Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 08
His Devotion and Piety Towards God
Devotion is a virtue which leads us to do with a special affection those things having to do with the worship and service of God, with a desire to honor and glorify him. It has no other limits than those imposed by charity. Since we honor and glorify God by the exercise of all sorts of virtues, Saint Ambrose has said that devotion is the foundation of the other virtues. <Ftn: PL 14.1.1, 424.> Saint Augustine assures us that true virtue cannot be found except in those who have a true devotion and piety towards God. <Ftn: PL 41:631.>
Monsieur Vincent excelled in all sorts of virtues, as we have begun to see in the preceding chapters and we shall continue to see this in the following chapters. Hence there is no doubt he was gifted with a sincere and perfect devotion for all that concerned the worship and honor of God.
The devotion of this saintly man was founded first on his exalted view of the infinite grandeur of God and upon a profound respect for his divine majesty. His self-denial in all the acts of religion, the references full of respect and honor that he used when speaking of God, and the most affectionate way in which he strove to inculcate a great esteem and thanks for the perfections and grandeur of God, were all evident signs of the saintly dispositions he carried in his heart.
He once spoke to his community as follows:
- "Make it your duty, my brothers, to conceive a great, a very great, idea of the majesty and sanctity of God. Could we but penetrate even a little into the immensity of his sovereign excellence, O Jesus, would that we could conceive the appropriate sentiments! Then we could well say with Saint Paul, that eyes have not seen, nor ears heard, nor the mind conceived anything like it. <Ftn: 1 Cor 2:9.> He is the unlimited perfection, the eternal being, most holy, most pure, most perfect, and infinitely glorious. He is the infinite good, encompassing all that is good, and he is wholly incomprehensible. This knowledge which we have, that God is infinitely above all knowledge and of all human understanding, ought to suffice to make us esteem him infinitely, to annihilate ourselves in his presence, and make us speak of his supreme majesty with great reverence and submission. Our appreciation of him ought to be in proportion to our love of him. This love should make us have a strong desire to acknowledge his blessings, and to form faithful adorers of his majesty. <Ftn: CED XI:48.>"
He had an incredible aversion to human pride. This vice robs God of the glory due him alone, and then with much temerity and injustice attributes this glory to a human being rather than to the Deity. Thus Monsieur Vincent waged a constant war against pride, not only in himself, but in all those over whom he had any influence, as we shall see more fully when we treat of his humility. We shall recount here only what he wrote to one of his priests serving on a mission.
How consoled I was to read that these good people are so devoted to their duty. I cannot tell you how concerned I was that this might not be the case. To God alone be the glory, and may those who work with you give him this thanks. If their small efforts have any success and produce any good (A Domino factum est istud) God has done this, <Ftn: Ps 118:23.> and to him alone should be the glory. O Monsieur, what an obstacle it is to the glorification of the name of God and to the sanctification of souls to attribute either of these to oneself or to think that you have had anything to do with it. May his divine goodness never allow any of the missionaries ever to let such a thought enter his head! It would be a great sacrilege even to think this. The whole Congregation would be guilty of this same crime if it adopted this same opinion that by their efforts the confreres had converted people to God, and that they should be honored and respected because of this. How anxious I am to have this truth engraved on the hearts of us all! Those who think they are the source of any good, and have contributed even a part to it, and who take pleasure in this thought, lose much more than they gained by the good they did.
To the edification of all, the devotion of the great servant of God was most evident, in his public celebration of the divine office. When he came to the choir to chant the psalms, he did so with much recollection, and appeared to be totally taken up with the presence of God. He often recommended that his community fulfill this duty to God both with respect and piety, and to walk gravely, with eyes cast down, looking neither right nor left. Although his heart was usually gentleness itself, he would not countenance the least faults in the recitation of the divine office. On the other hand, he could hardly restrain his expressions of joy when the office was well said.
When he presided at a solemn office, he took pains to be informed of all the details of the rubrics appropriate to the occasion. In his later years he was much chagrined at not being able to make all the genuflections prescribed for the feasts. He believed strongly and often recommended that the objects used in sacred worship be appropriate to their sacred use. He also wanted the rubrics to be observed exactly. Whenever there was a failure in this regard, he made his displeasure known.
He extended his reverence and his posture to his private recitation of the office, which he always made kneeling, his head uncovered. He continued to kneel, except for the last two or three years of his life when infirmities compelled him to remain seated.
God had given him a great devotion for all the mysteries of our holy religion, particularly those of the most holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, and that of the blessed sacrament of the altar. Since the most holy Trinity is the first and principal of the truths to be believed and adored, he was anxious to have it known and loved among souls, and taught on all the missions. Every morning and evening he honored this mystery with such devotion that he inspired all the members of his Congregation. He arranged to have included in the papal bull establishing the Congregation of the Mission an explicit obligation to honor daily in a special way this mystery of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation. The rule says: "We shall strive to acquit ourselves of this duty with great care, and in every possible way, but chiefly by observing three things: (1) producing from the heart, acts of faith and religion in these mysteries; (2) offering some prayers and good works every day in honor of these mysteries, and celebrating their feasts with all possible solemnity and devotion; (3) carefully striving by our instruction and example to have the people come to know, honor, and greatly respect these great mysteries." <Ftn: Common Rules, 10,2.>
Since the Church invites us to honor these mysteries in a special way on the principal feasts, which recall them to the minds of the faithful, Monsieur Vincent showed his extraordinary devotion on these occasions. Thus he would ordinarily preside at the high mass and at vespers with such a spirit of recollection, modesty, and gravity that his internal union with God was made evident. Even though he was very devout on the days of great feasts in everything concerning the honor and worship of God, he was no less so on ordinary days.
He rose regularly at 4:00 A.M., no matter what time he had gone to bed the night before. Many nights he slept for only two hours, as he himself stated. Nevertheless, at the first sound of the bell, he rose so promptly that the second ringing of the bell never found him still lying down. With his usual humility, he never failed to begin the day by performing his morning devotions. He wrote the following in his own hand, to a virtuous woman, urging her to make good use of this opportunity to praise God:
- "After rising I adore the Majesty of God. I thank him for the glory residing in him, and which he has shared with his Son, the Holy Virgin, the holy angels, with my guardian angel, with Saint John the Baptist, with the apostles, with Saint Joseph, and with all the saints in paradise. I thank him also for the graces he has given his holy Church, and especially for those graces which he has granted to me personally, and especially for having preserved my life during the past night. I offer my thoughts, words, and actions in union with those of Jesus Christ. I pray that he will keep me from offending him, and I ask for the grace to accept faithfully everything that shall be most agreeable to him. <Ftn: CED XIII:142-43.>"
After these acts of worship and thanksgiving, he made his bed. Then he went to the chapel to pray before the blessed sacrament, and despite having to wrap his swollen legs he managed to arrive within a half hour, and before many of the others. He was very happy to see the community assemble before our Lord. He strongly congratulated those most faithful in their prompt attendance, but was pained to see some arriving late for prayers.
After meditation he recited aloud with indescribable devotion the Litany of the Name of Jesus, and savored the titles of honor and praise given to the divine Savior. By his devotion to the litany he spread the balm of the sacred name in all hearts. Then allowing himself enough time for recollection, he prepared himself for mass, never allowing himself to be distracted by his many preoccupations. Often enough, he also went to confession. One of his priests wrote of him as follows: "I had the consolation of serving as his confessor while I was in Paris. I was able to see at first hand the sanctity and purity of his soul, which could not entertain even the appearance of sin."
He pronounced the words of the mass so distinctly, devoutly, and affectionately that his heart was obviously in what he did. This greatly edified those in attendance. He spoke in a moderate tone of voice, pleasantly, in a manner both devout and free, being neither too slow nor too hasty, but rather suitable to the sanctity of the occasion. Two traits united in him were rarely seen in the same person: a profound humility joined to a serious and majestic presence. He shared in the spirit of Jesus Christ who brought to the sacrifice the two differing qualities of both victim and priest. In keeping with the first, he humbled himself interiorly, as a criminal worthy of death before his judge. He recited the Confiteor, the words in spiritu humilitatis et in animo contrito ["in a humble spirit and a contrite heart", etc., and Nobis quoque peccatoribus ["Also to us sinners"] and others with sentiments of humility and contrition, and as though filled with fear. As priest, he offered in union with the whole Church prayers and praise to God, and joined them to the merits and person of Jesus Christ. He did so in a spirit of worship, with respect and love for God.
He said one day to his priests on this subject:
- "It is not enough for us merely to celebrate mass, for in keeping with God's will for us we should offer this sacrifice with as much devotion as is possible for us. With the help of his grace, we must conform ourselves as much as possible to Jesus Christ. While on earth he offered himself in sacrifice to his Eternal Father. We must do our best, gentlemen, as completely as our poor and miserable nature will allow, to offer our sacrifice to God in the same spirit as our Lord offered himself. <Ftn: CED XI:93.>
One of the oldest members of the Company remarked that the extraordinary devotion of Monsieur Vincent in the celebration of mass was especially apparent when he read the holy Gospel. Others, too, noticed it when he came to some of the words of our Lord. He pronounced them with such tender love that it struck a chord in all who heard them. On many occasions those who did not know him, but who attended his mass, were heard to say, there indeed is a priest who knows how to say mass; he must be a holy man. Others said that while he was at the altar, he seemed to them to have the appearance of an angel.
Several others noticed that when he read the holy Gospel and came upon the passages where our Lord said Amen, amen dico vobis, that is, I solemnly say to you, he paid particular attention to the words that followed, as if he were amazed that these were the words that God himself truly used. By the affectionate and devout tone of his voice, he testified to the prompt submission of his own heart in recognizing the great mystery and importance of these words. He seemed to be nourished by the passages of Scripture like a child taking his mother's milk. He drew such nourishment for his soul that in all his words and actions he seemed filled with the spirit of Jesus Christ.
When he turned towards the faithful, the expression on his face was modest and serene. By his gesture of extending his arms, he portrayed the attitude of his heart, and the great desire he had that all present should be united to Jesus Christ.
Since he recognized the sacrifice of the mass as the center of Christian devotion and as the most important of all priestly actions, he never failed to celebrate mass each day, except for the first three days of the annual retreat, in keeping with the custom of the community. During these days of retreat the priests and brothers recalled any faults and failings they might have committed. In a spirit of penance they did not approach the altar until after their annual or general confession. Except for those days, this devout servant of Jesus Christ regularly celebrated daily mass, no matter where he might be, whether in the city or in the country, or even on a trip. He made it a rule that the priests of the Company do the same. It was never known that he ever failed in this practice, as long as he was still able to stand erect. Ordinary indispositions would not hinder him. Often he said mass or went to meditation when he had a fever, which he usually called his little warmup.
He was not content with just celebrating mass every day, for he also had the devotion of periodically serving the other priests at the altar. He would do this even when overwhelmed with business affairs. He continued this practice well into his old age, even when he was more than seventy-five years old and could no longer walk without a cane, or could kneel only with great difficulty because of his inflamed legs. At this venerable age and in this sickly condition the first superior of the Congregation of the Mission continued to fulfill the office of acolyte, in serving other priests at the altar, to the great edification of all who witnessed this.
He recommended that when the clerics of his Company attended mass, they should never allow a lay person to act as an acolyte. Instead, they themselves should get a surplice and provide this ministry, for he said, "Laymen do not have the right to serve, except in cases of necessity. It is shameful that a cleric, deputed for the service of the altar, should see his office taken by those without this sacred character."