall be a good man some day," ends this great nobleman pathetically, "if only he will stay with me."
M. DE BÉRULLE had certainly not exaggerated matters when he said that the parish of Châtillon-les-Dombes was in need of earnest workers. Vincent looked about him and set to work at once.
The first thing to be done was to clean out the church, which was in such a state of dirt and squalor that people had some excuse for not wishing to enter it. He then turned his attention to the clergy already there. They were ignorant and easygoing men, for the most part, who thought a good deal more of their own amusement than of the needs of their flock, but they were not bad at heart. Vincent's representations of what a priest's life ought to be astonished them at first and convinced them later—all the more so in that they saw in him the very ideal that he strove to set before them.
There was no presbytery at Châtillon, and to the astonishment of everyone, Vincent hired a lodging in the house of a young gentleman who had the reputation of being one of the most riotous livers in the town. He was, moreover, half a heretic, and Vincent had been warned to have nothing to do with him. But the new rector had his own ideas on the subject, and the ill-assorted pair soon became very good friends.
The change in the young man's mode of life was gradual. His first step was to be reconciled to the Church, his second to begin to interest himself in the poor. Gradually his bad companions dropped away, until one day Châtillon suddenly awoke to the fact that this most rackety of individuals was taking life seriously—was, in fact, a changed man. The whole town was in a stir. Who was this priest who had so suddenly come among them, so self-forgetful, so simple, so unassuming, yet whose influence was so strong with all classes?
It was a question that might well be asked in the light of what was yet to come.
There lived near Châtillon a certain Count de Rougemont, a noted duelist, whose violence and immorality were the talk of the neighbourhood. Having heard people speak of the wonderful eloquence of M. Vincent, this man came one day out of curiosity to hear him preach. Surprised and touched in spite of himself, he determined to make the preacher's acquaintance and, hastening into his presence, flung himself on his knees before him.
"I am a wretch and a sinner!" he cried, "but tell me what to do and I will do it." Raising him with gentle courtesy, Vincent bade him take courage, and spoke to him of all the good that a man of his position might do in the world. The Count, profoundly struck by the contrast between this man's life and his own—the one so powerful for good, and the other so strong for evil—vowed to mend his ways. And he kept his word.
One by one he sold his estates to find the wherewithal for Vincent's schemes of charity, and he would have stripped himself of all that he had, had not Vincent himself forbidden it. His sword, which had served him in all his duels, and to which he was very much attached, he broke in pieces on a rock. His great chateau, the walls of which had rung to the sound of wild carousals, was now thrown open to the sick and the poor, whom the once-dreaded Count insisted on serving with his own hands. He died the death of a saint a few years later, amid the blessings of all the people whom he had helped.
The ladies of the parish, to whom before Vincent's arrival the hour of the Sunday Mass had seemed too long for God's service and who had spent it chattering behind their fans, began also to realize that there was something in life besides selfish amusement. Some of them, moved by curiosity, went to see the new preacher, who, receiving them with his usual kindness and courtesy, drew a touching picture of the suffering and poverty that surrounded them and begged them to think sometimes of their less fortunate brothers and sisters.
Two of the richest and most fashionable ladies of the district, touched by Vincent's words and example, gave themselves up entirely to the service of the poor, traveling about the country nursing the sick, and even risking their lives in the care of the plague-stricken. They were the forerunners of those "Sisters of Charity" who were in after years to carry help and comfort among the poor of every country.
One day, as Vincent was about to say Mass, one of these ladies begged him to speak to the congregation in favour of a poor family whose members were sick and starving. So successful was his appeal that when he himself went a few hours later to see what could be done, he found the road thronged with people carrying food and necessaries.
This, Vincent at once realized, was not practical. There would be far too much today and nothing tomorrow. There was no want of charity, but it needed organization. Sending for the two ladies, he explained to them a scheme which he had thought out on his way home. Those who were ready to help the poor were to band themselves together, each in turn promising to provide a day's food for starving families.
Thus was founded the first confraternity of the "Ladies of Charity," who were to work in concert for the relief of their poorer brethren. The association was to be under the management of the curé of the parish, and every good woman might belong to it. Its members were to devote themselves to the service of the poor for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, their Patron. They were to tend the sick cheerfully and kindly, as they would their own children, not disdaining to minister to them with their own hands. The work developed quickly; confraternities of charity were soon adopted in nearly all the parishes of France and have since extended over the whole Christian world.
The de Gondis, in the meantime, had discovered the place of Vincent's retreat and had written him several letters, piteously urging him to return. They had succeeded in enlisting as their advocate a certain M. du Fresne, a friend of Vincent's, who had promised to plead their cause and who set about it with a shrewd common sense that was not without its effect. The work at Châtillon, he represented to Vincent, could be carried on by any good priest now that it had been set agoing, whereas in refusing to return to the de Gondis he was neglecting an opportunity for doing good on a very much larger scale. Helped by their money and their influence, not only their vast estates, but Paris itself, lay open to him as a field for his labours. Moreover, he had taken his own way in going to Châtillon; was he sure that it was God's way?
Vincent was humble enough to believe that he might be in the wrong. He consented to go to Paris to see M. de Bérulle and to allow himself to be guided by his advice. The result was a foregone conclusion, for the de Gondis had won over de Bérulle completely to their side. The next day Vincent returned to the Hôtel de Gondi, where he promised to remain during the lifetime of the Countess.
Delighted to have him back at any price, Vincent's noble patrons asked for nothing better than to further all his schemes for the welfare of the poor and infirm. Confraternities of charity like that of Châtillon were established on all the de Gondi estates, Madame de Gondi herself setting the example of what a perfect Lady of Charity should be. Neither dirt, discourtesy nor risk of infection could discourage this earnest disciple of Vincent. In spite of weak health she gave freely of her time, her energy and her money.
M. de Gondi was, as we have already seen, General of the King's Galleys, or, as we should now say, Admiral of the Fleet. It was no easy post in days when the Mediterranean was infested with Turkish pirates, to whom the royal ships had to give frequent chase; but the General had distinguished himself more than once by his skill and courage at this difficult task.
The use of steam was as yet unknown, and the King's galleys were rowed by the convicts and prisoners of France, for it would have been impossible to find volunteers for the work. Chained to their oars night and day, kept in order by cruel cuts of the lash on their bare shoulders, these men lived and died on the rowers' bench without spiritual help or assistance of any kind. The conditions of service were such that many prisoners took their own lives rather than face the torments of such an existence.
As Vincent went about his works of charity in Paris it occurred to him to visit the dungeons where the men who had been condemned to the galleys were confined. What he saw filled him with horror. Huddled together in damp and filthy prisons, crawling with vermin, covered with sores and ulcers, brawling, blaspheming and fighting, the galley slaves made a picture suggestive only of Hell.
Vincent hastened to M. de Gondi and, trembling with emotion, poured forth a description of the horrors he had seen.
"These are your people, Monseigneur!" he cried; "you will have to answer for them before God." The General was aghast; it had never occurred to him to think of the condition of the men who rowed his ships, and he gladly gave Vincent a free hand to do whatever he could to relieve them.
Calling two other priests to his assistance, Vincent set to work at once to visit the convicts in the Paris prisons; but the men were so brutalized that it was difficult to know how to win them. The first advances were met with cursing and blasphemy, but Vincent was not to be discouraged. With his own gentle charity he performed the lowest offices for these poor wretches to whom his heart went out with such an ardent pity; he cleansed them from the vermin which infested them and dressed their neglected sores. Gradually they were softened and would listen while he spoke to them of the Saviour who had died to save their souls. At Vincent's earnest request, money was collected among his friends and patrons, and a hospital built where the prisoners condemned to the galleys might be nursed into good health before they went on board.
In due time the rumour of the good work that was being done reached the ears of Louis XIII, who promptly made Vincent de Paul Almoner to the King's ships, with the honours and privileges of a naval officer and a salary of six hundred livres. This enabled Vincent to carry his mission farther afield, and he determined to visit all the convict prisons in the seaport towns, taking Marseilles as his first station.
Here, where the conditions were perhaps even worse than in Paris, Vincent met them in the same spirit and conquered by the same means. The fact that he had once been a slave himself gave him an insight into the sufferings of the galley slaves and a wonderful influence over them. Accustomed as they were to be looked upon as brutes, it was a new experience to be treated as if it were a privilege to be in their company. This strange new friend who went about among them, kissing their chains, sympathising with their sufferings and attending to their lowest needs seemed to them like an Angel from Heaven; even the most hardened could not resist such treatment.
In the meantime, through the generosity of Vincent's friends, hospitals were being built and men and women were offering themselves to help in any capacity in this work of charity. Many of these earnest Christians gave their very lives for the galley slaves; for fevers, plague and contagious diseases of every kind raged in the filthy convict prisons, and many priests and lay helpers died of the infection. Yet other devoted workers were always found to take their place, and the work which Vincent had inaugurated thrived and prospered.
Nihil Obstat: Francis M. Canon Wyndham
Imprimatur: Edmund Canon Surmont
July 2, 1919
JOHN CARDINAL FARLEY
Archbishop of New York
NEW YORK, September 19, 1912