Saint Vincent and the Laity
by: José María Román, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
While preparing for this conference, I was about to change the title for one that I thought corresponded more to the reality. I thought that, instead of “Saint Vincent and the Laity” I should entitle it “Saint Vincent or the Laity” for both titles are implied in each other.
But neither would it be accurate. It would amount, on the one hand, to forgetting the tremendous work brought to fruition by Saint Vincent in favor of or in relation to other states of life in the Church; his work for the reform of the clergy, his contribution to the renewal of the episcopate, his efforts to improve the religious orders, male and female; his efforts to counteract a heresy (Jansenism) especially among the clergy, etc. And on the other hand, to deny other lay initiatives and movements that happened during the time of Saint Vincent which did not have him as its prime mover.
We are left then with “Saint Vincent and the Laity” but without forgetting that something of the truth is enunciated in the other title. Saint Vincent’s entire life evolved among and with the laity, to the point that it would be incomprehensible if this important aspect were omitted. It would be like writing about the life of Beethoven without speaking of music or of Napoleon without mentioning the army.
But let us understand from the outset that the theme Saint Vincent and the laity can be envisaged in two ways. We could think of the lay as the object of the Vincentian pastoral work and in that sense, we have to analyze, for example, his popular missions, whose principal goal was the evangelization of the laity; or the work with the galley slaves, of the foundlings or the aid to devastated areas; or as help to the north African prisoners, of the mission to Madagascar, in brief, all the apostolic work of Saint Vincent, that has for its only objective, its indisputable goal, the salvation of the poor people, that is to say, the salvation of the laity.
This is not so. What we are trying to say when we speak of “Saint Vincent and the Laity,” is to make clear the Vincentian contribution to the apostolic engagement of the lay, that is to say, to see Saint Vincent as the driving force of the apostolate of the laity. Or if you prefer, to see the lay as the subject, as the agent of the pastoral action in the Vincentian works.
In this sense, one has to say from the beginning, hoping that the rest of the exposition, will justify the thesis, that Saint Vincent is, at least the precursor of the modern apostolate of the laity, the original precursor both in practice and in theory. In spite of the fact that Saint Vincent has never been a theorist but a man of action, who had recourse to theory only a posteriori, that is to say, to justify and give doctrinal basis to what his intuition and his experience had made him see as absolutely necessary. Only when the Charities or the Ladies of Charity had been functional for many years, will he explain in a conference, the reasons that legitimized his activities in the Church. Only when the Congregation of the Mission had existed for thirty years did it dawn on him to write and publish the Rules that had to guide their lifestyle.
That Saint Vincent had the audacity to start a vast program for pastoral action of the laity in an epoch where the clergy predominated in the Church, as in the 17th century France, cannot be explained without certain psychological predispositions that made possible his acceptance of that form of apostolate. Did Saint Vincent have that predisposition?
There is not much we can ascertain in this area. But yes, there are at least two characteristics during his first two years as a priest that cast a fleeting light on his interior sentiments on this point.
The first we find in the famous letter of his captivity. Speaking about his liberation from slavery, he attributed it to one of the wives of the renegade, “… a native Turk, who served God’s immense mercy, as an instrument in recalling her husband from apostasy and restoring him to the bosom of the Church, brought about my deliverance from slavery.”
What is interesting for our proposition is the reflection of Saint Vincent on the event: “This other Caiphas or Balaam’s ass, by her words, caused her husband to tell me the very next day that our escaping to France depended only upon an opportunity, but that he would remedy matters so well within a short time that God would be praised by it.”
We find that Saint Vincent not only accepted the possibility that God makes use of instruments as something natural, like the wife of the renegade, who not only was a lay person but also a woman, — pay attention to the detail — and not a Christian, otherwise the biblical references that follow (the Turk as the new Caiphas or a new Balaam’s ass) cannot be understood. Saint Vincent, the young Vincent of his adventurous years, accepted as perfectly possible that the work of God, in this case the conversion of the renegade, and his own liberation, were realized through an unsuitable instrument, that acted as the ass of Balaam or as Caiphas, whom Saint John ascertained as having prophesied — being the High Priest that year. Nothing could be further from a Jewish High Priest than that poor north African Turkish wo¬man. But Saint Vincent saw in her an instrument in the hands of God.
The second characteristic is less picturesque, but equally in¬structive. This happened also in his young years. He was in the parish of Clichy and there, he was in admiration of and humbled by the dexterity of the peasants in intoning the Psalms. But let us allow Saint Vincent to tell us the story in his own words.
“Do you know, my Brethren, that the greater number of ecclesiastics (ourselves included), because they have not made it their chief business to sing the praises of God, do not know how to sing them. Yet others have preserved the grace of following the teachings of their fathers. This may be seen in villages where care has been taken to provide good schoolmasters. Almost all the children know the chant. And so the knowledge of it has passed on from father to son. Lay folk and peasants preserved this grace until, at last, God has restored order to His Office in His desire that it may be chanted devoutly. I will confess, to my shame, that when I found myself in my parish, I did not know how to set about chanting the Office. I listened with admiration to peasants intoning the Psalms, and not missing a single note. Hereupon I said to myself: ‘You who are their spiritual father are ignorant of all that!’ I was deeply distressed. What a source of shame, my Brethren, for ecclesiastics, is the fact that God has allowed the poor people to hold fast to the chant, God who, if I may say so, takes joy and pleasure, when His praises are sung!”
There is something more: there is a contraposition between the clergy/priests, and the laity, teachers and peasants. While the first, among whom Vincent counted himself, had forgotten some important elements in the life of the Church, the second had retained it in all its purity; something that was a source of confusion for the clergy. This proves once more that in the mind of Saint Vincent, the work of God can be realized by the laity even better than the clergy.
Do these two insights authorize us — we can find other examples without much difficulty — to conclude that in Saint Vincent there existed since his youth, a predisposition to accept the role of the laity in the Church? Frankly, I think yes, and this explains his launching a pastoral work specifically for the laity that early.
The confraternities of Charity
It so happened that the first pastoral initiative — and the first foundation—of Saint Vincent is a lay association. I am referring to the Confraternities of Charity. I am not going to repeat the story which all of you know by heart. But we have to mention briefly the important facts.
The first is the fact that the news of the desperate situation of a poor family and the first indication that something has to be done to help them came from a lay person, Madame de Chassagne, who on the Sunday morning of August 20, 1617, made the proposition at the sacristy of Chatillon. We see Saint Vincent welcoming the suggestions of the laity. And we see him organizing immediately the response from the people, that is to say, of the laity, that his words have unleashed. Thus, the first institution founded by Saint Vincent was an institution clearly lay as we know from their Rules.
In the second place, the members of the association are all lay. Let us recall the Rules of the Charity of Chatillon, the first among the Charities:
… some devout women and virtuous inhabitants of the town of Chatillon-les-Dombes, in the Lyon diocese, wishing to obtain from God the mercy of being His true daughters, have decided among themselves to assist spiritually and corporally the people of their town who have sometimes suffered a great deal, more through a lack of organized assistance than from lack of charitable persons.
The Confraternity will be composed of women, widows, wives and unmarried women, whose piety and virtue are known and whose perseverance can be counted on. Nevertheless, the wives and unmarried women must have the permission of their husbands or parents and not otherwise. In addition, to avoid the confusion that comes from too large a number, it should be limited to twenty, until further orders.”
The third fact to take into consideration is the autonomous functioning of the Confraternity. Obviously it is in accord with Canon Law and the custom of the times that the association, as a religious confraternity, has the bishop of the diocese as its supreme authority. In the local level, the parish priest is the president. But neither condition takes away the lay character of the association. The parish priest has no right to veto, to disapprove but has only the right of vote, “the same as if he were one of the said servants of the poor” and all cases, including the election of officers, were resolved by a plurality of votes.’ Also the Confraternity reserves the right to propose to the bishop their own Spiritual Father and Director in cases of necessity.
“In the event that the Pastor should be non-resident, or that his assistant does not take the responsibility required for the work, it will be permissible for the confraternity to take another Spiritual Father and Director of the work, accepted and approved for this purpose by the Archbishop.”‘
Fourth, the religious practices recommended to the association are the same as those of any pious lay. The recitation of the Divine Office or of the Little office was not required, as was done in the Tertiary Order; only the reception of the sacraments on designated days and the praying of some devotions easily understood by those who cannot read or write.
“The entire Company will go to confession and receive Communion four times a year, when they can do so conveniently, namely, on the feast of Pentecost, the feast of Our Lady in August, and the feasts of Saint Andrew and Saint Martin. This is done to honor the ardent desire of Our Lord Jesus that we love the sick poor and help them in their need.
Upon awakening they will invoke Our Lord Jesus, making the Sign of the Cross and saying some other prayer to His Holy Mother. Then, having risen and dressed, they will take holy water, kneel at the foot of their bed before some holy picture, and thank God for the gifts, general as well as particular, they have received from His Divine Majesty. They will recite three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys in honor of the Blessed Trinity; one Creed, and one Hail Holy Queen, after which they will hear Holy Mass, if convenient for them. They will be mindful of the reserve with which the Son of God carried out His actions on earth and, in honor of the imitation of these actions, will carry out their own in a reserved and tranquil manner.
When the day has been spent in accord with the preceding observations, and the time to retire has come, they will make the examination of conscience and say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and one De Profundis for the deceased. None of this, however, obliges one under pain of mortal or venial sin.”
Along the same line of secularity is found the spirituality that from the beginning Saint Vincent had inculcated in the Confraternity. The spiritual reading recommended was entitled Introduction to Devout Life by Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and which is the book of perfection par excellence for lay life. Saint Francis wrote the book to prove that perfection is not only for priests and religious, but for all Christians, in whatever state of life they are. Among the evangelical counsels, Saint Vincent chose to propose to the members of the Association not the classical virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience which are proper to religious, but the virtues of humility, simplicity and charity, lived with the end of showing their love for the poor.
As a model on how to conduct authority in the Confraternity, Saint Vincent proposes not any holy Prioress of a religious order, but a lay person, one who has experience and knows the practices of the Confraternity, a married woman, “mother of the family”.
You must have noticed that I used indiscriminately asociados and asociados. It is because though the first Confraternity, that of Chatillon, was exclusively for women, soon there would be foundations of mixed groups; that is to say, of men and women and others only for men. They were not different institutions. Saint Vincent declares clearly that
“… the men’s association and that of the women is one same association, having the same patron, purpose, and spiritual exercises, and only the ministries are divided”
and imposes an obligation on the Confraternities of men to help economically those Confraternities of women, with the right in this case, to be present in the rendering of their accounts.
The existence of both feminine and masculine charities shows the broad vision of Saint Vincent with regard to the laity. Although if one were to observe whether he showed any preferences, one could see that he tended to favor the women’s associations mostly because of the quality of their work. The men took care of the able-bodied poor and the women of the sick. Now Saint Vincent would explain: “Our Lord draws no less glory from the ministry of women than from that of men, and the care of the sick even seems preferable to that of the healthy… But also because of the better administration by the women. “Men and women working together do not agree on administrative matters. The men want to assume entire responsibility for them and the women cannot tolerate this. In the beginning, the Charities of Joigny and Montmirail were governed by persons of both sexes. The men were responsible for the care of the poor who were in good health, and the women for those who were ill, but because the funds were in common, we were obliged to remove the men. And I can give testimony in favor of women, that there is no fault to be found in the administration because they are so careful and trustworthy.”
Nevertheless, Saint Vincent was not totally freed from the prejudices of his time according to which “it is not proper for the women to carry on the administration by themselves alone” of possible new foundations. Because of this, the Confraternity of women had to elect a male procurator, who may be a clergy or lay, who will fulfill that function and will have a voice in decisions regarding matters pro¬posed during the time he is in office as procurator and no longer.
Very soon the three forms of associations — of women only, of men alone, and of the mix group—spread rapidly and soon formed a network that extensively covered France both in the rural and in the urban areas. We are not going to discuss here the history of the Confraternities’ expansion. It is enough to say that Saint Vincent in the Common Rules of the CM imposed on the Missioners the obligation of founding Confraternities of Charity in all the places where they conducted missions, an obligation that originated from the same Bull of Erection granting recognition to the Institution. Very early on, Saint Vincent had the conviction that not only he, but also his Missioners should initiate the same type of apostolate for the laity as the Confraternities of Charity.
Ladies and gentlemen
The confraternities in the parishes were not the only lay foundation established by Saint Vincent. He also founded another which at times is mistaken for the first: the Ladies of Charity of the Hotel Dieu. The primary end of the new association was to remedy, if possible, the deplorable condition of the General Hospital of Paris. But soon it became the leading group in the Vincentian Charities. They made theirs all the undertakings of Saint Vincent: the galley slaves, the foundlings, the prisoners, the foreign mission, the devastated regions. Majority of the Ladies belonged to the nobility or at least to the educated class. This is another proof of the total absence of prejudice in Saint Vincent when recruiting the lay to do his apostolate for the laity.
Because of their vast wealth, the Ladies were the principal source that financed all his works which demanded a large sum of money: they were a sort of treasury.
But not only that, the Ladies had to visit personally the sick in the hospital, to bring them delicacies to supplement the meager food given by the institution, and above all, to care for the spiritual needs of the sick, preparing them for the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, for which Saint Vincent had written a detailed rule. As a whole, it was not very different from the other confraternities except for the distinct social status of its members. But what interests us most is that it was to them that Saint Vincent revealed clearly his thoughts regarding the association that he initiated.
Saint Vincent was aware that his initiative represented a novelty; a change in the Church of his time. To justify it, also in keeping with his time, he had recourse to the practice of the primitive Church. In reality, what the Ladies and the Confraternities were doing was nothing but recovering an ancient tradition that was lost for more than eight centuries.
“For eight hundred years or so, women have had no public role in the Church; in the past there were some called Deaconesses, who were responsible for seating the women in the churches and teaching them the rubrics then in use. About the time of Charlemagne, however, by a discreet working of Divine Providence, this practice came to an end; persons of your sex were deprived of any role and have not had any since then. And now that same Providence is turning today to some of you to supply what was lacking to the sick poor of the Hotel-Dieu.”
And going ahead of possible warnings from some adversaries with scrupulous spirit, he countered briefly all possible arguments that were based on presumed biblical foundation:
“You practice what widows of the primitive Church did, namely, to meet the material needs of the poor as they did, and even the spiritual needs of persons of their own sex, as they did. In this you will be released, as it were, from the prohibition placed upon you by Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 14, ‘Women should keep silent in the churches; now are they permitted to speak; The he adds ‘For it is a disgrace for women to speak in Church.’ And in 1 Tm. 2, ‘I do not permit a woman to act as a teacher.’ Adding as the reason that, ‘Adam was created first; Eve afterward,’ and ‘It was not Adam who was deceived but the woman. It was she who was led astray.’”
After being set aside for centuries to passive roles, the Vincentian Charities for women were the first serious attempt for the promotion of women in the Church. In an epoch where women were regarded as servants of men or worst as instruments of the devil, Vincent granted them the first place in the most noble work of the Church, the proclamation of charity.
Saint Vincent envisioned another Vincentian Charity for women that would have surpassed the two previous ones. The Ladies of Charity at the Court. It would have been an organization solely for the Queen and her court. Its end was to have all the works of charity established by the saint under the protection of the highest social class, since his mission was to serve the poor. “… assisting the Companies of the Charity of the Hotel-Dieu, the foundlings, the convicts, the little girls of Mesdamoiselles Poulaillon and de Lestang, the poor young women serving in the charities of the parishes, the women at the Madeleine, and all the good works instituted by women in this century.
Although the organization resembled the two others, it has its own peculiarities due to the special condition of its members. Cases would not be resolved by a plurality of votes but by a decision of the Queen. The prescribed acts of piety were more sophisticated: mental prayer, spiritual reading, general examination of conscience daily, confession and communion once a week. On the manner of conducting the sessions, it was stressed that they should have special care not to discuss particular or general matters regarding the state. The plan was never materialized. But the mere fact that Vincent thought of it was an indication of the breadth of the Vincentian vision regarding the different task of the Christian laity according to their different social standing.
Let us go back to the Confraternity of Charity. I said from the beginning that there were Charities for both women and men. But what is certain is that the Charities for men were abandoned little by little after the first attempts, without our knowing the reason why. Later I will try to formulate a hypothesis.
I said they were abandoned. That is not completely true. In some situations, Vincent started organizing other groups that would take charge of specific needs, groups that were not necessarily confraternities. This was the case of the refugees of Lorraine. A good number of them were noblemen who had been ruined by the war and whose rank and dignity prevented them from publicly asking for alms. They were the humiliated poor. We are not sure whether it was by his own initiative that Vincent gathered together a group of his friends who were also noblemen, to study the problem. The group included the Duke of Liancourt, the Marquis of Fontenay and the Count of Brienne, but the most notable was Baron Gaston de Renty (1611-1649). These men set up an association whose first priority was to find out the number of refugees and what their needs were. Gaston de Renty himself took on this task. Once the census had been taken, they calculated how much money would be required to meet all the needs and then all the members of the association, including Vincent, pledged themselves to contribute. Every first Sunday of the month a meeting was held to review the situation, to update the list of those needing help and to collect contributions.
The members of the association were very discreet in giving alms and they used the occasion to show friendship and fellowship with their comrades from Lorraine, so that they will not feel offended at being given alms. The association was in operation for seven or eight years until the trouble in Lorraine began to subside. Years later, Vincent used a similar method to help the English and Scottish nobles who were fleeing from Cromwell’s persecution.
The Company of the Blessed Sacrament
I have just said that we do not know whether the initiative of this last work came from Vincent. It so happened that the men gathered with him to study the problem of the nobility from Lorraine belonged to an existing association, a contemporary of the Vincentian congregation: the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. What was the relation of Saint Vincent with this rather mysterious society? And in particular, to whom did its director, Baron de Renty often go for guidance? Unfortunately very little is known. It would be to our benefit to know the Baron de Renty better since the Company of the Blessed Sacrament is presented as the most important creation of the lay apostolate in the 17th century.
The Company of the Blessed Sacrament was composed of the clergy and the lay established to honor the Blessed Sacrament, reanimate the Christian spirit and to practice works of charity. Its founder was Henry de Levis, Duke of Ventadour. It was founded in 1630, under the patronage of a Capuchin Philippe de Angoumois; of a Jesuit priest, Fr. Suffren, confessor to Louis XIII and Fr. Condren, successor of Berulle as Superior General of the Oratorians. The Association was soon approved by Louis XIII and Queen Anne of Austria with the blessing of Pope Urban VIII. But the Archbishop of Paris, Jean Francois de Gondi, withheld his approbation. Its members came from the nobles or from the court. And even if it accepted clerics who were not religious, majority of its members were lay. The superior was always a member of the clergy and a Director General, the real head, was always a lay. Many friends of Vincent belonged to this Association: Olier, Alain de Solminihac, Abelly, the Prince of Conti, Marichal Schomberg, the Duke of La Meilleraye, William de Lamoignon. Saint Vincent also joined the Association. He was too close to the Association not to have belonged to it.
In effect, article 15 of the Statutes of the Company states: “the practices and objectives of the charity of the brothers shall be the hospitals, the prisons, the sick, the humiliated poor and all those who are in need. They will take care that the magistrates shall impose the norms of Christian policies and the edicts against heresies, and settle hostilities and lawsuits, to lift up persons from their sins, to restrain as much as possible all vices and finally to protect all that gives glory to God.”
At the beginning of the century, when Raoul Allier published the first global study on the Company, based on the Annals of the Company recently published by Voyer D’Argenson, he affirmed that Vincent was only an instrument for them to realize their works of charity. Evidently the affirmation surpassed the premises. It is enough to know that in 1630 the Confraternities of Charity have already been in existence for 13 years and that the wives of many of its members were Ladies of Charity. On the other hand, the Company was asking its members to found Confraternities of Charity in their localities similar to those already in existing in Paris. It seems that it was the Company that initiated what Saint Vincent was doing. It is the same conclusion that Alain Tallon arrives at in his most recent analysis of the powerful institution.
How did the Company become so powerful? It was not so much due to the number of its members — even if they were established in the most important cities of France. It was more because of the quality and the social influence of its members. It could be said that as soon as the Church had a given task, the Company was there to render help—be it as aid to devastated areas or to combat Jansenism; to stop dueling or to suppress blasphemies and the adverse effects of the carnival. The Company was decisive in founding the Seminary for Foreign Mission in China and the sending of missionaries to Canada. It was instrumental in the establishment of a hospital for galley slaves in Marseille. That is why the Company was said to be a kind of Catholic Social Action Center.
Now as to our topic, anyone who knows the history of the Vincentian works, the above enumeration sounds familiar. They are almost the same as the works established by Saint Vincent. It is because Vincent was not alone in the understanding that he had of the role of the laity in the Church. We have to admit that Vincent benefited largely from the generosity of the members of the Company. On his part, he cooperated fully with them. Sometimes the initiative to per¬form certain works was his at other times by one or the other members of the Company.
There is another aspect where we can find similarities between Saint Vincent and the Company founded by the Duke of Ventadour: the desire for silence. The Company made a vow of absolute secrecy or silence as they called it. The names of the members could not be revealed to anyone, nor its deliberation during meetings nor anything related to them. It was this secrecy that gave the society an air of dark mystery. This secrecy was due to their desire to honor the hidden life of our Lord and the Holy Eucharist and to their concern for efficaciousness. In the Annals of the Company it is stated that, “The reason for the secrecy is to facilitate the means of undertaking important works with greater prudence and disinterest and with lesser contradiction because experience has proven that the exterior noise is the ruin of those works.”
Saint Vincent did not impose on his communities and associations such rigorous silence. But let us not forget that he insisted that the Rules of both the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity cannot be communicated to externs nor could the norm imposed on the Ladies of Charity. “They will honor the silence of Our Lord in all that concerns the Company because the prince of this world makes light of holy things that are divulged thoughtlessly.”
It is significant that these words did not appear in any Vincentian writings prior to the rules of the Ladies of Charity of the Hotel Dieu, who evidently have close contact with the Company of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and the Ladies of Charity came to an agreement to do a special work: the foundation of the General Hospital for the enclosure of the poor. Saint Vincent did not favor this venture. This became a very significant disagreement between Saint Vincent and the Company of the Blessed Sacrament. He did not agree to this work that called for the obligatory suppression of the beggars. He preferred to render charitable aid to the needy. So when asked, he refused to send a Missioner as chaplain to the said hospital and presented Louis Abelly, a friend and his future biographer as possible chaplain. Abelly was a member of the Company. The bottom line of the disagreement was a different way of viewing poverty. The members of the Company had not succeeded in overcoming their idea of the poor as a social danger, especially the beggars of Paris, that had to be eliminated by all means. Saint Vincent, on the other hand, saw them as the suffering members of Christ. Of course, some promi¬nent members of the Company like Baron de Renty shared Vincent’s vision but he was not able to completely let go of his Company’s view, because of his social status. Or as we say today, he belonged to the establishment.
The Baron of Renty
It is just lately that this name has come to our attention. He is one of the most interesting figures of the 17th century France. He was a Norman gentleman who excelled in the use of arms and in sciences. One day he took the resolution to consecrate all his life, without ceasing to be lay, to the exigencies of a true Christian life. It was his conversion. He became a member of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament and became its director nine times in ten years. He became the moving spirit of the Association. Guided by Fr. Condren, Superior General of the Oratory, he was a close friend to Olier, Guy Lasnier, Abbe de Vaux, Saint Jean Eudes, Fr. Saint Jure, a Jesuit, who became his confessor at the death of Fr. Condren. Fr. Saint Jure wrote his biography. The Baron was the only extern admitted to the bedroom of Saint Vincent during his grave illness in 1644. Here we see that the Baron de Renty moved in the intimate circle of friends of Saint Vincent.
Evidently, the Baron related with Saint Vincent although unfortunately they have left us little proof of this. He is hardly mentioned in Vincent’s correspondence except three or four times; although in one of them, Saint Vincent mentioned “he comes with frequency.” In another, he asked news of him from his correspondent. Thus, their relationship was more intense than the documents would allow us to believe. We have seen how they worked together, aiding the noblemen of Lorraine. That was not the only occasion. They worked together aiding the devastated regions and in many more. Renty collaborated in the popular missions of Saint Vincent, though he was more active in the works of his townmate Saint John Eudes.
The Baron also helped the Daughters of Charity especially those in his parish. In 1645 they were designated as joint executors of the will of Claude d’Urre M. de Chaudebonne. The execution of the will was laborious; still in September 1660 the widow of Renty, Isabel de Balsac, wrote Saint Vincent keeping him abreast with the running of the affairs of M. de Chaudebonne. In the same letter she entrusted to Saint Vincent a priest whom she sent to Saint Lazare, saying that God “has inspired me the thought of sending him to you, knowing the light that God sends you in helping those who seek counsel and how much charity you have for them.”
If we have shown interest in the relationship between Renty and Saint Vincent it is because Renty was considered the “lay saint” par excellence of the 17th century. It is not an exaggeration. His recent biography is entitled, “Gaston de Renty, Man of the World and Man of God.” Not only because he remained faithful to his lay state (he had children with Isabel de Balsac) nor because he had been the moving spirit of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament for ten years, but because he elaborated in his writings, especially in his letters, a whole theory on the vocation of the laity. I am going to cite two quotations of what is called “the Letter of Catholic Action.” It was written June 26, 1642 to Mademoiselle de la Chevalerie, whose mother wanted to be a religious. “When we were baptized, we have put on Christ. The place, the habits, the vows do not add anything to Christian perfection. They make it only easier to reach perfection.”
“If you are alone in a depraved world, you will have to take more precautions, but grace is working in many and I know many persons who can act and live Christian modesty in places where licentiousness does not have any limit. I hope that priests, secular men and women, everyone will work for it.”
Renty died at the young age of thirty-seven years, on April 24, 1649. In many ways, he resembled Frederic Ozanam, as if he were the prototype of the great lay saint of the 19°1 century. Both had been in contact with Vincent de Paul, the staunch driving force behind the presence and the action of the laity in the Church; Renty personally and Ozanam, spiritually.
It has been discussed and will continue to be discussed whether the 17th century France and in particular the Company of the Blessed Sacrament, Gaston de Renty, and Saint Vincent de Paul had caused to emerge a real spirit for the laity in the Church of their time. Undoubtedly, the three — and other personages and institutions — spearheaded a powerful movement of Christian action, above all charitable, made up of lay persons. But none of them had elaborated a theory on the specific role of the laity in the Church. The ideal of perfection that they proposed to their followers was essentially inspired by the ideal of religious perfection. Which is not strange. It was only with Vatican II and the Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici that a definitive theological definition was formulated. But all of them, especially Saint Vincent, as we said at the start, were the precursors of the modern theology of the laity and the modern lay apostolate.
1. Pierre Coste, C.M. Saint Vincent de Paul:• Correspondence, Conferences, Documents. 12 Volumes. I, Letter 1, p. 8. Referred to in the following pages as Coste followed by the volume number; Conference, Letter or Document number and page.
2. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
3. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 213, pp. 708-709.
4. Coste IX, Conference 20, p. 162.
5. Coste XIIIb, Document 126, pp. 8-9.
6. Ibid., p. 16.
7. Ibid., pp. 18-19.
8. Ibid., p. 19.
10. Ibid., p. 6, “Neufchatel said… In a word, she will direct this family of Our Lord as a wise mother directs hers….”
11. Op. cit., Document 132, p. 52.
13. Coste IV. Letter 1254, p. 76.
14. Coste XIIIb, Document 126. pp. 9-10.
15. Common Rules of the CM’s, # 2.
16. Coste XIIIa, Document 84a, p. 299.
17. Coste XIIIb, Document 198, p. 432.
18. Op. cit., Document 186, p. 381.
19. Op. cit., Document 199, p. 441.
21. AbeIly I, 1, C. 30, p. 166 (Spanish ed.).
22. Op. cit., C. 35, pp. 167-169; I, 2, C. 11, p. 387; Collet I, pp. 312-314 (Spanish ed.).
23. R. Allier, La cabale des devots, 1627-1666. p. 448.
24. R. Voyer D’Argenson, Annales de la Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, ed. Dom Beaucher¬Filleau (Paris: Poitier, 1900), p. 307.
25. A. Tallon, La Compagnie de Saint-facrement (Paris: Cerf, 1990). p. 189.
26. To justify the works of the Company, cf. the mentioned book of Alain Tallon, passim.
27. Coste XIIIb, Document 200, p. 447.
28. Saint-Jure, Jean Baptiste, La Vie de M De Renty ou le modele dun parfait chretien (Paris, 1651). Hemos manejado la edition de Avignon, Seguin-Aine, 1833, p. 386; 17cm. Y sobre todo, la obra de reciente publication de Raimond Triboulet, Gaston de Renty (1611-1649), Un Homme de ce Monde, un homme de Dieu, (Paris: Beauchene, 1991).
29. Coste II, Letter 463, p. 97.
30. Op. cit., Letter 571, p. 258.
31. En su testimonio dejo “sumas considerables en favor de las misiones que el senor Vicente y los sacerdotes de su Congregation debian dar en los lugares mas profanao’as por los abominaciones sacrileges” y 200 fibres a sor Margarita, Hija de la Caridad de su parroquia de Saint Paul “para participar en las limosnas que ordinariamente hace.” (R. Triboulet, o.c. p. 386 y 396).
32. Id., p. 299.
33. Coste VIII, Letter 3247, p. 500. See also a fragment of a letter written by Saint Vincent to Isabel de Balsac in 1654. Cf. Coste V, p. 178.
34. Triboulet, R. o.c. p. 175.