By preference Vincent de Paul devoted himself to the service of the poor. Nevertheless circumstances frequently introduced him into the world of the aristocracy.
In an article on Historical perspective on Vincent as Advocate and councilor to Royalty Fr. Richard J. Kehoe C.M. provides a quick review Vincent’s influence on those in power.
As a young priest in Paris he found his first employment as an almoner in the household of Queen Marguerite of Valois, the first wife of Henry IV. In obedience to his spiritual director he became the chaplain and tutor in the family of Philip Emmanuel de Gondi, Chaplain General of the Galleys, brother of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris.
Several times he tried to escape this aristocratic world for the simpler world of the French peasant where he felt at home. But providence always returned him to the center of this world, Paris.
Practical man that he was, he found in his contacts with the aristocracy the resources he needed to serve more effectively the poor whose lot he hoped to better.
Without the support Philip Emmanuel de Gondi Vincent would never have entered the nightmarish world of the galley slaves to mitigate to a degree their sufferings. The aristocratic ladies who joined the Confraternities of Charity he organized put their wealth and social network at his disposal. They supplied not only the resources his works demanded but also the social and political leverage he needed to initiate works which required the approval and support of an aristocratic bureaucracy sensitive to the power and privilege their birth had bequeathed to them.
Vincent entered the royal court circle itself. Through the Ladies of Charity who were her friends, Queen Anne of Austria, the spouse of Louis XIII, had heard of him. She turned to him to supply priests to preach to the court and in provinces where religion was endangered. The saint’s simplicity and virtue won him the confidence of personages at the pinnacle of political power, the queen and the formidable Cardinal Richelieu, the king’s chief minister.
When Louis XIII lay dying in 1643 he desired to fill a number of vacant bishoprics and abbeys. He directed his confessor to seek recommendations from knowledgeable people, “most especially from Father Vincent and bring me a list on which the names are inscribed in order of merit.” This was not the first time that the saint advised the royal authorities on this spiritually sensitive matter. As early as 1637 the government sought his opinion in its search for suitable candidates for bishoprics.
Queen Anne of Austria desired that Vincent de Paul assist Louis XIII on his deathbed. She suggested it to her spouse who readily agreed. The saint entered the royal sickroom on 23 April 1643 and his presence visibly relieved the king. Louis rallied and this crisis passed. His final agony began on 12 May and St. Vincent stood with those who assisted the king who died on 15 May with spiritual dispositions that brought Vincent to comment: “I have never seen anyone die a more Christian death.”
The king’s death thrust Anne of Austria, a much slighted queen, into the center of political power.
She became Queen Regent for the future Louis XIV not yet five years old. Her task was complicated by her Spanish origin and lack of experience. She needed advisers and had to choose them wisely. At this time she asked Vincent de Paul to become her spiritual director. The saint’s primary concern as Anne’s spiritual guide was not directly political. He wished to foster her spiritual growth and her known religious dispositions. In addition he was much aware of the influence that her religious habits would have on the court and the populace. He seconded her practice of prayer and her participation of popular religious festivals. He encouraged her to support efforts to advance the reform of the church in France.
Anne of Austria had always supported charitable projects around the kingdom. Under Vincent’s direction her generosity only became more effective. Her example of donating jewelry for specific projects prodded other aristocratic ladies to imitate her. The reach of her personal charity touched all, e.g. victims of war, galley slaves, orphans, the sick, foundlings, the homeless and poor, and women who were victims of sexual exploitation.
As regent Queen Anne had many responsibilities which directly involved morals and religion. To receive advice on these matters she established the Council of Conscience. St. Vincent sat on this council over which presided the powerful Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Anne’s chief minister. The council had many duties, principal of which was appointment to bishoprics and ecclesiastical benefices.
Over the centuries the French government had used church offices and properties as a vast patronage system. It distributed them in order to pension soldiers, reward supporters, buy the allegiance of restive nobles, and support its bureaucracy. This system violated the will of donors, frequently ignored the qualifications of candidates, and impoverished the church. Cardinal Mazarin himself profited from the system. He was never ordained yet held the bishopric of Metz and a number of abbeys which enabled him to amass a large fortune.
As a member of the movement which longed for the reform of the French church Vincent worked to end this abuse. He established and staffed seminaries to prepare men morally and intellectually for effective religious leadership. The Council of Conscience provided Vincent with another way to advance this goal. Nevertheless the saint assumed this role reluctantly. Several times he begged the queen to withdraw his name. But she refused. Perhaps he felt uncomfortable among the aristocrats and nobles who sat on the council. Even more he anticipated conflict with Mazarin as their competing aims clashed.
Vincent de Paul regarded the appointment of bishops the council’s most important task. Nowhere did the contrasting views of Mazarin and the saint appear with greater clarity. The saint argued that the spiritual and intellectual qualifications of a candidate alone be considered. Mazarin was bent on continuing to use the resources of the church as a patronage system for political ends.
In 1647 the cardinal proposed for the see of Bayeux, Edward Mole, the eldest son of the First President of Parliament. The young man had led a scandalous life and Vincent strenuously objected to the appointment.
Mazarin’s response to the saint reveals the cynicism and venality of the royal policy. “Sir, . . . she [the queen] has bestowed it [Bayeux] all the more willingly as he [Mole] has the necessary qualifications for the office, and Her Majesty has been especially pleased to seize such a favorable opportunity for recognizing the services of the father and his zeal for the State in the person of his son.”
Vincent appealed directly to the First President to withdraw his son’s name. The latter pleaded the needs of his family to justify his son’s candidature concluding: “If my son has not the requisite qualities for governing a diocese, he will always have some experienced ecclesiastics beside him whose advice he will faithfully follow.”
Partly to meet the objections of Vincent and partly to mollify the regent’s sensitive conscience, Mazarin at the queen’s behest directed Vincent “to see him [Mole] and give him such instruction as you may deem necessary for the proper fulfillment of his function.” Ironically the saint became responsible for preparing a man for an office he deemed him unfit to hold. The king also had the right to name the heads of monasteries throughout the country. Custom had made these properties pawns of royal patronage which led to their material ruination and the erosion of religious discipline. Vincent expended all his influence to remedy the situation. As with the nomination of bishops he knew both success and failure as his views and Mazarin’s coincided and clashed.
Vincent experienced the least amount of friction on the council when it took up moral social and problems. This is seen in its efforts to eradicate duelling. Cardinal Richelieu had led the campaign to eliminate the practice which claimed yearly more than a thousand lives “on the field of honor” and threatened to decimate the nobility. Part of the problem derived from the readiness of the government to pardon duelists. Part derived from the sense of honor which ruled society.
The saint and his allies attacked the scourge on two fronts. He appealed to the Marshals of France to forswear dueling. Their declaration was circulated in the country and others added their names. This culminated in a public oath-taking in Paris on Pentecost 1551 when thousands swore to refuse all challenges and never to fight duels again. St. Vincent also turned to the queen for royal support. Louis XIV on 7 Sept. 1551 declared that henceforth no pardon would be granted to duelists in any circumstances. He kept his word throughout his long reign and the plague greatly diminished if it did not entirely disappear. With the passage of time Anne of Austria became more and more dependent on Cardinal Mazarin. He gradually excluded from court all critics of his policies. St. Vincent, of course, found himself in this category. During the Fronde his opposition intensified and became political. On 14 Jan. 1649 Vincent went directly to Mazarin and begged him to resign and leave France in order “to save France.”
After a short exile Mazarin returned early in 1652. Anne of Austria and the young Louis XIV realized they needed his skills in face of the efforts of the rebellious nobles to emasculate the monarchy. Mazarin immediately barred all of his opponents from the court. In a letter of 15 May 1652 Vincent said that he had not seen the queen for six or seven months. In September the saint was informed that he was no longer a member of the Council of Conscience.
One of the ironies of history is that Vincent de Paul suffered a certain amount of popular critical abuse because of Mazarin and Queen Anne. The queen more than once during her life gave occasion for gossip because of her indiscretions with men. As her dependence on Mazarin grew during the Fronde tongues began to wag and rumors circulated about their secret marriage which Vincent de Paul had witnessed. Letters testify to their affection for each other but historians deny either a marriage or an affair. When asked about rumor Vincent de Paul said bluntly: “It is as false as the devil.”
Vincent and the legal profession
As a councilor Vincent discharged a role which many lawyers fulfill today. They advise elected officials, government agencies, and clients on actions which they should take. For many reasons Vincent was an ideal advisor. No one questioned his integrity. He was totally disinterested. He always gave his opinion directly. He stated and defended his position despite the fact that he knew it would be unpopular with his powerful adversary, Mazarin. And although his advice was frequently rejected, for in cases of conflict Anne always followed the cardinal rather than the saint, Vincent never surrendered the field. He continued to offer his advice for as long as it was sought for he realized that wise, disinterested even if unpopular advice benefited not only his client, the queen, but also the public affected by her decisions. A modern lawyer could not find a better model.
Reflections on dealing with people in power today
- What lessons can we learn from Vincent on “speaking the truth to power”?
- What is it that gains respect from people in power?
- What price can be involved in speaking the truth to power?