CLARIFICATON! These words are simply an illustration of Vincent’s concern and values in an era with a very rudimentary understanding of medical insights.
They speak of his concern for people living in poverty and desperately in need of physical and spiritual care.
We have no way of knowing what Vincent would say if he had access to fact-based medical information today. Therefore, his words should in no way to be taken as medical advice for today.
In what we have of Vincent there are more than 300 references to the plague. The following is the text of a letter in response to a request for advice from the Bishop of Cahors at height of one of the many plagues during the lifetime of Vincent. (CCD:IV:500-501) Emphasis is added to facilitate reading.
There is no way, Excellency, I could express to you my distress at the sickness threatening your town, nor how humbled I am at the trust with which you are pleased to honor me. I ask God with all my heart to avert this scourge of nations from your diocese and to make me worthy of replying in His Spirit to your orders.
My humble opinion is, then, Excellency, that a bishop finding himself in these circumstances should keep himself ready to provide for the spiritual and temporal needs of his entire diocese during this public calamity. He should not confine himself to one place nor busy himself with any work that might deprive him of the means of providing for others, especially since he is bishop not only of that place but also of his entire diocese. He must divide his care so well that he does not limit it to one particular section of it, unless he is unable to provide for the salvation of the souls in that part through the pastors or other priests. In that case, I think he is obliged to risk his life for their salvation and to entrust the care of the rest to God’s adorable Providence.
That, Excellency, is how a Bishop … one of the greatest prelates in this kingdom, acts. He has prepared his pastors to risk their lives for the salvation of their parishioners. When the disease breaks out in a place, he goes there to see if the pastor has remained firm where he is, to encourage him in his decision and, in a word, to give him advice and suitable means of assisting his parishioners. He makes this visit without risking his health by going to see the sick, then goes back home, prepared to risk his life if others cannot provide for the needs of a parish. If Saint Charles Borromeo acted differently, it was probably because of some special inspiration from God or because the plague was confined to the city of Milan.
But since it is difficult in a large diocese to do what is easily done in a small one, it would seem good, Excellency, for you to visit the plague-stricken sections to encourage your pastors. If some difficulty or the danger of being taken prisoner during this time of war were to prevent you, you could send into those areas some archdeacons or, if there are none, some other priests for the same purpose. As soon as you hear that the disease has broken out in a certain place, send some priest to support the pastor and to give some corporal assistance to the plague-stricken.
The poor country people stricken with the plague are usually left abandoned and very short of food. It will be an action worthy of your piety, Excellency, to make provision for this by sending alms to all those places. See that they are put into the hands of good pastors, who will have bread, wine, and a little meat brought in for these poor people to pick up in the places and the times indicated for them. If there is some question about the honesty of the pastor, these instructions will have to be given to some other neighboring pastor or curate, or to some good layperson of the parish, who could do this. There is usually someone in each area capable of doing this act of charity, especially if they do not have to come into direct contact with the plague-stricken.