Saint Vincent: a humble man

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Corpus Juan Delgado, CM

(This article first appeared in La experiencia espiritual de San Vicente de Paul, (XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos) Editorial CEME, Salamanca, 2010)


The biographers of Vincent de Paul often refer to his humility [1], but do not provide a framework for his experience. As the fundamental attitudes with regard to Vincent’s action are described in formation programs, as well as in publications about our spirituality [2], we are able to grasp Vincent’s thinking on the matter of humility which in turn enables us to consider how we might live as humble men and women in the present era. During the XXXV Week of Vincentian Studies we are invited to deepen our understanding of Vincent’s personal experience as a humble man.

Therefore above all else our study will focus on:

• A description of how Vincent practiced humility (II: Humility, one of the Christian virtues that Vincent most clearly revealed during his life time);

• An explanation of what motivated Vincent to live in this manner; what were the motives that gave meaning to Vincent’s lifestyle (III: Why was Vincent so enamored with the virtue of humility?);

• At the beginning we will refer to the various witnesses who provide us with a foundation as we approach this man, Vincent de Paul (I: The testimony of those who admired Vincent).

The testimony of those who admired Vincent

In order to know how Vincent de Paul practiced humility we have available to us the testimony of those who knew him and his own testimony as expressed in his letters and conferences and in his encounters with the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries.

Much of this material was gathered together and published by Louis Abelly in his biography … but not all of it. Therefore, at this time we will briefly mention the sources that will help us describe how Vincent practiced humility.

Humility in the funeral prayers in memory of Vincent de Paul

One of the first documented accounts of Vincent’s humility is found in the funeral oration in memory of Monsieur Vincent de Paul that was preached by H. Maupas du Tour on November 23, 1660 [3].

H. Maupas du Tour was the bishop of Puy (1641-1661) and Evreux (11661-1680), a member of the Tuesday Conferences, an outstanding orator who had preached at the funeral services of Saint Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot Chantal and an author who published a biography on Saint Francis de Sales [4]. He also supported the publication of the biography that was written by Louis Abelly. There is no doubt that he admired Vincent and this is seen in the fact that he dedicated his sermon on Vincent de Paul to a description of his humility and charity.

He described Vincent as a perfect example of humility [5]. In presenting Vincent as one who totally changed the face of the Church in France through his ministry of renewing the clergy, seminaries, missions, Conferences, etc., he highlighted the following: Vincent was an instrument who carried out great designs for the glory of God, the furtherance of religion and the good of the State. We see him hidden under the wings of humility, covered by the most profound darkness of night, crushed by the sight of his nothingness and burning with the desire to be treated as the most despicable human being. So many crowns of glory should have been placed on his head because his consummate humility is worthy of the praise of men all people and the esteem of angels [6].

H. Maupas du Tour’s admiration, expressed in words and images proper to that era, led him to conclude that Vincent de Paul was the only persons who was blind when others described his heroic virtue: the more people praised him, the more Vincent expressed his own unworthiness and nothingness, viewing himself as the most wicked of men [7].

Humility in the notebooks of Brother L. Robineau

Brother Louis Robineau occupied the room next to Vincent. He entered the Congregation in 1642 at the age of twenty-one and pronounced his vows in 1650. For thirteen years he served as Vincent’s secretary (CCD:IV:423-426). In several notebooks he wrote recollections about Vincent which were made available to Louis Abelly, Vincent’s first biographer … notes which are still available to us [8].

In the first notebook (written between November 27, 1660 and September 10, 1664) Brother Robineau gathered together the actions and words on humility of the late Monsieur Vincent de Paul, our Most Honored Father and Founder. Not all of these words and actions were incorporated in Abelly’s biography and therefore we will take into consideration the observations of this extraordinary witness who was at Vincent’s side even before he professed his vows.

The testimony of Brother Robineau provides us with the title of the two central sections of this presentation: the deceased Monsieur Vincent, our Most Honored Father and Founder, enables us to see that during his lifetime he loved and was enamored with the virtue of humility, one of the Christian virtues that he continually practiced during his lifetime [9]. As will be seen we are dealing with a testimony that overflows with knowledge, admiration and veneration.

Humility in the first biography of Vincent de Paul

Louis Abelly (1604-1691), from the earliest years of his priesthood, had participated in the apostolic ministry of Vincent de Paul. He was the bishop of Rodez (1662-1666) and wrote some thirty books of devotion, history and theology. During the last twenty-five years of his life he lived at Saint-Lazare and wanted to be buried there (CCD:I:466-468).

Monsieur Almerás, Vincent’s successor, had requested the Missionaries to send him their recollections about the works, the houses and the persons with whom Vincent interacted during his lifetime. This information was then given to Louis Abelly so that he could write his biography. Brothers Robineau and Ducourneau played an important role in compiling this information.

In 1664 Louis Abelly published The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul [10]. This biography (written in a style proper to a hagiography) presents Vincent de Paul as a model to be imitated. Abelly writes as one who admired Vincent and who was grateful for Vincent’s example. Abelly wanted Vincent’s virtues to continue to inspire those persons who were and would later become members of the various institutions that he established [11]. We are not surprised, then, that Abelly introduced the section on Vincent’s humility with the following words: To speak in greater detail of the humility of this great servant of God is difficult because of his constant effort to keep this virtue hidden not only from others but even from himself. Nevertheless, we shall attempt to trace its main features, drawn from what we have seen and known of him, heard from his own lips or taken from the recollections of persons of great piety (Abelly III:181)

We are also not surprised when Abelly reveals facts unknown even to those who lived with him … unknown because of Vincent’s great humility (here we might also mention Abelly’s great admiration for Vincent): He had a habitual attitude of concealing his gifts and activities and all he had undertaken for the good of others. He did this to such an extent that even members of his Congregation knew only a fraction of the good works he had been involved with, and how many spiritual and corporal works of charity he had performed for all sorts of persons. Many of his confreres were astonished to read in this present work things they had never before known (Abelly III:182).

Those who admired Vincent, are they partial witnesses?

In presenting the testimonies that are available to us I have stated that these observations were made by individuals who admired Vincent de Paul. In fact, their accounts appear to present a Vincent de Paul who was already canonized. Are we then dealing with information that has been magnified, information that comes for partisan individuals and therefore not historically accurate.

P. Chaunu writes: These witnesses are clearly partial. If they had done otherwise, they would be found wanting in their duty to their state in life. If love is partial, then let it be so because these witnesses have seen the Light. The light is the truth, more true than the shadows of darkness. During his life Vincent de Paul accused himself, condemned himself … this humility seems to be excessive, very excessive in our eyes. Yet these flashes of light and truth enlighten those who behold Vincent and enlighten the members of society about the values in which Vincent was rooted … all of this leads us to look beyond the person of Vincent and at the same time proves that Monsieur Vincent had entered into the stage of pre-canonization, even though he was still alive [12].

Yes, in the sense that we have just explained these witnesses are partial. But Vincent’s humility is not a legend but is an integral aspect of his life, of his journey as a human being. If some characteristic has been over emphasized by the witnesses who felt it was worthy of imitation, then we can be sure that in such a situation “the legend” has come alive in history [13].

We can view from this same perspective the numerous testimonies of Vincent’s practice of humility that appear in the conferences to the Daughters of Charity and the Missionaries of the Congregation. Those that appear in the conferences to the Daughters of Charity were gathered together by Louise de Marillac and other Sisters and this was done with Vincent’s approval. Those that appear in the conferences to the Missionaries were compiled by a team that was directed by Brother Ducourneau. Additional notes were added by the Missionaries and all of this was done without the Founder’s knowledge. The pages that recount Vincent’s humility (some of which do not appear in Abelly’s biography) [14] enable us to view the full range of Vincent’s experience and provide us with a more complete picture of Vincent, a humble man.

In addition to all of this we also possess almost four thousand letters written by Vincent. As we will see, this correspondence offers us much information that confirms the fact that humility was a constant in Vincent’s life. Here we are dealing with direct, objective and historically verifiable testimony. The concurrence of these sources means that we are not deceived. Monsieur Vincent was certainly a humble man. Moving beyond certain practices that have been highlighted in order to inspire veneration and reverence, these testimonies emphasize a reality that we are all aware of: Monsieur Vincent has proposed the practice of humility as one of the most significant Christian attitudes … an attitude that continually guided his life.

Humility, one of the Christian virtues that Vincent most clearly revealed during his life time

The words of Brother Robineau provide us with a title for this section and also invite us to deeper reflection on the manner in which Vincent practiced humility. Here we will present Vincent de Paul, a humble man, from five different perspectives:

  • Vincent recognized that all good things come from God and refer back to God.
  • Vincent esteemed others more highly than himself.
  • Vincent avoided applause and recognition.
  • Vincent saw himself as ignorant and as a sinner.
  • Vincent the servant.

Vincent recognized that all good things come from God and refer back to God

Vincent’s humility was rooted in his belief in God as the author of everything that is good. God’s goodness is revealed in all the good works of his creatures. Furthermore, recognizing God as God-Love enables individuals to discover their frailty and weakness. You alone, my God, you alone are the Creator of all good. Who, my God, can do anything alone? [15].

Vincent’s first biographer, Louis Abelly, summarizes this attitude: he states God alone was the author of any good accomplished in the missions, in the activities of the missionaries, and in all the good works they were connected with. All this was done without his having planned it and not knowing where God was leading him (Abelly III:181).

Brother Robineau saw the first manifestation of Vincent’s humility revealed in his reference to God as the founder of the Congregation of the Mission. This holy virtue was first revealed in Vincent when he attributed the establishment of the Company of the Mission to God alone, expressing the belief that he himself played no part in this. Several times he had told us, “It is a work of God; I have had no part in this” [16].

On several occasions Vincent referred to the establishment of the Congregation as an initiative of God. He also spoke about the foundation of the Company of the Daughters of Charity in a similar manner [17]:

  • Who could ever have imaged that this would reach its present state? If anyone had said that to me then, I would have thought he was making fun of me; yet, that was the way God was pleased to give a beginning to what you now see. Eh bien, my dear confreres, would you call human something no one had ever intended? For neither I, nor poor M. Portail ever though of it. Ah, we never thought of it! It was very far from our minds! (CCD:XII:8).

  • It may be said in truth that it was God who established your Company. I was thinking about this again today and I said to myself, “Did you ever dream of founding a Company of Sisters? Oh no, not I! Was it Mile Le Gras? Just as little.” I can tell you in all truth that I never thought of it. Who then had the idea of establishing in the Church of God a Company of women and Daughters of Charity wearing ordinary attire? That would not have seemed possible. Yes, I did think about the ones [the Charities] in the parishes, but I can tell you once again that it was God, and not I (CCD:IX:165).

Not only was the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity a work of God, but all the ministries and services of the Missionaries and the Sisters were also works of God.

The ministry of spiritual retreats was a work of God (CCD:XI:142-143). God had entrusted the Missionaries with the ministry of the formation of the clergy (CCD:XI:280-281; see also CCD:XI:7-8). God blessed the popular missions and allowed them to be fruitful: …if any good is accomplished during the missions, it is He who does it, and He has no need of our reputation to touch and convert hearts (CCD:V:486).

All the accomplishments of the Daughters of Charity were the work of God: Just consider for a moment whether the establishment of those poor Sisters isn’t a work of God. I have received three or four letters this week from various places in the kingdom asking me for those poor Sisters … Now what’s that my dear confreres? Isn’t is a work of God? Quoi! poor, weak village girls, and most of them uncultured! And yet, see how they are being asked for from all sides! (CCD:XII:19-20; see also CCD:XII:34-35).

Healing from an illness (CCD:VI:37-40; see also CCD:XII:26-27), the presence of some good missionaries (CCD:VII:31-32), the privilege of being dedicated to serving the poor (CCD:XII:224-225) and even one’s defects which are signs that the Master’s work is not yet completed (CCD:XI:119) …. all of these realities come from God.

Affirming God’s goodness led Vincent to highlight his own nothingness and the nothingness and insignificance of the institutions he established: O Savior, who are we that you deign to make use of us? … You come from poor people, so there's good reason for admiration to see that, from all eternity, God thought of doing what we see … What a motive for thanking God for placing you in this Company! A holy man, speaking to me one day about your Motherhouse, said, “M. Vincent, how happy they are in that house! They live there in peace.” Oh! Don't be surprised at that, since the fabric of which it's composed is poor people. For that's how the Church began. All the Apostles were poor men, they knew nothing, went barefoot and didn't wear linen. Nevertheless, what did they not do with the grace Our Lord gave them! They converted the whole world. What a grace, Sisters that in forming your Company, God willed to use the same fabric he used to save the whole world! [18]

As Vincent contemplated God’s goodness, he discovered and professed his own unworthiness … fearing that he was an obstacle and impeded the on-going manifestations of God’s goodness:

  • O Monsieur, how the abominations of my life grieve me at the sight of this mercy from God on the Company (CCD:II:287).

  • How many open doors to serve Our Lord … and that the abominations of my life may not make the Company unworthy of this grace (CCD:V:180).

Affirming God as the author of all good led Vincent to distrust himself as well as distrust his feelings and desires: Remember that you and I are subject to a thousand outbursts of nature and recall what I told you about finding myself, in the early stages of the project of the Mission, with it constantly on my mind. That made me wonder whether the affair sprang from nature or from the evil spirit, and I purposely made a retreat in Soissons so that God might be pleased to remove from my mind the pleasure and eagerness I was experiencing in this matter. God was pleased to answer my prayer in such a manner that, by His mercy, He took them both away and allowed me to be in the opposite dispositions … I think that, if God is granting some blessing to the Mission and I am less a subject of scandal to it, I attribute it after God to this fact. I wish to remain in this practice of neither concluding nor undertaking anything while I am caught up in these ardent hopes at the prospect of great benefits (CCD:II:278).

Affirming God as the author of everything good enabled prayers of thanksgiving to flow from Vincent’s heart and also made him faithful to the blessings that he had received: Most Honored Father then knelt down and said, "Blessed are You, my God, for the graces You are giving the members of this little Company. Please continue to grant them, my God, and don't permit them to abuse them by glorying in them; but rather give them the grace to humble themselves in proportion as You raise them up, admiring Your power of working so many wonders in such lowly subjects" (CCD:IX:464)

This affirmation of God as the author of all that is good and Vincent’s belief that good should be viewed as coming from God alone led Vincent to discover that there is nothing extraordinary in exercising the ministries that God entrusted to the Congregation: Are you really aware that we are worse than the demons? Yes, worse than the demons! For, if God had given them one-tenth of the graces he has given us, mon Dieu, what use would they not have made of them? … Let us look very carefully into ourselves; and, when we have done all we should, let us conclude that we are useless servants, yes, useless servants; let us remember that, after our actions have been carefully examined with regard to their essence, their qualities, and their circumstances, we will see that we have done nothing worthwhile in our entire life. If we want to see this truth more deeply, let us look at how we made our meditation this morning, how we prayed the Little Hours, how we spent the morning, and so on for the rest of the day. Let us go back to other days, please, and examine all our actions before God and how we carried them our (CCD:XII:287).

Finally, Vincent also expressed this affirmation of God as the author of all good in his humble attitude during prayer: When he prayed, he did so with such prostration and humble posture, and showed such a marvelous submission and dependence on God, that everyone was edified with it. For myself in particular, I admit that many times I was touched and moved to do the same [19].

Vincent esteemed others more highly than himself

In Vincent’s correspondence we encounter distinguished individuals from the upper ranks of society. At various times these persons wrote to Vincent seeking advice. Vincent’s responses are filled with expressions of respect, deference and esteem (see, CCD:IV:178-179).

This esteem for others is especially obvious when Vincent wrote to different persons to acknowledge and/or express his gratitude for the benefits that these individuals bestowed upon the Company or some of its members (see, CCD:VII:98, 184; VIII:75, 538).

Because of his esteem for others, Vincent spontaneously yielded to his confreres and professed his unworthiness to the Daughters of Charity [20]; he asked his confreres to yield the pulpit to a Capuchin … because our maxim and custom is to yield the pulpit to whoever comes to a place where we are working. This is based on what Our Lord teaches implicitly: “If anyone asks for your cloak, give him your coat as well,” and he practiced this [21].

Together with this esteem and respect for others, Vincent refrained from defending himself … an action which involved not revealing less favorable aspects of an adversary or discrediting an individual. On one occasion a magistrate in Parliament had stated that the Missionaries at Saint-Lazare did not preach popular missions. When a confrere suggested that Vincent defend himself he responded: Let him be. I will never justify myself except by works (CCD:XII:396). On another occasion¸ a priest, who died soon after, spread the rumor that M. Vincent had had a benefice bestowed on someone in return for a library and a large sum of money. M. Vincent took his pen to justify himself, but after reflecting on it said, “O you wretched man! What are you thinking? Quoi, you want to justify yourself, and here we have just heard of a Christian falsely accused in Tunis, who suffered torments for three days and finally died without uttering a word of complaint, although he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused. And you want to excuse yourself? Oh no, it shall not be so!” (CCD:XII:397). Some people were spreading the rumor that Cardinal Mazarin had married Anne of Austria and that Vincent had presided over the ceremony. Brother Robineau, who became aware of this rumor, pointed out Vincent’s patience who without any further reference to this rumor simply stated: this is as false as the devil [22].

Louis Abelly describes another event that took place at Court: On another occasion he prevented the king from appointing an unfit person to a bishopric. His action caused the man’s relatives to be most resentful. They then invented a calumny against him, adding just enough detail to convince the court of the truth of the charge. These things came to the ear of the queen, who at the first opportunity asked him, smiling, if he knew what people were saying. He replied quietly: “Madame, I am a great sinner.” When Her Majesty retorted that he ought to justify himself, he replied: “Such things and more were said against our Lord, and he never justified himself” (Abelly III:191).

Vincent did not defend himself. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to prostrate himself before the feet of the former prior of Saint-Lazare to ask forgiveness for the inconveniences (real or imagined) that the Missionaries had caused. During the June 20th, 1647 council meeting of the Daughters of Charity, Vincent referred to this and said: Alas, Sisters! I had to go throw myself at his feet, ask pardon for everyone who had displeased him, and take the blame once again. He would calm down, and then, on another occasion, it would begin all over again. I think he saw me at his feet over fifty times [23].

The humble attitude of Vincent de Paul, which led him to esteem others more than himself, did not however make him complicit with regard to injustice. Humility is not weakness. An influential individual in the Court reproached Vincent for his persistent opposition to the conferral of an ecclesiastical benefice on one of his relatives (a person who was clearly unworthy of said position). Vincent calmly responded to this individual: Monsieur, I know that I owe you respect but thanks be to God you do not have power over my conscience [24]. The tenderness of humility is not opposed to fidelity to God and does not bow to human respect.

Vincent avoided applause and recognition

Vincent’s humility was also revealed in his reaction to praise and gestures of recognition that were directed toward him. Rather than feeling complemented, he was embarrassed and felt the need to point out his own defects of character [25].

He was embarrassed and tortured when someone praised him [26]. During the February 29th, 1658 council meeting of the Daughters of Charity, the Sister expressed their pleasure in listening to Vincent’s words and viewed his words as an expression of God’s will: Most Honored Father in his great humility was very surprised at this; in his usual manner he began to speak in terms of very great disregard for himself saying: “I am a miserable sinner who only spoils everything. If there is any fault in the Company, I am the cause of it.” Then he became very quiet and his silence and recollection made us clearly understand that we had greatly embarrassed him* (CCD:XIIIb:359-360).

When Vincent received letters from people who sought advice or who expressed their gratitude, Vincent would blush with embarrassment and felt obliged to respond by pointing out his own stupidity and lack of formation. Some excerpts from his letter provide us with examples of this:

  • I blush with shame, Monseigneur, every time I read the last letter you did me the honor of writing [to] me, and even every time I think of it, seeing to what an extent you, Excellency, have humbled yourself before a poor swineherd by birth and a wretched old man full of sins (CCD:VIII:383).
  • I am embarrassed, Madame, that you are consulting a poor priest like me, since you are aware of my poverty of mind and my miseries (CCD:V:178-179).
  • I received with all possible respect and submission your letter which was filled with the exceptional sentiments of deference and benevolence you profess in my regard. I was deeply embarrassed by it, seeing how far I am from the eminent qualities you, in the goodness of your heart, attribute to me, without my ever having done anything to deserve it. What indeed is there to praise, I ask you, in a man lacking everything, and whose father was a poor farmer? (CCD:VII:617; see also V:341-343).

Louis Abelly (Abelly III:182) and H. Maupas du Tour [27] point out another manifestation of Vincent’s humility: when Vincent took up residence in Paris he did not want to called “de Paul” so as not to be confused with someone who was a member of some noble family. Brother Robineau correctly points out that it was at the time of the foundation of the Company that Vincent wanted to be called by his name, “Monsieur Vincent” [28]… as one would say Monsieur Pierre or Monsieur Jacques [29].

On several occasions Vincent rejected outward signs of reverence and praise and recognition:

• Even though this was a practice in other communities, Vincent would not allow the Missionaries to make some exterior sign of reverence toward him when they passed in from of him in chapel: I am well aware of that and we have to respect their reasons for doing so, but I have much stronger ones for not allowing it in my regard, I, who ought not to be compared to the least of men since I am the worst of all [30].

• He rejected the idea of having a book dedicated to him: But what are you telling me, Monsieur, when you inform me that you have dedicated a book to me? If you had reflected that I am the son of a poor plowman, you would not have given me this embarrassment, nor done you book the injustice of putting on its title page the name of a poor priest who has no other renown that his wretchedness and sin. In the name of Our Lord, Monsieur, if this work is still at a stage where it could be dedicated to someone else, do not burden me with this obligation (CCD:III:121).

• During the repetition of prayer a Brother stated that he had not taken advantage of the good example of M. Vincent: Vincent let that go, but after the repetition he said, “Brother, it is a practice among us never to praise anyone in his presence” stating further that he was truly a wonder, but a wonder of malice, more wicked than the devil and that the devil had not merited being in hell as much as he did. And he added that he was not exaggerating [31].

• Vincent refused to allow a tapestry to be hung in Saint Joseph’s Hall where he received visitors. He also refused to have curtains hung around his bed [32]. • A man visited Vincent, bringing him some verses that he had written in praise of him. This man began to read them in his presence, but as soon as Vincent realized that they were about him, he left the room immediately [33].

• When Vincent visited some distinguished individual and said person desired to accompany him to the door when he was leaving, Vincent would attempt to deter this by recalling the fact that he was the son of a poor plowman [34].

• As superior of the community he wanted no other title: I am the son of a plowman; I was brought up on country food and now that I am Superior of the Mission, would I want to delude myself and be treated like a gentleman? Let us remember where we come from, Sisters, and we will find that we have good reason to praise God (CCD:X:275).

• It seems that on more than one occasion he rejected ecclesiastical honors (Abelly III:184).

• He saw the Missionaries, the local communities and the Congregation as unworthy of the benefits and services that were bestowed upon them (CCD:VII:326ff.).

• With a certain pleasure Vincent affirmed that among his relatives there was no individual who held a distinguished rank (CCD:V:398). Vincent saw no virtue in his own behavior (CCD:V:340; IV:173) and did not feel that he was able to help others (CCD:IV:378-379; V:581).

• He asked for nothing for himself, but rather he was always ready to deprive himself of everything (Abelly III:183).

• Despite the requests of Mesdames Goussault and de Lamoignon, Vincent would not allow his portrait to be painted. Therefore, we had to have an artist come here secretly some years before his death. He went to a great deal of trouble and spent much time ensuring that he was not seen or recognized by Monsieur Vincent as being an artist. We placed the artist in places from which he could see Monsieur Vincent. He had the opportunity of observing Monsieur when he officiated in the church on solemn feast days, when he said Holy Mass, during meals while he was seated in the dining room and finally at the end of his life when he heard Holy Mass since he could no longer celebrate because of his illness. Then when he had thus observed him, he went to a private room where he worked. In this way, little by little, his portrait was made [35].

Among the expressions of Vincent’s humility we mention here his habit of attributing good to others or the Community rather than pointing to himself (CCD:II:566; see also Abelly III:185-186). He stated: I am delighted that God works his marvels without me, who am only a wretched man (CCD:XII:395). He had a habitual attitude of concealing his gifts and activities and all he had undertaken for the good of others. He did this to such an extent that even members of his own Congregation knew only a fraction of the good works he had been involved with (Abelly III:182).

In the presence of the Missionaries Vincent accused himself of vain satisfaction … He had allowed the Ladies of Charity to speak about all the good that Brother Jean Parré was doing in the areas of Champagne and Picary and noted that Madame Talon had stated: If the Brothers of the Mission are so successful in doing the good we have just heard, what will the priests not do! (CCD:XI:307). Remembering what had occurred Vincent said: That, my dear confreres, is what caused me, wretch that I am, to give in to that self-satisfaction I have just mentioned to you, instead of referring it all to God, from whom all good comes (CCD:XI:307).

Vincent saw himself as ignorant and as a sinner

H. Maupas du Tour testified that Vincent always looked for ways to present himself as the least of all [36]. Louis Abelly states: He took every occasion to abase himself, to lessen himself in the esteem of others as fas as he was able (Abelly III:182). A. Dodín has found 105 expression of Vincent’s humility in the more than eight thousand pages of document that have preserved (letters, conferences, documents) [37]. These expressions of humility were spontaneously spoken when Vincent saw that certain individuals wanted to recognize or praise his initiatives, accomplishments or virtue [38].

Vincent considered himself to be unworthy of the responsibilities that he had been entrusted with:

• He considered himself unworthy to be the superior of the Company: …I embrace the entire house in spirit with a heart filled with the realization of unworthiness to serve them in the position I hold, and yet, filled with affection … [39].

• He signed official correspondence using the phrase “unworthy superior of the Congregation. When signing public documents that were written by others, he added the word “unworthy” to the title “superior of the Mission” [40].

• He considered himself unworthy to be a member of the Council of Conscience: I ask God that I may be regarded as a simpleton, which I am, so as not to have to continue in this type of commission, and that I may have greater leisure to do penance, and give less bad example to our Little Company (CCD:XII:397).

• He was unable to make precise references to texts from the Scriptures and asked his confreres to help him complete such biblical citations (see, CCD:XI:156-157, XII:13-15, 157-158, 193-194).

• Vincent felt that he had not done anything that was good: I do not know how it is with others, but for myself I know that I deserve to be punished; I know you are good, that you love God, you are sincere and that you walk rightly before his Divine Majesty; but in myself, alas, I see nothing but what merits punishment. All my actions are nothing but sins and that is what makes me fear God’s judgments (CCD:XII:287).

He even felt unworthy to eat the food that was placed before him. When he entered the dining room he would think: O poor man what have you done today to go drink and eat? Have you earned the bread and the meat that you are going to eat?[41].

• Vincent regarded himself as truly ignorant. An individual who was an ardent believer in Jansenism spoke with Vincent to convince him of his errors. Unable to do this, he began to criticize Vincent and became angry, called him ignorant and stated he could not understand how Vincent could be the superior general of the Congregation. Vincent humbled himself and responded that he also did not understand how he could be superior general because I am even more ignorant than you know (Abelly III:186)

On various occasions Vincent referred to his humble origins in order to convince some individuals who were speaking with him that he was unworthy and lacking in virtue. The following accounts have been gathered together by Louis Abelly (CCD:XII:394; Abelly III:186-187). To a poor woman who said to him, “My Lord, give me some alms!” M. Vincent replied, “My poor woman, you don’t know me very well. I’m a poor pig farmer, the son of a poor villager.” … A poor woman who met him at the door as he was saying good-bye to some visitors of rank begged him for alms, saying she had been the servant of “Madame, his mother.” “My good woman,” M. Vincent replied, “you mistake me for someone else. My mother never had a servant; she was a servant herself, and was the wife and I the son, of a peasant.” … When a young man, who was a relative of a priest of the Company, declined to sit beside M. Vincent and kept his head covered out of respect for him, M. Vincent said to him, “Why, Monsieur, do you find it hard to sit next to a swineherd and the son of a peasant? (CCD:XII:394-395).

In the conferences to the Daughters of Charity Vincent spontaneously referred to his peasant origins: It will be very easy for me to speak to you about the virtues of good village girls because I know them by experience and by nature since I am the son of a humble tiller of the soil and lived in the country until I was fifteen [42].

From Vincent’s correspondence and his conferences to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity we could compose a true anthology of expressions of humility: here I am taking up space uselessly, ut quid terram occupo (so that I am cluttering up the ground (CCD:XII:384); I am the poorest and most useless of your servants [43]; a reprobate and the greatest sinner of the universe (CCD:XII:394); I am a great sinner (CCD:I:121); the greatest sinner on earth (CCD:VIII:267); I am the most unworthy of all men and worse than Judas toward Our Lord (CCD:VII:611); a wretched man [44]; I, a wretched man … a scandal to everyone, not only to you (CCD:XI:354); I am the only one who is a miserable sinner, who does only harm on earth (CCD:I:500); the most wretched of all sinners in the world (CCD:II:621); this poor wretch and the greatest of all sinners [45]; this wretched man who is speaking to you now (CCD:XII:111); the most frail and miserable of all men [46]; the most abominable and despicable sinner in the world (CCD:V:370); I have more faults than anyone else (CCD:VIII:169); the most wicked of the Vincents and of all men in the world (CCD:II:232); worse than the devil (CCD:X:352); the most human and least spiritual of men (CCD:IV:552); this wretch … the most ignorant and wretched member of the Company [47]; the most ignorant, most abominable of men (CCD:VI:294); I, the harshest and least gentle of men (CCD:IX:221); an ignoramus, a student of the fourth form [48]; I am a poor, wretched, fourth level student (CCD:XII:238); I am a nitwit (CCD:IV:55); poor keeper of pigs (CCD:XII:242); I … the most uncouth, the most ridiculous, the most stupid of men among these persons of rank to whom I could not say six consecutive words without letting it be seen that I have neither wit nor judgment … what is worse, I have no virtue [49]; I am a poor plowman and a swineherd and, what is worse, the most abominable and detestable of all the sinners in the world [50]; wretched man, vile person that I am … a beggar, a swineherd, riding in a carriage (CCD:XII:19); a wretched keeper of pigs, piling up fault upon fault every day by my bad habits and by my ignorance, which is so great that I hardly know what I am saying (CCD:XII:220); a beggar, a wretch [51].

When Vincent referred to the Congregation of the Mission or the Company of the Daughters of Charity he used very humble expression: what makes you look to our Little Company for we are nothings but poor folk (CCD:XII:395); this Little Company (CCD:I:406); this poor Little Company (CCD:II:230); it is the least in the Church of God and the most insignificant of all Companies (CCD:XI:104); this Little Company … if we can call a Company a fistful of men of lowly birth, learning, and virtue, the dregs, the sweepings and the rejects of the world (CCD:XI:2); poor beggars of the Mission (CCD:VIII:254); who are we to be on the mind of the greatest Queen in the world, poor, weak creatures --- or, to put it better, beggars --- that we are! Yes, Sisters, that is what we are, both you and I (CCD:X:2); simple country women, swineherds as I was, we should never presume on our own strength (CCD:IX:14); you are poor country girls, children of plowmen, like myself (CCD:IX:529); poor village girls and daughters of workmen [52].

Vincent’s awareness of his sinfulness led him to view himself as the cause of all that afflicted the Company, the local community, and the various ministries. He attributed all the failures in the house and in the Company to his own sinfulness:

  • I am afraid of spoiling the affair by my wretchedness. However, I shall not go into detail. Our Lord will make up for what is lacking in me, if he so pleases [53].
  • I fear that my sins may make me unworthy of procuring any relief [54].
  • I have often told the Company, Monsieur, that no ill comes to it except through my fault. The difficulty being encountered in that mission makes this clear enough, and I ask your pardon for that, prostrate in spirit at your feet and those of the men who are with you (CCD:VII:20).
  • We will await with great joy the good Officialis of Poznan. I am very much afraid that my stupidity and our boorishness may disedify him (CCD:VII:92).
  • If we have failed in that, it is due to my wretchedness. I ask God to forgive me for it, wretched man that I am (CCD:XII:235).

Because Vincent saw himself as a sinner and the cause of all the evil that occurred in the Company, he asked for forgiveness on more than one occasion:

• Louis Abelly assures us that on several occasions when Vincent was living at the Coll?ge des Bons-Enfants, he knelt down before seven or eight Missionaries who then composed the community. He admitted in their presence the gravest sins of his past life. He also had the custom, on the anniversary of his baptism, of kneeling before the community to ask God’s pardon for all the sins he had committed during the time the divine Goodness had allowed him to spend on earth. He would beg the Company to pardon the scandal he may have caused and to pray to God for his mercy (Abelly III:187-188)

• Monsieur Vincent asked pardon of Alexandre Véronne in front of his Assistant: You should know, Monsieur that this good Brother came all the way to Richelieu to help me and I was not as welcoming as I had usually been. I most humbly ask his pardon in your presence and I ask you to pray that God may grant me the grace of no longer committing similar faults (CCD:XII:396).

• Once Vincent suggested to one of the brothers of the house at Saint Lazare to give lodging to a poor person passing through. The brother opposed the idea with reasons and hesitations. Monsieur Vincent felt he had to speak more firmly to have him carry out his orders, but later his humility caused him some remorse. He went to the garden, where some older priests of the Congregation were gathered, to ask pardon of the Company for the scandal he continued to give, and which he only recently had given in speaking rudely to a brother of the poultry yard. One of the priests who was present for this humiliation added: What he did was known to everyone. That same evening, however, I went to his room as was my custom, after the community’s general examination of conscience. I saw him kissing the feet of that brother (Abelly III:188).

• Brother Robineau tells us that during chapter Vincent knelt down and publically asked for forgiveness for having spoken in anger on two occasions; in the presence of several confreres he asked for their forgiveness for having judged them wrongly; he also asked forgiveness of M. Portail and M. Blondel for having interrupted them while they were speaking during common recreation [55]. Vincent not only humbled himself and asked for forgiveness for the faults that he believed he had committed against the Company in general and against each member of the Congregation in particular, but he also knelt before the laity and even though they were not family or relatives, he asked for their forgiveness for the faults he had committed [56].

• On numerous occasions, as Vincent share his reflections with the Community on various themes, he would pause and ask forgiveness of his confreres:

Oh wretched man that I am! I have been studying this lesson so long and have still not learned it! I lose my temper, I change, I complain, I find fault. Just this evening I berated the Brother at door who came to tell me that someone was asking for me, saying to him, “Mon Dieu, Brother! What are you doing? I told you I did not want to speak to anyone.” I pray that God --- and that Brother --- will forgive me! At other times I am very brusque with some of them and speak loudly and harshly. I have not yet learned to be gentle. Oh, wretched man that I am! I entreat the Company to put up with me and to forgive me (CCD:XII:154-155; see also CCD:XI:325-326, 344-345, XII:32-33).

Last Friday I gave the Company reason to be scandalized because I was shouting so loud and clapping my hands that it seemed like I was annoyed with someone; that is why I ask pardon of the Company for this (CCD:XI:236).

O wretched man that I am! What poor use have I not made of the sickness and of the minor inconveniences God has been pleased to send me! How many acts of impatience have I committed, wretch that I am, and what scandal have I not given to those who have seen me acting like that! Help me, brothers, to ask God’s forgiveness for having made such poor use of my little discomforts as I have done in the past and for the grace to make good use in the future of those it may please his Divine Majesty to send me in my old age and in the little time I have left to live on earth (CCD:XII:29).

Then, recollecting himself, he reflected: O you wretch! You are an old man like those people; small things seem big to you and difficulties frighten you. Yes, Messieurs, just getting up in the morning seems a great affair to me and the slightest inconveniences appear insurmountable. So then, there will be small-minded men, people like myself, who will try to cut back the practices and ministries of the Company (CCD:XII82).

Now, my dear confreres, we’re guilty of what I’ve just mentioned. What did I say, that everyone was guilty! There’s some excuse for everyone; I, wretched man, am the only one who has sinned for not having seen that this Rule was in vigor among us. I’m the only one answerable before God for all the sins and failings committed in the divine service because, in my wretchedness, I wasn’t steadfast in seeing that things were observed according to what the Rule prescribed. Pray to Our Lord for me, Messieurs that He may forgive me. But how has this happened? I repeat, it’s because of my negligence, and I’m very well aware that, if God didn’t have pity on me, and if He treated me according to my sins, I’ d have to suffer torments in hell on that account. Let’s tell the truth: at Saint-Lazare we don’t keep that Rule at all; it seems as if it isn’t made for us; off we go, some in this direction, some in the other, to say our Office in private --- as if we weren’t obliged to say it in common. Who’s guilty of that, Messieurs? It’s this miserable man, who would get down on his knees if he could --- you’ll excuse my infirmities. So then, we have fallen. Or sus, may the Divine Majesty be pleased to put us back on our feet again! (CCD:XII:269-270)

• In his conferences to the Daughters of Charity we find further testimony of the forgiveness that Vincent requested as a result of his failings:

Most Honored Father let us see his very profound humility on this point by telling us something we didn’t know. He said he had committed a fault in regard to a Brother, who was reporting some business matter to him. "I spoke sharply to him," he said, "and other persons could hear it. I think M. Portail was present." He repeated the same thing two or three times to give M. Portail the opportunity to say that he had been there, but M. Portail didn’t say a single word. On the following day, M. Vincent went on, when the same Brother was taking care of business with me, I spoke to him sharply again. I recognized my fault when I was examining my conscience, and in full chapter I knelt down and said, “I ask your pardon for having spoken sharply to you,” and I asked him to ask God to forgive me (CCD:IX:451-452).

I recommend it very often to our men, and I also recommend it to you for everything; for there is not anyone who does not need forbearance (CCD:X:388).

• In a letter date October 29, 1654, Vincent asked Mother Marie-Catherine de Glétain to enter into solidarity with him in asking pardon of God: For more than thirty years I have had the honor of serving your houses in this city, but, alas! dear Mother, I, who should have made great progress in virtue at the sight of incomparably holy souls, am none the better for all that. ... I entreat you most humbly to help me ask pardon of God for the poor use I have made of all His graces [57].

• He asked the missionaries to join together and ask God to forgive him his sins:

… while in your retreat you have sent several of them to heaven to obtain mercy for me for the abominations of my life (CCD:II:314).

… I shall end by recommending you to pray for the infinite number of abominations in my life, so that it may please his mercy to have pity on me (CCD:II:455)

• Vincent’s recognition of his sinfulness became at one and the same time a prayer of repentance and a prayer of trust:

I entreat you to ask God to pardon me all the abominations of my past life and particularly this last year [58].

I ask God with all my heart, Sisters, to forgive you your failings. And I, wretched man that I am, don’t keep my own Rules, and I ask you to forgive me for this! I’m very guilty in your regard in what concerns your work. Please ask God to have mercy on me. For my part, I’ll ask Our Lord Jesus Christ to give you himself His holy blessing, and I won’t say the words of it today because the faults I’ve committed in your regard make me unworthy of it. I ask Our Lord to be the one to do it [59].

O my God, what an account I will have to give you for so many things that are not being done through my fault (CCD:XI:326; see also, CCD:XI:352-353, XII:18-19, 205-207).

If there is anyone who needs this, it is the wretched man who is speaking to you now; I fall, I relapse, I often let my mind wander and I rarely enter into myself again. I pile up fault upon fault; that is the miserable life I lead and the bad example I give. Then, recollecting himself, M. Vincent added: O you Pitiful man! You have such an obligation to lead an interior life and here you are in the state of falling and relapsing! May God forgive me for this! (CCD:XII:111).

O my Savior, you who will accuse me of all me harshness and who know there is almost no temptation to which I have not yielded forgive me, grant me and the other Superiors the grace of listening carefully to admonitions and to give them in Your spirit. What good reason I have to humble myself for having failed so much in this, and to ask pardon of you and of the whole Company for it! I’d like to be able to get down on my knees to do this, but my infirmity prevents me. So, bear with me, my dear confreres, since I am an abomination, and pray to God for me (CCD:XII:296-297).

Vincent, the servant

Brother Robineau has communicated to us Vincent’s manner of acting in dealing with the Missionaries. He always used the word “pierre” (to ask) when he wanted someone to do something, no matter what it was, even the littlest thing. He used to say “Sir or my Brother I ask you pleased to do this or to go here or there,” and he never issued words of command, at least I do not ever recall having noticed this, although I had the honor of being with him and of speaking with him very often from 1647 on until his death, except for one time when he ordered me to do something. At present, I do not recall why nor what the issue was [60].

Vincent did not hesitate to take the last place: When a mission was given in Saint Lazare for the poor, he sometimes taught the catechism lessons. The place he chose to hear the confessions of these poor folk was at the back of the church, at the door used to exist the church and go out to the street, since it was the most abject place, the last, and the most uncomfortable [61].

I have several times seen him in the kitchen where put on an apron and washed the dishes with our brothers who were there [62]. When he was at table for dinner, he wanted to be served only after the two poor men who were present. When it happened several times that the servers came to him bringing a soup or a plate before the poor, he made a sign that the poor should be served first [63].

During meals he sat at the first place he found and among the others … even at the penance table [64].

I have often seen him serving at Holy Mass in our church at Saint-Lazare as if he were just a simple cleric, whereas he was in truth the institutor and general of the Company and a venerable old men in his seventies [65].

When speaking with the poor, he would remove his hat and speak with people in a gentle and respectful manner. When poor persons visited him, he had them sit down next to him and spoke to them with happiness, goodness and humility [66].

During the Fronde Vincent took his turn with the other Missionaries in guarding the house: during the troubles in Paris, he took his turn on the watch, making the rounds like the others during the night in order to guard the house [67].

He ceded precedence to others, especially other priests [68].

While retaining for himself all that was painful, he would not accept any of the honors and titles going with the office (Abelly, III:192).

Because of his physical condition Vincent began to use a carriage when traveling … he referred to his as his Infamy and would invite those who were accompanying him to enter the carriage before him [69].

The minutes of the First General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission, which was held in 1642, refer to Vincent’s willingness and his acceptance (in a spirit of obedience and service) of continued service as superior of the Congregation: At the end, M. Vincent de Paul, Superior General of the Congregation, after having represented to the Assembly how incapable he felt to lead it, earnestly begged the members, in all humility, on his knees, to elect another Superior General. The Assembly responded that it could not elect another Superior during the lifetime of the one whom God in His goodness had elected for them. After a few other entreaties, he accepted, declaring that this was the first act of obedience he thought he was rendering to the Assembly, and he begged the members to help him by their prayers. The Assembly not only promised to do this, but even to renew the profession of obedience they had made to him [70].

Why was Vincent so enamored with the virtue of humility

Too many humiliations for our sensitivities?

When we read the various words which Vincent used to refer to him and when we reflect on the different ways in which he revealed his love for humility, we can easily find all of this to be to excessive for our modern day sensitivities.

In order to become an authentic Christian and a good missionary, Vincent made a decision to opt for the path of humility: God has granted me today a very particular fondness for requesting of him that same virtue of ever choosing the worst and that which is contrary to my own liking [71].

Because he opted for the path of humility, Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity and with great simplicity encouraged them to set out on the same path:

  • And what I’m advising you to do, dear Sisters, I assure you I’ve already done today myself, poor wretch that I am! Yesterday I happened to speak abruptly to a priest of our Company in a sharp, harsh manner. I should have spoken to him more gently. I noticed this afterward, and when I heard that he had to go out this morning, I sent word to the front door, asking him not to go into the city until I had spoken to him. When he arrived, I very humbly begged his pardon; so you see, Sisters, what I’ m advising you to do, I try to practice myself (CCDLIX:218).

  • I did it just today, Sisters, at repetition of prayer. I remembered that I had spoken in a self-satisfied way to two or three persons yesterday. I asked pardon for this and acknowledged before the whole Company that I was the cause of all the wrongs being done in the Mission. What was the result? I felt great pleasure and consolation. Why? Because I know that was pleasing to God (CCD:X:376; see also, CCD:IX:444).

Vincent also recommended the path of humility to the Missionaries:

  • Let us often have recourse to love of our own abjection, which is a sure refuge for keeping ourselves safe from similar disturbances that our unfortunate propensity to pride constantly raises in us (CCD:XI:45).

  • It’ s a good practice to get down to particulars in humbling matters, when prudence allows us to admit them openly, because of the benefit we draw from this, overcoming our repugnance to reveal what pride might want to keep hidden. Saint Augustine himself made public the secret sins of his youth, writing a book about them so that the whole world might know all the foolishness of his errors and the excesses of his unruly conduct. And didn’t that vessel of election, Saint Paul, the great Apostle who was ravished to heaven, admit that he had persecuted the Church? He even put it in writing so that, even until the end of time, people might know that he had been a persecutor (CCD:XI:44).

Abelly explains Vincent’s practice of humility from the perspective of his understanding of the greatness and the holiness of God: …the exalted knowledge and appreciation he had for the infinite perfections of God and for the failings of creatures. These made him regard it as unjust not to humble himself everywhere and in all things because of the miserable condition of man and the grandeur of infinite perfections of God (Abelly III:195).

It seems to me that our reflection on Vincent’s reasons for acting in this manner leads us to a series of inter-related motives which will now be examined.

Counter-cultural motivation

Vincent lived in an era in which the defense of one’s honor (which included bloodshed that resulted from duels) was accepted as one of the unexcusable obligations of nobles and their families.

Ostentation, external embellishment, affected forms and the baroque style that prevailed during those years, was revealed in the clothing, the wigs and the accessories that were utilized by the powerful and/or those who wanted to be recognized as distinguished members of society. This lavish style was also applied to the carriages and homes of those who wanted to show off their distinguished position in society.

These cultural characteristics of the era also penetrated the cloisters and the ecclesiastical state. Religious priests and diocesan priests competed with one another as they attempted to demonstrate who was the better preacher [72].

When Vincent opted for the path of humility he entered into a dynamic opposed to the prevailing trend in society and in the Church. Nothing was able to deter him from perseverance in the practice of humility: neither flattery in the royal court nor compliments from distinguished nobles nor the violent passions of powerful individuals [73].

We probably smile as we view Vincent and others waiting in a room where they were to be received by a distinguished noble. As Vincent looked at himself in the mirror, he exclaimed to M. Cuissot: You big scoundrel (CCD:XIIIa:211). It seems to me that these words that were spoken while in that place that was so lavishly adorned with outward signs of wealth was an expression of his reaction against those who embraced this dominant cultural standard.

Aware of the fact that people want to be recognized for their good works and that often people would view themselves as “better than” or “more intelligent than” someone else, Vincent insisted on the option for humility: It is delightful to speculate on humility, but in practice it has an aspect that is distasteful to nature; and its practices are displeasing to us because they lead us to choose always the lowest place, to put ourselves beneath others, to endure calumnies, to seek contempt and to love abjection --- things to which we naturally have an aversion (CCD:XI:44).

Pascal, a contemporary of Vincent, described the situation of those individuals who desire prestige: We are not contented with the life which we have within us and in our own being: we desire to live an imaginary life in the opinion of others, and we therefore exert ourselves to make an appearance for that end. We toil incessantly to adorn and sustain this imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we have calmness, or generosity, or fidelity, we are eager to make it known, in order to attach these virtues to this creature of the imagination; we would rather detach them from ourselves in order to join them to him, and willingly would we be poltroons, to acquire a reputation for valor. What a great mark of the nothingness of our own being, not to be satisfied with the one without the other, and too often renounce the one for the sake of the other! For he who would not die to defend his honor, would be infamous [74].

Vincent recognized the power of human nature and therefore insisted: Let us often have recourse to love of our own abjection, which is a sure refuge for keeping ourselves safe from similar disturbances that our unfortunate propensity to pride constantly raises in us (CCD:XI:45)

Vincent instructed the Missionaries to always choose the last place, in the belief we must have that we are the least of all and that what a man thought of himself should be applied to the Company, believing that it’s the least in the Church of God and the most insignificant of all Companies, and if it didn’t have these sentiments, God would withdraw His grace from it. He also said that it would be foolish to imagine that the Company was the one about which Saint Vincent Ferrer prophesied when he said that in the latter times a Company of priests would be seen which was to be of great benefit to the Church of God. He said that we had to love the contempt and embarrassment of not being successful in sermons and in ministry; that when we see people who might be pretentious aspire to honor, we should run from them as if we were running from a fire (CCD:XI:104).

In light of these convictions Vincent had no desire to make a show of his influence. In 1652 he wrote to M. Jean Dehorgny who was in Rome [75]: I am as averse to these precautions concerning the plans of others as I am careful to avoid the intrigues to which people resort in the word today. In the name of God, Monsieur, let us beware of both of these (CCD:IV:393).

Vincent ordered the velvet funeral pall that was covering the body of a brother to be removed because it smacked too much of worldly pomp (CCD:XI:104). He also spoke to one of the Missionaries and warned him about becoming caught up in the fashions with regard to clerical dress: I am sending you a collar; you can have yours altered to match it. However little we may wish to follow the world as regards our clothing, such things show that we have some small fragment of this desire in our hearts and, if we are not careful, we shall let ourselves be carried away by the spirit of the world. To say that we shall be taken for others --- it is pride and vanity of spirit to change our appearance because of that. O Monsieur, those who would truly know Jesus Christ crucified would be very glad to pass, as He did, for the least of men, indeed for the worst, not only as regards personal actions, but even with respect to those of our state! Why, what good will it do us to possess humility with regard to our person if we take pride in our state! O Monsieur, who will grant us the grace to put ourselves in the last place among men and to keep ourselves there according to the condition of our person and our vocation! If we wish to prefer ourselves to others and to have things which distinguish us from them, be assured, Monsieur, that Our Lord will allow us to fall into such confusion that we shall be a subject of contempt both for them and for everyone (CCD:I:524-525).

Vincent, aware of the customs of that era, spoke to the Daughters of Charity and stated: The great ones of the world are known by their achievements and the large number of people who accompany them (CCD:X:4). He then pointed out a better, more excellent path, one that involved dedicating one’s life to the service of those who are poor: When souls who have worked hard for God go to heaven after this life, all their good works follow them … they are their ladies-in-waiting. When you appear before Our Lord, Sisters, how pleased you will be to have helped so many poor persons (CCD:X:4).

Vincent de Paul had access to high ranking persons. He held a very influential position in the court of the Queen Mother, but he always opted for the path of humility. He never wore a new cassock when going to the Louvre and when he presented himself in the court of distinguished individuals he dressed in the same manner as when he was instructing and preaching to the peasant population … remaining the same at all times and in all places … a simple humble man. One day when he was speaking about the position that he held in court he stated: I ask God that I may be regarded as a simpleton, as I am, so as not to have to continue in this position. In that way I would have greater leisure to do penance and give less bad example to our little Company (Abelly III:191).

When the King convoked the Estates Assembly in 1650, Vincent asked M. Lambert to participate as the representative of Saint-Lazare. He told this confrere to take the last place, which he did. Brother Robineau, an eyewitness to these events, contrasts Vincent’s attitude with that of the delegates from two other religious communities: The representatives of one of the religious communities wanted and intended to have precedence over those of the other religious community, and the latter by contrast intended to have it. Each group alleged their reasons, and this cause some outcry and murmuring in the Assembly. There were written protests, and it seems that both communities did so, and these were written into the minutes of the Assembly [76].

Psychological motivation

Vincent de Paul had lived the first part of his life trying to distance himself from the reality into which he was born: turning his back on his peasant origins he attempted to carve out a future for himself by obtaining an honorable benefice. As Vincent encountered the Lord in different events and individuals, he radically changed the direction of his life … he became a priest who gave priority to fulfilling the will of God, a priest who was wholly committed to the evangelization of the poor [77].

For Vincent de Paul, a transformed individual, there was a personal imperative to accept and proclaim his peasant origins and thus remind himself and others about the vanity of seeking to appear as someone other than their true self. We have already spoken about Vincent’s numerous references to his humble origins, therefore here we simply cite those words that Vincent spoke to the Daughters of Charity during one of his conferences: Vainglory should not have any place among you because pride usually comes from the noble birth and social status of individuals and for the most part, you are poor country girls, children of plowmen like myself. All of us are of very little account. As for your attire, your headdress and the rest, there is no room for being vain about them. With regard to intelligence, alas! most of you are from the country and can’t have very lofty minds. As for food, poor people eat almost the same things you do: a little beef or something similar. There is no room there for self-esteem or presumption. And for your conversations, you mix only with persons who are poor and are their servants; there is certainly nothing in that to make you proud (CCD:IX:529).

Who would not view the scene described by the Canon of Dax, de Saint-Martin, as a personal vindication of Vincent de Paul. The difference in Vincent’s attitude when his father visited him at the Franciscan school in Dax [78] and when his nephew visited him at the College des Bons Enfants can only be explained by a maturing process in the option that had changed his life: On the occasion of his nephew’s visit … [Vincent] instructed the porter to go to the street to meet the young man, dressed in the typical garb of peasants of his region and bring him to his room. At once this good servant of God overcame his reluctance to receive him. He came down from his room to the street, embraced him, kissed him, and led him to the garden where he had called all the members of the community. He described his nephew as the most respectable man of his entire family, and had him meet all the priests and brothers. He would do the same for persons of rank who visited him. In the first spiritual exercise after this event, he accused himself publicly of having some shame at the arrival of his nephew, and of wanting to take him unnoticed to his room just because he was a peasant and so poorly dressed (Abelly III:189).

Vincent spoke about the change in his life in a letter that he wrote to the Canon, de Saint-Martin: Thank you for your attention to my grandnephew. Let me tell you, Monsieur, that I never wanted him to become a priest, and still less did I have any thought of having him educated to be one, for this state is the most sublime on earth, the very one Our Lord willed to assume and follow. As for myself, if I had known what it was when I had the temerity to enter it --- as I have come to know since then --- I would have preferred to till the soil than to commit myself to such a formidable slate of life. I have said this more than a hundred times to poor country people when, to encourage them to live contentedly as upright persons, I told them I considered them fortunate in their situation. Indeed, the older I get, the more convinced I am of this because day by day I discover how far removed I am from the state of perfection in which I should be living (CCD:V:569).

Vincent placed upon himself an obligation, a personal demand, to walk along the path of humility: A virtuous priest who knew Monsieur Vincent well said most correctly that he had never seen any ambitious person with greater desire of advancing his career, of being well regarded, and of arriving at the summit of honors, than this humble servant of God had of doing just the opposite. He sought to see himself abased, regarded as abject and contemptible, and ready to embrace all humiliations and confusions. He seems to have treasured this virtue, seizing every opportunity to practice it, and taking care to humble himself on every conceivable occasion (Abelly III:184).

Those who have studied the life of Vincent de Paul highlight the fact that humility was an attitude that he made every effort to put into practice, an attitude that he himself highlighted. Pierre Collet wrote: It has been remarked at all times, that the saint whose history I continue, gave himself up most willingly to the practice of those virtues which, like humility, patience, and the support of the neighbor, recur every day. But it has also been remarked that he practiced them in a manner far superior to the generality of the just, and that he possessed in an eminent degree those of which the exercise is most rare and most difficult [79].

Ascetical motivation

Vincent de Paul, a witness with regard to the spiritual doctrine of his era [80], considered humility to be the foundation of perfection:

  • This humility was very often recommended by Christ himself, by word and example, and the Congregation should make a great effort to master it. It involves three things: 1° to admit in all honesty that we deserve people’s contempt; 2° to be glad if people notice our failings and treat us accordingly; 3° to conceal, if possible, because of our personal unworthiness, anything the Lord may achieve through us or in us. If that is not possible, though, to give the credit for it to God’s mercy and to other people’s merits. That is the basis of all holiness in the Gospels and a bond of the entire spiritual life. If a person has this humility everything good will come along with it. If he does not have it, he will lose any good he may have and will always be anxious and worried (Common Rules, II:7).

  • My brothers and sisters, in humility we will discover all the other virtues. Thus those who utter the word “humility” also utter “meekness”, “mortification”, etc. … To desire to be treated differently than the Son of God is an intolerable act of pride [81].

According to Vincent, humility sustains the Christian life: If I do a public action and can make myself look good, I will not do so. I will refrain from pushing myself forward not doing what would likely give me a certain reputation. If two thoughts come to me about a particular topic, if charity does not require me to do otherwise, I will speak of the lesser of these, to humble myself, and l retain the better as a sacrifice to God in the secret of my heart. Our Savior takes pleasure in the humble of heart, and in the simplicity of our words and actions (Abelly III:184).

Vincent de Paul, like other spiritual masters, chose humility as the path to Christian perfection for himself and proposed this same path to his followers. His ascetical proposals, however, were in no way related to the Jansenists’ doctrine and their insistence on the lowliness and nothingness of the human person … a concept that blurs and distorts true humility [82]. True humility, humility which recognizes God as the only foundation of human existence, does not invalidate the human person but places men and women in their proper relationship with God. The existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, formulated the meaning of the above statement when he wrote: As I person I acquire an infinite reality when I become aware of my existence in relation to God. I become a human person as a result of my relationship with God … The moment I affirm this relationship with God my life take on an infinite dimension [83].

Vincent’s own humility and his continual call to live a humble life can only be understood from the perspective of God as the only measuring rod of the human person. Contemplation of the Love of God [84], the acceptance of God’s mercy and faithfulness to God’s will … according to Vincent de Paul these are key to the practice of humility: I thank God that you know the art of tearing yourself apart --- I mean the way to humble yourself truly by recognizing and revealing your faults. You are right in believing yourself to be as you describe and to be most unsuitable for any kind of duty; it is on this foundation that Our Lord will base the execution of his plans for you. In addition, however, when you make these reflections on your interior state, Monsieur, you must raise your mind to the consideration of his Adorable Goodness. Granted, you have good reason to mistrust yourself, but you have greater reason to put your trust in him. If you are inclined toward evil, you know that he is incomparably more inclined to do good and to do it even in and through you. Please make your prayer on this and, during the day, raise your heart to God from time to time to ask him for the grace of grounding yourself firmly on this principle. Then, after considering your own miseries, you will always direct them to his mercies, dwelling more on his munificence toward you than on your unworthiness in his regard, and more on is strength than on your own weakness. With this in view, abandon yourself to his paternal embrace in the hope that he himself will accomplish in you what he expects of you and will bless whatever you do for him. Therefore, Monsieur, keep your heart ready to receive the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit (CCD:V:166).

Ethical motivation

When Vincent humbled himself before others it seems to me that we could speak about an “ethical motivation” as one of the factors that influenced him. As a result of the institutions that he established and the important works that he administered, Vincent acquired much power and authority over many individuals. Pierre Chauni prefers to speak about all of this in terms of civility: Civility in its first and primary significance … with his demeanor Vincent was a good person, but he had a strong will that could cut like dynamite; he had an authoritarian temperament and he could be arrogant … yet his secretaries were often surprised when he addressed them: “Sir or Brother, I would like to ask you to do this or to go here or there” [85].

Vincent de Paul, the superior of a community that acquired social importance and prestige in the Church, recognized that human nature, with all its limitations, continued to function in the human person, in the person of the superior, and especially in himself: And where shall we find people so perfect and faultless as not to need to be borne with in some way? Furthermore, where shall we find any Superiors who are faultless and have no need of forbearance on certain occasions? Find me a single one. Let me go further and say that we are constituted in such a way that most often we have to bear with ourselves, so true it is that this virtue of support is necessary for everyone, even in order to practice it toward ourselves, whom we sometimes find hard to bear. Alas! What a wretched man I am to be talking about others! No one on earth has greater need of forbearance than I, wretched man! O Sauveur! How much I need the support of the Company! (CCD:XII:30).

Vincent recognized that he was most unworthy to speak with and guide his brothers:

  • Shame, Messieurs! Do not listen to this wretch who is speaking to you, the most unworthy of all men to aspire to that blessed state, because of the poor use I have made of my freedom and God’s graces, since I have loved things other than him (CCD:XII:194).

  • O Sauveur! How can I speak about that, I who am such a wretched man, who used to have a horse and carriage, who has a room, a fire, a well—curtained bed, and a Brother to look after me, I repeat, I who am so well cared for that I lack nothing! Oh, what scandal I give to the Company by my abuse of the vow of poverty in all those things and other similar ones! I ask pardon of God and of the Company for this, and I also ask it to bear with me in my old age. God grant me the grace to correct myself, now that I have reached this age, and to retrench all those things as far as I can. Get up, brothers [for the whole Company had knelt down while he was making this act of humility] (CCD:XII:312).

When he explained to his confreres the attitudes that ought to guide a superior, Vincent strengthened his argument because rather than holding himself up as a model, he admitted his own inconsistency: With regard to the Superior, he should act, not as judge but as a good father, with gentleness and cordiality … “But the guilty man did this or that, even such and such.” Oh! The superior should think, “I have done many other things.” “But it is a serious fault.” “If I had been tempted as strongly, I would certainly have given in to it and done worse than he did.” O my Savior, you who will accuse me of all my harshness and who know there is almost no temptation to which I have not yielded, forgive me, grant me and the other Superiors the grace of listening carefully to admonitions and give them in your spirit. What good reason I have to humble myself for having failed so much in this, and to ask pardon of you and of the whole Company for it! I would like to be able to get down on my knees to do this, but my infirmity prevents me. So, bear with me, my dear confreres, since I am an abomination, and pray to God for me (CCD:XII:296-297).

The same occurred when Vincent explained the concept of obeying superiors. Those who listened to him naturally felt inclined to obey the “disobedient” Vincent de Paul: That leaves obedience to the Superior, O wretched man that I am! To obey me who am disobedient to God, to the holy Church, to my father and mother from my childhood! And nearly my whole life has been nothing but disobedience! Alas, Messieurs! To whom are you rendering obedience? To the person who, like those Scribes and Pharisees about whom I was speaking to you a short time ago, is filled with vices and sins. But that’s what will make your obedience more meritorious. I was just thinking about that again, and I remember that when I was a little boy, as my father used to take me with him into town, I was ashamed to go with him and to acknowledge him as my father because he was shabbily dressed and a little lame. O wretched man that I am! How disobedient I have been! I ask pardon of God; I also ask your pardon, and that of the whole Company, for all the scandal I have given you, and I beg you to pray for me, that God will pardon me and will always give me heartfelt regret for this (CCD:XII:351).

Vincent proposed that all the members of the community should practice humility when preaching on the catechism or presenting themes concerning morality or the sacramental life. As superior he did not excuse himself from this practice but rather practiced what he was asking his confreres to do: And I, poor keeper of pigs that I am, will go first --- not in the pulpit, for there is no way I could get up there, but during a conference, when I am dealing with some point of Rule or some other topic [86].

Apostolic motivation

Vincent de Paul, an apostolic man, the missionary of the poor, was convinced of the apostolic effectiveness of humility. All good things flow from humility: Humility is the origin of all the good we do [87].

Humility makes community life a paradise. Thus he spoke to the Missionaries: Humility, brothers, humility, you see, humility, self-contempt, considering ourselves the most wretched of all, placing ourselves beneath everyone, never preferring ourselves to anyone, looking on everyone as superior to us, as Saint Paul says, being quite pleased to have others preferred to us, either on the missions, or elsewhere, in any ministry whatsoever; or that they succeed better than we do; and we accept that cheerfully for love of Our Lord. Take my word for it, brothers, if you do, the Little Company will be a little paradise one earth (CCD:XII:32-33). He pointed out the same reality to the Daughters of Charity: You will make this Company a paradise … it will be a state of perpetual love of God for the neighbor and an increase of love for one another; this will result in a peace and harmony that is, in truth, a paradise (CCD:X:353).

A humble attitude attracts other persons and makes the ministry of the priests effective:

  • Humility is the genuine effect of charity; when we meet someone, it causes us to be the first to show the person honor and respect and, by this means, wins his affection. Who doesn’t like a humble person? When a ferocious lion, ready to devour another animal that might try to resist him, sees it subdued and, so to speak, humbled at his feet, he immediately calms down. What can we do but love a person who humbles himself? A Missioner who gets down on his knees before bishops or pastors, like a valley that draws moisture from the mountains, receives their blessing and benevolence. And if we practice respect among ourselves, we also practice humiliation because, since humility is the daughter of love, it promotes union and charity (CCD:XII:223; see also, CCD:I566-568; XII:156).

  • Must not a priest die of shame for claiming a reputation in the service he gives to God and for dying in his bed, when he sees Jesus Christ rewarded for his work by disgrace and the gibbet. Remember, Monsieur, we live in Jesus Christ through the death of Jesus Christ, and we must die in Jesus Christ through the life of Jesus Christ, and our life must be hidden in Jesus Christ and filled with Jesus Christ, and in order to die as Jesus Christ, we must live as Jesus Christ. Now, once these foundations have been laid, let us give ourselves up to contempt, to shame, to ignominy, and let us disclaim the honors people pay us, the good reputation and the applause they give us … Let us work humbly and respectfully … for otherwise God will not bless our work. We shall drive the poor away from us. They will judge that there was vanity in our behavior, and will not believe us … If you act in that manner, God will bless your labors; if not, you will produce noise and fanfare, but little fruit. I am not telling you this, Monsieur, because I have heard that you have done the evil of which I speak, but so that you may refrain from it and labor constantly and humbly in a spirit of humility (CCD:I:276-277).

Vincent explained the apostolic efficacy of the little method: It causes us to be very simple in our talks, as simple as we can be, speaking very familiarly, in such a way that even the least intelligent person can understand us, without our resorting to distorted language or words that are too popular, but using common language clearly, purely, and simply, without affectation. In this way it seeks only the comfort and convenience of the listeners; it stimulates, it instructs, it enkindles the heart, it easily turns people away from vice and persuades them to love virtue, producing the best effects wherever it is used well (CCD:XI:250; see also CCD:XI:267).

All the other virtues flow from humility:

  • Humility brings all the other virtues to the soul and, from the sinner that a person was, he becomes pleasing to God by the fact of humbling himself. Even if we were villains, if we have recourse to humility, it changes us into righteous men; and although we should be like angels, if we lack this humility, our fate is sealed; even though we have the other virtues, they will be taken from us because of the lack of the one we do not have, and we become like the damned, who have none of them. Regardless of how charitable a man is, if he is not humble, he has not charity; and without charity, even should he have enough faith to move mountains, or should give all he has to the poor and body to the flames, all that would still be useless to him (CCD:XII:172; see also CCD:XI:1-2; V:635-638).

  • It is an infallible maxim of Jesus Christ, which I have often proclaimed to you on his behalf, that as soon as a heart is empty of self, God fills it. God remains and acts in it; and it is the desire for shame that empties us of ourselves; that is humility, holy humility. Then it will not be ourselves acting but God acting in us, and all will go well (CCD:XI:281).

  • I hope that the principal result of our retreats is that we tend to the practice of acts of humility because if Our Lord is pleased to give us the virtue that produces them, he will also produce in us works that are pleasing to God and useful to his Church (CCD:VII:323).

God continued to bless the Company the entrusted the Company with the ministry of priestly formation but only if the confreres embraced humility and ministered with humility: For sixty seven years God has borne with me on this earth, but after having thought and rethought several times about finding a means to acquire and maintain union and charity with God and the neighbor, I have found no other nor any more suitable than holy humility; it is the first, second, third, fourth, and, in a word, the last. As for me, I know of none other: to put myself below everyone else, considering no one wicked and despicable but myself; for, you see, brothers, self-love blinds many people. Your brother reads well, but you hear poorly; he explains clearly, but you do not understand. As ferocious as the lion is, if he sees someone humbling himself before him and kneeling down, he will do him no harm. As long as we maintain ourselves in the spirit of humility, we have good reason to hope that God will continue to entrust us with directing the ordinands; but, once we begin to act with them as master to disciple, without respect and humility, we can say farewell to that ministry; it will be passed on to others, and, instead of directing others, we will not even be able to direct ourselves. I know full well that some men have their reasons for acting with greater authority; but for the Mission, I neither think nor see that this is the spirit in which it should act, nor that it will bear much fruit from it. And if some of these ordinands should happen to commit some fault, the cause must be attributed to ourselves (CCD:XI:137-138).

Christological motivation

For those individuals who, like Vincent de Paul, have decided to follow Jesus Christ and have therefore placed Christ before them as the Rule of the Mission, their fundamental theological motivation to practice the virtue of humility can be none other than that of imitating Jesus Christ: humility is the characteristic virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:353; see also CCD:XII:173). The only motivation for Vincent and his followers, the only norm of behavior to carry out the great designs that Divine Providence entrusted to them must be the gospel maxims … Vincent had no desire to distance himself from the practice of these maxims. Indeed neither a royal crown nor a kingdom could separate him from these gospels demands [87a]

Vincent de Paul proposed careful contemplation of that beautiful portrait that we have before our eyes, that admirable model of humility, Our Lord Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:350) and therefore we should not seek sweetness and consolation in serving Jesus Christ but rather should lovingly embrace tribulations and the cross [88].

Contemplating the humiliations that Jesus Christ endured for us (Is is not said of Him that he took upon himself all the sins of the world, and have not all our offenses caused him to die?) (CCD:X:164) led Vincent to pray heartily to God to give us all the grace of loving humiliation and shame, with Our Lord and our own wretchedness in mind (CCD:V:486). Vincent stated that we should weep when we are applauded for something since Our Lord said, “Woe to you when men speak well of you” (CCD:XI:104).

Vincent’s reflections on the humility of Jesus Christ come alive in his letters and in his conferences:

  • What wonderful forbearance Our Lord has! You see the beam that supports all the weight of the ceiling, without which it would fall; he has likewise supported us in our falls, blindness, sluggishness. It is as if all of us were weighed down with ills and miseries of body and soul, and this kind Savior took it upon himself to undergo the suffering and shame of them (CCD:XII:220).

  • …Honor Our Lord's humility. These past few days, I have had as the subject of my talk the ordinary life Our Lord wished to lead on earth. I realized that he had so loved this ordinary and abject life of other men that, in order to adapt himself to it, he had humbled Himself as much as he could, even to the point (O marvelous act which surpasses the whole capacity of human understanding!) that although he was the Uncreated Wisdom of the Eternal Father, he had wished, nevertheless, to preach his doctrine in a much simpler and more humble style than that of his Apostles. Pray, consider what his sermons were like and compare them with the epistles and sermons of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and the other Apostles. It would seem that the style he used was that of a man of scant knowledge and that the style of his Apostles was that of men possessing far greater knowledge than he. What is even more astonishing is that he willed his sermons to have less effect than those of his Apostles. We see in the Gospels that he won over his Apostles and disciples almost one by one and did so with great labor and fatigue, while Saint Paul converted five thousand at his first sermon. This has certainly given me more enlightenment and knowledge, so it seems to me, about the great and marvelous humility of the Son of God than any other thought I have ever had on the subject (CCD:I:183-184).

  • So then, my very dear confreres, it is a question of holy humility, which was so loved and so strongly recommended by Our Lord that we should adopt it as recommended by Our Lord and loved by Him. If I were to ask someone in the Company to speak --- no matter whom --- he would give us a number of experts and reasons for this, and I could give you a few as well; nevertheless, to honor what Our Lord said and felt about it, we will simply say that he himself recommended it to us: “Learn from me,” he said, “that I am humble.” If it were an Apostle, if it were Saint Peter or Saint Paul who taught us this lesson, if it were the Prophets or some saint, we might say that they were disciples like we are; if it were philosophers … Alas! They were ignorant of this virtue, and Aristotle, who spoke so eloquently of all the other moral virtues, said nothing about this one. Our Lord alone said and could say, Discite a me quia mitis sum et humilis corde.” Oh, what words! “Learn from me,” not from someone else, not from a human being, but from a God; “learn from me …” What would you like us to learn? “That I am humble.” O Savior, what an expression: that you are humble! “Yes, I am, not simply exteriorly, through ostentation or boasting, but humble of heart, not by a slight or passing humiliation, but with a heart genuinely humbled before my Eternal Father, with a heart always humbled before men and for sinful men, always concerned with despicable and contemptible things, and always embracing them, amiably, actively and passively. Learn from me that I am humble, and learn to be the same yourself” (CCD:XI:161-162).

  • Humility is such a broad virtue, but so difficult and necessary, that we cannot reflect on it enough. It is the virtue of Jesus Christ, of his holy Mother, of the greatest saints, and in a word, it is the virtue of Missioners (CCD:XI:46).

Because Jesus Christ was humble, Vincent had not hesitation in proposing that we should also make a great effort to learn the following lesson, also taught by Christ: Learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart [89].

Charismatic motivation

Since humility is a virtue that is proper to the Lord, Vincent de Paul was convinced that humility had to characterize his own journey as he followed Jesus Christ and also had to characterize the journey of all those individuals who proposed to prolong Jesus’ mission on earth.

Humility is the virtue proper to Jesus Christ, proper to his blessed Mother, proper to the saints and therefore should also be the virtue that is proper to the members of the Congregation of the Mission:

  • Humility is … the virtue of Missioners. But what am I saying? I take that back, I would like us to have it; and when I say that it is the virtue of Missioners, I mean that it is the virtue they need the most and must ardently desire; for this insignificant Company, the least of all, must be founded only on humility as on its characteristic virtue; otherwise, we will never do anything worthwhile within or outside the Company. Without humility, we must not expect to make any progress for ourselves or benefit for the neighbor. O Savior, give us this holy virtue, which is characteristic of you, and which you brought into the world and love so much. And you, Messieurs, know that anyone who wants to be a true Missioner must constantly strive to acquire this virtue and make progress in it, being careful above all to banish all thoughts of pride, ambition, and vanity, as being the greatest enemies he can have. As soon as they appear, he must rush upon them to uproot them, and keep a close watch so as not to give them any opening. Yes, I say it again, that if we are genuine Missioners, each one of us must be willing to be considered poor, insignificant creatures, men lacking virtue, treated as ignorant persons who are insulted and despised, reproached for our failings, and made known publicly as unbearable men because of our faults and imperfections (CCD:XI:46; see also CCD:XI:178-179; XII:396).

  • Grant all of us, my God --- all of us --- to have no other desire, and that humility may be the virtue of the Mission. O holy virtue, how beautiful you are! O Little Company, how loving you will be if God gives you this grace (CCD:XII:168).

  • God has not sent us to have honorable posts and ministries, or to act or speak pompously and authoritatively, but to serve and evangelize poor persons and to carry out the other activities of our Institute in a humble, gentle, and friendly way (CCD:XI:51).

  • Is it not strange how clearly we see that individuals in a Company, like Peter, James, and John, should shun honor and love contempt, but the Company, people say, and the Community, have to acquire and preserve esteem and honor in the world? For, I ask you, how can it be that Peter, James, and John truly and sincerely love and seek contempt, and that, nevertheless, the Company, which is composed of only Peter, James, John, and other individuals, must love and seek honor? We must certainly acknowledge and admit that these two things are incompatible; therefore, all Missioners must be content not only when they find themselves personally in some situation of abjection or contempt, but also when someone looks down on their Company; for that will be a sign that they are truly humble (CCD:XI:48-49).

Humility is also the virtue that is proper to the Daughters of Charity who, as they serve those persons who are poor, prolong the mission of Jesus Christ on earth.

  • Give me a Sister from among you in whom humility is apparent … and I will tell you that she is a true Daughter of Charity. On the other hand, give me one in whom humility is not apparent, who aspires to be esteemed more than the others, who desires to be regarded in the Company as a Sister with common sense and to succeed in positions of authority or to be a Sister Servant; O Sauveur! That is the root of pride and of the most foolish pride, similar to that of the devil who wants to have a place above others. A Sister who wants to be esteemed, who thinks of everything in terms of her own advantage, and who says, “We have so many patients and many things to do; but, by the grace of God, everything is going well.” To say this in order to be esteemed is not the act of a Daughter of Charity. The true Daughter of Charity is the one who has the dress of charity and of humility, who has a great love for contempt, who believes that she does not succeed in what she is told to do, and that she spoils everything, wherever she is. Sisters, if you see a Sister like that among you, say, “There's a true Daughter of Charity; we never saw her do anything that might tend to cause people to have a high opinion of her” … As for those who have the opposite characteristics, even if they're dressed like Daughters of Charity, I say to you that they really are not. They have the name, but they do not have charity, whose distinctive feature is to make us love to be disdained by everyone. The sign of a true Daughter of Charity is very different. A person who has a high opinion of herself, who cannot bear any contempt, either in words or by silence, has good reason to fear. So you see, then, Sisters, that the great sign by which you may know if a Daughter of Charity is a true Daughter of Charity is that she is humble and has this beautiful dress so pleasing in the eyes of God and created beings(CCD:X:422-423).


We rejoice as we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul, a humble man (1660-2010) and as members of the Vincentian Family we also give thanks because Vincent places before us a great challenge: the adventure of a spiritual journey in which humility becomes a sign of our identity (CCD:XII:169-170).

Even though we might be impressed by the ways in which Vincent gave life to the humble attitude of Jesus Christ, we can nonetheless easily excuse ourselves by stating that we live in a different era and that we were not born to be heroes. But if we are not blind to the realities before us, Vincent will continue to make us question ourselves [90].

If the greatest expression of humility is Jesus Christ’s incarnation and his death on the cross for humankind, then must not those who presume to prolong his existence on earth be willing to journey along the same path? If Jesus’ salvation involved embracing the pain and suffering and misery of all people, but especially the burden of outcasts and those most poor, then can we possibly consider mission and charity from any other perspective except that of those who are viewed as the least in the eyes of society?

Vincent de Paul is a most attractive personality and only his humility will continue to be life-giving to the heritage that, even after 350 years, continues to be passed on from one generation to the next: That is what also happened to other Orders and Communities in the Church of God, which have grown lax in their original regular observances and in the practice of virtue, and the same will happen to the Companies that grow lax. In a word, what will happen is exactly what has happened to the chateau of Ventadour, situated in Mount ... Formerly it was seen to be inhabited by virtuous, God-fearing persons of quality; and who do you think inhabits it today? Toads, crows, owls, and other ugly animals. The whole roof has caved in; only the walls remain. In the same way, houses that allow themselves to grow lax in virtue find themselves in no time inhabited by people filled with vices, passions, and sins. Well, they are to be pitied. Or sus, courage then, Messieurs, courage, Brothers! Let us give ourselves sincerely to God, let us work hard to acquire virtue, particularly humility --- yes, humility; let us earnestly ask God to be pleased to give this virtue to the Little Company of the Mission. Humility --- yes, humility --- I repeat, humility! (CCD:XI:348-349).


[01]. Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, translated by William Quinn, FCS, 3 volumes, New City Press, New York, 1993. P. Collet, Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, John Murphy and Co. Printers and Publishers, Baltimore, 1854. U. Maynard, Saint Vincent de Paul. Sa vie, son tempts, ses oeuvres, son influence, 4 volumes, Paris, 1860. Pierre Coste, The life and works of Saint Vincent de Paul, 3 volumes, The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1952. A. Redier, Vicente de Paúl, todo un carácter, CEME, Salamanca, 1977. P. Renaudin, Saint Vincent de Paul, Marsella, 1927. J. Calvert, San Vicente de Paul, CEME, 1979. A. Dodín, Vincent de Paul and Charity, New City Press, Hyde Park, N.Y., 1993. J.M. Román, St. Vincent de Paul, a biography, Melisende, London, 1999. L. Mezzadri, Vincent de Paul 1581-1660, Paris, 1985. J. Corera, Vida del señor Vicente de Paúl, CEME, Salamanca, 1989.

[02]. AA.VV. Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana, CEME, Salamanca, 1995. G. Colluccia, Espiritualidad vicenciana, espiritualidad de la acción, CEME, Salamanca, 1979. J. Delarue, Vincent de Paúl: la fe que dio sentido a su vida, CEME, Salamanca, 1977. J.M. Ibáñez, La fe verificada en el amor, Ed. Paulinas, Madrid, 1993. R. Maloney, The way of Vincent de Paul, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1992. A. Orcajo, El seguimiento de Jesucristo según Vicente de Paúl, Ed. La Milagrosa, Madrid, 1990. AA.VV., En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, CEME, Salamanca, 1998-1999. M. Pérez Flores, Que sea la humildad nuestra contraseña, in Revestirse del Espíritu de Cristo. Expresión de la identidad vicenciana, CEME, Salamanca, 1996, pp. 117-133. C. Sens, Comme prêtre missionnaire, in Monsieur Vincent, temoin de l’Evangile, Animation Vicentienne, 50 (1990), p. 142-144. P. Rendón, La humildad, in Reavivemos el espíritu vicenciano, CEME, Salamanca, 1995, pp. 319-334. L. Mezzadri, L’humilité dan le dynamisme apostolique de Saint Vincent in VINCENTIANA (1978), PP. 128-149. A.R.M. Motto, La moral de virtudes en San Vicente de Paúl, CEME, Salamanca, 2010.

[03]. H. Maupas du Tour, Oraison fun?bre à la mémoire de feu Messire Vincent de Paul, instituteur, fondateur et supérieur general des pr?tres de la misión, proconcée le 23 Novembre 1660, dans l’Église de S. Germain l’Auxerrois, Paris, 1661.

[04]. See, CCD:II:295-297. All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, New City Press, New York, 1985-2009. Future references will be included in the text with [CCD] representing the work, followed by the volume number and then the page number.

[05]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 4.

[06]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., pp. 9-10.

[07]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 16.

[08]. A. Dodín, ed., Monsieur Vincent raconté par son secrétaire. Remarques sur les actes et paroles de feu Monsieur Vincent de Paul, norte Tr?s Honoré P?re et Fondateur, Paris, OEIL. Spanish translation, El señor Vicente visto por su secretario Luis Robineau, Fe y Vida, Teruel, 1995.

[09]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #1.

[10]. Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God Vincent de Paul, translated by William Quinn, FCS, New City Press, New York, 1993. Future references to this work will appear in the text, e.g, Abelly I:34 (The author, followed by the volume number and then the page number).

[11]. Cf., A. Dodín, La biografía de Louis Abelly sobre San Vicente de Paúl, in Vicente de Paúl, evangelizador de los pobres, CEME, Salamanca, p. 13. In this presentation we cite the Spanish edition.

[12]. P. Chaunu, in El señor Vicente visto por su secretario Luis Robineau, op.cit., pp. 6-7.

[13]. A. Dodín, in El señor Vicente visto por su secretario Luis Robineau, op.cit., p. 10.

[14]. When we have at our disposal information that is mentioned by Louis Abelly and also found in the letters or conferences of Vincent de Paul, we prefer the texts of Vincent de Paul (Correspondence, Conferences, Documents), since as stated Abelly, as a hagiographer, tends to be more elaborate in his presentation of material.

[15]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 22. God is the author of all good (cf., CCD:VII:461-461; I:183-184).

[16]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, ítem #2.

[17]. Cf. J.M. Román, Las fundaciones de San Vicente in VINCENTIANA (1984) pp. 457-486).

[18]. (CCD:X:408-409); God and our Holy Father the Pope were finally pleased to send the ordinands to the poor beggars of the Mission in Rome at the last Ember Days (CCD:VIII:254).

[19]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #4.

[20]. CCD:X:184,When I used to go on a mission with someone from the Bons-Enfants, I always gave him the first place with great humility.

[21]. CCD:V:483. Vincent preferred not to speak at the meeting of the Ladies of Charity in deference to M. Lectoral from Paris who was participating in the meeting: Í have been reserved in the presence of M. Lectoral. You know that these individuals are our masters.” This testimony was given by one of the Ladies who felt that Vincent had maintained silence at a time when he should have spoken (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #35). When giving popular missions Vincent offered the pulpit to other priests (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #64). Cf., CCD:IV:20-21.

[22]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #30.

[23]. CCD:XIIIb:279. Brother, how many times do you think I have knelt before the deceased prior of Saint-Lazare to ask him to forgive the faults of some member of the Congregation (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #24). He never justified himself when he was accused and by preference took the part of the accuser, even when he was the innocent party (Abelly III:181).

[24]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 15.

[25]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 17.

[26]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 4.

[27]. H. Muapas du Tour, op.cit., p. 18.

[28]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #5. This is confirmed by A. Dodín in the notes that he made to Robineau’s Notebooks.

[29]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 18 We cannot confirm, however, that Vincent hid the fact that he had a degree in theology and law. Cf., L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #6 and the notes of A. Dodín.

[30]. CCD:XII:397; see also L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #27.

[31]. CCD:XI:108; At the same repetition, when one of our good Brothers said that he was ashamed of profiting so little from the good example and marvelous things that he saw in M. Vincent, the latter let that go by, but after the repetition he said: “Brother, it is a practice among us never to praise anyone in his presence” stating further that he was truly a wonder, but a wonder of malice, more wicked than the devil and that the devil had not merited being in hell as much as he did. And he added that he was not exaggerating [Here the reference in the Spanish edition of the Complete Works of Vincent de Paul is XI:812; no such reference is found in that section of the conferences but is found in CCD:XI:108, which is cited at the beginning of this footnote].

[32]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #40 and #41.

[33]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #19.

[34]. L. Bonineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #33 and #34; When a person of rank tried to accompany M. Vincent to the door, the latter dissuaded him with these words, “You should be well aware, Monsieur, that I am only the son of a poor villager, and in my youth I tended the flocks in the fields.” The nobleman, who was witty, replied that one of the world’s greatest Kings was David, who had also been taken from driving the flocks he was tending. M. Vincent seemed confused and humbled by this response (CCD:XII:395).

[35]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #70; the artist was Simon François de Tours.

[36]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 7.

[37]. A. Dodín in El señor Vicente visto por su secretario Luis Robineau, op.cit., p. 173.

[38]. Cf., H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., pp. 6-7

[39]. CCD:II:246; see also L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #38.

[40]. L Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #38.

[41]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #65. After a conference in which he spoke about the temperance that should be observed when eating and drinking, Vincent took advantage of that situation to humble himself and stated: What I wretch! I eat hurriedly and devour food like those that I have just spoken about. Yes, I have great reason to humble myself (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #67).

[42]. CCD:IX:67; Alas! if I had not become a priest, maybe I would still be tending pigs as I used to do (CCD:X:547).

[43]. CCD:VII:528; I see myself as useless to the world (CCD:V:252).

[44]. CCD:IX:13; a poor wretched sinner (CCD:IX:306).

[45]. CCD:II:621; this poor wretch and the greatest of all sinners (CCD:II:230); I entreat them to remember me when they say nobis quoque peccatoribus as for the greatest sinner on earth (CCD:II:296); a miserable sinner like me (CCD:X:213); a wretched man (CCD:X:492).

[46]. CCD:I:406; watch over our frailty (CCD:I:399).

[47]. CCD:I:58; I, a wretched man … an unfortunate man … a wretch (CCD:XI:280-281).

[48]. CCD:XII:394; You, Messieurs, have studied theology and I am an ignorant man, a fourth form student (CCD:XII:14). You are right, Monsieur, see how stupid I am, how I myself need to be instructed (CCD:XI:178).

[49]. CCD:III:568; I am a country bumpkin (CCD:VII:137); I am the most ridiculous, the most stupid member of the Company, unable to say three consecutive words without revealing the fact that I have not one bit of intelligence or judgment. What is worse, I possess no degree of virtue that approaches that of the individual about whom we are speaking (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #57).

[50]. CCD:II:193; he was born of a poor farm worker and his first calling was to tend his father’s livestock (CCD:VIII:159).

[51]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #58.

[52]. CCD:IX:14; I ask Our Lord to bless the poor but dear Sisters of Charity (CCD:VII:92).

[53]. CCD:III:357.

[54]. CCD:VI:10; see also CCD:VI:190-191, 481-483, 537-529; VII:139-141, 142.

[55]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #20, #21, #22.

[56]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #23. Vincent knelt before the procurator of Parliament and asked to welcome his son back into his house (ibid.). He also asked forgiveness of the mother-in-law of M. Bonneval for an offence that was committed by a poor peasant (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #25).

[57]. CCD:V:209; Prostrate in spirit, I embrace your Little Company and beg you to embrace them all on my behalf. Ask their pardon for my being so despicable that I was unable to write to them (CCD:II:345).

[58] CCD:IV:157 … this letter was written to Gabriel Delespiney, superior in Toul; see also CCD:II:170-174, XII:383-384, 393-394.

[59]. CCD:IX:260; the Sister who redacted this conference added: having said that, he kissed the floor (CCD:IX:260).

[60]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #3.

[61]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #42.

[62]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #43.

[63]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #44.

[64]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #47.

[65]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #64.

[66]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #46 and #54. With regard to the servants who masters often sent them to Vincent in order to give him some letters or some other message, Vincent called these persons “brother” and usually spoke to them holding his hat in his hand. He did the same when speaking with those individuals who worked the land, as well as when he spoke with peasants or coach and carriage drivers … The man who drove Vincent’s coach and the individual who accompanied Vincent when he traveled by horse … these persons were also called “brother” (L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #64).

[67]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #31 [Translator’s Note: the Spanish citation reads: cuaderno 31, i.e., notebook 31 … Since all the other citations are to notebook I, followed by some item I have presumed that #31 refers to the item number and not the number of the notebook].

[68]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook I, item #64.

[69]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #48. Cf., CCD:V:480-481.

[70]. (CCD:XIIIa:329-330); Abelly, with his style as a hagiographer, describes the same scene in a more grandiose manner (Abelly III:192).

[71]. CCD:I:514; then Vincent continued and stated: But alas! Monsieur, how unfaithful I am to that practice! Please ask God to make me more exact to it in the future (CCD:I:514).

[72]. Various authors, En tiempo de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy (In the time of Saint Vincent de Paul … and today), CEME, Salamanca, 1998, volume I, p. 315-325

[73]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 13

[74]. B. Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées or Thoughts on Religion, translated and edited by Gertrude Burfurd Rawlings, The Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, New York, (date of publication not indicated), p. 117.

[75]. If those who present themselves have the Spirit of God, what have we to fear? And if they do not, what can they do as long as we proceed in an upright manner. All our trust must be in God and since we are established principally on this virtue, we must rest assured that nothing will happen to us that God does not allow (CCD:IV:393).

[76]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #36.

[77]. In order to understand Vincent’s spiritual evolution and his discovery of humility as an apostolic dynamic see, L. Mezzadri, L’humilité dans le dynamisme apostolique de Saint Vincent, VINCENTIANA (1978), p. 137.

[78]. Cf., CCD:XII:350-351; A. Morín, Historia de una mirada sobre el pobre, in, Various Authors, En tiempo de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy (In the time of Saint Vincent de Paul … and today), CEME, Salamanca, 1998, volume I, p. 377-401.

[79]. P. Collet, Life of Saint Vincent de Paul, John Murphy and Co. Printers and Publishers, Baltimore, 1854, p. 253. We would also say that humility was the origin and the source of those graces, those interior illuminations, and those inspirations that Vincent received from God in order to carry out the reform of Christian life … a task for which God had predestined him. Humility was also the secret of his holiness and this virtue made him attractive to all those who approached him, great and small alike, Missionaries and Daughters of Charity. In a word, humility is Vincent’s greatness! (F. Contassor, Saint Vincent de Paul, guide des supérieures, Paris, Mission et Charité, 1964). From Vincent’s point of view it was humility that gave meaning to his faith and charity and hope, thus the spirit of God is more important that the spirit of the world and this reality enables the human person to act freely (P. Deffrennes, La vocación de San Vicente de Paúl. Estudio de Psicología spiritual, Salamanca, CEME, 2008, p. 116).

[80]. Cf., L. Mezzadri, L’humilité dans le dynamism apostolique de Saint Vincent, VINCENTIANA, (1978) pp. 128-129.

[81]. L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item # 11.

[82]. Various authors, En tiempo de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy (In the time of Saint Vincent de Paul … and today), CEME, Salamanca, 1998, volume I, p. 317.

[83]. S. Kierkagaard, La enfermedad mortal (The Mortal Illness), Madrid, Editorial Trotta, 2008, second part, chapter 1.

[84]. Mysteriously God’s love and humility become two realities that both strengthen and benefit the human person (A.R.M. Motto, La moral de virtudes en San Vicente de Paúl, CEME, Salamanca, 2010, p. 219). As they approach the divine light, men and women discover more and more their imperfections and their selfishness. The more that God’s light illuminates peoples’ lives, the more they become aware of the sins they have committed. In many saints this has been a very common experience (Ibid., p. 221).

[85]. A. Dodín, in El señor Vicente visto por su secretario Luis Robineau, op.cit., pp.6-7.

[86]. CDD:XII:242; it seems to me that the ethical motivation is seen very clearly in some of his letters … see for example, CCD:II:93-94, 112-113, 479-480.

[87]. CCD:IX:530; on the other hand it is pride and sensuality that make a Missionary lose his vocation (cf., L. Robineau, op.cit., Notebook 1, item #7).

[87a]. H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 14.

[88]. CCD:XI:303; [Jesus left] the crucifix as an immortal monument of the humiliations of his Divine Person (CCD:XII:164) ... You gave us examples of humility during your entire life and will to appear in the most humble guise --- that of a criminal (CCD:X:431).

[89]. Common Rules, II:6; Our Lord and the holy Apostles renounced and had all the Christians renounce pomp, and Christians are almost instinctively aware of the differences between this pompous state and that of the humble Jesus Christ and are scandalized by it (CCD:III:189).

[90]. Gentlemen, it is not I who is speaking but rather it is the spirit of Vincent de Paul who encourages us and opens our hearts; at the same time from the heights of heaven his spirit is alive in the various charitable movements and his humility guides out steps on this earth (H. Maupas du Tour, op.cit., p. 21-23).

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM