Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 52
Index of Abelly: Book One
Events Surrounding the Death of Monsieur Vincent
This faithful servant of God in his lingering illness awaited, like another Simeon, the happy hour when his divine Redeemer would deliver him from this body of death that held his soul in captivity. If this was deferred, it was only to fill up his merits by continuing to exercise his patience and other virtues he practiced so worthily, and to complete the crown prepared for his faithful life. When this was accomplished, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation willed to give him the supreme prize, the death of the just. To put it better, this would end his dying here below to begin the true life of the just with the saints in a blessed eternity.
Sacred history tells us that when God called Moses to the summit of Mount Nebo, he commanded him to die there. The holy patriarch submitted to the will of God. He died that very hour, not through any sickness but purely through his obedience. "And he died," says Holy Scripture, "by the mouth of the Lord," <Ftn: Deut 34:5.> that is to say, receiving death as a singular favor, a kiss of peace, from the mouth of his Lord and God.
If it be permitted to compare the graces God gave to his saints to what he gave his dearest servants, leaving aside any judgment about their merits, we may say that by a special mercy he conferred a similar gift upon his faithful servant Vincent de Paul, who had ever lived in entire and perfect dependence on his holy will. His death was not so much the result of fevers or other serious illness but rather a sort of obedience and submission to the divine will. His death was so peaceful and tranquil that it seemed a gentle sleep rather than a death. To express what occurred with this holy man, we might say he fell asleep in the peace of his Lord, who willed to anticipate the choicest blessing of his divine compassion and to place on his head a priceless crown of glory. This was the reward God wished to give for his life of fidelity and zeal. He had consumed his life in the cares, labors, and fatigues of God's service, but completed it happily in peace and tranquility. He voluntarily deprived himself of all repose or satisfaction during his life to procure the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the advancement of his glory. In dying he found a true repose by entering into the joy of the Lord. This is how it came about.
Seeing his end approaching, Monsieur Vincent disposed himself interiorly for this last passage by continuing to practice those virtues he considered most agreeable to God. This was detachment from all created things, as much as charity permitted, to raise his heart more perfectly to the Principle of all good. On September 25, towards noon, he slept in his chair, something that was happening now more often because of his lack of sleep during the night, as well as his great weakness, which seemed more pronounced. He thought of this sleep as a sort of advance guard of his approaching death. When someone asked why he slept so much he remarked with a smile that it was the brother coming to meet the sister, by which he meant sleep as the brother awaiting sister death.
On Sunday, September 26, he had himself carried to the chapel for mass and communion, as he did every day, but when he returned to his room fell into a deeper sleep than usual. The brother attending him awakened him after some time, spoke to him briefly, but saw that he immediately fell into the same deep sleep. He alerted the director of the house, who had the doctor called, but he found Monsieur Vincent in such a weakened state he felt no further remedy would be effective. The doctor advised the administration of the sacrament of extreme unction, but before leaving he was able to awaken his patient. In his usual way he responded with a smiling and affable countenance, but was so weak he could say only a few words, but unable to finish what he wanted to say.
Later, one of the principal priests of the Congregation came to see him, asking for his final blessing upon all members of the community, both those present and those absent. He attempted to raise his head and said the first part of the blessing in an audible voice, but it trailed off in the second. Towards evening, as he became increasingly weaker and apparently lapsing into the last agony, he was administered the sacrament of extreme unction. He passed the night calmly, in almost constant communion with God. When he lapsed into unconsciousness only a word addressed to him could rouse him, while all other words seemed to have no effect. Among the pious aspirations suggested to him from time to time, he seemed to respond best to these words of the psalmist: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, ["God come to my assistance"] which were often repeated. He would respond Domine ad adjuvandum me festina ["Lord make haste to help me"]. <Ftn: Ps 70:2.> He continued to do this until his last breath, imitating the great saints, fathers of the desert, who regularly used this same short prayer to show their dependence on the sovereign power of God, the constant need they had of his graces and mercy, their hope in his goodness, and the filial love which moved their heart. They proved their desire to seek God always as their good Father, never fearing to weary him by their insistent prayers, but showing a great and perfect confidence in his infinite love.
A virtuous priest of the Tuesday Conference, a great friend of Monsieur Vincent, was at Saint Lazare at the time on retreat. <Ftn: Father Le Prestre, one of the most zealous members.> He heard of the extremity to which Monsieur Vincent was reduced and went to visit him in his sickroom shortly before he expired. He asked for a blessing upon all members of the conference, to leave his spirit with them, and to obtain from God that their group never depart from the way of virtue inspired and communicated by Monsieur Vincent. The response was in his usual humble way, Qui coepit opus bonum, ipse perficiet ["He who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion"]. <Ftn: Phil 1:6.> Shortly after, he quietly passed from this life to a better one with no agitation whatsoever.
On Monday, September 27, 1660, at 4:30 A.M., God called him to himself, just at the hour his confreres were beginning their meditation to attract God to themselves. This was the very hour and the very moment he was accustomed, for over forty years, to invoke the Holy Spirit upon himself and his confreres. At that hour, this same adorable Spirit brought his soul from earth to heaven, as we so confidently hope from the infinite goodness of God, considering his holy life, his zeal for the glory of God, his charity for the neighbor, his humility, his patience, and all the other virtues he practiced right up to the time of his death. His life gives us good reason to believe in the infinite goodness of God. This faithful servant of his divine majesty could well say in this hour of his death, in humble thanks for his graces, and in imitation of the holy apostle, that he had fought courageously, had completed his course, had preserved an inviolable fidelity, and there remained only that he receive the crown of justice from the hand of his sovereign Lord.
After breathing his last, his appearance did not change. He retained his usual gentle and serene expression, seated in his chair as though sleeping. He had been sitting there, fully clothed, the last twenty-four hours of his life, for those present felt there would be more harm done if they attempted to move him.
He died without a fever, without any single significant event, but by a seeming gradual weakening of nature, like a lamp going out as the oil is used up. His body did not become rigid but remained pliable as before. An autopsy removed all the principal organs, all of which were found to be healthy. A growth, the size of an ecu, had formed in his spleen, which the doctors and surgeons found quite extraordinary. This suggested an intervention of divine Providence in his favor, for this growth was spongy and soft, serving as a reservoir for melancholic humors. Normally, when these discharge, they release such vapors to the brain that the imagination is flooded with illusions, and sometimes the judgment is adversely affected. God, who destined Monsieur Vincent for such signal services to his Church, seems to have exempted Monsieur Vincent from this natural process. God never allowed false lights or erroneous impressions to influence him. He was above all such weaknesses. He had a sound judgment and knew well how to discern in all things the good and the evil, the true and the false, the certain and the doubtful, as we saw throughout his life.
He was waked the next day, September 28, until midday, in the meeting hall and then in the church of Saint Lazare, when the divine service as celebrated, followed by his interment. In attendance were the Prince de Conti, Archbishop Piccolomini, papal nuncio and archbishop of Caesarea, and several other prelates, several pastors of Paris, and a great number of priests and many religious of various orders. <Ftn: Among these were Jacques Benigne Bossuet and Armand de Montmorin, archbishop of Vienne. This latter requested permission to look one last time on the saint's face before the slab was fixed on his tomb. As he did so, he kissed Saint Vincent's hands.> The Duchess d'Aiguillon and several other lords and ladies honored his memory by their presence, not to mention a large crowd of the people. His heart was preserved in a silver urn, given by the duchess. His body was placed in a leaden coffin, enclosed in another of wood, and was buried in the middle of the choir in the church of Saint Lazare. This epitaph was placed on the stone: Hic jacet Venerabilis Vir Vincentius a Paulo, Presbyter, Fundator seu Institutor, et primus Superior Generalis Congregationis Missionis, nec non Puellarum Charitatis. Obiit die 27. Septembris anni 1660. Aetatis vero suae 85. ["Here lies the venerable Vincent de Paul, priest, founder or institutor and first superior general of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Daughters of Charity. He died September 27, 1660, at the age of eighty-five"].
The priests of the Tuesday Conference of Saint Lazare whom Monsieur Vincent brought together and directed for so many years, held a solemn service some time later in the church of Saint Germain l'Auxerrois at Paris. Bishop Henri de Maupas du Tour, formerly of Le Puy and now of Evreux, had a special veneration and affection for the great servant of God and gave the funeral oration with as much zeal as learning and piety. He was listened to with a singular admiration and edification by all his audience, composed of a large group of prelates, clergy, religious, and an enormous gathering of other people. He could not say all he wanted, even though he spoke for over two hours. As he said himself, his subject was so vast he would have required a whole Lenten series to do it justice.
Several cathedral churches, Reims among them, offered solemn masses for his happy repose, as did many parish churches and religious communities. Many individual priests of Paris and other places in France also offered masses in appreciation of his charity and in thanks for what he had given to the entire Church.
Index of Abelly: Book One