Community Life in Saint Vincent
by: José María Román, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
Before I start, I have to tell you that although I am not entirely in accord with all his conclusions, the most complete study on community life during the time of Saint Vincent is the one published by Fr. Suescun in the Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality. Anyone desiring to have a more exhaustive vision of the Vincentian thinking, I send over to him.
I am also going to discuss the topic from another point of view that I find most interesting and I will always try to use the Saint’s own words rather than my own personal consideration.
A brief historical introduction
The introduction to the present Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission says that Saint Vincent “entrusted to his followers in the Lord, a new kind of community.” I have doubts as to the historical accuracy of that phrase. I remember that during the Assembly I objected, in vain, to the inclusion of that phrase.
In the century and a half following the Council of Trent, the efforts to find a new style of community life were many. Some pioneers of that movement were: the Order of the Cleric Regular or the Theatines of Saint Cajetan of Thiere, then later, the Barnabites of Saint Anthony Maria Zacaria and the Somascans of Saint Jerome Emiliani. All of them tried to reconcile the obligations of the religious life with the apostolate proper to the secular clergy.
Much later, following the same path but with greater radical¬ism came the Jesuits and the Oratorians of Saint Philip de Neri. This last was a very open community without Constitutions or Rules and even without a superior general. In France, they had for model the Oratorians of Berulle and the Priests of Christian Doctrine by the Canon Cesar de Bus, whom Saint Vincent mentioned several times in his correspondence.
In all cases, they were concerned with associations of priests involved with reform in the Church as defined by the Council of Trent. They lived in the world and had for priority the pastoral ministry; at the same time they continued living the demands of religious life with regard to their spiritual and community life. Those who made vows—and in many of these communities, there was a strong controversy regarding this question—believed that these are in no way obstacles for the mission.
It is in this context that the Congregation of the Mission was born. If we pay attention, we will notice that the Oratorians of Berulle was founded in 1611 and the Doctrines of Cesar de Bus in 1619, respectively, forty-six years before the foundation of the Mission. Before them we have the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Saint Jean Eudes and the Sulpicians of Oliers.
What everyone was looking for and what Saint Vincent em¬bodied in the Common Rules and the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission was a lifestyle in which the community was at the service of the mission and not the other way round. But to say this is not to diminish the exigencies of community living.
A “characteristic” of the Congregation
From the beginning, living in common belonged to the nature of the Congregation of the Mission. It is one fundamental element, in the strict Aristotelian sense of the word. In the foundation contract signed by Saint Vincent and the de Gondi’s on April 17, 1625, the day that can be considered as the foundation day of the Congregation, is stipulated,
“That these priests will live in common under obedience to M. de Paul in the manner mentioned above, and to their Superior in the future after his death, under the name of Company, Congregation or Confraternity of the Fathers or Priests of the mission.”
And that, “after having served for a month or so in the said Company, they will return for two weeks to their common residence or to another place assigned them by their Superior.”
Evidently, these clauses reflect the idea that Saint Vincent wanted to give shape to the institution he was just beginning; in spite of the fact that nothing was sure as to its nature, whether it would be a Company, a Congregation or a Confraternity.
The following year, September 4, 1626, in the Act of Association of the First Missionaries, with the following priests — Fathers du Coudray, Portail and de la Salle — to whom Saint Vincent declares, “we do choose, elect, aggregate and associate to ourselves and to the aforesaid work, to live together as a Congregation, Company, or Confraternity, and to devote ourselves to the salvation of the poor country people.”
On his part, on July 20, 1626, the Archbishop of Paris, during the transfer of the titles of the College des Bons-Enfants to Saint Vincent and to his new Congregation said: “we confer and bestow, with all its rights and appurtenances, the principalship and chapel of the College des Bons-Enfants, vacant as has been stated, on the Society or Community of Priests of the Mission.”
Also the Royal Letters Patent for the approval of the Congregation of the Mission on May 1627 showed the communal character of the Congregation. “Gathered together and living a common life, after having previously renounced the conditions and employment of the cities, they will devote themselves entirely and unreservedly to the spiritual instruction of the poor persons.”(Op. cit., Document 62, p. 226.)
I do not think it necessary to continue gathering allusions to common life contained in all the documents related to the Company during the first eight years of its existence. During those years, first at the College des Bons-Enfants, then in Saint Lazare, common life ceased to be a mere theoretical prescription and became a lived practice. That is how it is described in the Bull of Erection Salvatoris Nostri in 1633: “… in the city of Paris… there they live — and still live — a common life under the authority and direction of the aforesaid Vincent, who was chosen or elected for life as Superior General of this house and Congregation, which is called Congregation of the Mission.”
The First Rules
That life in common became part of the Bull as a Rule for the Congregation of the Mission. At the end of two years of probation, candidates to the Congregation “can be incorporated into the Congregation and admitted as members. They will participate daily in the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, frequent the sacrament of Penance, and receive the sacrament of the Eucharist weekly. The priests, however, shall celebrate Mass daily. But everyone, priests as well as the others, shall meditate for an entire hour and also make use of the examination of conscience.”
It should be noted that on all occasions where common life is affirmed as distinctive of the Congregation, it always makes clear that common life is precisely ordained towards an apostolic goal: “to live together as a Congregation, Company, or Confraternity, and to devote ourselves to the salvation of the poor country people.”(Op. cit., Document 61, p. 222.) It is the lifestyle proper to the Congregation.
Now, this orientation of the community toward mission does not make community life a mere instrument nor is it less demanding as in other congregations in the Church. Saint Vincent, as we know, does not want the Congregation of the Mission to be an order or religious congregation, but he did not hesitate to compare its way of life to other more rigorous religious communities like the Benedictines or the Carthusians. For example, in his conference of December 6 on the end of the Congregation of the Mission, he explained the reason why the Rules begin with the end for which it was created. He declared: “It was only fitting, my Brothers, to begin this rule by a declaration of the end towards which the Company tends, in what and how it shall render service to God; that was the procedure adopted by Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict and all those who have founded Companies. They stated in the first place what they propose to do and began with a definition of their Institute.”
This is to say that Saint Vincent was fully aware that the community life he was creating was as much a community as those of the Augustinians, the Jesuits or any other congregation or religious order. But at the same time he knew that his community was different even if only by its spirit.
“… all Companies God has established for His service He has given a particular spirit, along with the esteem and practice of the virtues connected with that spirit”
“He has given the Capuchin the spirit of poverty, by which they must go to God, living detached from all earthly anxieties and from all private property. To the Carthusians, He gives the spirit of solitude. They are almost constantly alone; their very name is indicative of this spirit because formerly prisons were not called prisons but charter houses; their spirit makes them continually prisoners of Our Lord. To the Jesuits God has given a spirit of learning to be shared with others. The spirit of the Carmelite Nuns is austerity; that of the Visitation Nuns, aimed at loving God deeply, is one of gentleness and humility. So you see, dear Sisters, that God conveys His spirit differently to some and to others, in such a way that the spirit of one is not the spirit of the other.”
But with regard to the exigencies of community living, Saint Vincent does not make them any less demanding than those other communities be they religious or not. Paraphrasing the conditions of monastic life according to Kempis, Saint Vincent made those conditions his own:
He who desires to live in community must be ready and determined to live as a pilgrim upon earth; to become a fool for Christ’s sake; to have a change of manners; to mortify his passions; to seek God alone; to strive to be the least, and subject to all; to be convinced that you came to serve, not to govern; to suffer, not to live a comfortable life; too labor, not to pass your time in idleness and empty talk. You have to know that there, men are tried as gold in the furnace; that man cannot persevere unless he be ready with all his heart to humble himself, for the love of God. And be sure that if he works/lives this way he will find true happiness in this world and will have life eternal in the next.
Once the Congregation was founded, community life was lived in all its vigor. Saint Vincent found it hard to excuse a Missioner from leaving the community even for a short time. We know how hard it was for him to give permission to go for family visits.
Not even those in the apostolate were exempted. During mission they had to adhere strictly to the same norms observed in their houses. Sometimes they would go to extreme: they heard confessions and preached together; returned home from Church together; had reading at table and refused invitations to eat outside the parish convent or in other people’s houses where they were giving mission.
The Ideal Community
More than the legal aspect of the community, we are interested in knowing the Vincentian spirit behind it. Shocking as it may seem, the Missioners do not have any conference of Saint Vincent that speaks formally of community life. As we know, he did not give time to explaining Chapter VIII of the Common Rules De Mutua Nostrorum Conversatione (Getting Along Well with Each Other). This chapter deals with community life and is interpreted as ‘conversation among us’ when it would be more appropriate to call it “Mutual Regard” or a freer interpretation that remains faithful to the idea would be “Of Life in Community.”
On the other hand, we have two precious conferences: one on uniformity and the other on fraternal charity (articles 11 and 12 of Chapter 2, Common Rules), that practically reflect all the thinking of the saint regarding the spirit that should animate life in community; above all when they take into account all the different allusions to it found in his letters and even in the conferences to the Daughters of Charity.
It is interesting to note that for Saint Vincent, life in community and uniformity are synonymous. The reason for uniformity is to honor life in common as lived by Christ. We should understand that by common is meant ordinary life, actual life without singularities but all within the context referring to community living. It is from this that Vincent defines the extent of common life.
“Christ, the Lord, wished to lead a communal style of life, so that he would be like other people and in that way win them over more easily to God, the Father. All of us, then as far as possible, are to maintain uniformity in everything, we should look on this as the safeguard of good order and of the holiness which comes from being together. In the same way we should avoid anything out of the ordinary, as it can be the cause of jealousy and disagreement. All this applies not only to food, clothing, bedding, and so on, but also to methods of direction, teaching, preaching, exercising authority, and even spiritual practices.”(Common Rules to the CM’s, II, # 11.)
The chapter on poverty will enumerate in greater detail what they should have in common. Here even books are included.
“Following the example of the first Christians, all our belongings are common property and given out by the superior to individual members, such as food, clothes, books, furniture, and so on, according to the needs of each.”
Living in community means having goods in common and naturally this is not enough. Life in community has models to imitate which Saint Vincent ranks according to a theological hierarchy. The highest model is the Blessed Trinity which seems a modern idea to us now. “Uniformity exists in the Blessed Trinity; what the Father wills, the Son wills; what the Holy Spirit does, the Father and the Son do; they act in the same manner, they have but one and the same power, one and the same operation. Behold the beginning of perfection and our model.”
Perhaps it will be clearer still from the conference given to the Daughters of Charity but applicable — and applies — also to the Missioners:
“There must be close union among yourselves and, if it were possible, it should be like the union of the three Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity; for how, dear Sisters, could you practice charity and gentleness with persons who are poor, if you did not practice those virtues among yourselves.”
A reflection of that Trinitarian model is the community of Christ with His apostles, since the common life of the Congregation has for its primary example Jesus Christ living in common with His apostles and His disciples.
The second model is closer to us but it does not mean it would be easier to follow: the life of the first Christians. We know that the descriptions made in the Acts of the Apostles are idealistic descriptions. Saint Vincent, consciously or unconsciously, has taken them literally. Whether it be the material goods of the community as we have just heard “from the example of the first Christians, among us everything will be in common,” or above all on spiritual union.
“… we must give ourselves to God that we may have perfect union which will impart to us the same spirit, the same will and repugnance, and the same manner of acting. We ought to beseech God that He would grant us, like the first Christians, to have one heart and one soul.”
And lastly, more grounded on earth, the model of community should be like the union that reigns among friends. In effect our common life should realize — pardon me if I use a Latin quotation — in morem carorum amicorum inter se semper conviventes , meaning in the manner of good friends that have to live together always.
The Formation of the Community
Following the Vincentian Little Method, we have to ask our¬selves now for the means that Saint Vincent proposed to attain this high ideal— the imitation of the Blessed Trinity, communion of saints, fraternal life. For Saint Vincent it is life in community.
In this domain, charity occupies the first place. To charity and more precisely to fraternal charity, the saint dedicates his most beautiful conferences. This was part of a long time conviction that he had: that charity is the only bond that can create and maintain a community.
“Charity is the cement which binds communities to God and persons to one another in such a way that whoever contributes to union of hearts in a Company binds it indissolubly to God.”
And he gives to it a reason that springs from the very core of the raison d’ etre of the community, that is to say, her being a community for the mission.
“Now, if it be true that we are called to spread God’s love in all directions, if we are bound to kindle it amongst the nations, if it is our vocation to spread this divine fire throughout the world; if that is so, my brothers, how should I myself not burn with the divine fire? How should I not be enkindled with the love of those with whom I dwell, how should I not edify my own brothers by the exercise of this love and lead my dear confreres to the practice of the acts that proceed from this love? … if we do not love one another as Jesus Christ loved us, if we do not produce acts like unto His, how may we hope to spread this love through the world? We cannot give what we do not possess. How, then, can a Company that has not true charity in itself inflame the hearts of others?”
The second means that makes a community is the authority of the Superior. The Common Rules confer a very important role to Superiors in all that refers to the organization of community life. For everything, you have to have recourse to Superiors. Fr. Corera has made an interesting study on this subject, although he himself acknowledges it as being one sided because he limited himself to the text of the Common Rules. His treatment of the subject should be complemented by the letters and counsels that Saint Vincent gave to the Superiors. In any case, the vision of a superior, who is responsible, for better or for worse, for what happens in community, is not simply authoritarianism but one that evidently reflects a Dionysian [not dionysiac] vision of reality both spiritual and earthly that dominated the theological atmosphere at that time and which probably Saint Vincent inherited from his teacher Berulle.
In his advice to the Superiors, Saint Vincent insisted that for authority to be effective, it should put on meekness and gentleness (be firm about the ends and gentle in the means, to have iron hands in silken gloves), and should be exercised with a great dose of condescension and tolerance. It should listen to the advices and opinions of those governed through community dialogue. (It is very important that those who command should do nothing without the opinion of others). And above all it demands of Superiors a capacity for suffering.
“The thought of what Our Lord Himself suffered from His disciples will especially encourage you, for the more our trials resemble His, the more pleasing we are to Him.”
“… but I ask you to bear with him as Our Lord bore with His disciples, who gave Him good reason to complain—at least, some of them did. Yet, He allowed them to remain in His company and tried to bring them around gently.”
Hand-in-hand with the authority of the Superiors is the obedience of the companions. I will not go into it now for lack of time since it is a subject that will need greater explanation.
The Acts of Charity
On the other hand, I would like to emphasize the acts that make charity vibrant in community and allows the community to be built—in the double sense of the word. Saint Vincent has enumerated it in article 12 of the Common Rules as I am sure you would all remember. So I would just mention them:
Charitable behavior towards the neighbor should al¬ways be characteristic of us. We should try, then: 1) to behave towards others in the way we might reasonably expect to be treated by them; 2) to agree with others, and to accept everything in the Lord; 3) to put up with one another without grumbling; 4) to weep with those who weep; 5) to rejoice with those who rejoice; 6) to yield precedence to one another; 7) to be kind and helpful to one another in all sincerity.
Looking for the common denominator among them, I would stress three fundamental attitudes: mutual respect, condescension and bearing with the weaknesses of our neighbors.
In effect, the first exigency of fraternal charity as enumerated in the Common Rules is respect for persons; respect that is not contrary to cordiality. “Love, like that between brothers, should always be present among us, as well as the bond of holiness, and these should be safeguarded in every possible way. For this reason there should be great mutual respect….”
That respect should be manifested in a multitude of small details like anticipate greeting each other, respect for privacy and intimate spaces — nobody should enter the bedroom of another without being invited to enter — uncovering their head before Superiors and their companions, not taking for himself objects destined for the use of others or of the community, etc…. I still remember with surprise when
I first saw my Novice Director, Fr. Canes, ceremoniously removing the beret each time he met the seminarians on the stairs or in the corridors. And this should be extended to spiritual matters like deference to the opinion and the different ways of others, trying to see them in a positive way: “… you should get in the habit of judging events and persons, always and in all circumstances, for the good.” And the avoidance of discussions and disputes and above all of grumbling.
“Oh! How I wish that this holy custom should always flourish amongst us! To approve of all things; that it could be said that there is a Company in the Church of God which professes to be always united and never speak ill of the absent; that it might be said of the Congregation of the Mission that it is a Community in which no one criticizes his brethren! I would most assuredly value that more highly than all the missions, sermons, work for the ordinands and all the other blessings God has bestowed on the company inasmuch as the image of the Most Blessed Trinity would be more deeply engraved in us.”
Condescension in the mind of Saint Vincent is far-reaching since it should be extended to all the actions of our neighbors with one limitation: sin and the violation of the Holy Rules.
“I beg Our Lord, Monsieur, to continue in you the spirit of holy meekness and also of tolerance for whatever is not evil or contrary to our little rules; in that case, meekness would be cruelty. But in order to remedy those very situations, a spirit of gentleness is needed.”
Patience in supporting the weaknesses of our neighbour is the act of charity that was often, and with much force, recommended by Saint Vincent. He knew by experience that it is the lack of it that is frequently the obstacle to be hurdled in practicing charity in community.
“One of the principal acts of charity is bearing with our neighbor.”(Op. cit., Letter 412, p. 597.) “… charity, of which forbearance is one of its principal acts; it is difficult for two persons to get along without it. Forbearance, on the contrary, is the bond of friendship that unites hearts in sentiment and action, not only among themselves but in O[ur] L[ord], in such a way that they enjoy great peace.”
Life in community is not easy, Saint Vincent acknowledged. But he ardently desired to see it reign in the Congregation in all its beauty, even though he knew it would entail a lot of sacrifices, like renouncing one’s own heart.
“Remove from us all individualistic deeds that are at variance with common action. May we have but one heart to be the principle of our life, and one soul to animate us in charity, by virtue of that unitive and Divine power which produces the communion of Saints.”
And through faith and experience, his two sources of knowl¬edge, he knew that fraternal charity and holy union, in addition to making us like the Trinity, making us live like the apostles and the first Christians, and incorporating us into the communion of saints (or perhaps because of all of these) would convert each of our houses into a little paradise, a foretaste of heaven on earth.
1. Coste XIIIa, Document 59, pp. 216-217.
2. Op. cit., Document 61, p. 222.
3. Op. cit., Document 60a, p. 220.
4. Op. cit., Document 84a, p. 298.
5. Ibid., p. 299.
6. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 195, p. 598.
7. Coste IX, Conference 50, p. 457.
9. Kempis, I, ch. 17.
10. Op. cit., III, # 3.
11. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 206, p. 578.
12. Coste IX, Conference 8, p. 44.
13. Common Rules to the CM’s, VIII, # 1.
14. Op. cit., III, # 3.
15. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 206, p. 572.
16. Coste II, Letter 651, p. 413.
17. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 207, p. 583.
18. La Comunidad en las Reglas Comunes, in Diez Estudios Vicencianos (Salamanca, Ceme, 1983).
19. Coste V, Letter 1687, p. 59: “How important it is for those in authority to do nothing of consequence without consulting others.”
20. Coste IV, Letter 1273, p. 103.
21. Coste V, Letter 1676, p. 47.
22. Common Rules to the CM’s, VIII, # 2.
23. Coste II, Letter 799, p. 638.
24. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 95, p. 125.
25. Coste I, Letter 209, p. 304.
26. Coste VI, Letter 2110, p. 51.
27. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 206, p. 572.