The incident which had given rise to Vincent's first mission at Folleville had never been forgotten by Madame de Gondi. It seemed to her that there was need to multiply such missions among the country poor, and no sooner had Vincent returned to her house than she offered him a large sum of money to endow a band of priests who would devote their lives to evangelizing the peasantry on her estates.
Vincent was delighted, but considering himself unfit to undertake the management of such an enterprise, he proposed that it should be put into the hands of the Jesuits or the Oratorians.
Madame de Gondi, although convinced in her own mind that Vincent, and Vincent alone, was the man to carry out the enterprise, obediently suggested it to one religious Order after another. In every case some obstacle intervened, until the Countess was more than ever persuaded that her first instinct had been right. Knowing Vincent's loyalty to Holy Church and his obedience to authority, she determined to have recourse to her brother-in-law, the Archbishop of Paris. An old house called the Collège des Bons Enfants was at that moment vacant. She asked it of the Archbishop, whom she had interested in her scheme, and who proposed to Vincent to undertake the foundation. There was no longer room for hesitation; the will of God seemed plain; indeed, Vincent's love of the poor had been for some time struggling with his humility.
The new Congregation was to consist of a few good priests who, renouncing all thought of honor and worldly advancement, were to devote their lives to preaching in the villages and small towns of France. Their traveling expenses were to be paid from a common fund. They were to spend themselves in the service of their neighbor, instructing, catechizing and exhorting; and they were to take nothing in return for their labors. Nine months of the year were to be given to this kind of work; the other three to prayer and preparation.
In March, 1625, the foundation was made, and Vincent de Paul was named the first superior. It was stipulated, however, that he should remain, as he had already promised, in the house of the founders, a condition which seemed likely to doom the enterprise to failure. Vincent could hardly fail to realize how necessary it was that the superior of a new Congregation should be in residence in his own house, but he confided the little company to God and awaited the development of events.
The solution was altogether unexpected. Two months after the signing of the contract of foundation, Madame de Gondi was taken suddenly ill, and she died a few days later. Her broken-hearted husband not only consented to Vincent's residence in the Collège des Bons Enfants, but shortly afterwards, leaving that world where he had shone so brilliantly, he himself became a postulant at the Oratory.
The beginnings of the new Congregation were humble enough. Its members were three in number: Vincent, his friend M. Portail, and a poor priest who had lately joined them. Before setting out on their mission journeys they used to give the key of the house to a neighbor; but as there was nothing in it to steal, there was little cause for anxiety. In the course of their travels other priests, realizing the greatness of the work, asked to be enrolled in the little company. Its growth, nevertheless, was slow; ten years after the foundation the Congregation only numbered thirty-three members; but Vincent had no desire that it should be otherwise. In 1652 it was recognized by Pope Urban VIII under the name of the Congregation of the Mission.
Vincent lavished the greatest care on the training of his priests. They were to be simple and frank in their relations with the poor, modest in manner, friendly and easy of access.
"Our sermons must go straight to the point," he would say, "so that the humblest of our hearers may understand; our language must be clear and unaffected." The love of virtue and the hatred of evil were the points to be insisted on; the people were to be shown where virtue lay and how to attain it. For "fine sermons" Vincent had the greatest contempt; he would use his merry wit to make fun of the pompous preachers whose only thought was to impress their audience with an idea of their own eloquence.
"Of what good is a display of rhetoric?" he would ask; "who is the better for it? It serves no purpose but self-advertisement."
The Mission Priests did good wherever they went; everybody wanted them, and it was hard to satisfy the appeals for missions which came from all over the country. In due time the Congregation outgrew the Collège des Bons Enfants, and was transferred to a large Augustinian priory which had originally been a leper hospital, and still bore the name of St. Lazare.
Up to this time the Mission Priests had contented themselves with ministering to the peasantry, but in the course of their travels it had become painfully apparent that the clergy themselves were in urgent need of some awakening force. Those of good family led, for the most part, worldly and frivolous lives, while the humbler sort were as ignorant as the peasants among whom they lived. The religious wars had led to laxity and carelessness; drunkenness and vice were fearfully prevalent.
To Vincent, with his high ideals of the priesthood, this was a terrible revelation. The old custom of giving a retreat to priests who were about to be ordained had fallen into disuse. With the assistance of some of the French bishops he determined to revive it, and retreats of ten or fourteen days were organized at St. Lazare for candidates to the priesthood. Here, in an atmosphere of prayer and recollection, those who were about to be ordained had every opportunity of realizing the greatness of the step that they were taking and of making resolutions for their future lives.
The Mission Priests were to help in this work more by example than by precept; they were to preach by humility and simplicity. "It is not by knowledge that you will do them good," Vincent often repeated, "or by the fine things you say, for they are more learned than you—they have read or heard it all before. It is by what they see of your lives that you will help them; if you yourselves are striving for perfection, God will use you to lead these gentlemen in the right way."
The blessing of God seemed, indeed, to rest upon the ordination retreats; nearly all who made them carried away something of Vincent's noble ideal of the priestly life. Many to whom they had been the turning point of a lifetime, felt the need of further help and instruction from the man who had awakened all that was noblest in their natures.
To meet this necessity Vincent inaugurated a kind of guild for young priests who desire to live worthy of their vocation. Weekly gatherings were held at St. Lazare under the name of "Tuesday Conferences," where difficulties were discussed, debates held and counsels given. It was not easy to belong to the "Conferences." Members were pledged to offer their lives completely to God and to renounce all self-interest. Nevertheless, they increased rapidly in number, and the Conferences were attended by all the most influential priests in Paris.
But Vincent's zeal was boundless, and one good work grew out of another. The retreats for ordination candidates having been so successful, he conceived the idea of giving retreats on the same lines for the laity. The work thrived beyond all expectation. All were admitted without exception: noblemen and beggars, young men and old, the learned and the ignorant, priests and laymen. St. Lazare at such times, Vincent once said, was like Noah's ark: every kind of creature was to be found in it.
The only difficulty was the expense entailed, for many of the retreatants could pay nothing toward their board and lodging, and Vincent would refuse nobody. Here, as in so many other cases, it was the Congregation of the Ladies of Charity, founded by Vincent in Paris, that came nobly to his rescue. There was Madame de Maignelais, sister of M. de Gondi, who, left a widow at the age of twenty, devoted herself and her enormous fortune to alms and good works. There was the Duchesse d'Aiguillon, niece of the great Richelieu; Madame de Miramion, beautiful and pious; Madame Goussault, the first President of the Dames de Charité; and many others, whose purses were always at Vincent's disposal.
The Congregation of the Mission Priests was to inaugurate another good work for which there was an urgent necessity in the world of Vincent's day. While yet at the Collège des Bons Enfants, he had realized how great was the need of a special training for young men destined for the priesthood and had founded a small seminary. After the move to St. Lazare the undertaking had grown and prospered. A college of the same kind had been lately founded by M. Olier, the zealous curé of St. Sulpice; and these two institutions, the first of the famous seminaries which were later to spread all over France, were powerful for the reform of the clergy. One hundred and fifty years later the Mission Priests of St. Lazare alone were at the head of sixty such seminaries.
So the work of the Congregation increased and multiplied until it seemed almost too much for human capacity. But Vincent knew wherein lay the strength of the Mission Priests. "How may we hope to do our work?" he would ask. "How can we lead souls to God? How can we stem the tide of wickedness among the people? Let us realize that this is not man's work at all, it is God's. Human energy will only hinder it unless directed by God. The most important point of all is that we should be in touch with Our Lord in prayer."
Dearest to his heart of all his undertakings was the first and chief work of the Congregation—the holding of missions for the poor. By twos and threes he would send out his sons to their labors, bidding them travel to their destination in the cheapest possible way. They were to accept neither free quarters nor gifts of any kind. All their thoughts and prayers were to be concentrated on their work: they were to live for their mission. Two sermons were to be preached daily—simple instructions on the great truths—and those who had not yet made their First Communion were to be catechized. The mission lasted ten or fourteen days, during which the Mission Priests were to have as much personal contact with the people as possible, visiting the sick and the infirm, reconciling enemies and showing themselves as the friends of all.
It was no easy task to be a good Mission Priest. It meant self-mastery, self-renunciation, self-forgetfulness total and complete. It meant the laying aside of much that lies very close to a man's heart. "Unless the Congregation of the Mission is humble," said Vincent, "and realizes that it can accomplish nothing of any value, but that it is more apt to mar than to make, it will never be of much effect; but when it has this spirit it will be fit for the purposes of God."
Yet, in spite of all that such a vocation meant of self-renunciation, year after year the Mission Priests increased in number. "This work is not human, it is from God," was Vincent's answer to those who marvelled at the power of the company for good.