Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 33

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Index of Abelly: Book One

Missions Given in the Army in 1636, and the Rules Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Missionaries for this Service

The invasion of Picardy by foreign troops in 1636 and their first success at the city of Corbie still live vividly in memory. <Ftn: The Spanish, marking the beginning of the French period of the Thirty-Years War.> This army was so large and its advance scouts so active that real concern was created, especially since no force seemed available to stop their advance. The royal armies were engaged either outside the kingdom or in the most distant provinces. Nevertheless, the late king, Louis XIII of glorious memory, raised a new army in a short time. He chose the house of Saint Lazare as one of the places to enroll the recruits and to train them to defend the nation. The Saint Lazare community was given the opportunity to show its obedience and affection for the service of His Majesty by carrying out this responsibility. This is what Monsieur Vincent wrote to one of his priests then in Auvergne, giving a mission with the late Monsieur Olier.

Paris is threatened with a siege by the army now ravaging Picardy, whose advance elements are within ten or twelve leagues of the city. Most of the people from the region have come to Paris for refuge. Paris itself is so threatened that some of its inhabitants have sought shelter in other cities. The king has raised an army to oppose our enemies, for his other forces are either out of the kingdom or are engaged in our most distant provinces. The site for mustering and equipping the soldiers is in our very house. The courtyards, the stable, the woodshed, and the cloister are filled with arms, and the courtyards are teeming with soldiers. The holy day of the Assumption was no exception to the tumult and confusion, for a drum started beating before seven o'clock in the morning. In the last eight days more than seventy-two companies have passed through here.

While all this was going on, our little Company continued its retreat except for three or four who are on the point of leaving the community. I have written to Monsieur Olier that I may be able to send him four or five of our priests. I will send others to the bishops of Arles and Cahors, <Ftn: Jaubert de Barraut, bishop of Arles, 1630-1643; Blessed Alain de Solminihac, bishop of Cahors, 1636-1659.> and I hope they can get off before things get more hectic here. <Ftn: CED I:339-41.>

This letter allows us to see not only the marvelous spirit of Monsieur Vincent but also the extent of his virtue and the ardor of his zeal. In the midst of the noisy tumult of an army, with his house filled with soldiers, with arms and other weapons on every side, with the sound of drums in the air, he remains in great peace and tranquility. His priests are on retreat and are making their usual spiritual exercises. While allowing his house to be used for training the soldiers for the service of state and king, he busies himself with preparing missionaries for new fields of service to God and Church. His house has become a training ground for preparing soldiers of Jesus Christ for their battle against the devil. In what country? He thinks, like the prophet Habakkuk, of sending some helpers to the bishops mentioned in his letter. Suddenly he is carried off, as it were, to Babylon, among the lions. The chancellor <Ftn: Pierre Seguier, CED I:343-44.> sent him an order from the king that he should send twenty priests to the army to give missions among the soldiers.

Such a thing had never been heard of before, and it promised to be most difficult. Monsieur Vincent could say, in imitation of the prophet, that he did not know the way to this Babylon, for he had never before been in any army. He allowed himself to be taken by the hair of his head, that is, he submitted his own judgment to the king's and showed by his response that his obedience and affection for His Majesty was in keeping with all his other virtues. <Ftn: The prophet Habakkuk of Dan 14:36.> At once he sent fifteen priests, not having any others available, to the army in camp, where they began to take up the work for which they had been sent. <Ftn: Only Fathers Du Coudray, Lambert, Grenu and Mulan, and Brother Alexander are named.>

Monsieur Vincent went at this same time to Senlis, where the king had retreated, to offer his and his Congregation's service to His Majesty. After this he left a priest with the court to receive any orders the king might think proper to give and to relay them to the superior of the priests serving with the army. <Ftn: Robert de Sergis. The plague was rampant in the army, and Saint Vincent did not hesitate to recall a priest in the service of the king to send him to those stricken soldiers. CED I:351-52.> Later he bought a tent for the priests and sent along some furnishings and some food in a cart drawn by a mule, which they were to keep for their use. He also gave them a set of rules and regulations about what they were to do and say while serving on this mission.

The priests of the Congregation of the Mission who serve the army must remember that our Lord has called them to this holy service: (1) to offer their prayers and sacrifices to God for the happy outcome of the king's plans, and for the welfare of his army; (2) to aid the soldiers who may be in a state of sin to leave this sad condition, to help those in the state of grace to remain so, and especially to do all in their power to help the dying leave this life in a state of grace.

They should cultivate a devotion to the name of God, given in the Scripture as the God of the Armies, and to the sentiments of our Lord who said: Non veni pacem mittere, sed gladium ["I came not to bring peace but the sword"], <Ftn: Matt 10:34.> but said this to give us peace, the end of war.

They should reflect that they can hardly eradicate all sin from the army, but perhaps God will give them the grace to diminish the number. This is as though one were to say that our Lord must again be crucified a hundred times, but perhaps we can reduce this to ninety. If a thousand souls by their evil dispositions are headed for damnation, we must see if, by God's merciful grace, we cannot reduce this number.

The virtues of charity, fervor, mortification, obedience, patience, and modesty are necessary for us to achieve this. We must continually be attentive to this, both interiorly and exteriorly, and give special attention to accomplishing the will of God.

They will celebrate mass each day, or at least communicate, for these intentions.

They will honor the silence of our Lord at the usual hours and will not speak of affairs of state. They will speak of any troubles they may have to their superiors only or to him who shall be appointed to hear them.

If called to hear confessions of those afflicted by the plague, they shall do so from afar and with all necessary precautions. They shall leave the care of the sick in the hands of those Providence has destined for this service.

They should meet together often, after reflecting before God of what should be discussed, for example, (1) the importance of having priests help the army, (2) what help should be given, (3) how best to carry out this help.

They might treat in the same manner other subjects appropriate to their assignment, such as help for the sick, what to do during battles and combats, the virtues to be practiced in the army service, such as humility, patience, and modesty.

The smallest rules of the Mission should be observed as closely as possible, especially in what concerns the hours of rising and retiring, prayer, the divine office, spiritual reading, and the various examinations of conscience.

The superior shall apportion assignments to each one, to one the care of the sacristy, to another the hearing of confessions and the reading at table, to another the sick, to another to serve as procurator and to prepare the food, to another the tent and its furnishings to see to its being taken down and put up again at new locations. The priests shall be assigned to preaching and the hearing of confessions as the superior will judge proper.

As much as possible the priests shall live together. If they should be assigned to various places, such as the advance guard, the rear guard, or into the main body of the army, the superior will assign the various ones to each position. If possible, the priests should live in tents. <Ftn: CED XIII:279-81.>

Such were the regulations Monsieur Vincent gave to these missionaries. Their faithful observance drew down upon them and their works the greatest blessings, as we learn from a letter he wrote to one of the priests:

Blessed be God for the blessing he has given your work, Monsieur, which seems to me to be so great. What? To have done your part in having three hundred soldiers receive communion, and then having paid the supreme price. Only those who reflect on the pains of hell or on the price of the blood of Jesus Christ for even one soul can appreciate the value of what you have done. Even though I do not know these truths sufficiently myself, I understand them somewhat, enough to appreciate what you have done for these three hundred penitents. This past Tuesday nine hundred soldiers went to confession during our missions with the army, not counting yours or those made since. O God, Monsieur, how this has surpassed my fondest hopes! We must humble ourselves, praise God, and continue with courage, for as long as we are not assigned elsewhere. <Ftn: CED I:344.>

He wrote in another letter to Monsieur Portail, on September 20, to excuse himself for not sending the missionaries he had promised to Father Olier:

It is impossible to send the missionaries you expected, for the ones we had prepared have been ordered to report to the regiments of the army in Luzarches, Pons, Saint Leu, and La Chapelle-Orly. Already almost four thousand soldiers have appeared before the tribunal of mercy with every sign of true repentance. I hope God will be merciful to many because of this service, and perhaps favor the armies of the king. <Ftn: CED I:346-47.>

After these four thousand confessions, the missionaries were obliged to follow the army and camp with it. At each stop, besides the spiritual help the priests gave the soldiers, several people in the dioceses through which they passed also came to confession and communion, in keeping with the express permission of the local bishops.

One of the missionaries in charge of a group of priests wrote to Monsieur Vincent that they worked constantly for the spiritual welfare of the sick, whether soldiers or civilians, and for the refugees from Picardy. Many of the sick died, but not before receiving the last sacraments from the missionaries. Six weeks later a first group of missionaries returned to Saint Lazare, while others remained with the army until November, when it returned triumphantly from its encounters with the enemy.

Index of Abelly: Book One