Humility of Vincent (1) – eyes of those who knew him

by | Oct 3, 2012 | Congregation of the Mission, Vincentian Family

The biographers of Vincent de Paul often refer to his humility, but do not provide a framework for his experience. As the fundamental attitudes with regard to Vincent’s action are described in formation programs, as well as in publications about our spirituality, we are able to grasp Vincent’s thinking on the matter of humility which in turn enables us to consider how we might live as humble men and women in the present era. During the XXXV Week of Vincentian Studies we are invited to deepen our understanding of Vincent’s personal experience as a humble man.

Therefore above all else our study will focus on:

• A description of how Vincent practiced humility (II: Humility, one of the Christian virtues that Vincent most clearly revealed during his life time);

• An explanation of what motivated Vincent to live in this manner; what were the motives that gave meaning to Vincent’s lifestyle (III: Why was Vincent so enamored with the virtue of humility?);

• At the beginning we will refer to the various witnesses who provide us with a foundation as we approach this man, Vincent de Paul (I: The testimony of those who admired Vincent).

FAMVIN will present this lengthy article by Corpus Juan Delgado, CM in parts.

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In order to know how Vincent de Paul practiced humility we have available to us the testimony of those who knew him and his own testimony as expressed in his letters and conferences and in his encounters with the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries.

Much of this material was gathered together and published by Louis Abelly in his biography … but not all of it. Therefore, at this time we will briefly mention the sources that will help us describe how Vincent practiced humility.

One of the first documented accounts of Vincent’s humility is found in the funeral oration in memory of Monsieur Vincent de Paul that was preached by H. Maupas du Tour on November 23, 1660 [3].

H. Maupas du Tour was the bishop of Puy (1641-1661) and Evreux (11661-1680), a member of the Tuesday Conferences, an outstanding orator who had preached at the funeral services of Saint Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot Chantal and an author who published a biography on Saint Francis de Sales [4]. He also supported the publication of the biography that was written by Louis Abelly. There is no doubt that he admired Vincent and this is seen in the fact that he dedicated his sermon on Vincent de Paul to a description of his humility and charity.

He described Vincent as a perfect example of humility [5]. In presenting Vincent as one who totally changed the face of the Church in France through his ministry of renewing the clergy, seminaries, missions, Conferences, etc., he highlighted the following: Vincent was an instrument who carried out great designs for the glory of God, the furtherance of religion and the good of the State. We see him hidden under the wings of humility, covered by the most profound darkness of night, crushed by the sight of his nothingness and burning with the desire to be treated as the most despicable human being. So many crowns of glory should have been placed on his head because his consummate humility is worthy of the praise of men all people and the esteem of angels [6].

H. Maupas du Tour’s admiration, expressed in words and images proper to that era, led him to conclude that Vincent de Paul was the only persons who was blind when others described his heroic virtue: the more people praised him, the more Vincent expressed his own unworthiness and nothingness, viewing himself as the most wicked of men [7].

Brother Louis Robineau occupied the room next to Vincent. He entered the Congregation in 1642 at the age of twenty-one and pronounced his vows in 1650. For thirteen years he served as Vincent’s secretary (CCD:IV:423-426). In several notebooks he wrote recollections about Vincent which were made available to Louis Abelly, Vincent’s first biographer … notes which are still available to us [8].

In the first notebook (written between November 27, 1660 and September 10, 1664) Brother Robineau gathered together the actions and words on humility of the late Monsieur Vincent de Paul, our Most Honored Father and Founder. Not all of these words and actions were incorporated in Abelly’s biography and therefore we will take into consideration the observations of this extraordinary witness who was at Vincent’s side even before he professed his vows.

The testimony of Brother Robineau provides us with the title of the two central sections of this presentation:the deceased Monsieur Vincent, our Most Honored Father and Founder, enables us to see that during his lifetime he loved and was enamored with the virtue of humility, one of the Christian virtues that he continually practiced during his lifetime [9]. As will be seen we are dealing with a testimony that overflows with knowledge, admiration and veneration.

Louis Abelly (1604-1691), from the earliest years of his priesthood, had participated in the apostolic ministry of Vincent de Paul. He was the bishop of Rodez (1662-1666) and wrote some thirty books of devotion, history and theology. During the last twenty-five years of his life he lived at Saint-Lazare and wanted to be buried there (CCD:I:466-468).

Monsieur Almerás, Vincent’s successor, had requested the Missionaries to send him their recollections about the works, the houses and the persons with whom Vincent interacted during his lifetime. This information was then given to Louis Abelly so that he could write his biography. Brothers Robineau and Ducourneau played an important role in compiling this information.

In 1664 Louis Abelly published The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul [10]. This biography (written in a style proper to a hagiography) presents Vincent de Paul as a model to be imitated. Abelly writes as one who admired Vincent and who was grateful for Vincent’s example. Abelly wanted Vincent’s virtues to continue to inspire those persons who were and would later become members of the various institutions that he established [11]. We are not surprised, then, that Abelly introduced the section on Vincent’s humility with the following words: To speak in greater detail of the humility of this great servant of God is difficult because of his constant effort to keep this virtue hidden not only from others but even from himself. Nevertheless, we shall attempt to trace its main features, drawn from what we have seen and known of him, heard from his own lips or taken from the recollections of persons of great piety (Abelly III:181)

We are also not surprised when Abelly reveals facts unknown even to those who lived with him … unknown because of Vincent’s great humility (here we might also mention Abelly’s great admiration for Vincent): He had a habitual attitude of concealing his gifts and activities and all he had undertaken for the good of others. He did this to such an extent that even members of his Congregation knew only a fraction of the good works he had been involved with, and how many spiritual and corporal works of charity he had performed for all sorts of persons. Many of his confreres were astonished to read in this present work things they had never before known (Abelly III:182).

In presenting the testimonies that are available to us I have stated that these observations were made by individuals who admired Vincent de Paul. In fact, their accounts appear to present a Vincent de Paul who was already canonized. Are we then dealing with information that has been magnified, information that comes for partisan individuals and therefore not historically accurate.

P. Chaunu writes: These witnesses are clearly partial. If they had done otherwise, they would be found wanting in their duty to their state in life. If love is partial, then let it be so because these witnesses have seen the Light. The light is the truth, more true than the shadows of darkness. During his life Vincent de Paul accused himself, condemned himself … this humility seems to be excessive, very excessive in our eyes. Yet these flashes of light and truth enlighten those who behold Vincent and enlighten the members of society about the values in which Vincent was rooted … all of this leads us to look beyond the person of Vincent and at the same time proves that Monsieur Vincent had entered into the stage of pre-canonization, even though he was still alive [12].

Yes, in the sense that we have just explained these witnesses are partial. But Vincent’s humility is not a legend but is an integral aspect of his life, of his journey as a human being. If some characteristic has been over emphasized by the witnesses who felt it was worthy of imitation, then we can be sure that in such a situation “the legend” has come alive in history [13].

We can view from this same perspective the numerous testimonies of Vincent’s practice of humility that appear in the conferences to the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries of the Congregation. Those that appear in the conferences to the Daughters of Charity were gathered together by Louise de Marillac and other Sisters and this was done with Vincent’s approval. Those that appear in the conferences to the Missionaries were compiled by a team that was directed by Brother Ducourneau. Additional notes were added by the Missionaries and all of this was done without the Founder’s knowledge. The pages that recount Vincent’s humility (some of which do not appear in Abelly’s biography) [14] enable us to view the full range of Vincent’s experience and provide us with a more complete picture of Vincent, a humble man.

In addition to all of this we also possess almost four thousand letters written by Vincent. As we will see, this correspondence offers us much information that confirms the fact that humility was a constant in Vincent’s life. Here we are dealing with direct, objective and historically verifiable testimony. The concurrence of these sources means that we are not deceived. Monsieur Vincent was certainly a humble man. Moving beyond certain practices that have been highlighted in order to inspire veneration and reverence, these testimonies emphasize a reality that we are all aware of: Monsieur Vincent has proposed the practice of humility as one of the most significant Christian attitudes … an attitude that continually guided his life.

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