Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 51
Index of Abelly: Book One
His Preparation for Death
Both Monsieur Vincent and his confreres were well aware of his approaching end, but with quite different sentiments. His brethren and all who loved him dreaded this separation and felt a deep regret at seeing it so near. On the other hand, this saintly old man, like another Simeon, awaited his last hour with joy. He showed this by his serene and even joyful countenance, accepting his sufferings in a spirit of penance and humility. He longed for that life in which he hoped to possess his God, invoking his aid in his heart and uniting himself interiorly to his holy will. He put his body and soul into God's hands to dispose of according to his good pleasure for time and for eternity. His whole life was a constant preparation for dying well, by his practice of the virtues, his exercises of piety, and the works of charity that filled all his days. These were steps along the way, leading to the final blessed hour of his death.
He had over a long period adopted the custom of reciting the prayers for the dying after his daily mass, preparing himself in advance for his own departure from this life. He made use of this practice every morning, as a remote preparation for death, and he did something similar in the evening, as the following episode will show.
Shortly before his death, a priest of the house of Saint Lazare wrote to another priest of the Congregation. He told him that Monsieur Vincent had not much longer to live, and it appeared likely that he would pass away soon. Without more thought he gave this letter to Monsieur Vincent to read before sending it off, as was the custom in the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent took the letter, saying he would read it later, which he did. He wondered why the priest would put this about his coming death in a letter he was sure to read. A person other than Monsieur Vincent would have focused on the imprudence of the author, but Monsieur Vincent thought perhaps this priest was attempting to do a good office towards him in alerting him to his condition. He even considered, in his humility, that he may have given the priest some reason for writing so, without knowing when or how. He called for him, thanked him for this warning, and begged him to have the charity to alert him to any other of his faults. The priest replied that he was not aware of any other. Monsieur Vincent responded:
As to the warning you gave me about my approaching death, I must tell you simply that God has given me the grace to think little of this matter. I must tell you not to be scandalized in not seeing me make any extraordinary preparation for death. For the last eighteen years I have never gone to bed without putting myself into the disposition to appear before God that very night.
This priest once more excused himself for his indiscretion. He assured Monsieur Vincent he had no intention of warning him of his approaching end, but only that he had not thought of what his letter contained when he gave it to him. He reported on all that had passed between the superior and himself at a later time. He knew too well the virtuous life of Monsieur Vincent to have any doubts that he would be perfectly prepared for death, just as he was of his acceptance of God's will in all things. Since these events, a letter was found in Monsieur Vincent's own hand, written twenty-five years before, containing these sentiments:
I had a serious fall two or three days ago, enough to make me think about death. By the grace of God I adore his holy will, and I accept it with all my heart. Examining myself to see if I had any regrets, the only thing that came to mind was that we have not yet written our rules. <Ftn: CED I:291.>
As stated in the Gospel, Monsieur Vincent anticipated the coming of his Lord by having, for a long time, his loins girt and a burning torch in his hand. His last hour was almost constantly before his mind. Several years before his death he used to say to his confreres, "One of these days the miserable body of this old sinner will be put in the earth where it will return to dust, and you will walk upon it."
When he spoke of his many years he would say:
For how many years have I have abused the grace of God! Heu mihi quia incolatus meus prolongatus est! ["Woe to me that my dwelling has been prolonged."] <Ftn: Ps 120:5.> Alas, O Lord! I have lived such a long time because there has been no amendment in my life. The number of my sins has kept pace with the number of my years.
When he would announce to his community the death of one of his missionaries, he would usually add: "You leave me, O my God, and you call your true servants. I am those weeds which spoil the good grain of the harvest, and yet see me taking up space uselessly (ut quid terram occupo ["Why should I clutter up the ground?"] <Ftn: Based on Luke 13:7.> But not my will, O God, but yours be done."
He often spoke to his confreres about death as a salutary thought, and exhorted them to prepare for it by their good deeds. He assured them that this was the best and surest means to ensure a happy death. He wanted this thought of death to be joined to a great confidence in the goodness of God, far from any anxiety or worry. This was the advice he gave to a person deeply troubled about death, and who had it constantly in her thoughts. He advised, in a letter he wrote on this matter:
The thought of death is good, and our Lord counseled and recommended it, but it must be moderated. It is neither necessary nor expedient that you have this thought constantly in mind. Two or three times a day would suffice, without dwelling too long a time even then. If you find yourself upset, you should not dwell on the thought at all but gently turn your mind away.
His long and serious illness became known in Rome, and also that even in this condition he continued to recite the breviary. As a result, the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Alexander VII, aware of how much this great servant of God meant to the entire Church, sent an Apostolic Brief dispensing him from this obligation, even though he had not requested it. At the same time Cardinals Durazzo, archbishop of Genoa, Ludovisio, grand penitentiary of Rome, and Bagni, formerly nuncio to France, all whom were in Rome at the time, wrote urging him to take care of himself, showing the esteem they had for the person of Monsieur Vincent.
We give here only the letter of Cardinal Durazzo, because it was the first one received, and the others are much the same as his.
The activities of the priests of the Congregation of the Mission in favor of the neighbor derive from their following the directions and example of their superior general. For this reason all right-minded persons will pray God to prolong his life and give him perfect health to prolong the great good he has done. And since I take such keen interest in the happy progress of this holy institute and I have such a tender affection for your person, being informed of your age, trials, and merits, please take full advantage of the dispensation of His Holiness to give over the government of your dear confreres and to leave off all preoccupations which might prove harmful to your valued life and continued service of God. From Rome, September 20, 1660. <Ftn: CED VIII:456-57.>
All these precautions came too late. The victim was about to be consumed. God willed to relieve this faithful servant of all the pains and troubles he had experienced in rendering all honor and service to his divine majesty during his long life. Before finally calling Monsieur Vincent from this life, he gave him the grace of leaving the Congregation of the Mission and all the other companies he had established in the best possible condition.
Index of Abelly: Book One