By: Luigi Nuovo, CM
[This is one of the 100 articles found in the publication, Diccionario de Expiritualidad Vicenciana, published by Editorial CEME in 1995. This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].
The two most important protagonists of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, highlighted in their writings “the universal priesthood” of the faithful and, at the same time, rejected the ministerial priesthood or, at the very least, considered it meaningless.
Nevertheless the Council of Trent affirmed both the universal priesthood and the institution of the sacrament of Orders (with its varying degrees) by Christ. It also affirmed the role of the hierarchy who, from the time of the Apostles, had been entrusted with the responsibility of guiding the Church.
The Tridentine doctrine, which among other things highlighted the obligation of celibacy, was proclaimed and enacted by some distinguished bishops and priests: Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Philip Neri, Saint Anthony María Zaccaría (Italy); Pedro de Alcántara, Luis de Granada and Juan de Avila (Spain); Saint Francis de Sales (Savoy, France). In seventeenth century France there was a significant spiritual flourishment that was influenced by some outstanding individuals.
Priests, who were aware of the greatness of the vocation to which they had been called, were the most significant representatives of what was known as the French School of Spirituality: Pierre Cardinal de Bérulle, Jean-Jacques Olier, Charles de Condren, Adrien Bourdoise, John Eudes and Vincent de Paul. Through their writings, their example and their ministry they began to restore prestige to the priesthood which had fallen into a position of disfavor.
The primary representative of this group of priests was Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629) who had been influenced by the spirituality of the Jesuits, by Teresa of Avila, by the Rhenish-Flemish mystics and by the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius.
From a theological point of view the most important reference point was Pseudo-Dionysius who had a noteworthy influence in the West, even though he was not always understood. His theological vision was that of a pyramid and on the various levels he placed different mediators: Christ, the angels, bishops, priests and, in the last instance, the laity. The priests are the religious of the Father because through various mediations they enable people to receive the grace of God and at the same time they render proper worship to God. Thus we have a twofold movement, that of the incarnation and that of religion. The priest prolongs the incarnation of Christ and his role as mediator.
Berulle’s teaching was based on four important points:  reverence toward the Father;  the centrality of Christ,  an understanding of the royalty of the Mother of God,  the exaltation of the priestly state.
Thus, one of the significant aspects that was common to the French School of spirituality was this focus on the priesthood, on the ideals and on the lifestyle of priests. The priest, above all else, was viewed as one who offered public worship and therefore, had to be holy in order to engage in those sacred activities. Vincent’s idea of priesthood evolved during his lifetime. He had at one time viewed the priesthood as a career and later, came to view priesthood from a spiritual and pastoral perspective. Vincent, who was ordained at the age of nineteen, was (like many other priests of his era) searching for a favorable benefice. Later events, however, and Vincent’s encounter with some deeply spiritual individuals and various spiritual writings helped him to become aware of the greatness of his mission. Some years later he wrote to Canon de Saint-Martin and affirmed: this state is the most sublime on earth, the very one Our Lord willed to assume and follow. As for myself, if I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it --- as I have come to know since then --- I would have preferred to till the soil then to commit myself to such a formidable state of life (CDD:V:569). When Vincent referred to ignorant and lazy priests he expressed some harsh and severe opinions but never expressed resentment or defiance. In the letter that we have just referred to Vincent also stated: all the disorders that have afflicted the Savior’s most holy Spouse stem from the evil lives of priests who have so greatly disfigured her that she is scarcely recognizable (CCD:V:570).
Vincent used and took many ideas from the persons whom he loved and admired, but he was, for the most part, independent with regard to his reflections and the development of his vision of the priesthood.
Vincent, following the teaching of Saint Augustine, considered the priest as a man who, in the image of Christ the Lord, had a mission, a man for the mission, the missionary of the Father sent to evangelize and serve the poor. He stated: The distinguishing mark of priests is a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God (CCD:XI:6). Like Christ, the priest has to be a servant of charity and has to be guided by a concern for the salvation and the well-being of people. Therefore, the priest has to commit himself to that ministry. Vincent stated: It is not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor does not love him (CCD:XII:215). As a result of imitating Jesus, the Lord, there arises the need to serve the poor corporally and spiritually and therefore, Vincent taught the missionaries: If priests devote themselves to the care of the poor, wasn’t that what Our Lord and many great saints did, and they not only recommended poor persons to others, but they themselves consoled, comforted, and healed them? Aren’t those who are poor the afflicted members of Our Lord? Aren’t they our brothers and sisters? And if priests abandon them, who do you think is going to help them? (CCD:XII:77). Such pastoral charity, simple and solicitous, should be directed toward the salvation of souls.
The priest that Vincent desired to become was one who was not only dedicated to public worship and the administration of the sacraments (which have to be celebrated with decorum and dignity) but was also a man for others, one who was strongly motivated interiorly as a missionary, one who possessed an ardent faith and who was committed, one who was lived in the midst of his brothers and sisters as one who serves, who imitates Christ, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. In this regard Vincent stated: priests are called to the most loft ministry on earth through which they must exercise the two great virtues of Jesus Christ, namely, reverence toward his Father and charity toward humankind (CCD:VI:413). In another text that reveals Vincent’s admiration for the priesthood, he stated: priests have received a very sacred and incomparable character, a power over the body of Jesus Christ … and the authority to forgive people’s sins (CCD:XII:89). For Vincent de Paul the service dimension of the priesthood had a universal extension, it was a concern for the whole Church and therefore priests must set people’s hearts on fire and do what the Son of God did (CCD:XII:215). This understanding implies a new way of experiencing church, one that is animated by love, acceptance and concern for all people … a church where the poor have a place and are able to live with dignity.
There are some virtues that Vincent considered most important for priests if their ministry, in accord with God’s plan, was to be authentic and effective: humility and gentleness, simplicity and prudence, diligence and discretion, sobriety and decorum. In order to develop those dispositions Vincent pointed out the need to be faithful to prayer and to have a spirit of penance. The priests and the missionaries who practice these virtues will be mature and balanced, temperate and ready to confront the apostolic hardships in a way that fosters the building up of the Kingdom of God and that provides for the well-being of the faithful, especially those who are most poor. In other words, the priests are called to do everything possible in order to clothe themselves in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the quality of their ministry depends on the degree to which they allow themselves to be formed by the Holy Spirit. Priests must be living icons of Jesus Christ. Thus Vincent wrote: You will find all these virtues in Christ and, if you allow him to act, he will exercise them in and through you (CCD:VIII:268). Vincent was a practical man; he did not engage in lofty speculations with regard to the priesthood but rather ministered on behalf of priests and with priests.
Vincent’s activity with regard to the renewal and the formation of the clergy, as well as his establishment of several seminaries, led to the promotion of retreats for priests and for the ordinands. This ministry also led to the development of groups of priests who gathered together to discuss cases of conscience and to deepen their understanding of moral theology. In Paris, Vincent gathered together in Saint-Lazare a number of priests who were concerned about their own personal renewal, as well as the renewal of the Church. There they dialogued about the virtues that the priests needed to develop, their lifestyle and their apostolic activity. Thus, the Tuesday Conferences were established. As a result of this ministry of the Congregation of the Mission, the custom of gathering the priests together was spread to many other dioceses, not only in France but in many other countries where the Vincentians made their mission houses, houses for the clergy.
As a member of the Council of Conscience, Vincent collaborated in the renewal of the episcopacy by appointing worthy candidates who were serious about the tasks entrusted to them.
Vincent was also in contact with many bishops as he exchanged letters with them and encouraged them to take a firm position against Jansenism. Vincent de Paul and many of his successors committed themselves to the ministry of the formation of the clergy, a ministry highlighted in the rules and the constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission and that were approved in 1658: This means that the whole purpose of the Congregation is: …  to preach the good news of salvation to poor people, especially in rural areas;  to help seminarians and priests to grow in knowledge and virtue, so that they can be effective in their ministry (Common rules I:1)
All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from:
VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14).
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM