Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 24/Section 03
Advice Given by Monsieur Vincent to a Priest of the Congregation Before Sending Him to Assume the Direction of One of the Houses
O Monsieur, how great it is to be called by God to the task of directing souls. What other vocation can compare with that of a priest of the Mission, to direct and lead others, whose interior movements are known to God alone? Ars artium, regimen animarum ["The art of arts, the direction of souls"]. <Ftn: PL 77:14.> This was the task of the Son of God on earth. This is why he descended from heaven, was born of a virgin, gave all his attention during life, and finally suffered a most painful death. This is why you must have a high regard for the work you are about to take up.
What means should you use to fulfill this task of leading souls to God? This, in the face of the torrent of vices among the people, or in meeting the challenge of poor seminary training. You must inspire those confided to you with Christian and priestly sentiments, to ensure their salvation and their perfection. Certainly, Monsieur, there is nothing human in this. This is not man's work, but God's. Grande opus ["A great work"]. <Ftn: Neh 6:3.> It is a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, which human effort can only destroy, if God does not have his place in it. No, Monsieur, neither philosophy nor theology, nor learned talks influence souls. Jesus Christ must be united with us and we with him. We must work in him, and he in us, to speak as he did and with his spirit, just as he was in the Father. We must teach the doctrine he taught, as the Scriptures constantly tell us.
You must strip yourself, Monsieur, to be clothed with Jesus Christ. You are aware that things ordinarily reproduce their own kind: a sheep creates a sheep, and a human another human. In the same way, he who would lead others, form them, and speak to them with mere human ideas and ideals, will give birth merely to the purely human in those who hear him. Despite all appearances to the contrary, he will engender merely the show of virtue, and not the reality. He will create in them the same spirit that moves him, as we see in the teachers in the schools who bequeath their maxims and mannerisms to their disciples.
On the other hand, if a superior is filled with God and with the maxims of our Lord, all that he says will be fruitful. A power will go forth from him that will build up, and all his actions will serve as incentives for creating good in those who become aware of them.
To achieve this, Monsieur, our Lord himself must mark you with his own character. It is the same as we see when a cultivated stock is grafted on to a wild stock, and the wild then carries on the natural results of the cultivated. We too, miserable creatures, who are but flesh, thorns, and briars, are sealed by our Lord with his own seal. We receive, so to speak, his own spirit and grace, so that united to him as the vine is to the branch, we accomplish through him what he himself did upon earth. I mean to say we perform divine actions, engendering children to our Lord, as Saint Paul said, filled as he was with this same holy spirit. An important task is that you should apply yourself carefully to is to remain in close touch with our Lord by mental prayer. This is the storehouse where you will find all you need, to accomplish the task you are about to assume. When you have a doubt, have recourse to God, and say to him: "Lord, the Father of Lights, reveal to me what I must do in this case."
I not only give you this advice for the difficulties you may experience, but to teach you what you are to say to those under your care. In imitation of Moses, you must hear from God what is to be communicated to his people. Haec dicit Dominus. ["Thus says the Lord."]
Monsieur, you should have recourse to God in mental prayer to preserve your soul in his holy fear, and in his love. Alas, Monsieur, I must tell you and you should know that often those who work for the salvation of others are in the end lost themselves. This could happen to anyone who is so taken up with others that he forgets himself. Saul was worthy of being appointed king because of his life in his father's house. Yet after being raised to the throne he fell miserably from God's grace. Saint Paul chastised his body, lest after preaching to others and showing them the way of salvation, he himself should become a castaway.
To keep from falling into the unhappy state of Saul or Judas, we must commit ourselves inseparably to Jesus Christ our Lord. We should lift our minds and heart to him and say: "O Lord, do not allow me, after preaching to others, to be lost myself. Be my shepherd, and do not withhold from me the graces you bestow on others through my intercession and my ministry."
You ought to be devoted to mental prayer to beseech from the Lord the graces needed by those you direct. You will achieve more lasting good this way than by any other practice. Jesus Christ, who ought to be your model in everything, was not satisfied by his preachings, his works, his fasts, his blood, and even his death. To all these he added his prayer. He had no need of prayer for himself. It was strictly for us, for whom he prayed so often. It was to teach us to do the same for our own needs and for those we seek to save, with his help.
Another thing I recommend to you is our Lord's humility. Say to him often, "Lord, what have I done to merit such a vocation? What works of mine have merited the task you assign to me? Ah, my God, I shall spoil everything if you do not direct my words and all my actions." Just recall all that remains in us of what is human and imperfect, and we will find enough there to humble ourselves. This will be not only before God but before others as well, and in the presence of those whom we call our inferiors.
Above all, do not take any pains to appear as being the superior and master. I do not agree with the opinion of someone who recently said that to lead others and maintain one's authority you must make it clear that you alone are the superior. O my God, our Lord Jesus Christ did not speak in this way. He taught us exactly the opposite, both in word and example. He told us that he had come not to be served, but to serve, and that he who would be the master must first become the servant of all.
Accept this holy maxim that you should live among your confreres quasi unus ex illis ["like one of them"]. <Ftn: 1 Sam 17:36.> Let them know that you did not come to rule over them but to serve them. If you act this way both within the community and outside of it, you will find that all will go well.
What is more, we should always credit to God any good that we do. On the other hand, we should attribute to ourselves all the ills which the community may suffer. Yes, remember that the disorders which arise in communities come mainly from the superior, who by his negligence or bad example allows laxity to creep in, so that in the end all the members suffer because the head is not in good order.
Humility ought to lead you to avoid the complacency that slips in, chiefly in works that have a certain glamour to them. Oh, Monsieur, realize how vanity is the dangerous poison even of good works. It is an evil that ruins even the holiest of actions, and causes people to forget God. In the name of God, be on your guard against this fault, one of the greatest dangers I know of to the spiritual life and to advancement in perfection.
To avoid this vice, give yourself to God to speak in the humble spirit of Jesus Christ. Make it known that your teaching does not come from yourself but from the Gospel. Use the simple words and comparisons our Lord used in the sacred scriptures when you speak to the people. What marvels he could have revealed! What secrets of the divinity he could have made known, of the admirable perfections of God, since he was the Eternal Wisdom of his Father! Yet, notice how he spoke in an understandable language, using the simple comparisons of a farmer, a field, a vine, a grain of mustard seed. This is how you must speak if you want to be understood by the people to whom you announce the word of God.
Another thing you should pay particular attention to is to allow yourself to be guided by the Son of God. When you must act, you should ask yourself, "Does this conform to the teachings of the Son of God?" If you find that it does, fine, then do it. If it does not, then have nothing to do with it.
Besides, when there is question of doing some good work, say to the Son of God: "Lord, if you were in my place, what would you do on this occasion? How would you teach the people? How would you deal with this sickness of mind or of body?"
This dependence should extend to those who represent our Lord for you, your superiors. Believe me, their experience and the grace given them by Jesus Christ because of their office has given them much insight for leadership. I tell you this to alert you to do nothing of importance, nor undertake anything extraordinary without alerting us. If you are pressed for time, and cannot await our reply, seek the advice of the nearest superior, asking him, "Monsieur, what would you suggest in this situation?" We know from experience that God blesses those who act in this way. On the other hand, those who act independently not only have fallen into difficulties, but have embarrassed us greatly.
I would ask you to be careful not to introduce anything singular in your direction. Nothing should be peculiar to yourself, but you should walk the viam regiam ["royal road"], the main highway, so as to proceed surely and without reproach. What I mean by this is that you should follow the rules and customs of the Congregation. Do not introduce anything new, but follow the suggestions drawn up for those in charge of one of our houses. Do not omit anything of what we do in our Company.
Be careful in the observance of the rules, but also, see that the others follow them, for otherwise all will go badly. Since you hold the place of our Lord, you should be, in imitation of him, a source of light and warmth. "Jesus Christ," says Saint Paul, "is the splendor of the Father," <Ftn: Based on Heb 1:3.> and Saint John says, "he is the light which enlightens all those who come into the world." <Ftn: John 1:9.>
We notice that higher causes influence the lower, as for example, the angels who are in a superior hierarchy brighten, illumine, and perfect the intelligences of the lower hierarchy. The same thing applies to a superior. The pastor and director ought to cleanse, enlighten, and unite to God the souls who have been confided to his care by God himself.
Just as the heavens shed their blessings upon the earth, those placed over others should extend to those others the same spirit which moves them. For this to happen you must be full of grace, light, and good deeds, just as you see the sun giving its full light to the other stars.
Finally, you must be the salt of the earth, Vos estis sal terrae, preventing corruption from creeping into the flock you shepherd. <Ftn: Matt 5:13.>
After Monsieur Vincent had spoken in this way, with a zeal and charity that I cannot express, a brother of the Company interrupted him. He came to discuss some matters about the house of Saint Lazare. After the brother left, he took the opportunity to give me the following advice:
You see, Monsieur, how we have to go from considering the things of God to temporal matters. You must understand that a superior must be concerned not only with spiritual matters but with the temporal as well. Since those he has charge of are creatures both of body and soul, he must look after the needs of both. In this, he follows the example of God himself. From all eternity he engenders the Son, and the Father and the Son give rise through their mutual love to the Holy Spirit, but besides these operations ad intra ["internally"], I say, he created the world ad extra ["externally"]. He is continually concerned for his creation. Every year he provides new crops from the fields, and new fruit from the trees. His adorable Providence extends to the least things, so that not a leaf falls from a tree without his consent. He counts the hairs of our head, and feeds the insects, even to the smallest mite. This thought seems strong to me. It makes us realize that he must be concerned not only with spiritual things, but also since he in some way represents the power of God, he must attend to temporal things too. Nothing should be too small to be unworthy of his attention. Give yourself to God to obtain the temporal good of the house where you are going.
The Son of God when he first sent his apostles out on mission, told them to carry no money. Later, however, when the number of disciples increased, he willed that there would be one of his band, qui loculos haberet ["who would have the purse"]. <Ftn: Based on John 13:29.> He would not only give to the poor, but would look after the needs of the group. Besides that, he allowed some women to accompany him, quae ministrabant ei ["who used to minister to him"]. <Ftn: Based on Mark 15:41.> He told us in the Gospel that we should not be concerned with tomorrow. By this we understand that we should not be too worried or solicitous about the goods of the earth. He did not absolutely counsel us to neglect the means of life and care for our clothing, otherwise, we would never sow any seed.
I have finished what I wanted to say. That is enough for today. I repeat what I already said, that what you are about to undertake is a great work, grande opus. I pray that our Lord will bless your leadership. Please join me in praying he will forgive me all the faults which I have committed in the position I now hold. <Ftn: CED XI:342-51; the recipient of the advice was Antoine Durand, named superior of the seminary of Agde.>