Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 24/Section 01
Continuation of the Same Topic
The leadership of Monsieur Vincent being what it was, as we have seen in this chapter, he followed a definite priority in his concerns. First, he sought to destroy sin and the faults and failings in those under his care. He asked those who wished to be admitted to the Congregation to enter the internal seminary, established as a school of virtue, to root out their vices and evil inclinations by the practice of humility, mortification, obedience, meditation, and the other exercises of the spiritual life. After spending enough time there, if there were some who needed to study theology or philosophy he sent them on for these studies. He feared that these studies would diminish their first fervor, or possibly lead to too great a desire for knowledge, or even to curiosity. Because of this unease, he gave the following advice:
The step from the seminary to studies is dangerous, and has caused the ruin of many persons. If there is any time we must be on our guard about our faith, it is surely when we go on for our studies. Going from one extreme to the other is dangerous. A glass that comes from the furnace into the cold runs the risk of cracking. In the same way it is most important to maintain one's first fervor, to preserve the grace received, and to prevent human nature from surprising us. If each time we enlighten our understanding we strive to move our will, our studies will serve to bring us closer to God. We can be sure of the maxim that the more we perfect our own interior, the greater will be our capacity for serving our neighbor. This is why, in studying to be better equipped to serve souls we must be careful to nourish our own soul with both piety and knowledge. We must read good books, and avoid those which simply satisfy our curiosity. Curiosity is the pest of the spiritual life. The curse of our first parents brought death, disease, famine, war, and all the other miseries of our world. Therefore we too must be on our guard for curiosity is the root of all sorts of trouble. <Ftn: CED XI:28-29.>
Not only must we banish such curiosity from our Company, but sensuality must go, too. Unhappy is he who seeks his own satisfaction. Unhappy is he who avoids the cross, for he will find it so heavy he will not carry it. Anyone who minimizes the practice of external mortification, saying interior mortification is much more perfect, makes it clear that he is not mortified at all, either outwardly or inwardly. <Ftn: CED XI:71.>
On another occasion he said, "I have noticed that most of those who have lost their vocation have failed in two things. The first is the morning rising, which they have not faithfully observed, and the second is the appearance of their hair, which they allowed to grow too long, and which seems to lead to other similar vanities."
In this connection he wanted all the priests of his Congregation to wear their hair short. When he encountered someone whose hair came down over his collar, he would reach for a strand, and pull it a bit, smiling all the while, but letting it be understood that he preferred it to be cut. Sometimes he would say a word or two publicly, since the failing was public and for all to see.
He was aware that among religious persons, and especially those living in community, some vices were to be feared more than others, particularly rivalry and slander. To counteract any tendency towards these faults among his confreres, he used to say that "the traits of envy and detraction pierce first the heart of Jesus Christ before they harmed those sinned against, or before they reach those persons for whom it is desired."
He used another device to counteract vice and the failings in the houses under his control. This was fraternal correction. But since this is something not too easy for nature to accept, he used it with such mildness and courtesy that the words of the wise man were verified in him: "The wounds of him who loves me were sweeter than the deceitful kisses of my enemy." <Ftn: Prov 27:6.>
Ordinarily he did not use corrections on the spur of the moment, and never in anger. He acted in a spirit of charity, after reflecting before God, and taking into account the dispositions of the one to be corrected and how to make the admonition useful and salutary. Once he had to correct a difficult character, someone not at all disposed to receive such advice. He made his mental prayer for three days on the issue to ask God's light on the best way to handle it.
When he did make some observations to someone, it was always with such grace mixed with firmness that it was like the oil and wine of the good Samaritan. Usually the results were good.
In the first place, he would show his regard for the person involved, and even praise him for the good qualities he recognized in him. Next he would show him his fault in all its ramifications, as it affected others, and its circumstances of time, place, and other elements. Lastly, he would suggest the proper remedy. To help in having his suggestions better received, he would then include himself into the criticism, according to the nature of the fault being discussed. He would say, for example, Monsieur, or brother, you and I both need to work at acquiring humility, or to acquire patience, to be punctual, or whatever virtue was under consideration.
He tried to make his corrections not only useful, but even agreeable to those he was admonishing. He took care never to hint at who might have complained about the fault. He preferred not to blame the offender if by doing so he would introduce some division into the community as a result. He considered that peace and unity in a community are preferable to all other benefits.
Once he spoke to the community about members not seeking any positions of responsibility:
He who is in charge of others is responsible for their failings if he does not prevent them with humility, with meekness, and with charity. The first time you have to admonish someone you should do so mildly and graciously, and even then, only after waiting a long time. On the second occasion, you should speak a bit more severely and gravely, but still courteously, using prayers and charitable remonstrances. The third time, you must speak firmly and earnestly, telling the offender what he must do to correct himself. <Ftn: CED XI:140.>
One day when he was about to correct one of his confreres, he first asked him if he were willing to hear something that had to be said, to which he answered that he was. This way of acting so impressed him and remained in his memory that he has assured us himself that it had a great effect upon him. He has rarely been tempted to commit this same fault again without recalling the kindness with which this wise superior had dealt with him.
A certain missionary was assigned to a position of some danger, and he proved to be difficult with those for whom he worked. Monsieur Vincent prudently gave him a series of directives about what he should and should not do, but on several occasions he went beyond what he had been told. To his chagrin, God permitted him to experience some of the consequences of his fault. Monsieur Vincent sent him a paternal correction, helping him profit from his mistakes by learning from experience the consequences of disobeying the orders of his superiors. He ended his letter to him with these words:
Monsieur, please accept simply what I am saying, and please do not be overly sad. Be like the pilots of ships. When they are caught in a storm, they redouble their courage, and steer their vessels right into the heart of the largest waves, which seem ready to swamp them. <Ftn: CED V:211.>
A superior of a house did not carry out an order to send a certain priest to another house. Monsieur Vincent had repeated it several times. He then felt obliged to follow up on this matter and to point out his fault to him. He did so, but in the mildest way imaginable. Instead of pointing out how this superior had failed in the obedience he owed to his superior, Monsieur Vincent simply used these words: "It seems to me, Monsieur, I see in your hesitation a shadow of disobedience."
If he surprised someone in a failing he corrected him with a mild firmness. If the guilty party was humiliated, he took this humiliation as a good sign. He neither reproached him further nor reminded him of it again, seeing that he had already been embarrassed enough by his failing.
The superior of a house of the Congregation was under the impression that someone had written to Monsieur Vincent complaining of his faults, and asking Monsieur Vincent that the superior's faults should be pointed out to him. Seeing that the superior of the house had unfounded suspicions, Monsieur Vincent wrote to him most kindly:
You must be persuaded, Monsieur, that if I have any correction to suggest to you, I will do so directly and simply. Thanks be to God, you are doing well, and your conduct seems to me without reproach. In this regard, I do not recall that anyone had complained against you. Should they do so, I know you too well to think I would give it any credence. As much as you can, you should be on your guard about harboring suspicions, but refer everything to God.
A superior who complained to him of the conduct of one of his subjects who had spoken to him disrespectfully, and had shocked him by some of his activities. Monsieur Vincent wrote the following letter in his own hand. Besides addressing the immediate problem at hand, this letter gives some good advice on the question of leadership.
I share the pain you experienced concerning the matter you wrote to me about. I prefer to believe that he did this without any malice, and when he thinks a little about all the circumstances of this encounter he will see that this must not be repeated. For yourself, Monsieur, you must see this as a small trial which our Lord sends you to help you learn how to lead those confided to your care. It will help you see how great is the goodness of our Lord. He bore with the weaknesses of his apostles and disciples when he was on the earth, and suffered much from both good people and bad. You will see how superiors have their thorns to bear from time to time, and how those superiors who do their duty by word and example have much to put up with from their inferiors, not only from the lax but even from the best of them.
Because of this, Monsieur, give yourself to God to serve him in this way, with no thought of seeking your satisfaction from men. Our Lord will console you if you work at having our rules more perfectly followed, and at acquiring the virtues proper to a true missionary, especially humility and mortification. It seems to me, Monsieur, you would do well to say to this good priest when he comes to see you, or in some other chance meeting with him, that you would be glad if he would tell you of any failings which he sees in you. In your position as superior you undoubtedly have a number, not to mention those you have as a missionary or as a Christian. There is no doubt that a word of impatience escapes you when the first movement of human nature overtakes you, before reason can control your animal appetites. This happened even to the greatest of the saints, but, aided by grace, they gained great benefit when they were told about their failings.
It seems to me, Monsieur, that you would do well to act in the same way. Tell your community from time to time that you would be glad to hear from the confreres in the house named to do this act of charity, but you would truly be disappointed if others did not do so too. They should feel free also to write to the superior general, if they care to do so, as is done in all well-regulated communities. Tell them that you will not read either their letters nor the replies from the superior general. O Monsieur, how great is the misery of human nature, and how necessary it is for superiors to have patience.
I end by recommending myself to your prayers. Please offer them to God, that he would pardon the faults I have committed every day in the office I now hold. I am the most unworthy of all men, and worse than Judas in his betrayal of our Lord. <Ftn: CED VII:594-96.>
Another superior was annoyed with some confreres under his care. He wrote to Monsieur Vincent that he would prefer to take care of a flock of animals rather than these men. This holy man replied in a letter as judicious as the superior's letter was indiscreet:
What you told me can be explained. What you say is true for those who want everyone to bow before them. They want no one to resist them, and want everyone to act according to their own viewpoints. They want to be obeyed without hesitation, and in a certain way, want to be adored by them. This is not so for those who seek contradictions and contempt. They look upon themselves as the servants of their brethren. They seek to walk in our Lord's steps. He endured from his own followers crudeness, rivalry, lack of faith, and so on. He even said that he had come to serve and not to be served. I am aware, Monsieur, that you, with the grace of God and the help of our Lord, act with humility, modesty, meekness, and patience. I am sure you used the term you did only to express your vexation, and to persuade me to replace you. And so, we will try to send someone to take your place. <Ftn: CED IV:174-75.>
This superior, a good man in his own right, found this reply of Monsieur Vincent so to the point that he responded as follows: "I admired, and admire still, your letter to me, which was both beautiful and powerful. I appreciate it, respect it, and will apply it to myself." <Ftn: CED IV:194.> In sending another priest to replace him, Monsieur Vincent included these remarks: "We are sending N. to replace you, as you requested us to do. I trust that all will see in you an example of the submission and confidence each of us owes to his superior." <Ftn: CED IV:204.> He phrased it this way because he was to remain living in the same house as before. We should remark that the superior would often remain in the same house after being replaced by another. This gave him an opportunity to practice a perfect humility and obedience.
A priest of the Mission, a seminary professor, was most pious and zealous, but of a naturally sour disposition. This caused him to treat the seminarians with less than the desirable courtesy. Monsieur Vincent had occasion to write the following letter to him:
I believe what you write even more than what I see. I have too many proofs of your love for the seminary to have any doubts. For this reason I reserve judgment on the complaints I have received about your black disposition until I have heard from you. All the same, I would ask you to reflect on your way of acting, and give yourself to God to correct, with his grace, anything discourteous that you discover. Besides the offense to his divine Majesty, despite your own good intentions, several consequences follow from this. The first is, those who are unhappy and who leave the seminary may depart from virtue and fall into vice. They may be lost for having left this holy school too soon, all because they were not treated with proper courtesy. The second is, they may well speak against the seminary and dissuade from coming those who might otherwise have come and received the instruction and graces suited to their vocation. The third is, the bad reputation of a single house reflects on the entire Company. If it loses its good reputation, it may be hindered in its services and may be unable to do all the good it pleases God to effect through it.
If you say that you have never realized these faults in yourself, it shows you have little humility. If you had the humility which our Lord asks of a priest of the Mission, you would consider yourself to be the most imperfect of all, capable of these failings. You would attribute to a secret blindness that you do not see what is clear to others, especially after being warned of it. About the warning, I am told that you resent being told your failings. If that is so, Monsieur, you are in a sorry state, far from the way of the saints. They humbled themselves before everyone, and rejoiced when shown their faults. To act in this way is to imitate poorly the saint of saints, Jesus Christ. He allowed himself to be publicly accused although he had done no wrong, and then said not a word in his own defense.
Learn from him, Monsieur, to be meek and humble of heart. These are the virtues you and I should unceasingly ask of him. We should pay special attention to them, and not allow ourselves to be carried away by the opposite passions. They will destroy the edifice built by the virtues. May it please this same Lord to enlighten us with his Spirit. This will enable us to see the darkness in our own soul, to submit to those he has placed over us, and to animate us with his infinite graciousness that will flow out in our words and actions. This will make them acceptable and useful to our neighbor. <Ftn: CED VI:385-88.>
Speaking one day to his community on the same subject, he gave an important warning in his usual humble way:
I must state that those who see the faults that would lead to the ruin or weakening of the Company and do nothing about it, are guilty of what then happens to the Congregation. In this same spirit, I would be most grateful to be warned of any faults I have that I may correct myself. These faults would otherwise bring disorder and destruction to the Congregation. If you see that I teach or support anything contrary to the doctrine of the Church, the assembled Congregation ought to depose me, and put me out of the Company.
Another time, he replied to the superior of one of the houses regarding the admonitions the superior believed he was obliged to give publicly before the entire community:
In only two or three cases should the warning be given to a single person before the whole community. First, do so when the evil is so ingrained in the guilty party that you judge a private admonition would be useless. For this reason, our Lord warned Judas in the presence of the other apostles, in obscure language, when he said he who puts his hand in the dish with me will betray me. Second, do so when it is a question of those weak spirits who cannot bear a correction, no matter how mild, although they are good enough people. This goodness of not publicly naming them enables them to respond to a general recommendation, enough for them to correct themselves. In the third place, do it if there is danger that others will fall into the same defects if something were not said. Outside of these cases, I would think it more appropriate to give such admonitions in private.
Inferiors surely ought to be warned about faults committed against the superior himself, but two or three cautions should first be observed. First, it should never be given on the spur of the moment unless there is some pressing necessity. Second, it should be done mildly and be to the point. Third, it should be done with some consideration, explaining the bad consequences of the fault, and done in such a way that the superior is evidently not being moved by caprice nor because it affects him personally, but because it is for the good of the individual and for the community. <Ftn: CED IV:50-51.>
Monsieur Vincent did not confine himself to remedying vice and rooting out the faults of the houses and of those under his care. He did what he could to lead them to the perfection of their state and to a most exact regularity. His chief weapon in this was the example he himself gave in imitation of our divine master, who, the Gospel tells us, began to do and to teach. This wise and zealous superior was exact in the exercises of the community, particularly to the practice of mental prayer in the morning. He rose like the others at four o'clock, even if he had slept little because of a fever or some other reason. What is more, on the days he was bled or forced to take medicine, and on the following days, even in his later years, he did not fail to join the others at their prayer.
It is hard to believe how much the example of fervor and exactitude of this holy priest led his confreres to imitate him. It might be said that his example was one of the chief causes of the good order so much admired in the house of Saint Lazare, where the priests of the Mission had been established, and which gave such edification to those who observed it. He always wished the superiors to be the most exact in their observance of the regulations. He wanted them to be the first at all the exercises of the community, as much as their health and other duties allowed.
He spoke on this topic to the priests of his community:
Those who are not exact in their observance, particularly to rising in the morning and making their mental prayer with the others, no matter how many talents and how bright they may be, are not suitable to be superiors of the houses or directors of the seminaries.
He added that when it was a question of choosing superiors, a consideration of great importance was their example and regularity. Otherwise they would lack one of the main qualities required in those who had charge of others. <Ftn: CED XI:83.>
This is what he wrote one day to a superior of a seminary on the way he should act towards the clerics under his care:
I praise God for the number of seminarians N., the bishop of N., has sent to you. You will not lack for applicants as long as you take care to raise them up in the true spirit of their vocation. This consists chiefly in the spiritual life, the practice of mental prayer, and the virtues. It is not enough to teach the chant, the rites and a bit of moral theology. The main thing is to form them in a solid piety and devotion. For this, Monsieur, you ought to be filled with these qualities yourself, for giving instruction without example is useless. We ought to be the cisterns flowing with never-failing water, and we should have the spirit we hope to engender in them. No one can give what he does not have.
Ask this grace of our Lord, and let us give ourselves to him, to conform our thoughts and actions to his. Then your seminary will spread its repute inside and outside the diocese, and your seminarians will be increased in numbers and in blessings. If, on the contrary, we act simply as professors towards those in our care, it would be a great hindrance to the welfare of the seminary. This could happen if we strive to be too polished, too worldly, too well treated, too anxious to be honored and well thought of, too distracted, too sparing of ourselves, and too much taken up with the outside world. We must be firm, but not crude, in our behavior, and avoid too soft a manner which serves no good end. We must learn from our Lord that our lives ought always be lived in humility and graciousness to attract hearts to him, and to repel no one. <Ftn: CED IV:596-97.>
Writing to another superior, he said:
My great hope is that you would contribute much, by God's grace, to the salvation of these people. Your good example will help your confreres love this work and apply themselves to it in the place, time, and manner you shall prescribe. You should consult God, like another Moses, and receive the law from him to be given to those you direct. Remember, the direction of this holy patriarch was gentle, patient, supportive, humble, and charitable. In our Lord these same virtues appeared in their perfections to serve as a model for us. <Ftn: CED V:421.>
A superior of a house wrote to ask that he be replaced in his position. Monsieur Vincent wrote to him as follows:
With respect to the change you requested, please do not think more about it. I hope that under the ashes of humility that led you to request a replacement is hidden the spirit of our Lord. He himself will inspire your actions, strengthen your weakness, enlighten your doubts, and empower you in your needs. On your part, Monsieur, give yourself to him, so as not to burden anyone. Treat each person with courtesy and respect, using requests and pleasant words, but never hard and commanding expressions. Nothing is so likely to gain hearts as the habit of acting humbly and courteously, and so to attain the goal you have in mind, that God be served and souls sanctified. <Ftn: CED VIII:176-77.>
Writing to another confrere on the same subject, he said:
The reasons you give why you should not be made superior and that another be appointed in your place, have served rather to confirm us in our choice. Your awareness of your own failings and insufficiency should be used to humble yourself, not to discourage you. Our Lord had enough strength for himself and for us too. Let him act in you. Have no doubt that if you continue in the humble sentiments you now have and if you continue in humble confidence in him, his guidance will sanctify your own service. I trust so much in his goodness, and in the good use you will make of his graces, that he will accomplish this in you. In this hope I enclose your appointment as superior of your community. Please have it read, that they may see you in our Lord, and our Lord in you, as I trust they will. <Ftn: CED VIII:231.>
Before closing this chapter we will insert here a letter of Monsieur Vincent to a Daughter of Charity. In it he gave some advice regarding those either to be received into her Congregation, or to be sent away.
The reply you should give to the good woman before she enters your Congregation is to tell her that she cannot be assured that her place is guaranteed for life. No one receives this, because there is always the possibility that someone will become negligent towards the exercises of community life, becoming a scandal to the community, and so become unworthy of her calling. If such a thing should happen, would it not be reasonable to cut off a gangrenous member so as not to infect the others? You are aware, my sister, that people are only rarely dismissed, and then only for serious faults. They are never dismissed for common or even extraordinary failings if they are not habitual. This remedy is always put off as long as possible, after long enduring such a person, and using without success the remedies appropriate to her state.
This patience and charity is shown to the newcomers of the community, and even more so to the old. If some do leave, it is usually they themselves who decide to go, either through a flightiness of character, or by having become lax in the service of God. God rejects them long before the superiors have thought of dismissing them.
To say that those who are faithful to God and faithful to holy obedience leave the community, is simply not so, thanks be to God, whether for those who are in good health or for those who are sick. Everything possible is done to save everyone, both the well and the sick, up to the time of death. If the good woman wishes to enter your community, and is resolved to die in it, she will be treated just like all the others. But tell her, please, this will be by assuring her vocation by good works, according to the counsel of the apostle Paul. She ought to rely on God alone, and hope in him for her perseverance. If she still seeks this assurance from human sources, it would seem she is seeking something other than God himself. She should then be left in peace where she is now. <Ftn: Letter to Marguerite Chetif, stationed at Arras. CED VIII:295-97.>