How Vincent changed the face of France

by | Sep 26, 2013 | Formation

Vincent teaching bannerNiagara University awaarded Fr. John Slediona an honorary doctorate at its annual Vincentian Convocation. In turn Father presented on the theme “St. Vincent de Paul ad the Formation of Priests. The full text follows.

“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct the scenes, to revive its echoes, and to kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.” So spoke Winston Churchill on November 12,1940, at the funeral of Neville Chamberlin.

In this presentation, I will strive to stumble along the trail of Vincent de Paul as a formator of priests, hoping to re-kindle with pale gleams some passionate echoes of former days, and then take a leap from Vincent to the present day.

One of these passionate echoes comes right from St. Vincent himself. Late in his life, he said this: “ln the state we’ve embraced, we’ve been called by God to work on a masterpiece; for, if there is a masterpiece in this world, it’s the formation of good priests; nothing greater, nothing more important can be conceived” (May 1658). So, how did he get from a blank canvas to the luminous gleam of a masterpiece?

To set the scene, allow me to take you back to a seminal happening of the 16th century, the Council of Trent. This non-continuous event, beginning in l545, stretched out for a total of 18 years, in three distinct periods, and finally concluded in 1563. Trent’s agenda was all about doctrine and reform.

Reform of the clergy and the papacy was uppermost in the minds of the delegates and in canon 16, the Council mandated every diocese to provide a seminary for those studying for the priesthood. Why the urgent call for seminaries? Firstly, seminaries were virtually non-existent for diocesan clergy. Secondly, the state of the clergy, as one might expect, left much to be desired. For our purposes, one graphic example will have to suffice.

The envoy of the Duke of Bavaria addressed the Council of Trent on June 27, 1562. Citing information gathered from an extensive visitation in Bavaria, the envoy stated that the vast majority of parish clergy was ignorant and infected with heresy. Out of 100 priests, only three or four were not secretly married or keeping mistresses to the great scandal of the faithful.

Good formation was necessary; seminaries were part of the answer to the problem and deemed essential for every diocese. There was just one obstacle, a rather big one. Any mandate for reform had financial implications. Reform efforts hit people in the pocketbook. ln fact, money played such a fundamental role in the reforms Trent tried to legislate that it explains much of the resistance those reforms met both during and after the Council.

Skip ahead now from 1563 to 1615 in St. Vincent de Paul’s France. 1t’s more than 50 years after the Council of Trent. It was only in 1615 that the Assembly of the Clergy solemnly declared that the Council of Trent was received in France. Vincent de Paul was in his mid-thirties. Although  Vincent’s own fundamental conversion experience and the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission were still to come (1617 and 1625), spirited talk about seminary formation began to bubble to the surface in earnest.

And now we sharpen our focus on Vincent de Paul himself. As you know, Vincent would come to found three large groups: The Confraternities of Charity (1617), the Congregation of the Mission (1625), and the Daughters of Charity (1633). Little noticed, perhaps, is the simple fact that he not only founded these three groups, but formed them throughout his lifetime. He composed and revised rules; he gave conferences; he wrote thousands of letters; and he stood fast as personal mentor, model, and inspiration.

Moreover, Vincent’s influence on diocesan priests and future bishops was incalculable. He advised the crown on the selection of suitable bishops. Many of the great spiritual giants of 17th century France took part in the formation programs he organized. More than 12,000 priests made retreats at Vincent’s house during his lifetime. More than 400 priests came out of Vincentian seminaries during the Founder’s lifetime. In fact, by the end of the 17th century, Vincentians ran 42% of all the seminaries in France. Well-formed priests were catalysts forreform. Vincent transformed God’s people by transforming their ministers.

Vincent de Paul, of course, is best known as “Father of the Poor.” So clearly appropriate was this title that the preacher at his funeral in 1660 exclaimed: “He just about transformed the face of the Church.” On April 16, 1885, St. Vincent was declared, for the Universal Church, the patron of all associations of charity. Vincent was also described by many as “Lux cleri” (Light of the Clergy). This title is equally apt, since his work for priests was joined at the hip with his work for the poor. He reasoned that work for the poor would best be served in conjunction with a well- formed clergy. For what good would it be for the poor to be attended to in charity if they remained spiritually abandoned?

As with the Kingdom of God, described by Jesus as a tiny mustard seed or a bit of leaven, Vincent began his formation work for priests in small ways. God would give the growth.

In 1628, now 65 years after the Council of Trent, in his 48th year, Vincent de Paul began his formation work with retreats for those about to be ordained as priests. Whatever their background, whatever the content of their formation thus far, Vincent began with an accelerated professional formation course of l0 to 15 days. lt was literally a crash course on the truths of the Christian faith, on moral theology, on practical training in the rites of the Mass and the administration of the sacraments. Admittedly, this venture was a small beginning, but when it was not unusual for a priest to be ignorant even of the formula for absolution in the sacrament of confession, one had to start somewhere.

The next small step came from the realization that initial fervor in the priesthood was one thing, but how might fervor’s flame stay lit over the long haul? In 1633, the Tuesday conferences were born; these were weekly events in the lives of many diocesan priests. Under the leadership of St. Vincent, annual retreats based on Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises became a way of life, not just for priests and bishops, but for people of every class and condition.

The final step in the formation work for priests started around the year 1642, when seminaries finally began to be founded in France. Remember that this date was fully 90 years after the Council of Trent ended. Vincent de Paul had by then passed his 60th year. Seminaries then were viewed as extensions of the crash-course retreats given before ordination. Now the total preparation period would last two to three years, not just a few days. Seminaries then were not really schools of philosophy and theology; that was the work of universities. Seminaries then focused mostly on spiritual formation, training in liturgical matters, and preparation for hearing confessions. Time away from the seminary was spent accompanying Vincentian priests and brothers in the work of conducting parish missions.

St. Vincent’s formation efforts were not limited to the diocesan clergy. Ongoing formation for members of his own Congregation began in earnest in 1642. And here, we must leapfrog ahead. With fits and starts, delays and revivals, these efforts continued to be talked about and tried out until almost the present day, when finally an International Formation Center for Vincentians came to be established in Paris in 1993. Interestingly, the history of the continuing formation of the clergy for the Universal Church mirrored the same history in the Congregation of the Mission.

Prior to Vatican II the notion and the practice of ongoing formation of the clergy was largely absent. With the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis in 1992, the arena of ongoing formation of th clergy received a big boost. The goal nowadays is not simply “education” but “formation.” Ongoing formation of the clergy today rests on four pillars: human, spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual. The task is one of integrating each of these four pillars into a unified priestly life for the sake of the mission of the Church.

In my own work of clergy formation for the Diocese of Manchester, I try to bring forward much of what I have learned from Vincent himself In particular, this means a nose for mission effectiveness, collaboration, flexibility and inventiveness, the unity of prayer and action, a spirituality that transforms humanity, and a linkage between gentleness and compassion.

What’s the motivation for today’s ministry of ongoing formation for priests? For me, the motivation comes from St. Vincent himself: “How fervently the poor Missioners must give themselves to you, my Savior, to contribute to the formation of good priests, since it’s the most difficult, and the most important ministry for the salvation of souls and the advancement of Christianity” (July 1655).

Every so often God raises up men and women to distill the central value of a living tradition in a concrete and accessible way. St. Vincent is certainly one of God’s special gifts to the poor and to the clergy. And so to paraphrase words from the Book of Sirach, chapter 44: “Let us praise this godly man, Vincent de Paul, whose virtues have not been forgotten, whose wealth remains in his ever—expanding family, whose name will never be blotted out.” The force and the fascination of his life remind us that this is the masterpiece we are called to paint. .


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