Cynicism seems to come all too easily to the French. The anticlerical cry of “crush the wretched one” came forth from the sumptuous bourgeois comfort—with its viper’s tangle of adultery—of Voltaire’s estate near Lake Geneva. Two centuries later, Sartre’s bleak atheism won him plenty of disciples on the shabby-chic Left Bank of the Seine. Even in Pascal we see a razor-sharp wit serving, for a season, the search for earthly comfort, a combination that was and seems still to be the peculiarly French temptation. “It is not in Montaigne,” he once wrote, pointing to the one who perhaps most deeply shaped the modern French temper in this respect, “but in myself that I find everything I see there.” We should not perhaps so much wonder about the folly, the cruelty, and, yes, the cynicism of France’s terrible revolution as we should about its late date. If already in the 1590s the rakish King Henri IV did not blush to account for his conversion with the bon mot “Paris is worth the Mass,” how was France able to stave off moral collapse for as long as she did? The answer to that question is the name of the man whose entrance into eternal life we commemorate today: Saint Vincent de Paul.
Although the modesty of his birth in 1581 in the marshy plain south of Bordeaux seems to have been exaggerated, it is certain that young Vincent de Paul knew want and hardship as a boy and was hard-bitten by the desire to succeed in life. A beneficed clergyman by 18 and a priest before his 20th birthday, his first three decades would have been a fine subject for the talents of Dumas.
In 1605, when he was fresh from university studies, the pursuit of a contested inheritance took him from Toulouse to Marseille, but when he sought to shorten the return journey by making its first leg at sea, he was captured by Tunisian corsairs and enslaved. In North Africa, he convinced his master—an apostate Catholic with three wives—to return with him to France and seek pardon for his sins. Then in Avignon, he dazzled a worldly prelate with alchemy he had learned from another Muslim owner, and led a pampered life in Rome for a year before heading back to France, and to Paris, in 1608. Though he soon found some means of support there as one of the many almoners of the disgraced former Queen Marguerite de Valois, he was still very much on the make, confessing in a letter to his mother his regret that he had to stay in Paris in order to secure “the possibility of advancement.”
And so, at 30, Vincent de Paul was not a saint. Yet at least he had met a man whom he revered as one: Pierre Cardinal de Bérulle, founder of the French branch of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Over the next half-decade, the influence of this austere visionary with a commanding personality proved decisive. Still outwardly a clerical careerist, inwardly Monsieur Vincent’s apostolic commitment was deepening and becoming more pure. In 1617 he found a second calling within his vocation: an ardent desire to preach the Gospel to France’s rural poor.
In those days, he was serving as tutor to the children of the Gondi, a family whose wealth was of truly European stature. They were, however, very pious, especially Madame de Gondi, who had become inspired to find some way to minister to the miserable spiritual condition of the rural poor through her own experience of confessing her sins to a village priest so ignorant that he did not even know the words of absolution. In January of 1617, while traveling to some of the Gondi estates in the north of France, Vincent de Paul had his own life-changing experience in the confessional, as he listened to a dying man who had been living for years with a horrid mortal sin on his conscience for want of a trustworthy confessor. As the poor man had told the story of his sin and confession to Madame de Gondi also, it became licit for Monsieur Vincent to speak of it, and indeed preach upon it, which he proceeded to do on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, exhorting the villagers to make a fresh start with a general confession of their sins. So overwhelming was their response that only the timely help of a Jesuit from nearby Amiens made it possible for the sacrament to be administered to all who wished for it.
From this experience was born the Congregation of the Mission, a group of priests popularly known as the Lazarists, from their home at the former abbey of St-Lazare in Paris. Their purpose, as their founder once put it with admirable concision, was “to do what the Son of God came on earth to do,” that is, as he also liked to say, Evangelizare pauperibus, to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). This work the priests of the Congregation accomplished by intensive two-week missions to rural villages, during which they exhorted the peasants in simple, heartfelt terms about the necessity of confessing their sins and amending their lives. Monsieur Vincent particularly insisted that his men cultivate “the spirit of humility and simplicity,” sternly rebuking self-important preaching and warning that “the spirit of pride will not survive long at the Mission.” Their founder’s vision and resolve successfully shaped the young order, winning it a reputation for priestly excellence and attracting the attention of bishops throughout the kingdom. Soon the priory of St-Lazare became a seminary in its own right, the first of many that the Congregation would found and staff.
There is a mystery to Saint Vincent de Paul’s holiness. What surprises most is that his early experience of exchanging the shepherd’s purse for the ruffled cuffs of the worldly cleric did not corrupt his Gascon peasant simplicity. It is as though faith, when it came to burn ardently in his soul, purged it of the cosmopolitan accretions and restored it. From the very beginnings of his deeper conversion in 1617, Vincent de Paul was constantly called to more heroic manifestations of faith in God’s Providence. Already in that year he founded his first charitable work, the “Charity” of Châtillon-les-Dombes, a parish confraternity devoted to the care of the poor in that farming community. From that humble beginning, he went from strength to strength, first as St. Francis de Sales’s own choice for the post of chaplain to the Visitation convent in Paris; to chaplain to the galley slaves of the Royal navy; leader of ordination retreats and weekly conferences of priestly formation; co-founder with Sainte Louise de Marillac of the Daughters of Charity; and then, the works coming in like hailstones, the founder and support of orphanages, hospitals, foreign missions, and massive relief works to whole regions of France ruined by the savagery of war.
Small wonder that his followers and collaborators occasionally felt breathless and overwhelmed. But like that resourceful musketeer who was his fictional contemporary, Monsieur Vincent seemed always to have the answer, sometimes in words, as when inspiring resolve in a flagging Louise de Marillac with the pointed exclamation: “Oh Madame, how far we are from the piety of the children of Israel, whose women gave their jewels to make a golden calf.” Or again, when exhorting his priests cheerfully to comply with the Rule’s provision of a 4:00 a.m. rising: “A merchant gets up early in the morning to get rich; thieves do the same and spend their nights lying in wait for passersby. Shall we be less diligent for the good than they are for ill?” And sometimes in deeds, by securing the last-minute benefactions, legal victories, and clerical alliances necessary to his many charitable works.
Ever-vigilant against incipient Jansenism, regularly victorious in head-to-head disputes with Mazarin about the choice of men for episcopal appointments, insistent that the poor be helped by being given tools with which to make their living, and the deadly foe of pride and sensuality: the mature Vincent de Paul was a man marked by vigor and earnestness. “Heaven suffers violence,” he once said, so “one must fight in order to win, fight to the very end the affections of the flesh and the blood.” Perhaps the urgency came from some sort of prophetic vision of France’s future. “What sort of men will they be who will strive to turn us away from those good works we have begun?” he once asked. “They will be free-thinkers (esprits libertins) who seek nothing but pleasure and amusement. Provided they have a good dinner, they do not trouble their heads about anything else.” One recalls the ceremonial last meal of another celebrated Frenchman—François Mitterand’s illicit feasting upon the tiny songbird the Ortolan—and blushes for poor France. How badly she needs—how badly we need—a double portion of the faith and the charity of St. Vincent de Paul.