Saint Vincent's Advice to Antoine Durand (CCD:XI:310-316)

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Nelio Pita Pereira, CM


The text:

O Monsieur, how great --- how very great --- do you think is the duty of direction of souls to which God is calling you? What do you think the occupation of the Priests of the Mission is, obliged as they are to oversee and guide persons whose motivations are known to God alone? Ars artium, regimen animarum: the direction of souls is the art of arts. That was the work of the Son of God on earth; it was the reason why He came down from heaven, was born of a Virgin, gave every moment of His life, and, in the end, suffered a very painful death. That’s why you must have a very high esteem for what you’re going to do.

But how can you carry out this ministry of guiding souls to God, of halting the torrent of vices of a people or the faults of a seminary, of inspiring sentiments of Christian and priestly virtues in those whom Providence will entrust to you to contribute to their salvation or to their perfection? There’s certainly nothing human in that, Monsieur; it’s not the work of a man, it’s the work of a God, grande opus. It’s the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ; consequently, all human diligence can do here is to spoil everything, if God doesn’t take a hand in it. No, Monsieur, neither philosophy, nor theology, nor discourses can act in souls; Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with Him --- so that we may act in Him and He in us, that we may speak as He did and in His Spirit, as He himself was in His Father, and preached the doctrine He had taught Him; those are the words of Holy Scripture.

So, Monsieur, you must empty yourself of self in order to clothe yourself with Jesus Christ. You know that ordinary causes produce the effects of their nature: a sheep produces a sheep, etc., and a human another human; likewise, if the man who directs and forms others and speaks to them is animated with only a human spirit, those who see him, listen to him, and strive to imitate him will become totally human: no matter what he says and does, he’ll inspire them with only the appearance of virtue, and not the substance; he’ll communicate to them the spirit with which he himself is animated, as we see that masters impress their maxims and ways of acting firmly on the minds of their disciples.

On the contrary, if a Superior is filled with God and with the maxims of Our Lord, all his words will be efficacious; virtue will go out of him that will edify others, and all his actions will be so many beneficial instructions that will bring about good in those who are aware of them.

To reach that point, Monsieur, Our Lord himself has to imprint firmly on you His stamp and His character. For, just as we see a wild stock, on which a seedling has been grafted, bear the fruits of the nature of this same seedling, we, too, wretched creatures, even though we’re only flesh, hay, and thorns, yet if Our Lord imprints His own character on us, and gives us, so to speak, the sap of His Spirit and grace, uniting us to Him like the vine branches to the vine stock, we do the same as He did on earth --- I mean we carry out divine actions and, like Saint Paul, filled with this Spirit, beget children to Our Lord.

Something important to which you must faithfully devote yourself is to be closely united with Our Lord in meditation; that's the reservoir where you’ll find the instructions you need to carry out the ministry you’re going to have. When you have a doubt, turn to God and say to Him, “Lord, You who are the Father of Lights, teach me what I must do on this occasion.”

I’m giving you this advice, not only for the difficulties that will cause you suffering, but also so you may learn directly from God what you’ll have to teach, in imitation of Moses, who proclaimed to the people of Israel only what God had inspired him to say: Haec dicit Dominus.

Furthermore, you must have recourse to God through meditation in order to preserve your soul in His fear and love; for, alas, Monsieur, I’m obliged to tell you --- and you must know this --- that people are often lost while contributing to the salvation of others. The person who forgets himself while being occupied with external things does well on his own account. Saul was found worthy of being King because he was living well in his father’s house; yet, after having been raised to the throne, he fell miserably from the grace of God. Saint Paul chastised his body for fear that, after having preached to others and shown them the path of salvation, he himself might become a reprobate.

Now, in order not to fall into the misfortune of Saul or Judas, you must be inseparably attached to Our Lord and say often, raising your heart and mind to Him, “O Lord, do not allow me, in trying to save others, to be unfortunately lost myself; be my Shepherd, and do not deny me the graces you impart to others through my instrumentality and the functions of my ministry.”

You must also have recourse to meditation to ask Our Lord for the needs of those whom you’ll be guiding. Rest assured that you’ll produce greater results by this means than by any other. Jesus Christ, who must be your model in all your ways of acting, was not satisfied with His sermons, His works, His fasts, His blood, and even His death, but He added meditation to all that. He had no need of it for himself; it was, then, for us that He prayed so often, and to teach us to do the same, both for our personal concerns and for what concerns those whose saviors we must be, together with Him.

Another thing I recommend to you is the humility of Our Lord. Say often, “Lord, what have I done to have such a ministry? What works of mine correspond to the responsibility being placed on my shoulders? Ah, my God, I’ll spoil everything if You yourself don’t guide all my words and works!” Let’s always view all that’s human and imperfect in ourselves, and we’ll find only too much for which to humble ourselves, not only before God, but also before others and in the presence of those who are subject to us.

Above all, don’t feel that you have to appear as the Superior or master. I’m not of the opinion of the person who said to me a few days ago that, to govern well and maintain your authority, you must make it clear that you’re the Superior. O mon Dieu! Our Lord Jesus Christ didn’t talk like that; He taught us just the opposite by word and example, telling us that He himself had come, not to be served, but to serve others, and that whoever wanted to be the master must be the servant of all.

So then, adopt that holy maxim, acting toward those with whom you're going to live quasi unus ex illis (as if you were one of them), telling them from the outset that you haven’t come to lord it over them but rather to serve them; do that inside and outside the house, and you’ll do well.

In addition, we should always refer to God the good that’s done through us, and, on the contrary, attribute to ourselves all the harm that’s done in the Community. Yes, remember that all disorders proceed mainly from the Superior, who, by his negligence or bad example, introduces infractions of the Rule, just as all the members of the body languish when the head isn't well.

Humility should incline you also to avoid all self-satisfaction, which slips mainly into works that have some glory in them. O Monsieur, how dangerous to good works is the venom of vain complacency! It’s a plague that corrupts the holiest actions and soon causes us to forget God. In the name of God, be on your guard against this failing, since it’s one of the things that presents the greatest danger I know to advancement in the spiritual life and perfection.

For this purpose, give yourself to God so that you’ll speak in the humble spirit of Jesus Christ, acknowledging that your doctrine isn't your own, nor coming from you but from the Gospel. Imitate especially the simplicity of the words and comparisons Our Lord uses in Holy Scripture when He speaks to the people. What wonderful things could He not have taught the people! What secrets could He not have revealed about the Divinity and its admirable perfections, He who was the Eternal Wisdom of His Father! Nevertheless, you see how plainly He speaks and how He uses familiar comparisons --- a farmer, a wine grower, a field, a vineyard, a mustard seed. That’s how you must speak if you want to make yourself understood by the people to whom you’ll be announcing God’s word.

Something else to which you must pay very close attention is to be very dependent on the guidance of the Son of God; I mean that, when you have to take action, you should make this reflection: “Is this in conformity with the maxims of the Son of God?” If you see that it is, then say, “Fine, let’s do it.” If it isn’t, then say, “I’ll do nothing of the sort.”

Furthermore, when there’s question of doing some good work, say to the Son of God, “Lord, if You were in my place, how would you act on this occasion? How would you instruct these people? How would you console this person sick in mind or body?”

This dependence must extend also to showing great deference to those who represent Our Lord to you and who serve as your Superiors. Believe me, their experience and the grace that Jesus Christ in His goodness imparts to them because of their duty have taught them many things regarding leadership. I’m telling you this to urge you to do nothing important or to undertake nothing extraordinary without informing us of it; or, if the matter should be so urgent that you might not have time to wait for our solution, to go to the nearest Superior and ask him, “Monsieur, what would you do in such a circumstance?” Our experience is that God has blessed the leadership of those who have acted in that way, whereas, on the contrary, those who acted otherwise became involved in matters that not only caused them trouble but also even embarrassed us.

I also ask you to take care not to try to distinguish yourself in your leadership. I don’t want you to do anything unusual, but always to follow the viam regiam --- the common way --- in order to proceed confidently and without reproach. By that I mean that you should conform yourself in everything to the Rules and holy customs of the Congregation. Don’t introduce anything new, but reflect on the advice drawn up for those responsible for the houses of the Company, and don’t do away with anything that’s being done in the same Company.

Be not only faithful to observing the Rules, but also exact in having them observed; for otherwise everything will go badly. In addition, since you hold the place of Our Lord, in imitation of Him you must also be a light that enlightens and warms. “Jesus Christ,” says Saint Paul, “is the splendor of the Father,” and Saint John says that He’s the light that enlightens every man who comes into the world.

We see that superior causes influence inferior ones. For example, the angels who are in a superior hierarchy enlighten, illumine, and perfect the intelligences of a lower hierarchy; likewise, the Superior, Pastor, and Director must purge, illuminate, and unite to God the souls entrusted to him on the part of God himself.

And, just as the heavens send their benign influences on the earth, those who are above others must pour out on them the principal spirit that should animate them. For that purpose you must be filled with grace, light, and good works, just as we see that the sun communicates the fullness of its brightness to the other stars. In a word, you must be like salt: Vos estis sal terrae (you are the salt of the earth [Matthew 5:13]), preventing corruption from slipping into the flock of which you’ll be the shepherd.

After M. Vincent had told me all of the above, with a zeal and charity I can’t express, a Brother of the Company arrived and spoke to him about some temporal matter involving the Saint-Lazare house. When the Brother left, he took the opportunity to give me the following advice: “You see, Monsieur, how I have to pass from the things of God, of which we were just speaking, to temporal matters; you must know from this that it’s up to the Superior to provide not only for spiritual matters but also to extend his concern to temporal matters; for, since those whom he has to guide are composed of body and soul, he has to provide for the needs of both, after the example of God, who, being occupied from all eternity with begetting His Son, both the Father and the Son produced the Holy Spirit. I repeat that, in addition to those divine operations ad intra, He created the world ad extra, and is constantly occupied with preserving it and all that depends on it, and every year produces new seeds in the ground, new fruit on the trees, etc. And the same concern of His adorable Providence is extended even to that, so that no leaf falls from a tree without His order; He counts every hair of our head and feeds even the tiniest vermin --- even a mite. I think this is a powerful consideration to help you to understand that you mustn't devote yourself only to lofty things, such as functions concerned with spiritual matters, but a Superior, who represents in a certain sense the extent of the power of God, must also apply himself to taking care of the slightest temporal matters, not thinking that this care may be something unworthy of him. So, give yourself to God to procure the temporal good of the house to which you’re going.”

In the beginning, when Our Lord sent out His Apostles, he recommended that they not take any money with them; but later, when the number of His disciples increased, He willed that there be one of the group qui loculos haberet (who would have power over the coffers) and would take care not only of giving food to the poor, but also of providing for the needs of His family. Furthermore, he allowed women to follow Him for the same purpose, quae ministrabant ei (who ministered to him [Luke 8:3]); and, if He gives orders in the Gospel not to worry about tomorrow, that should be interpreted to mean not to be too anxious or concerned about worldly goods, and absolutely not to neglect the means of keeping ourselves alive and clothing ourselves; otherwise, there would be no point in sowing any seed.

On that I'll finish; it’s enough for today. I repeat once again that what you’re about to do is a very great work: grande opus. I ask Our Lord to bless your leadership and I ask you, on your part, to join me in praying that He’ll forgive me all the faults I myself have committed in my own ministry (CCD:XI:310-316). [1]


Introduction

When we read the vast Vincentian literature, we find occasional commentaries such as the one entitled: Advice to Antoine Durand, a text that is often referred to when the theme of leadership in the local community is discussed. José María Román, for example, refers to that text as the breviary of a good superior. [2] On the other hand, Pierre Coste, in his introduction to the complete works of Vincent de Paul, refers to that text as a form of spiritual direction (Cf. CCD:I:xxv-xlviii). The Practical Guide for the Local Superior has included the complete text of that conference in an appendix and is obligatory reading not only for superiors who ought to be familiar with the profile that Vincent desired but also for subjects who should view their superiors as a point of reference and an example for their life.

Despite its great importance and the various references that are made to this text in various Vincentian studies, we do not have any in-depth study of this text … perhaps because it has not been necessary since Vincent’s message is very clear as is his language. The text that we have referenced does not present any new reality that is distinct from the body of Vincent’s teachings. By way of introduction allow me to state that the attributed relevancy is due in part to the manner in which the principal characteristics which should guide a superior’s activity are summarized in one single document. What Vincent had stated on various occasions is presented as a whole in the advice that is given to M. Durand.

Despite the clarity of Vincent’s message, for a more in-depth study of this text we must attempt to understand not only the expressed meaning of the words, but also the latent meaning, that is, we must understand what is not said but implied. We will do this by applying some criteria of analysis. In this sense we can pose the following questions: what can we say about the two individuals involved in this discussion? What can we know about M. Durand? Why was this young man entrusted with these strategies for success in leading a community? In what context was this done? What are the predominant concerns of the individuals involved here?

This study has three parts. In the first section we will reflect on the persons involved in this discussion and the context; in the second section we will summarize principal ideas in Vincent’s advice and in the third section, by way of conclusion, we will highlight some of the characteristics that will provide us with a profile of a superior … a profile that is in accord with the spirit of Saint Vincent.


Antoine Durand and Vincent de Paul: an extraordinary encounter

We have few notes with regard to the conferences that Vincent addressed to two Missionaries. [3] Among the notes that we do have are those that M. Durand wrote after having listened to our holy Founder. Who is Antoine Durand?

The journey of this young man is known. Pierre Coste summarizes the primary stages of his life and other studies provide further details. [4] If we know some of the steps of M. Antoine’s journey until the time of his death, then should we not be able to gain some access to the state of his soul when he was named superior at the seminary? We must say that such information is not available but we can deduce some possibilities and in light of the available data we can reflect upon some interior predispositions.

Twenty-seven years old and ordained just two years, M. Durand was still a young priest who had little knowledge with regard to pastoral matters. This young man, with little experience, would meet with one of elders of the community. The symbol of maturity is now contrasted with the other extreme, the young M. Durand, who stands before M. Vincent and who is very naive with regard to “God’s business and the world’s business”. M. Durand was aware of this gap and for that reason the news of his appointment and the calling to be the spiritual father of his confreres had to create in him feelings of both joy and fear. He rejoiced to know that the Founder viewed him as capable of such an important undertaking in the new Company. M. Durand knew that Vincent was very careful and prudent in making decisions and therefore he realized that his appointment was the result of a process of personal discernment and not some impulsive decision. M. Durand also knew that in his new mission Vincent would follow his progress most closely. In his mind M. Durand was able to imagine and feel the weight of the responsibility that was being placed upon his shoulders … he knew that this encounter with Vincent would have profound significance for the remainder of his life. Therefore, as often happens when a young person approaches someone who is publically recognized as a living and important symbol in the church and/or the nation … so M. Durand’s legs began to tremble and his heart began to beat faster but his mind was prepared to embrace every word that was spoken. Later, he would write down those words so that they could be consulted anew at a later time … and perhaps others would be able to read those same words. Thus, this encounter, one of many that Vincent had every week, became for M. Durand an unforgettable event in his life as a priest --- and we might add, in the life of the Congregation of the Mission.

For his part, Vincent, in 1656, found himself in the midst of coming to closure with regard to the work that he had initiated. His ministry at that time was not one that was creative, that is, he was not involved in new undertakings or proposing new doctrines to the Church or to society, but rather he was focused on consolidating his initiatives, especially his ministry with the poor and his commitment to the integral protection of those marginalized, both spiritually and materially. He was able to do this as a result of the institutions that he had established, namely, the Confraternities of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, and the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent did all of this from his residence in Paris, writing hundreds of letters and also visiting those places where his confreres lived and ministered. He did this through countless conferences and talks and through his interventions during times of prayer when he instructed, corrected, exhorted, motivated … interventions whose words were later put into writing and sent to the other local communities so that everyone was able to benefit from such wise counsel. Vincent was like the heart of a large body whose purpose was to continue the evangelizing ministry of Jesus, the poor man/carpenter from Nazareth. Vincent, advanced in years, aware of his physical limitations and the approach of death, was even more aware of the urgency to guarantee the continuation of the work that had been entrusted to him by Divine Providence. Vincent felt that he had been chosen by God to continue on earth the work that was begun by the Lord, a work that had been forgotten by many people within the Church. If M. Durand’s legs trembled when he met with Vincent, how much more did Vincent’s legs tremble as he reflected on the work that had been entrusted to him by Divine Providence! He feared that he would be unable to fulfill the divine mission. He feared, as we can see in his conferences, that his followers would stray from the fundamental principles that guided the activity of the Congregation of the Mission. In 1656 Vincent’s trembling was even more intense because the Common Rules had not yet been published and distributed. Therefore, it was even more urgent to prepare protagonists to carry out this divine work. There was a need to make things very clear and therefore, when Vincent made a decision with regard to the young priest, it was a very serious and grave matter.

Serious and tender. As a result of Vincent’s letters we know that Vincent did not entrust the leadership of a community to a young person. The superior was pivotal for the success of a community and, therefore, an inexperienced person would not have the authority to confront the demands of leadership. But M. Durand was an exception. Vincent was especially fond of this young man who had been well-formed. He was devout, pious and very committed. When he was in Poland he had come close to death. He had matured greatly in a short period of time. He would be well-received by the community in Agde. [5] At the same time it was quite natural that the elderly Vincent should reflect on his youth as he received the young man with whom he felt a certain affinity. As M. Durand approached him, Vincent recalled his own youth, the times when he had strayed from the path, the times when which he traveled along paths whose destination was not the encounter with the Lord, the time when he lacked proper supervision. Yet, the same God who gave him the freedom to make such “short-cuts” also seduced him with the mission. Now God would use him as he spoke to M. Durand, who was a living symbol of the future of the Congregation of the Mission. In the depths of his being Vincent had great confidence in the history that this young confrere was about to write.


The advice

The text in which we find the advice that was addressed to M. Durand, is structured according to Vincent’s beloved “little method”. In the introduction Vincent focused his attention on the matter of guiding souls, on the occupation of the Congregation of the Mission. Vincent explained the motives for proceeding in that matter and was very explicit: it’s the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Vincent then immediately began to speak about the means. Such a ministry is divine in nature and therefore the means cannot be mere human means: neither philosophy, nor theology, nor discourses can act in souls. Vincent then elaborated his Christ centered doctrine: Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with Him --- so that we may act in Him and He in us, that we may speak as He did and in His Spirit, as He himself was in His Father. In order to achieve all of this Vincent referred to an idea from the dominant spiritual current of the seventeenth century, an idea which Vincent had learned from Berulle and Canfield. Those individuals, influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted on negative elements, such as self-emptying and total abandonment as people engaged in the process of developing an on-going relationship with God. But as we are all aware, Vincent adapted those ideas to his own way of thinking … self-empting is putting aside one’s own will in order to accept “mystical death” and thus one becomes willing to embrace God’s plans. In other places Vincent would say that self-emptying meant detachment [6] or living with an attitude of indifference. [7] Above all else, this meant imitating Jesus Christ who detached himself for all things in order to obey the will of his Father. [8] Vincent, in accord with the criteria of “the little method”, provided many examples. He utilized images from nature: ordinary causes produce the effects of their nature. In this way he made it very clear that, in the first place, the responsibility of the superior is to solidify his relationship with God so that his activity reflects that relationship. Let us now reflect more fully on each one of the means that Vincent proposed.

Prayer

The most excellent means to clothe oneself in the spirit of Jesus Christ is prayer … prayer as the school of the Missionary and the primary place for “divine instruction”. Vincent, in the advice that he offered M. Durand, highlighted the following points: [a] prayer is the means to discern the will of God since through dialogue with the Creator doubts are clarified and/or disappear; [b] prayer is the means that guarantees a proper relationship with God, a relationship that balances fear with love, a relationship that recognizes that the Missionary must be involved in many various activities on behalf of the salvation of others; [c] from the mouth of a superior prayer should be an expression of concern for the needs of those who have been entrusted to his care.

Humility and simplicity

After offering some advice with regard to prayer, Vincent focused his attention on those characteristics that will provide us with a profile of the superior according to the spirit of the Congregation of the Mission. Such individuals ought to be filled with the virtue of the humility of Our Lord which enables them to avoid giving into the passion of feeling superior to and/or the teacher of others. Humility enables people to understand that everything comes from God and that the root of evil is found in human cunning. When dealing with superiors the consequence of any bad example is most serious because all disorders proceed mainly from the Superior, who, by his negligence or bad example, introduces infractions of the Rule, just as all the members of the body languish when the head isn’t well.

True humility, because it affirms God as its source, is not complacent. Vincent stated that such vain complacency was a poison, a disease and the greatest obstacle to progress in the spiritual life and to journeying forward on the path that leads to perfection. If humility is the virtue that molds the being and the speech of the Missionary to the likeness of a child of God, then there is also a need to be simple. The young Missionary, M. Durand, was reminded about the primary lines of the “little method”: Jesus spoke plainly and used familiar comparisons … that is how you must speak.

Conformity with the will of God

The theme with regard to imitating the example of the Son of God or with regard to living in conformity with the Spirit of God is one that occurs with great frequency in Vincent’s writings. His life was an on-going process in which he conformed himself to the will of God and, in the text that we are reflecting upon, Vincent recommended that approach to life to those who accept the ministry of leadership in the local community. According to Vincent, such conformity is revealed, in the first place by one’s obedience to superiors who are “the voice of God” and therefore, deserve unconditional obedience. As a result of that reality, Vincent demanded that nothing of importance should be undertaken until the consent of the superior is given. His teaching was the fruit of experience in which he saw many blessings bestowed on individuals who proceeded in such a manner and at the same time many, anxieties and worries burdened those who strayed from that approach. Secondly, life in conformity with the will of God involves faithful and rigorous fulfillment of the rules and the holy customs of the Congregation of the Mission. Obedience provides surety that one is living in conformity with the Spirit of Jesus Christ and therefore, superiors must be persons of unquestionable example.

Material goods

The interruption of this enlightening session by a brother provided Vincent with an opportunity to add further advice on various themes, very important themes, themes such as material goods. Given the fact that the Son of God became incarnate in a specific place and at a specific time … this means that the twofold dimension of spiritual and temporal deserves the attention of superiors. Yes, it is very desirable that one maintain a balance when dealing with those dimensions and therefore, no valid reason can ever justify one’s negligence of the temporal/material dimension. As always Vincent grounded his words in Scripture: among Jesus’ disciples there was an individual responsible for money and a group of women followed him in order to provide for his various needs. The text with regard to this advice concludes by invoking God’s blessings and Vincent’s request for forgiveness for the faults he committed during his ministry.

Besides transcribing the content of the advice, M. Durand stated that Vincent spoke with a zeal and a charity I can’t express. That is a very significant affirmation and reveals Vincent’s manner of proceeding as well as his ability to influence others as they engaged in the mission. Furthermore, all of this reflects M. Durand’s admiration of M. Vincent. In fact, he had such great admiration for Vincent that no words could describe the situation that he had just experienced. Animated and encouraged by such wise advice, M. Durand was determined to be a good superior. In fact, as a result of the information that is available to us, we know that during most of his life M. Durant was in a position of leadership: superior of the local community, secretary-general of the Congregation of the Mission, director of the Daughters of Charity.


The face of a superior

An institution that has just been established will, in the beginning, lack a doctrinal body and a set of principles that regulates the life of its few members. Imitating the Lord who did not begin by teaching but by doing, the Little Company slowly acquired its identity and outlined its principles and methodology. Slowly it formulated a normative body of material, especially material regarding the role of its leaders. Since the continuation of such a vacuum would cause disorientation and discouragement, we can therefore understand the need for the on-going regulation of the life of the newly founded institution. Father Flores highlights the fact that in such a situation particular rules will be put in place. There were rules of office, for example, rules for the superior general and the visitor (even though that office had not yet been officially established); there were also rules for the local superior. [9] Various studies address the theme of authority in the community and in the heart of the Congregation of the Mission. [10] Here, by way of conclusion and in accord with the vision of Vincent de Paul, I highlight three characteristics that should be viewed as fundamental when speaking about a good superior … characteristics that are still valid.

A man of God

For Vincent this is the primary and fundamental requisite for those who are superior. In other words, being a man of God is the very heart of a superior’s ontological constitution. The life of superiors ought to be guided by Jesus Christ, who is the Rule of the Mission. Vincent told M. Durand: Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with him. Superiors ought to be filled with God, clothed in God’s spirit … they should allow themselves to be imprinted with God’s stamp so that their actions might be efficacious and appropriate and just in the eyes of people, but especially in the eyes of their confreres. In regard to clothing themselves spiritually with the spirit of Jesus Christ, the importance of prayer should be noted. Indeed, the life of Vincent de Paul should make us question ourselves in this regard: Vincent wrote countless letters, he preached many sermons and conferences, he visited people of every class … but he prayed much more.

Vincent’s words with regard to prayer are wonderful and when speaking about this spiritual dimension of life we also discover that his words are very relevant. Superiors cannot configure themselves to Jesus without prayer and unless they configure themselves to Jesus Christ, superiors become more or less competent managers of an institution whose objectives have become quite distinct from those which caused them to be appointed as superior of a religious community. At times it is necessary to gather together the members of the community around these fundamental principles.

A human perspective

Vincent was a natural psychologist, one who was able to easily read the movement of another’s soul. He was able to intuit another’s abilities, virtues and defects of character. He became aware of the personality traits of those with whom he met and he always respected individuals as long as their character did not clash with the fundamental principles of the institution. Vincent continually counseled superiors to be firm [with regard] to the end and humble and gentle with regard to the means (CCD:II:336). Vincent had a gift that enabled him to read the hearts of men and women and then, prescribe the “appropriate medicine” for their ailment. When a superior asked how he should deal with quick-tempered, touchy, critical persons (CCD:IV:97), Vincent offered the following wise counsel: prudence should dictate your reply … and you must also attempt to walk in their shoes (an adaptation of CCD:IV:97). Modern psychology calls this empathy, the ability of one person to enter into the subjective world of another in order to understand their suffering and their manner of relating to reality ... Vincent recommended such an approach as a way to overcome and resolve community tensions.

People are essentially the same even though their circumstances might be quite different. Our communities continue to be places where there are quick-tempered, touchy, critical persons. [11] This is normal. It is hoped that the superior is able to read “the signs” of the community and as a result of the empathy that is shown to each member of the community and, without excluding anyone, then lead the community in the construction of a common history.

The art of leadership

We know that Saint Vincent revealed not only the spirit of Jesus Christ but also the spirit of his era. Timoteo Marquina, CM has stated that there is no doubt that Vincent was influenced by the Ignatian concept of obedience and by the concept of French absolutism. [12] However, the demand of unconditional obedience to superiors, God’s ambassadors, has lost much of its meaning today … the Vatican Council’s concept of co-responsibility has replaced that previous concept. Nevertheless, in the context of the Council there is an element that cannot be forgotten, namely, the superior as a person who humbles himself in order to serve in a more effective manner … the superior viewed as one who is gifted with prudence and patience and who is able to bear with all things. This element is reflected in the words that Vincent wrote to M. Portail, the second in the Company: bear with everything, I say, everything, on the part of good M. Lucas. I repeat everything, so that laying aside your superiority, you may adapt yourself to him in charity (CCD:I:110). In this sense the superior is superior to no one. For those who view this office as one that provides them with prestige and privilege, they should reflect on Vincent’s words: don’t feel that you have to appear as the Superior or master. I’m not of the opinion of the person who said to me a few days ago that, to govern well and maintain your authority, you must make it clear that you’re the Superior. O mon Dieu! Our Lord Jesus Christ didn’t talk like that. Thus, in light of the information that is before us we can see that two words provide us with the formula for good leadership according to the spirit of Vincent de Paul: humility and determination. Determination with regard to the objectives and humility and flexibility with regard to the strategies to attain those objectives.

Today it seems to me that before asking the question with regard to what kind of superior is required in our communities, another question must be posed: what kind of community do we want to become? Reading and reflecting on the advice that was given to M. Durand can help us to find an answer that is both faithful to the Vincentian charism and appropriate for the times in which we live.

Footnotes

  1. VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conference, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-13b), 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. 2-13b), 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); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-13b); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2009. All references to this work will be inserted into the text using the initials [CCD] followed by the volume number, followed by the page number.
  2. J. M. ROMÁN, St. Vincent de Paul: A Biography, translated by Sr. Joyce Howard, DC, Melisende, London, 1999, p. 304.
  3. We do have the text of the conference that was addressed to Antoine Durand (CCD:XI:3016-316 … referenced at the beginning of this presentation) and Louis Langois (CCD:XII:138-139).
  4. In footnote #2 to letter 1755 (CCD:V:161) we read: Antoine Durand was a chosen soul. Born in Beaumont-sur-Oise (Val-d'Oise) in April1629, he entered the Congregation of the Mission on September 15, 1647, took his vows in 1651, and was ordained a priest in September 1654, few days after his arrival in Poland. He returned to France in 1655, was assigned to Agde, and became Superior there the following year. The Province of Savoy sent him as delegate to the General Assembly in 1661. In 1662 he was put in charge of the house and parish in Fontainebleau, a very important and delicate position because of the dealings that the Pastor in that town was obliged to have with the Court. In his interesting memoirs, published by Abbé Octave Estournet (Journal de Antoine Durand, prêtre de la Mission, premier cure de Fontainebleay (1661.-67) [Fontainebleau: Libr. cathol., 1900]), he retraces the events in which he was involved during his stay in Fontainebleau. From there Durand went to Agde (1679-81), then to Dijon (1681-83), Sedan (1683-90), Saint-Cyr (1691•92), and the Arras seminary (1692-95); in all these places he was Superior. Despite his advanced age, he was given the duty of Secretary General, which he performed until 1707. For two years he was also Director of the Daughters of Charity. Besides his memoirs, he wrote three books still in manuscript form: Vie de La Soeur Julienne Loret, Fille de la Charité Livre contenant les marques d’un homme juste (Bibl. Maz.. Ms. 1250); and Réflexions sur les masques, le bal et les danses, avec quelques pratiques pour les trois jours qui précèle caréme, Ms. 1679. The exact date of his death is not known. His biography is given in Notices, vol. II. pp. 389-424. For more details with regard to his biography see: http://somos.vicencianos.org/blog/2011/03/antoine-durand-1629-1703/
  5. The house in Agde was established in 1654. Vincent wrote to M. Blatiron and stated that that establishment represented many great hopes. M. Duchesne, who was the first superior there, proposed establishing two seminaries, one for the diocesan clergy and the other for the members of the Congregation. It became impossible to accomplish such plans because the place where the Missionaries lived was in reality very unhealthy … M. Duchesne became ill there and died at the beginning of November. M. Mugnier who had traveled from Marseille in order to care for M. Duchesne also became ill and was in danger of dying. Vincent asked M. Abelly to write to the Vicar-General there and ask the bishop to establish a new residence for the members of the Congregation. This plan also had no effect. The new superior, M. Lebas, also fell ill with some disease but recovered. It was then decided that in light of so many difficulties the Missionaries would leave that place but would also pray that God would bless the city and the diocese. But once again the situation changed and the confreres continued to minister there. Two years later M. Durand replaced M. Lebas as superior. Cf. http://somos.vicencianos,org/blog/2011/03/antoine-durand-1629-1703/ and CCD:V:399.
  6. Detachment is a basic gospel virtue that disposes the Missionary to action; cf. CCD:XI:1-2; see also Timoteo Marquina, “Desprendimiento” [Detachment] in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 116-119.
  7. Vincent referred to “availability” as “holy indifference” … detachment and indifference are understood as the fruit of on-going vigilance. When Vincent speaks about persons who are available for the mission, he states: their hearts are free (CCD:XII:198); see also, José María Ibáñez Burgos, Vicente de Paul: realismo y encarnación [Vincent de Paul, realism and incarnation], p. 52-56.
  8. N. Pereira Pita, El seguimiento de Jesús en San Vicente de Paul [The following of Jesus Christ according to Vincent de Paul], Salamanca, Editorial CEME, 2004.
  9. Cf. Miguel Pérez Flores, “Reglas” [Rules] in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 543. See also the Codex of Sarzana, 1653, Chapter VI where the rules for the “particular” superior are divided into eight chapters and whose content is very detailed.
  10. Cf. For example, the bibliography that is found at the end of the Practical Guide for the Local Superior.
  11. In the language of psychopathology we might classify such individuals as persons with a personality disorder: manic, paranoid, and obsessive-compulsive.
  12. Timoteo Marquina, CM, “Superiores” [Superiors] in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 1995, p. 576.

Translated by: Charles T. Plock, CM