Biographies of Vincent

Thomas Davitt, CM provides perspectives on the many biographies of Vincent in this presentation made in the mid-1990's to participants of the CIF program in Paris.


Thomas DAVITT, C.M


A presentation to the Participants in the International Formation Program CIF in Paris offering insights into the characteristics, strengths and weakness of the various biographies of Vincent de Paul..

Article 5 of our Constitutions says that the spirit of the Congregation is the spirit of Christ as proposed by St. Vincent. Article 8 says that all the members should continually strive for a deeper knowledge of this spirit, by returning to the gospel and to the example and teaching of St Vincent. In his letter to all confreres dated 25 January 1976, James Richardson, the Superior General wrote:

There is a growing impression that numerous confreres of all age levels do not really remember St. Vincent, his life, his works as related in biographies, and his teaching contained in the Common Rules, in his letters and in his conferences.

My personal opinion is that at previous Vincentian Months the title and content of many talks were chosen from the point of view of the speaker rather than from that of the listener. Also, again in my personal opinion, the content of many of the talks seemed to be for the few confreres who might be doing some research on Vincent or the Congregation, rather than for the ordinary confrere who wants to deepen his knowledge without being either an expert or a specialist.

When I was asked, by the Secretary General, on the telephone from Rome, to give this talk I was asked to give it on the bibliography of St. Vincent. When I saw the printed schedule of the Vincentian Month the title had become "Resources for Vincentian Studies". The title I had chosen from the start was "Vincent de Paul: What and how to read about him.

I accepted the invitation to give this talk in order to help the ordinary confrere to do what the Constitutions say we should do and to avoid being guilty of what Fr. Richardson complained about.

You who are listening to me today come from different countries and from different language-groups. I do not know what books or articles are available in each of your languages, so each of you will have to adapt what I say to the resources available in your own Province.

The largest amount of printed material concerning Vincent is in French, so I would encourage any of you who have even a small knowledge of French to try to improve that knowledge so as to be able to read more in that language.

Part of our initial formation in the community was to read a biography of Vincent. From this we learnt the main events of his life, what he did. We were teenagers at the time, and therefore gained a teenager's view of Vincent. Some confreres may never have progressed beyond a knowledge of the events of Vincent's life and a teenager's understanding of them.

Two areas of progress and development are required. First, progress from a knowledge of what Vincent did to a knowledge of what sort of a man he was. Remember, a person is canonised as a saint because of the sort of person he or she was, not because of what he or she did. Second, progress from a teenager's understanding of Vincent to that of an adult. This progress is a lifelong development, as we need to keep coming back to Vincent all the time in the light of our own lived experience.

After we have got to know what Vincent did and what sort of a man he was we should have become sufficiently interested in him to want to know what were his views on various matters, what he wrote and what he said.

Reading biographies

There are many short and medium-length biographies of Vincent available in various languages, many translated from the major European languages. It is useful to read, or re-read, these from time to time, or at least to read parts of them. Very often something fresh will strike us, or we will see something in a new light.

Confreres from each language group will know which are considered the best in their own language. "The World of Monsieur Vincent" by Mary Purcell, an Irish laywoman, was published in 1963 and re-printed in 1989. Many people think it is the best book in English on Vincent. It has been translated into Indonesian. Jean Calvet’s biography, published in French in 1948, was translated into English in 1952. Luigi Mezzadri's short biography came out in 1989 and has been translated into French, English and Spanish.

The three major biographies are those by Louis Abelly, Pierre Coste and Jose Maria Roman.


Abelly's book was published in 1664, four years after Vincent's death. It has several defects. In quoting from Vincent's letters or conferences he often changed paragraphs, sentences or words, because he regarded Vincent's style as lacking in literary quality. He also had a preconceived idea of what a holy priest should be like, and he tried to fit Vincent into this framework. He gives the impression that Vincent was a saint from childhood, and he omits any thing which he considered unsuitable for the pre-conceived image which he had.

On the other hand there are two important positive aspects of Abelly’s book. First, he was writing about a man whom he had known personally. Because of this we get glimpses of the real Vincent. Second, Abelly was able to draw on the memories and impressions of other people who had known Vincent personally, especially Brother Bertrand Ducournau, one of Vincent’s secretaries.

In 1985 Andre Dodin CM published a book on Abelly’s biography: "La Legende et l’Histoire: De Monsieur Depaul a Saint Vincent de Paul": [Legend and History: from Father Depaul to St. Vincent de Paul]. In the Autumn 1993 issue of Colloque, the Journal of the Irish Province, there will be an article on Dodin’s book by Andrew Spelman CM.


Coste’s three-volume biography was published in 1932. It contains a very detailed account of Vincent’s activities, but in spite of that it does not give a clear picture of the sort of man he was. My opinion on Coste’s biography is that a confrere should read it once in his lifetime, and after that re-read sections of it from time to time when necessary, in order to find out facts. Somebody said that Coste’s biography was the work of an archivist rather than that of a historian or biographer.

It was translated into Spanish and Italian, and one or two of the volumes have been translated into German.


This was published in 1981, the first major biography since Coste. It is shorter than either Abelly or Coste, but it takes into account the progress which has been made in Vincentian studies in the half century since Coste.

It has been translated into Italian and Polish, and an English translation is to be published later this year.

I mentioned already that it is important to read and re-read biographies of Vincent; it is far more important, though, to read and re-read what he himself wrote.

What Vincent wrote

The surviving writings of Vincent were published by Coste in twelve volumes, eight of letters and four of conferences. None of this material was intended by Vincent for printing or publication. The only work which he intended for printing and limited circulation was the Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission.

I want to say something about these writings under four headings: The Common Rules, the letters, the conferences to the St. Lazare community, and the conferences to the Daughters of Charity.

The Common Rules

Vincent wrote the Common Rules in Latin. I think they have been translated into most, if not all, the vernacular languages of the different Provinces of the Congregation. It is important that a good attractive translation be available if confreres are to get to know, and be attracted by, the Common Rules. In the Irish Province for many years we had a translation which had become out-of date, in archaic and unattractive language which discouraged confreres from reading the Common Rules.

The Common Rules have one great defect. Vincent combined two things in one book, guidelines on spirituality and guidelines on administration. In the guidelines on administration there are some things which belong to the 17th century and there are some things which belong to France. Anything which is completely 17th century or completely French we, who are neither 17th century nor French, can ignore. Much of the material concerning the administration of community houses falls into one or other of these categories.

Most of the material in the Common Rules concerning spirituality is still valid for us in the 20th century, because it deals with the unchanging basics of a person's relationship with God: prayer, scripture reading, other spiritual reading, relationship with other people, virtues and self-discipline.

Since the Common Rules were written by Vincent for us as his community it is important that we read them regularly. In the final chapter we are recommended to read them through every three months. It is probably better to read part of them on a certain day each week; regular reading is essential if we are to get to know them well, and to be able to distinguish what is still valid for us today from what is outmoded. As I said already, this means first of all distinguishing between administrative guidelines and spiritual guidelines.

Vincent’s Letters

Like the Common Rules the letters are Vincent’s own words, either written personally or dictated to one of his secretaries. However, the Common rules were written to be read by the entire Congregation while the letters were written to individual persons. Also, the Common Rules were written in Latin in a rather formal style, while the letters were written inordinary everyday French. This means that the letters are the medium by which we today come into closest contact with the real Vincent. For this reason I would urge any of you whose knowledge of French is sufficiently good to read the letters in French rather than in translation.

More than 3,000 of Vincent’s letters have survived. It has been estimated that he wrote about 30,000, which is probably an over-estimation.

The first point I want to make will concern perhaps only a small number of you, those who can read the letters in French or who have a complete translation of all the letters in your own language; I believe there is a complete set in Spanish and an almost complete on in Italian. You are still fairly young, less than twelve years ordained. I would urge you to take a resolution to read all the letters, in chronological order; that means starting with volume I and reading systematically through all the volumes. The only way to do this is to set yourself a certain number of pages to be read each day. Also, make notes as you read. I can assure you that the trouble is well worthwhile. It was more than twenty years after my ordination when I did this, so I am urging you to do it at a younger age and so get more benefit from it.

Those who do not know French and those for whom there is no complete translation available will have to make use of whatever selection of letters is available in your own language. My advise to you is to ead all that is available, and make notes as you read.

Vincent’s letters, as I already said, were addressed to individual persons about particular matters relevant to those persons. This means that we cannot always apply to ourselves or to others what he wrote in a letter. They are interesting to us because they show how vincnet dealt with people and with situations. This means that we should, if possible, kknow something about the person to whom the letter was addressed, about the house in which he lived, and about the situation in question. The date of the letter will show at what period of Vincent’s life it was written, and this could be interesting as what he said in the earlier part of his life might be different from what he said later.

Finally, most of the letters do not deal with spirituality. When a letter does deal with spirituality we have to remember, once again, that it was written for a particular person in a particular situation and it may not be for general application.

The Conferences to the Community in St. Lazare

In Volumes XI and XII of the Coste set there are 224 items; most of them are called conferences or extracts from conferences, but some are called repetitions of prayer. Andre Dodin CM published a revised one-volume edition of this material in 1960, with some additions.

Unlike the Common Rules and the letters these items, as we now have them, were not written by Vincent. They have been reconstructed, with varying degrees of accuracy, from notes made by some of the persons who were present when Vincent gave the talks.

In the Introduction to Volume XI Pierre Coste explains how this material has survived. There is no need to explain this here but Coste shows that there are 31 conferences which are more authentic reconstructions than the others. These are from the later years of Vincent's life and were done systematically by Brother Bertrand Ducournau, one of Vincent' secretaries. He had a double qualification for doing this work well: he had been a professional secretary before joining the Congregation, and he was from the same part of France as Vincent and therefore was well acquainted with Vincent's style and vocabulary. I have prepared a page which gives the dates of these conferences with the number of each in both the Coste and Dodin editions. I suggest that you read these thirty-one conferences before any of the others, and re-read them more often. As I said, they are the ones which most authentically reproduce what Vincent said.

If you do not read French. or if you do not have a complete translation available, you will have to make the best use possible of whatever selection has been made in your own language. Check whether any of the thirty-one I mentioned are in whatever selection you have; you will know from the dates if the Coste or Dodin number is not given.

The Conferences to the Daughters of Charity

When he gave conferences to the Daughters Vincent would often give Louise the notes he had prepared for the conference, and she would often give back to him for revision her re-construction of the conference. He never did this with the conferences to the confreres.

When we read the conferences to the Daughters we must always keep in mind that they were given to a very particular audience, most of whom were uneducated and very many of whom were illiterate. Vincent adapted his ideas on spirituality to this audience, and we cannot take as general guidelines what he said to them. For example, in one conference to them he was trying to encourage them to pray well. He said:

I am persuaded that learning is no use, and that a theologian, no matter how learned he might be, will get no help from his learning in making his prayer (IX,200).

That, of course, is simply not true; he said it merely to boost their morale and give them a sense of self-worth. He never said anything like that to the confreres when he spoke of prayer, and I think we can say that he did not really mean what he said.

Reading Books and Articles about Vincent

As well as biographies of Vincent there are also books dealing with some part of his life or some aspect of his work. The greatest number of such books are, understandably, in French, but there are also many in Spanish and Italian and some in English. Some are translations from other languages. Each of you, again, will have to look for what is available in your own language, or in another language which you can read.

As well as books about Vincent there are also articles about him in different reviews or journals. You will probably get more benefit from articles than from full-length books.

Vincentiana is the review for the entire Congregation. It appears six times a year and contains articles in different languages. It usually also prints the talks given at these Vincentian Months.

I think most Provinces have some sort of publication of their own, which prints either original articles or translations from other languages. The French have the Bulletin des Lazaristes de France and the Cahiers Vincentiens, the Italians have the Annali and the Spanish the Anales. The Irish Province has Colloque and the Provinces of the United States have Vincentian Heritage.. The Latin American Provinces have the CLAPV bulletin, and a group of some of the northern and central European Provinces have the MEGVIS bulletin.

There are also some reviews which have ceased publication, such as Les Annales de la CM and Mission et Charite. Both of these contain many important articles which are well worth reading.

I mentioned already that Vincentiana prints the talks given at these Vincentian Months. CEME in Spain has published, in book form, the talks given at some (or all?) the Salamanca Weeks, and the Italian Annali have printed the talks given at similar meetings in Italy.

I do not want to recommend individual books or articles, which many of you might not be able to get or to read. I want suggest how to get most benefit from what is available to each of you.

If you see an article on Vincent in any review or magazine, in a language which you can read, take a quick look through it to see if it appeals to you personally. Remember, not every article on Vincent will appeal to every individual confrere. If you think it would interest you, read it through completely, but quickly. Then, if you think it is worthwhile, read it again more carefully and make notes as you read; also note the year and number of the issue so that you can find the article again later.

That last point is important. Obviously some articles are better than others. Also some articles make a greater personal appeal than others. Such articles should be read more than once and it is important to be able to find them again when we want to. It is very frustrating to remember that I read something somewhere and yet cannot remember exactly where when I want to read it again.


The purpose of this talk is so help the ordinary non-specialist confrere to deepen his knowledge and understanding of Vincent. Confreres need to read, on a regular basis, The Common Rules, some of his letters and some of his conferences, biographies and other books about him, in whole or in part, and, finally articles which will, perhaps, normally be more helpful than full-length books.

If you already have some knowledge of French try to improve it sufficiently to read the letters and conferences in French; they lose much of their atmosphere in translation. If you do not know French but are offered the possibility of learning it, take that opportunity. So much of what has been written about Vincent and about the Congregation is in French, and only a very small part of this material has been translated.

Whether you read in French or in some other language, always make notes as you read. There will be letters, conferences, books and articles, or parts of any of these, which will appeal to you more than others; keep going back to those, re-reading them.

If your Province has a bulletin I ask you to consider writing something about Vincent, based on your reading. I think almost every confrere is capable of writing something. Many confreres think that all writing must be left to experts and specialists, but I disagree. I think most confreres are capable of writing something. Also, if you are able to read a second language I ask you to consider translating something from that language into your own, for the benefit of the other confreres in your Province.


Some of you, or perhaps all of you, may have noticed that I did not refer to Saint Vincent, except in the quotations from the Constitutions and from Fr. Richardson's letter.. The title "Saint" refers to Vincent's present status and it is misleading to use it in connection with events during his life. For example, it is incorrect to say "St. Vincent preached at Folleville on 25 January 1617" He was not a saint that day and if he had died the next day he would never have been canonized. We must try to get to know the man as he was at the different periods of his life. We must try to get to know him as a man, as a priest working in Clichy, Chatillon and the de Gondi household. We must try to get to know him as a confrere, and as superior general of an expanding congregation. His letters are the principal means of doing this. But we must, at all costs, avoid the danger of thinking of him as "a saint" at all moments, and in each of the events, of his life.

These are the 31 "most authentic" of Vincent's conferences, which I referred to in my talk. The figures refer to the number, not the page, in the Coste and Dodin editions. The dates are given for the benefit of those who have only a selection of the conferences available.

See also

Bernard Pujo Vincent de Paul, the Trailblazer (tr. 2003)

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