Saint Vincent De Paul

A Sermon by Cardinal Manning


Delivered on the two hundredth anniversary of the Saint, at St. Edward's, Westminster, 27 September 1861

Well done, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a little, thou shalt have power over ten cities.

(St. Luke xix. 17)

Saint Vincent de Paul

AT THIS HOUR, two hundred years ago, St. Vincent entered into the joy of his Lord. It was this day two hundred years ago, as the morning broke, that in a quiet sleep, he passed into the Beatific Vision; and the life which through eighty-five years had burned like a fire in the fragrance of charity, ascended to the Paradise of God, and shone forth as the splendor of the noonday sun in the eternal kingdom. What a day, then, is this, not for his children alone, but for the whole Church of God, and for all who are under the influence of its benign and loving influence! Today may be called a festival of charity.

This parable of our Divine Lord seems to sketch out, and, as it were, to prophesy, the life, the works and the rewards of His Saints. The purport, as you know, is this: A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return; and his citizens sent an embassage after him, saying: We will not have this man to reign over us (St. Luke xix, 12-14). Before he departed he gave to his ten servants ten pounds, to each of them one pound, and bade them trade until he came again. And when he returned, the first came to him with wonder and astonishment at the fertility and the multiplication of one pound—the little trust committed to his charge, and said, 'Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds.' He said, 'Thy pound,' knowing that the power of multiplication lay in this, that it was not his, but his Lord's. And the lord said, 'Well done, thou good servant; because thou hast been faithful in a little, thou shalt have power over ten cities,' that is, a share in my kingdom; and so, in proportion, with the rest. Let me now make application of this to the great Saint whose jubilee we commemorate today.

But before I speak of St. Vincent I must needs speak of the state of the land which gave him birth, and of the work that he had to do in it. First, then, bring to mind what was the condition of France before the birth of St. Vincent. The Church of God, in the beginning, extinguished all national differences in the unity of Jesus Christ. It then, by the providence of God, took the place of the mighty empire of Rome, in which those national distinctions were only held in check by the force of arms. It laid the foundation of a new family, in which, though men spoke different tongues, they had but one heart and one mind. Christian and Catholic Europe, which grew up under the action of the Holy See and the unity of the Catholic Church, was as one household in faith and charity; and the national jealousies, rivalries, distinctions, and repulsions, which now tear the world asunder, were held in check. And so it was for many centuries, under modern Europe, as we call it—that is, the latter form and aspect of Europe as we see it now—began to form itself by the division of races, of language and of kingdoms. Then national divisions became organized, and national pride grew strong and nations began to contend with the Holy See and to strain the unity of the Catholic Church. This had been going on for centuries before St. Vincent's birth. It would be out of place in speaking with you to enter into any detail about it; all I need say is this, that for some two centuries or more, the kings and princes of Europe had been wrestling with the Vicar of Christ, endeavoring to vindicate what they called their liberties and rights, their prerogatives and customs, and so to draw their kingdoms and nations under their own exclusive sway as to deprive the Vicar of Jesus Christ of the royalties which were vested in him by the Son of God. This had been attempted in no country more openly than France; until at last, about a century before the birth of St. Vincent, Francis I wrung by force out of the hands of the Vicar of Christ a concordat or agreement by which he obtained the nomination of all the bishoprics in his kingdom. From so slight a thing so great an evil came. The effect of it was at once to introduce secularity and corruption into the exercise of patronage in the highest places of the Church. The kings and princes of France nominated their favorites, their dependents, their parasites, and their creatures to archbishoprics and bishoprics. Some of them were clothed with the purple of the Church, as cardinals; at the same time they were ministers of state, they were diplomatists, they were the counselors of the kings; and they acted as if the maxim of their life was: Seek ye first the kingdom of France and its glory, putting it before the kingdom of God, before the Church of God, before the laws of the Church, and before the rights of the Holy See. France became intensely worldly, and therefore intensely corrupt. Perhaps in no country in the world, since Christianity has been in it, was there ever a harvest more ripe for the scourges which came afterwards. If such was the state of bishops in the Church, what must have been the state of the priesthood? If such were the spiritual fathers, what must have been the sons on whose heads they laid their hands? What was the preparation and knowledge of those who were ordained? "Impose not hands lightly upon any man" (1 Tim. v. 22) were words that had little terror in the eyes of some. The consequence was, that a body of clergy grew up throughout a great part of France, perhaps without any parallel. Seminaries, which had been introduced by order of the Council of Trent, seemed to die out as lights in a poisoned atmosphere. They were no sooner kindled than they expired. The attempts made to found seminaries, in execution of the decrees of the Council, had so utterly failed, that the land was without due preparation of its priesthood. The discipline and life of the clergy I will not touch upon; it is not only distasteful, but even scandalous, to speak of the priests of God when evil comes amongst them. The state of the clergy may be judged from this, that when the reformation of the priesthood of France began, the Archbishop of Paris divided his clergy into three parts: those who were sufficiently instructed, and whose lives were sufficiently exemplary to continue their functions; secondly, those who might, by a course of discipline, instruction, and training, be still retained in the exercise of their ministry; and thirdly, those who were so utterly unfit, so hopelessly incapable, that nothing could be done with them but to teach them to live virtuously for the saving of their own souls. If such was the state of the pastors, what must have been the state of the flock? As it descends from bishop to priest, so it descends from priest to people. Priests are the salt of the earth, and "if the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned?" When the Church of God loses its power over society, the classes part asunder. The beautiful and vital continuity of charity, the contact of love whereby the spirit of Christianity spreads through all grades of social life, sanctifies, illuminates, mitigates, and unites together the rich and the poor, and all the intermediate orders of society, thereby is broken. Charity having become cold, the rich and the poor in France stood apart in open antagonism, with no common sympathies, no common interests; the rich wringing out of the toils of the poor the revenues of their lands, and the poor looking up with jealousy and with enmity, which, if enmity may be pardoned, is almost excusable in them, against those who lived by their toil, and gave them no love in return.

The social state, perhaps, in all countries, at that time, was bad enough; and if I speak in this way of France, it is not to make a contrast in favor of England, for the Christian society of Europe was hardly ever more divided, or more corrupt, than at that period. In France, the rich were intensely selfish, and proud almost beyond example in any aristocracy in the world; fenced in and surrounded by privileges which were guarded, not only by personal jealousies, but by sanguinary laws. In no Christian country were the poor in a state of greater ignorance, greater misery, and greater degradation, more wounded to the very heart, than they were in France. Such was the state of the soil which gave birth to St. Vincent. God, in His justice and providence, was preparing for it two revolutions: the one a revolution of charity, and the other a revolution of chastisement. A revolution of charity came first, like the words of Our Divine Lord to His people when He said, when these things come to pass, "then let those that are in Judea flee to the mountains"—giving them an opportunity of escape and of salvation. Then came the revolution of chastisement, long delayed, full three hundred years, in the patience of God, until, in 1793, it broke forth in a deluge of fire and blood which ravaged France, and has made the French Revolution a name of horror on the page of history.

SUCH WAS FRANCE when Vincent received "the pound" from His Lord. How little was his beginning! He was the son of a poor man living at the foot of the Pyrenees. His father had a few acres of land and a few cattle, and Vincent's work as a boy was to keep his sheep. When he was ten or twelve years old, he lived a life of prayer among the herds of oxen in the field. At the age of twelve, he was sent to be instructed by the Franciscans; as if God in His wonderful providence had brought the soul whom He destined to be the Evangelist of the poor in contact with the saint who is the seraphic father of the poor. He learned, no doubt, his love of poverty not only from his birth, but from the poverty of St. Francis. His poverty was such that, in order to maintain himself without burdening his father, and to continue his studies, he became an assistant tutor in a family just removed above want. In that state he continued until the age of eighteen or twenty, when it was determined, seeing his capacity, quickness, and intelligence, that he should be sent to Toulouse. His father sold two oxen, and with the price of the oxen paid his journey. At Toulouse he pursued his studies for some six or seven years, and after ordination he was compelled again to become a tutor, that he might maintain himself. In that state, as domestic tutor and chaplain in a family, the most commonplace state of life we can imagine, he continued until he was about thirty-eight or forty years of age. So unmarked, so unemphatic, so commonplace were the preparations of St. Vincent's life. Then, when he was called to begin his greatest works, he almost stood alone. He had but two companions, the first Fathers of the Congregation of the Mission; and so utterly unconscious was he that he was called to any work, that he invited the fathers of the Society of Jesus, who, with their great and ready charity, had rendered assistance in the beginning of his labors, to take up the work of which he himself was the founder. He proposed that the funds to be given to him should be transferred to them, or to some others, that they might do the work instead of himself. Then, again, in founding the Sisters of Charity, he had for his assistant one simple woman, without anything to mark her character, except her charity and piety. She was his sole assistant. It was truly a "very little" that was committed to St. Vincent; we can hardly conceive a poorer outfit for so great a work.

Such was he who was chosen of God and sent into the midst of a kingdom, such as I have described, to work a revolution of charity, to anticipate a revolution of chastisement, and to leave an impression upon the whole land and population, which endures to this day. It goes one, too, ever multiplying and deepening from age to age, and will, so long as the love of God shall last on earth; making the name of Vincent glorious, I may say, above the saints of God in this; that to him was specially committed, in these latter days, the ministry of active charity to the modern society of the world. We shall see presently how the other great saints and servants of God, who were raised up in France, were a constellation round about him. Glorious too they were, each one of them; but he was the central sun.

And now let us look at the work he did, and how it arose in the simplicity of a soul entirely humbled in its own eyes, entirely unconscious of the great mission that God sent it to fulfil.

Being on a summer visit to the estates of a great family in which he was then tutor, he found a poor man, a peasant, on the bed of death desiring to see a priest. He heard that this man had neglected his duties for years. He went, with his accustomed charity; and the man declared to him that he had made bad confessions for years past. He said that he had a fear of revealing certain sins which he had committed in his youth, and that he shrunk with great repugnance from laying his soul open to the parish priest. Out of this bad confession arose the whole of the great structure of the charity of Vincent, the Congregation of the Missions; a work which, in his lifetime numbered twenty-five houses, and at this day is spread throughout Christendom. Even before he closed his eyes, it was penetrating into the four quarters of the world. All took its rise from so slight a cause. Then it was that he called in the Jesuits, who came and assisted him charitably and zealously, until, at last, God opened his eyes to see that he was the man whom God had marked out; that He would give him companions to do the work; and that he should leave it in no other hand, and transfer it to no other. Then again, when he was once about to preach at Chatillon, as he was going up into the pulpit a person stopped him, and told him that there was a poor family who were lying sick; and prayed him, in his sermon, to say something to move the congregation to give alms. He did so; and the effect was, that after Vespers, as he went to see the same poor family, he met people either going or returning, carrying baskets with relief of every kind. It struck him at once that this zeal needed only organization; and he laid the foundation of what was called the Confraternity of Charity—the pious union of lay persons, which now spreads through France with singular beneficence. This, again, took its rise from the simple fact of a poor family in distress. The word of God out of his mouth was, as it were, "a fire, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces." He spoke, and at once there was a response in those that heard: they came, and gave themselves to this office of charity.

Then, again, there was another work for which God had prepared him. He had once been a captive in Barbary, and had tasted of bondage and imprisonment. He had now become chaplain of the galleys and prisons of the kingdom; and it was this consciousness of the misery of prisoners which moved him to lay the foundation of his great works of charity for the prisons in France.

Soon finding that the Confraternity of Charity was too weak, too unformed, too unorganized, having no sufficient unity or perpetuity in itself, he conceived the purpose of his second greatest work—the foundation of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity. He had but one assistant, of whom I have spoken. And this work, which they began with so small and slender an outfit, has grown to this day to number 16,000, who are spread throughout the world, in the East and in the West, in Christian and heathen lands, ministering to the sick in hospitals, or to the wounded upon the field of battle; who are to be seen everywhere whose presence surrounds them with a cloister. They were founded in the beginning for eight distinct works of mercy: to visit the sick in their homes, to give them temporal relief, to stay with them during their sickness, to serve them in hospitals, to take care of foundlings, to teach children, to instruct the ignorant, and, lastly, to receive persons for retreat.

Then there came another and a greater work. St. Vincent, seeing that the evil arose chiefly from the condition of the Priesthood, was the first to introduce into France the complete execution of the decrees of the Council of Trent, whereby seminaries are ordered. The spiritual industry, the prudence in detail by which St. Vincent prepared youths for the priesthood, and supported them in their sacerdotal life after they were ordained, was such, that he may be said to be the father and founder of this system in France.

There remains one other part of his work of which I will speak. He had at that time gained, by love and by veneration, a universal influence in France. He had become the Confessor of the Queen, and through her he became a member of what was called the Council of Conscience; so that he, with four others, had the distribution of the ecclesiastical patronage of the Crown. He had been raised up, as it were, to correct the evils of which I have spoken before. It was he, more than any other man, who nominated the pastors and bishops of the Church of France; it was he who hindered the nomination of corrupt persons; he it was who stood by the fountain to purify the waters from taint as they first issued from the source. By a most singular, visible, and legible providence, God had taken the poor shepherd, into whose soul He had poured out the light of charity, and placed him in the Council of State, which watched over the hierarchy of the French Church. And not only this; but round about him there had gathered a constellation of other servants of God—names that I need hardly repeat. One only I will mention, because it so intimately illustrates how God was working this secret revolution of charity, and how, by the special presence of His Holy Spirit, He was gathering out His elect in France. It is only one of many examples, but it will suffice.

There was a poor woman, the wife of a tavern-keeper, of the name of Marie de Gournay. She was a woman of prayer; and because she was a woman of prayer she was a woman who had power with God and man. That poor woman one day saw a company of youths coming from a fair. She stopped them, and said, with tears, "O, how I have prayed for your conversion!" And her words had power by the Holy Ghost. They entered into the heart of one of those youths, who was about twenty. He changed his life, and came and gave himself into the hands of St. Vincent, as his director. St. Vincent trained him for the priesthood, and employed him in his missions; and that man was Olier, who was afterwards the founder of the Congregation of St. Sulpice, and of the seminaries which sprang from it. He was the servant of God who taught the priesthood of France the interior life of Jesus, as their pattern and example, which made them to be a light to the whole Church.

Now, here we see how God was preparing this revolution of charity by His Spirit in St. Vincent; and I need not dwell farther upon his works. I will only say that there were round about him many who were also eminent. Some are now canonized; and some who have not been canonized by the Church were doubtless saints. They came round about him as the sun and moon and stars in the patriarch's vision, and did homage to him, because of his greater splendor and altitude in charity, and the love of God.

BUT IF HE was great during his own lifetime, how great has he become since! How great is the reward which has been given to that "one pound" well used—to that very little in which he was found faithful! On this day, when the morning light was breaking, he entered into the joy of his Lord; and then he saw, face to face, Him whom he had seen by faith. By the light of faith he had seen his Lord God long, and by the light of faith he had loved God well. But what joy was his when at last his eyes opened on the Beatific Vision! For the Beatific Vision is measured by the charity which is in the soul on earth; and the soul of Vincent had a capacity for the charity of God and man which has made him eminent among the saints. There are many we might put beside him; but few are they who may be put before him. Surely, next to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts—and others, whom God knows and we know not—few hearts there are in the kingdom of God who with a larger vision or a greater intensity behold the Vision of Peace.

And how did God specially prepare him for this apostolate? He prepared him as He prepared His prophet in Jerusalem. Ezekiel was led from chamber to chamber to see the abominations of Judah, the idolatries, the scandals, the corruptions, the miseries, the sufferings, the spiritual death of the people of God. He went from chamber to chamber through the hole in the wall. He broke through into the sanctuary, into the Temple, into the holy of holies, and saw how the name of God was profaned. So God took Vincent, and gave to him first the life of the Cross—a life of poverty, a life in which he knew and tasted of captivity, of scorn, of false accusation, and of a thousand other trials—that He might make him the saint of the poor, and the saint of the sufferer, and the saint of all those who have to bear what he called himself "the burden of his heart"—the miseries and sufferings of his brethren. He made him first to taste these things; and through his whole active life, from the very time he put his foot upon the threshold of his lifelong toil—that is from the age of forty to the age of eighty-five—he was continually afflicted by sickness and lameness, which almost nailed him to the spot where he was. So that God, to confound our wisdom and our prudence, to humble by a signal contradiction all our modes of action, gave into the hands of a man whom He tied as it were to one spot by a burden of infirmity, such a power of charity, such a universality of direction, that he is above all the saint of the active works of the Church. In this way, God prepared Vincent; first, by giving him an intense perception of the spiritual and corporal miseries of mankind, and then an intense charity for their redress; and that intense charity contained in it two things, an exceedingly tender pity, and a perfectly irresistible and unresting zeal.

Now of this I am sure, that St. Vincent would not own us if we met together today simply to speak his praise; if we were to meet and part today without rendering to him the highest and greatest act of worship which the Church pays her saints; that is, a loving imitation. And what is it he asks of you? It is to imitate him, and to do as he did. The highest veneration of the saints of God is to be like them; and if we desire especially to venerate any particular saint, then to be like him in that which made him eminent among the saints of God.

All that I can now do is to enumerate five points, so homely and so simple, in the life and character of St. Vincent, that there is not one among you who may not practice them.

And first: his greatness in the kingdom of God began in this, that he was utterly unconscious he had anything great in himself. Of all thought of self, all thought of what he possessed, of what he was, or of what he could do, or of what he had done, of all intentions, schemes or theories which depend upon self, or hang upon self, he was utterly unconscious. Like our Blessed Mother, who in her Magnificat glorifies and magnifies the Lord; whose soul goes forth out of herself, because, being full of grace, she was therefore unconscious of her greatness; so Vincent, being made an instrument of God for this work of charity, was unconscious that he possessed it more than other men.

Next, if we wish to do anything for God, we must begin with self-mistrust; we must begin by simply putting away all confidence in ourselves, all thought that, by skill or contrivance, by plans or modes of action depending upon our human prudence and natural activity, we can do any work for God. God will not accept the work which has no root higher and purer than ourselves. He accepts only the work which springs from the root which He plants in the heart by His own supernatural grace.

Then again, in St. Vincent we find an extraordinary humility in all the works he had to do. He began by teaching and confessing the peasants of the family in which he was the tutor; he began by asking a congregation to send their alms to a suffering family. He did the work which lay at his door, the act of charity which was immediately before him; the work which belonged to the day, or to the hour, or to the moment, or to the place, that work he did. Imitate him in this. The old proverb, "Charity begins at home," so often quoted and so little understood, means this: the first act of charity is like the expansion of the circle in the water; it springs from its center, it cannot overleap the intermediate space. Depend upon it, therefore, that if our hearts conceive great thoughts of charity, if we dream of some work at a distance, while we are not doing the work of charity which lies at our very feet, it is a mere illusion. Therefore, begin in your homes, begin with your own servants, begin with your own neighbors, begin with your own dependents, begin with those who are brought into immediate contact with you. Charity works as heat spreads. Heat passes through bodies that conduct it, gradually and steadily through the whole mass, spreading from the point where it begins. So it is with charity. Let your charity, then, begin in the humble works of kindness, love, and self-denial, giving up your will, or giving away what you possess for the good, corporal and spiritual, of those immediately about you.

And then another mark in the character of St. Vincent was this, that though his works were so humble in the beginning, they were perfectly boundless in their scope; that is to say, every soul that was in need, every soul that was in sickness, every misery, every want, his heart desired and his soul yearned, as it were, to find a remedy for. And though our hands are narrow, and though our reach is short, our hearts may be large; and if we love God, we shall not limit ourselves to that which is round about us, but we shall long and desire to do all we can, and pray for that which we are not able to do, that God may find some others better fitted and worthier to do it than ourselves.

And then lastly, as he began with an utter unconsciousness of anything in himself, an utter absence of all confidence in himself, he was strong and mighty in his confidence in God; for he knew that whatever is done for the glory of God must succeed. It may not succeed in our way, or in our shape, or in our time; but he knew perfectly, that whatever is done for the glory of God, in God's own way, shape and time, must succeed. Therefore, it was no matter to him whether a thing was apparently successful or not; he went on steadily, without making himself anxious in the least as to the success or failure of his undertakings; for he knew that essentially all was for the glory of God, and that it must come to pass; when, it was no matter to him. Do you likewise those works which are for the glory of God, and you shall have the same confidence and peace. There is no work of charity which is not for the glory of God. Even little things, small and humble as they are, may be dignified in their character by being done for His glory.

St. Vincent calls on you today to offer to him the homage that you owe; the homage of your prayer, that he would revive his work in the midst of us and multiply it exceedingly; and the homage of your alms, that you will give according to your power, now and always—not today only, but hereafter, according to the law of charity which he practiced, explained, and commented upon; for his life is a page of the gospel of Jesus Christ, brought home to all the states and conditions of modern society. He has taught you how, if you cannot do works of charity in your own person, to assist those that do; for if all cannot labor, all can pray. And then for you also his intercession will go up in heaven; and of all the hands, holy and undefiled, that are lifted up before the Eternal Throne few there are that prevail to bring down a greater benediction, not only upon his children, but also upon his clients in all the Church throughout this evil world.