Vincent was not always a Saint

by | Jan 30, 2016 | Formation, Reflections | 1 comment

Vincent - beggar

Vincent was not always a saint. What were the key formative events? Eamonn Flanagan, CM, from the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, offered these reflections originally published in 1982 in “Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission” and available in vincentians.com.

In trying to look at the central dynamism of any saint it must be imperative to seek for some occasion or set of circumstances which proved crucial for his or her spiritual development. Vincent the young priest, was no saint, though a man of integrity. His pursuit of a benefice to ensure a passably well-off life characterises his early ordained years.

He reached Paris in 1609. If the Landes gave him birth it was the capital which set him on the “narrow road” of sanctity.

In the first Parisian years two events, or rather Vincent’s response to them, had a critical and transforming effect on his life. Both events ploughed deeply into the being of the saint and searched out the areas where his true affections lay, nudging and attracting him to radical decisions. Both were agonising and humiliating and placed him in absolute poverty of spirit, in utter human incapacity before the mystery of evil and the unfathomable trials permitted by God for his purification.

Not long after his arrival in Paris he was wrongly accused of a theft. He was expelled from his lodgings and defamed before certain influential people, including Cardinal de Bérulle, by then his spiritual guide. Yet Vincent kept his peace, was patient and accepted the grinding humiliation until at last the storm passed.

This affliction of at least six months duration introduced him into the ranks of the really poor, and he himself would later confess: “God sometimes wishes to test souls and therefore permits such things to happen” (XI 337).

Scarcely had this trial ended, or perhaps it was still taking its course, when another, more refined and deeper, was offered to him. the former possessed an active quality in the sense that the subject had some control, but the latter was an interior purification of soul, a trial of faith, a passive purgation of the spirit. St Vincent was trying to help a doctor of theology who was in a most distressing temptation against faith and hope. As soon as this man was set free from his trial Vincent himself was assaulted by a similar temptation which lasted four years or more. The words of the Credo were his salvation in the midst of his darkness. He performed his priestly duties, prayed with fidelity. and began to visit the sick in the hospital beside where he lived. All this was of no avail for immediate relief, and the temptation continued unabated. It was only when St Vincent offered himself and his whole life to the poor that all his doubts of faith disappeared never to return. This was the Lord’s will, the call to a certain area among mankind, at least broadly understood. His time and money were not enough in this adorable, loving, plan of Providence, but a definitive unconditional oblation of himself was necessary. I cannot say if at first there was resistance in the young priest to the design God was portraying for him, but

It was only when St Vincent offered himself and his whole life to the poor that all his doubts of faith disappeared never to return. This was the Lord’s will, the call to a certain area among mankind, at least broadly understood. His time and money were not enough in this adorable, loving, plan of Providence, but a definitive unconditional oblation of himself was necessary. I cannot say if at first there was resistance in the young priest to the design God was portraying for him, but at least there had been uncertainty about the exact way ahead, particularly before his positive surrender. It would be normal enough if there was some human resistance to a plan so all- absorbing. Other great ones before him had surely felt resistance in the light of the divine fire of love, calling them to a higher life. St Paul was told to

It would be normal enough if there was some human resistance to a plan so all- absorbing. Other great ones before him had surely felt resistance in the light of the divine fire of love, calling them to a higher life. St Paul was told to let go his grip: “It is hard for you to go on kicking against the goad”, i.e. to go on offering resistance (Acts 26:14). St Ignatius wavered between chivalry and sanctity, and St Teresa felt torn asunder as she left her home and made her way across the city to enter the Carmel of Avila[3]. It may well be that St Vincent was feeling for a time the Lord’s invitation to abandon all and that his darkness of faith was associated in some way with this. At all events when he did make the generous surrender of self a great clarity of belief enfolded him[4].

These events gave the saint a remarkable insight into the psychology and real positive value of temptation. He said in later life about severe temptation, even against faith: “We should not ask God to free us from it but that we make good use of it and that he save us from falling” (XI 148-149). But also from these experiences he felt in a prolonged way his need of God who alone can give the victory, with the addition of our own personal co-operation (cf I 510, III 407). St Vincent had thus passed through the fire of intense testing. Wisdom was harvested from the experiences. Then the whole rich terrain of his personality was opened to growth. The great exploits of charity and evangelisation would follow but they could never be accomplished by somebody of mediocre spiritual calibre. That is why it is necessary to stress the man himself and his own relationship with God who led his faithful, prayerful, servant forward to cultivate his neglected vineyard. Once Vincent had submitted his unreserved affirmation to his Lord he was thereafter the yielding clay in the hands of the omnipotent Potter. Bérulle was his closest guide in the years 1609-17 and along with

St Vincent had thus passed through the fire of intense testing. Wisdom was harvested from the experiences. Then the whole rich terrain of his personality was opened to growth. The great exploits of charity and evangelisation would follow but they could never be accomplished by somebody of mediocre spiritual calibre. That is why it is necessary to stress the man himself and his own relationship with God who led his faithful, prayerful, servant forward to cultivate his neglected vineyard. Once Vincent had submitted his unreserved affirmation to his Lord he was thereafter the yielding clay in the hands of the omnipotent Potter. Bérulle was his closest guide in the years 1609-17 and along with

Once Vincent had submitted his unreserved affirmation to his Lord he was thereafter the yielding clay in the hands of the omnipotent Potter. Bérulle was his closest guide in the years 1609-17 and along with him the saint learned to “confront himself, to distrust the illusions of nature, but above all to discover the meaning of his own priesthood and the sacerdotal mission of Jesus Christ”[5]. Clearly he was gradually but profoundly maturing from his darkest hours and working the lesson into the very fibres of his spiritual existence. This period of gestation, so to speak, was most valuable for assimilation, for prayer, for discernment. A precipitate rush into activity could have produced a stillborn saint.

Have you experienced similar challenges in your life?

Did you recognize it as an opportunity for growth?

Who or what helped you through this period?

If you are experiencing something like this now, what can you learn from Vincent?


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1 Comment

  1. jim

    not everyone can be a St. Vincent!
    circumstances,life choices restrict the call in most people.
    attempting to do good in what may seem very small and trivial ways is the best solution.
    until perhaps one has the chance in the future to follow this sacred calling.

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