History is Philosophy teaching by examples. — Thucydides

Life of St. Vincent de Paul - F. A. Forbes




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 neighboring 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 favor 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."