Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 31

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Index of Abelly: Book One

The Founding of Several Seminaries for Clergy

Great rivers always flow towards the ocean, ever being swelled by the waters of brooks and streams along the way. So too with the charity of Monsieur Vincent. It was ever directed to God, but grew each day, not so much from what he received from others, as from what he gave away as divine Providence presented various opportunities to him.

We have seen in several preceding chapters how Monsieur Vincent's zeal moved him to work for the revival of the priestly spirit among the clergy. He instituted the ordination retreats, the clergy conferences and retreats to further this ideal. Although all these were helpful, they still did not bring about in the clergy all the change desirable. He felt the remedy must go to the source of the clerical state, to the formation of young men, who showed signs of a true vocation, in the seminaries envisioned by the holy Council of Trent.

This is why, after moving to Saint Lazare about 1636, he used the College des Bons Enfants as a seminary to train young clerics in letters and morals to prepare them for the state to which they aspired. He realized, however, that it would take a good while before the fruits of this seminary would be seen because of the years it would require before the candidate would be of sufficient age and disposition to receive holy orders. <Ftn: CED V:563-64.> He was also aware of the pressing need the Church had of good priests who could be employed almost immediately in various clerical positions.

His zeal led to the desire that it would please God to supply this need, perhaps by the creation of seminaries for those who had already received holy orders or wished to. In them, the candidates could acquire the proper priestly spirit and be formed in the duties of their state. For him to think of himself as having a part to play in this holy enterprise was contrary to his personal humility. Divine Providence brought it about that he had occasion to mention his ideas to Cardinal Richelieu. Monsieur Vincent occasionally met with him and had spoken several times about how the glory of God might be furthered through reform of the clergy. Monsieur Vincent spoke to the cardinal about the ordination retreats and the clergy conferences already established in several places.

He then described his vision of seminaries in the various dioceses, not so much for young clerical students, as for those already ordained or about to be in the next ordination class. During one or two years these men would be trained in virtue, prayer, divine service, the rites of the Church, chant, the administration of the sacraments, the catechism, preaching and all other ecclesiastical functions, including cases of conscience or other necessary parts of theological studies. In a word, these men would be helped, not merely to develop their personal spiritual life, but to lead souls into the ways of justice and salvation. Unless something of this sort were done few priests would have the qualities needed to serve and edify the Church. Instead, it would be reasonable to expect that a large number of evil, ignorant, and scandalous priests would continue to be stumbling blocks for the people.

The cardinal heard this description with much appreciation, and urged Monsieur Vincent himself to set about this projected seminary. To help him begin, the cardinal assigned one thousand ecus to support the first group of priests received by Monsieur Vincent in the College des Bons Enfants in February 1642. <Ftn: CED II:223-26.> These men were housed and taught for two years in all things appropriate to their calling. Several other clerics came later, offering to pay their own board, to benefit from the spiritual and academic program. Thus it was that the seminary of the Bons Enfants began under the wise direction of Monsieur Vincent with the permission and encouragement of the late archbishop of Paris. <Ftn: It was later called the seminary of Saint Firmin, and it continued until the French Revolution, when, on September 2, 1792, one of the bloodiest massacres of priests took place.> This good prelate had already allowed the priests of the community of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet to begin another such seminary. God showered many blessings upon it through these priests and especially by the incomparable zeal of Monsieur Bourdoise. Our Lord had conferred on him the true clerical spirit from his youth, joined with a great desire to extend this spirit to others. <Ftn: Adrien Bourdoise, 1584-1655, one of the most zealous reformers of the clergy of his day. He founded a community of priests at the parish Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. He and Vincent de Paul shared a mutual esteem.>

Several years after the establishment of this seminary at the College des Bons Enfants the number of clerics increased to such an extent they all could not all be conveniently housed. Monsieur Vincent transferred the young people who had been studying the humanities to another house, located at the edge of the enclosure of Saint Lazare outside the city. He named it the seminary of Saint Charles. The priests of the Congregation of the Mission have continued to teach the humanities there and form in virtue those young men who show some sign of having a clerical vocation.

Since then, many prelates of the kingdom have considered forming similar seminaries in their own dioceses for their young priests. Some of them, in fact, have given over the direction of them to the priests of the Congregation of the Mission. This was the case at Cahors, Saintes, Saint Malo, Treguier, Agen, Montauban, Agde, Troyes, Amiens, Noyon, and several other places not only in France but also in Italy and other foreign provinces. Just as the success of the missions given by Monsieur Vincent and the priests of the Congregation led others to begin missions in their own territory, so the sight of these seminaries established by Monsieur Vincent, whose necessity, utility, and feasibility were shown, led to others in various dioceses of the kingdom. They have contributed greatly to the welfare of the clergy in France, and by God's mercy, the kingdom has begun to regain its original splendor. It could be said this splendor had been tarnished a bit during these last few centuries.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE (BIS) <Ftn: This chapter was intended for inclusion by Abelly, but was published only in 1841 after it was recovered from the Sulpician archives.>

Monsieur Vincent's Collaboration with Father Olier in Various Pious Works


Great servants of God, animated by the same spirit, should be fittingly associated with each other and help each other in their charitable enterprises. Such was the case with Monsieur Vincent and the late Father Olier, a great servant of God, whose memory is held in benediction, and who was endowed by God with a truly apostolic spirit. <Ftn: Jean Jacques Olier, 1608-1657, was one of the main restorers of ecclesiastical discipline in the seventeenth century. He was ordained in 1633, and then worked on the missions, often with the priests of Saint Lazare, whom he edified by his zeal and humility. He continued to seek advice from Saint Vincent. Vincent assisted at his death, and consoled Olier's community afterwards. For his words on that occasion, see CED XIII:166-67.>

Monsieur Vincent had a special appreciation and respect for the person and the sanctity of Father Olier. The feeling was mutual, for in his turn Father Olier looked upon Monsieur Vincent as his spiritual father and would often say to his seminarians that "Monsieur Vincent is our father." Monsieur Olier often showed his esteem for the virtues he practiced and on occasion would quote Monsieur Vincent's maxims as a stimulus for their own life of virtue. We learn this from those fortunate enough to have been under Monsieur Olier's charge. He was among the first to come to the ordination retreats, which prepared ordinands for the reception of holy orders, as we have already pointed out. From these exercises he drew his inspiration for the true priestly spirit which was so characteristic of him. He was among the first of those, in the exercise of this spirit, to attend the spiritual conferences held every week at Saint Lazare under the personal direction of Monsieur Vincent. Later, he joined some priests of the Congregation of the Mission in the giving of missions. In January 1635 he worked on a mission at Crecy, and in the following year, during the Lenten season, he volunteered to help in the mission given in the hospital of the faubourg Saint Victor.

Seeing at first hand the benefits of these missions for the conversion and sanctification of souls, he wished to bring them to the parishes that depended upon his abbey of Pebrac in Auvergne. He was able to do so after Lent of that same year. Two priests of the Congregation of the Mission helped him, and several other devoted priests who joined him in this work. This first mission was given at Saint Ilpise. It was reported to the clergy conference at Saint Lazare by an edifying letter in which Monsieur Olier speaks of the success of the mission and of his own thoughts about the efficacy of this particular form of religious devotion. For the edification of our readers, we will give this letter in detail in Book Two of this Life. <Ftn: Ch. 1, sect. 2, part 3.>

This worthy priest, following the success of the missions, obtained the authorization of the bishop of Saint Flour <Ftn: Charles de Noailles, bishop 1610-1646.> for a mission to the priests of the diocese. It would be given in his abbey of Pebrac, along with ordination retreats such as were conducted at Paris. He wrote again in October of that same year to the priests of the clergy conference at Saint Lazare in Paris. He sought their help in what he considered to be the reformation of an entire diocese. In February 1637 he wrote again, after a fourth mission, when about to begin an important fifth one in La Motte, near the city of Brioude. He spoke in this letter of what had already been accomplished by the priests of the city of Le Puy, whom he had put in contact with the clergy conference of Saint Lazare in Paris.

About this same time, Monsieur Olier was well aware from his own experience how greatly the missions helped the welfare of the people, and he realized the need for working to reform the clergy. He decided to give himself to this task. He agreed to accept the charge of a parish in Paris to give the example of what a well-organized parish, a devoted pastor, and a committed clergy could contribute to the welfare of the people. He discussed this with Monsieur de Fresque, the pastor of Saint Sulpice, and was able later to establish a community of priests which proved to be most successful, as all are now aware. In a short time the parish became the admiration and the talk of all Paris, so great was the change brought about. This did not happen without serious troubles raised by the enemy of all humanity, to the extent that upon a misunderstanding having arisen between the former and the present pastor, some neighbors of the faubourg Saint Germain took up arms to dislodge Monsieur Olier and his priests from the parish.

During these troubles, Monsieur Vincent, always so devoted to the good priest, did all he could to defend and support him by his prayers to God, by his advice, and by his influence at court. It should be remarked that Monsieur Vincent himself was blamed by some as causing the troubles because the people called the community of priests at Saint Sulpice "missionaries" although they were not so. This happened possibly because Monsieur Vincent was thought of as their superior. Some short while before he had sent some priests from the clergy conference of Saint Lazare to the faubourg Saint Germain for a mission, and this led to the confusion.

One day in the Council of Ecclesiastical Affairs of the kingdom, when the subject of this disturbance came up for discussion, Monsieur Vincent was blamed for all the troubles. Rather than defend himself by stating, as was true, that the priests of Saint Sulpice did not belong to his Congregation and had no allegiance to him whatsoever, as he did on many other occasions when their good deeds were praised, he said not a single word in his own defense or to disabuse his accusers. On the contrary, in humility, and to express his esteem for Monsieur Olier and his priests, he took their side completely. He defended their interests more energetically than he would have defended his own. When they were blamed and condemned, he became their apologist, speaking of all the good they did and the happy results of their zeal. To preserve their reputation he endangered his own, allowing his own Congregation to be blamed, in an effort to protect Monsieur Olier and his priests and to enable them to live in peace and tranquility.

This stance of Monsieur Vincent ran so contrary to human prudence that it astonished some of his friends. When they asked why he acted so, he replied that he thought all Christians would have done the same. In acting as he did he felt he was simply following the maxims of the Gospel. His esteem for the virtue of Monsieur Olier gave him this opinion. He looked upon Monsieur Olier's work, not simply as an isolated good deed, but as a public service demanding the support of all persons of good will.

Some time later, Monsieur Olier expanded the field of his zeal to encompass the founding of a seminary which served then, and up to our own time, to train clerics of all classes of society for the benefit of the Church in whatever part of the kingdom they later served. They brought, to the great advantage of the Church, the graces and blessings which they had drawn from that sacred spot. <Ftn: Here too Saint Vincent was able to help Monsieur Olier. This can be seen by the praise that he gave of Saint Sulpice to a priest and a pious woman desirous of helping their seminary. See Book III, ch. 11, sect. 5.>

Because of Monsieur Olier's contributions of which we have spoken, and the great virtues with which God had endowed him, Monsieur Vincent looked upon him as a saint. <Ftn: CED VIII:330.> He did not hesitate to speak everywhere of this conviction. When it pleased God to recall this great servant to himself, Monsieur Vincent attended him at his last illness and death. <Ftn: CED VI:275.> He was among the many who grieved over the great loss to the Church in the person of this saintly priest. In his remaining years Monsieur Vincent continued to serve the priests of Olier's community. He would meet with them, together with some others of great reputation, to find ways of perpetuating the excellent work begun so worthily by Monsieur Olier. <Ftn: Saint Vincent presided at the assembly of April 13, 1657, called to select a successor to Olier. He was authorized for this by Henri de Bourbon, bishop of Metz and abbot of Saint Germain, the ecclesiastical superior of the community of Saint Sulpice. Vincent signed the official notarized record of the proceedings.>

Index of Abelly: Book One