The Service of Authority in the Congregation of the Mission, exercised in accord with the inspiration of Saint Vincent

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Javier Álvarez, CM

[This material was presented at the Meeting of the New Provincials that was held in Rome during January, 2014]


Father Miguel Pérez Flores has affirmed the following: I believe that Saint Vincent died with the satisfaction of knowing that throughout his life he had been a good superior (M. Pérez Flores, Autoridad [Authority] in Diccionario de espiritualidad vicenciana [Dictionary of Vincentian Spirituality], CEME, Salamanca, 1995, p. 43). There is no doubt that during many years Vincent exercised his authority as a father and as a counselor, and did so with very distinct groups: the Missionaries, the participants in the Tuesday conferences, the Daughters of Charity, the Visitation Sisters, the members of the Confraternities of Charity. Vincent was a local superior and the superior general. The thirty-four years that Vincent spent as superior general gave him a very rich experience with regard to the governance of individuals, communities and institutions. Indeed, we find ourselves in the presence of a true master in the art of arts … a phrase that Vincent applied to the ministry of governing the Company.

Vincent wrote no treatise on authority even though he could have done this with ease. He has, however, left us some reflections on authority and the manner in which authority should be exercised in the Congregation.

In this reflection I invite you to internalize the experience and the doctrine of Vincent with regard to authority. I am not only going to talk about Vincent’s doctrine but I will also refer to his experience which is as enriching as his doctrine. I will leave aside those aspects that were more proper to his era and focus on those elements that are valid and meaningful for us today.


We can distinguish two dimensions in authority, dimensions that are in no way opposed to one another but rather complement one another: the first dimension we can refer to as the authority that flows from one’s office or function. This is the traditional dimension of authority. The Missionaries who have authority in a Province or in a specific community, by reason of their office and mission ought to be concerned about fulfilling the purposes of the Congregation and living in accord with the established norms. The present Constitutions deal with this ministerial authority when they establish that the superior general, the visitor, and the local superior, each one in his proper domain, ought to promote the aims of the Congregation and ought to do this in accord with the spirit of Vincent and in a true communion of life and the apostolate (cf., Constitutions, #97). In this case notice how authority receives its dynamism not from the qualities of any individual but from the mission that the individual receives. We can say the same thing with regard to the acceptance of authority, that is, obedience. Again this obedience is not founded on the qualities of the person who exercises authority, but is grounded on what this authority represents and on the mission that has been entrusted to the Church and to the Congregation.

But there is another dimension to authority, one that we can call “charismatic authority” or “the authority of leadership”. This form of authority tends to have more and more value at the present time. This consists of the natural ability that some people have to attract and influence others; it also consists of the qualities and the virtues that are possessed by those who exercise authority as well as their integrity. With all of this such individuals are seen as natural leaders. This form of authority looks with ease into the future and encourages others to do the same with confidence and in a decisive manner.

There is no opposition between these two forms of authority. Quite the opposite since it is hoped that these two forms of authority will be found united together in those persons who have been entrusted with this service. Both of these elements were harmonized in Jesus who received a mission from the Father and who at the same time amazed people: What is this? A new teaching with authority (Mark 1:27). In Vincent we find, as something quite natural to his era, this authority that flowed from one’s office or function. Nevertheless we also find numerous indications of Vincent’s moral and charismatic authority, of Vincent’s leadership. In many situations throughout his life we find very clear signs of this leadership. Vincent possessed a wonderful ability to confront ordinary situations and transform them into something of great value, something that would perdure. For example, Vincent was not the first person to preach a popular mission. These missions already existed at that time. Nevertheless, Vincent developed this idea so that it became a valid means that helped people begin a new life … at the same time these missions promoted reconciliation among families and peoples in various towns and villages and provided a means for effectively assisting those in need (the Confraternities of Charity). In other words, with his charismatic authority Vincent was able to transform different ministries so that they responded to the needs of the people who were most forgotten and abandoned.

Clearly Vincent did not do everything. We can say, however, that Vincent was a guide for others or, what would be the same thing, Vincent did not exercise his authority in isolation but looked for the means of collaboration … we see this in his relationship with Saint Louise and with Monsieur Portail and with Madame de Gondi. Vincent valued and sought the collaboration of people from every level of society: men and women, rich and poor, people from the city and from the rural area. Vincent trusted other people and valued their contribution and expected more from them then they themselves believe they were able to give. Thus we see Vincent as a true leader: one who was able to inspire, to motivate others to contribute to the cause of their brothers and sisters, and in this case, to contribute to the cause of the poor.

I want to insist on this last dimension because now more than ever before superiors need to be somewhat charismatic, that is, persons or leaders who are able to inspire, able to be creative, and able to motivate others to utilize their gifts for the poor and for the process of evangelization. Today that which will influence others is not the power that one has but rather one’s moral authority. Power is related to one’s position or office while authority is related to one’s credibility. In other words, credibility is the basis for the moral authority of a superior or visitor. Credibility does not give one license but does give coherency to one’s words and actions. A leader has to be a witness who is able to convince others with words, but above all else, must be able to convince others with the way that he/she lives his/her life.


With regard to Vincent’s doctrine on the matter of authority we will not find something that is original. He followed the theological tradition of his time: authority comes from God and is a prolongation of Jesus’ authority; it is a service; it is a form of mediation and an indispensable dynamic for the life and the mission and the good order of community; the primary mission of authority is to guide souls to perfection, etc. These ideas were well-know during the seventeenth century and are well-know today. But what were Vincent’s convictions concerning authority, convictions that are in harmony with our own thinking in this regard? I have gathered together Vincent’s reflections and will attempt to express his thinking in seven points.

Authority ought to be firm with regard to ends and flexible with regard to means

This guideline is valid for everyone and should enlighten all those who have the responsibility of governance in the Congregation. Vincent counseled Monsieur Jean Guerin: A superior must be firm as to the end and humble and gentle with regard to the means, steadfast in the observance of the Rules and holy customs of the Company but gentle in the means of seeing that they are observed (CCD:II:336). On another occasion Vincent explained this guideline because by being firm with regard to the end and gentle with regard to the means one comes to possess the soul of good leadership (CCD:II:403). Both the end and the means ought to be enlightened by the gospel, by the evangelical maxims (an expression used by Vincent). In the Common Rules there is a whole chapter that calls for the following of the evangelical maxims and for fleeing from those of the world (cf., Common Rules, chapter II). The norms that should guide the behavior of the Missionaries should also be the guidelines for superiors. To say this in another way: Saint Vincent frequently invoked Jesus’ words and actions as a motive and a source of inspiration for making good choices in governance.

Authority ought to know how to motivate

Perhaps one of the most interesting and most delicate aspects of the service of authority is direct contact with people. Saint Vincent was not a superior who ordered people around, even though he was very firm. Vincent was more concerned about motivating and explaining what he was asking people to do and therefore, as suggested in #21 of the instruction, Authority and Obedience, Vincent facilitated obedience. We refer here to the letter that Vincent wrote to Monsieur Du Coudray. This confrere had refused to leave Rome where he had been working on the translation of the Syriac Bible into Latin. Vincent presented many different reasons to make it easier for this confrere to accept a new appointment … he even asked Monsieur DuCoudray to imagine himself being called by the poor to evangelize them. He presented other reasons and told him that the community needed his advice and example. Vincent did not order his return in some authoritative manner, but wanted to motivate him to make his own decision and so he concluded the letter by saying: Come then, Monsieur, and please do not put it off any longer (CCD:I:245).

Authority ought to respect the person

Despite the irony that we find in some of his writing, nevertheless in the exercise of authority Vincent was always respectful toward others, especially toward the Daughters and the Missionaries. He had no tolerance for those superiors who were disrespectful toward the confreres. On one occasion a superior had the bad taste to write Vincent and say that he preferred to direct and guide animals rather than guide the confreres. Vincent responded with irony: I know that you have only used these terms to express your difficulty better and to persuade me to relieve you of your office. We shall try, therefore, to send someone to replace you (CCD:IV:182). Soon thereafter Vincent wrote another letter and announced the appointment of a new superior who would replace him in his function of directing the community. Vincent concluded his letter by reminding the superior who had been replaced of his obligation of being the example of submission and trust that each man owes to his superior (CCD:IV:208).

The art of the possible

Ideals are absolutely necessary but authority must also take into consideration the limitations and the weaknesses of people. In other words, authority, as it points toward the ideal, toward that which is better, must also be realistic and know how to engage in the art of the possible. Vincent should not be viewed as some intransigent perfectionist. He sought that which was good, that which was best, but he did so within the framework of that which was possible. Many Missionaries and Daughters of Charity were afflicted with certain human and spiritual defects, yet Vincent never rejected or marginalized such individuals. Vincent wrote to a superior who complained about the faults that he observed in the members of his community and he stated: You should never expect to see your house without some failings; provided, however, that there are no grounds for complaint or nothing scandalous occurs, make up your mind to bear with others and, at the same time, do whatever you can to lessen them, both in quality and quantity (CCD:VIII:400).

For many years Monsieur Portail had to live with a very difficult confrere, Monsieur Lucas. Vincent counseled Monsieur Portail in this matter: Because you are the older, the second in the Company, and the Superior, bear with everything, I say, everything, so that, laying aside your superiority, you may adapt yourself to him in charity. That is the way Our Lord won over and directed the Apostles (CCD:I:110).

Authority ought to take sufficient time

In many matters Vincent’s slowness was providential. On various occasion Vincent was accused to being too slow in making decisions but Vincent justified himself by referring to the positive results of such an attitude. It is quite true that Vincent was very far from being a precipitous person, far from trying to anticipate providence, far from deciding and responding immediately. Giving due time to matters is very important because this enables one to understand these matters in a more profound manner (even though others might feel that this is a very slow process). That is how Vincent acted … Monsieur Codoing, one of the Missionaries who was upset with Vincent was told: God’s affairs are accomplished gradually and almost imperceptibly and his spirit ids neither violent nor tempestuous (CCD:II:257).

Information and communication

Even though Vincent lived at a time that was quite distinct from ours, nevertheless he always gave great importance to information and communication. All the information that was sent to him, in turn was communicated to others. In his letters we see how he informed the local communities about events that affected them either directly or indirectly. He was convinced that communication created a sense of belonging. He wrote circular letters in which he not only spoke about the death of the members of the community but also referred to the successes and the failures that were experienced in the various community houses. He saw the Missionaries and the Daughters as two great communities and each local community as one small family. He wanted each member to be interested in the affairs of all the other members.

He felt that it was good that the Sisters gathered together frequently in order to discuss what was happening with them. Vincent valued those meetings: O mon Dieu! That is a real need: close communication with one another; sharing everything. Nothing is more necessary. It unites hearts and God blesses the advice received, with the result that things go better (CCD:XIIIb:281). Vincent was very much in accord with communication within the community: For my part, I find that, in places where we have poor beggars of the Mission, if the Superior is open and shares matters with the confreres, all goes well (CCD:XIIIb:281). In this same sense Vincent complained about a superior who lived in isolation and did not communicate with the rest of the community, and even worse, who showed no affection for the confreres. Vincent called attention to this confrere and exhorted him to renew his practice of charity and to grow in humility. There is nothing strange in the fact that Vincent frequently reminded the Superiors to be humble, calling attention to the fact that humility is one of the characteristic virtues of the Congregation (cf., M. Pérez Flores, op.cit., p. 35-43).

Gospel teaching

A community of Christians, such as the Congregation, cannot be governed without being aware of the teaching of the gospel. Vincent’s governance is very clear about this matter. The teaching of the gospel is normative for the life of each Missionary. In the Common Rules Vincent invited all the Missionaries to follow the teachings of the gospel and to flee from the teachings of the world.

What is normative for the behavior of each Missionary should also be normative for those who exercise the service of authority. This is very clearly pointed out in our Constitutions: the teachings of the gospel are norms of conduct for each Missionary and also the norms for superiors and visitors. Vincent frequently invoked Jesus’ words and actions as a motivation and a source of inspiration for good governance. Abelly has given us the following testimony: The life of our divine Savior and the lessons of the Gospel were the sole rule of his life and actions. They were his book of morals and his book of politics, and they guided him in all the matters that passed through his hands (Abelly I:103).

As we have been able to see, even though Vincent lived in an era in which ecclesial and civil authority were viewed as indisputable and sacred, nevertheless his experiences and convictions with regard to authority are valid and illuminating during the present time. Today authority has to confront problems and situations which were hardly experienced in the time of our Founder, for example, individualism understood as the total autonomy of the person or as some partial bond with the company or the province and the community. Individualism prevents one from being able to establish some harmony between personal plans and the community plan. The document, Authority and Obedience, points this out in article three. This same number affirms the fact that cultural influence is a factor that has promoted this mentality. The search for personal fulfillment and personal well-being at the cost of everything else are manifestations of the same reality. Furthermore, individualism today may go by other names such as, particular charisms, cultural differences, personal preferences and this only leads to greater confusion. Authority must discern the limits between legitimate diversity and individualism which destroys community life, weakens the sense of belonging and makes it difficult to participate in a common mission and shared ministry. Therefore, authority must insist upon and continually remind the members about the common mission … just as Vincent did during his time.


In the Congregation, persons in authority ought to be persons who are profoundly spiritual. The document, Authority and Obedience states in article thirteen: In consecrated life authority is first of all a spiritual authority. The gospel plan that is outlined in the Constitutions has to be directed and animated by spiritual persons. Vincent said the same thing in the different rules that were drawn up for local superiors. If superiors are experts in one or more ministries, if they are intelligent and have good communication skill … well, that is all very good. Yet none of those qualities can replace the spiritual aspect which is fundamental. Indeed, without the spiritual dimension communities and provinces and the Congregation can easily become a work team or some advocacy or lobbying group. Clearly a spiritual person who is going to direct other spiritual persons ought to cultivate a habit of prayer and maintain direct and frequent contact with the Lord. Jesus often went apart from the multitudes with his disciples in order to pray and at other times withdrew in order to pray alone. Jesus also prayed for those who had been entrusted to him: I pray for the ones you have given me (John 17:9). We find the following advise that Vincent gave to Monsieur Durand: You must have recourse to God through meditation in order to preserve your soul in his fear and love (CCD:XI:312). In the same letter Vincent went on to say that prayer is a means not only for the difficulties that will cause you suffering, but also so you can learn directly from God what you will have to teach, in imitation of Moses, who proclaim to the people of Israel only what God had inspired him to say (CCD:XI:312).

Another quality that is required for persons in authority is an ability to discern.  Our Constitutions, the last General Assembly and in a more general way, the times in which we live demand that we be creative in our ministry, in our community life, in our personal relationships and even in our prayer.  This does not mean that we move forward in any way that we want but rather that creativity ought to flow from our proper identity and from the Vincentian charism.  Unless this happens we can find ourselves in a situation in which our initiatives are very up-to-date but lack the spirit that is proper to the Congregation.  From this perspective then we can easily understand that superiors have to be gifted with the ability to discern or at least filled and animated by the Vincentian spirit.  Today more than ever an attitude of reflection is needed because the situations that the local community, the province and the congregation have to confront are more complex now than they were in the past.

In order to engage in any form of discernment one must listen to the Missionaries and must also know how to dialogue with the laity who minister with the members of the Congregation. For those in authority this sharing should help them discover what God wants from the community. The Second Vatican Council invites superiors to listen to their subjects willingly and to promote cooperation between them (Perfectae Caritatis, #14)… they should not extinguish the Spirit but test all things and hold fast to what is good (Lumen Gentium #12). Without this sharing there is no true guarantee of correctly interpreting the will of God and indeed it is easy to confuse God’s will with one’s own will. The well-know philosopher, Seneca liked to say: Whoever decides something without consulting the person who will be affected is mistaken, even if he is correct in his decision. We find this same sentiment expressed in the letter that Vincent wrote to Monsieur Guerin: in important matters seek the advice of the two men whom you will take for your council (CCD:II:402). In various places the Constitutions refer to the fact that the opinion of each confrere and of each local community is important and worthy of respect. If we listen to those voices, then we will be able to be in touch with the grass-roots movements in the Congregation and the Provinces, and interpret them as signs along the way.

We know that Vincent asked the superiors to practice humility. There is nothing strange about this request since humility is a characteristic virtue of the Missionary … of all the Missionaries. But let us look at what he was asking of those who were entrusted with the service of authority in the Congregation. In general, Vincent believed that humility was the best antidote against the evils that can result from the exercise of power. Vincent dedicated a whole conference to this theme and warned against the possible dangers and temptations that come with the exercise of authority. Vincent gave this conference when he sixty-three years old. The harsh realism of some of his phrases and words leads us to believe that he was thinking of some very specific individuals whom he knew.

Vincent exhorted superiors to practice humility and here I want to pause to highlight this aspect which has much relevance today. From Vincent’s perspective, the superior should not exercise his authority in order to be respected. He expressed this clearly in a letter that he wrote to Monsieur Durant: I am not of the opinion of the person who said to me a few days ago that, to govern well and maintain your authority, you must make it clear that you are the superior. O mon Dieu! Our Lord Jesus Christ did not talk like that; he taught us just the opposite by work and example, telling us that he himself had come, not to be served, but to serve others, and that whoever wanted to be the master must be the servant of all (CCD:XI:313; cf., Matthew 20:28).

According to Vincent, another quality that ought to accompany the superior is an ability to obey God’s intermediaries as he fulfills his office: major superiors, the common rules, the constitutions, the laws of the Church, the desires of the local bishop, etc. When referring to this obedience to intermediaries, Vincent exhorted the superior to walk along the wide path, along the royal path, the secure path and not, therefore, to take unnecessary risks: Do not introduce anything new, but reflect on the advice drawn up from those responsible for the houses of the Company (CCD:XI:315).

Vincent gave great value to institutions, convinced that if they were used well invaluable goals could be attained. At the same time the obedience of the superior is the best motive to demand obedience. The dimension of authority that we have referred to as moral authority is most convincing, in fact is more convincing than any professional qualities. The Church and the whole ecclesial community, when they want to recover the value of norms and traditions, demand that superiors set an example.

Obedient superiors demand obedience. This is affirmed in the document, Authority and Obedience. In a letter addressed to Jean Guerin, Vincent placed before him the example of Our Lord: a sharing in the gentleness and humility of the heart of Our Lord represents a lifelike image of Our Lord and of his good leadership, especially when firmness is present. Without it I see the majority of Communities that are lax reach that state because of the excessive leniency of Superiors. So, be firm, Monsieur. I admit that, at the time, you may upset people, but they will have more confidence in you afterwards; otherwise, in a short time they would despise you (CCD:II:403).

An important aspect of authority is its closeness and its relationship with the person or, in other words, possessing the heart of the Good Shepherd (cf. John 10:1-21). This heart is attained as one empties oneself in order to be possessed by Jesus who acts and reveals himself in him. Vincent stated: Neither philosophy, nor theology, nor discourses can act in souls, Jesus Christ must be involved in this with us --- or we with him --- so that we may act in him and he in us (CCD:XI:311).

We can say that the most important charge that the Lord entrusts to a Visitor or a superior is the confreres, the Missionaries. We have seen this exemplified in the life of Jesus and the life of Saint Vincent de Paul. This function of authority is more important than any house concerns or concerns with regard to documents or rules or plans … Authority which does not express the feelings of a parent or the attitudes of the Good Shepherd, such authority can create wounds in one’s brothers and sisters. We can say the same thing if individuals do not feel valued as a result of the ministry that they exercise. In the May 22nd, 2006 audience with the Superiors General, Pope Benedict XVI stated: I ask that you, Major Superiors, transmit a word of special kindness to those who are in difficulty, the elderly and sick, to those who are living moments of crisis and solitude, to those who suffer and feel lost (Benedict XVI, audience with the men and women Superiors General of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, May 22, 2006). Perhaps we would add to the list that the Pope mentioned those individuals who have labored for years in distinct ministries and who today are overwhelmed with fatigue and weariness.

Finally, another characteristic that Vincent saw as indispensable for superiors is expressed in the following words: since those whom a superior has to guide are composed of body and soul, he has to provide for the needs of both, after the example of God, who, being occupied from all eternity with begetting his Son, both the Father and the Son produced the Holy Spirit … the same concern of his adorable Providence is extended … so that no leaf falls from a tree without his order …A Superior, who represents in a certain sense the extent of the power of God, must also apply himself to taking care of the slightest temporal matters, not thinking that this care may be something unworthy of him. So give yourself to God to procure the temporal good of the house to which you are going (CCD:XI:315-316).

The task of administering temporal goods took up much of Vincent’s time … he was convinced that without those material goods he would be able to do very little on behalf of the poor. If the Missionaries did not have what they needed, they would find it difficult to endure the fatigue that results from the ministry and service on behalf of the poor. Vincent was concerned that every work should have a financial foundation that would allow it to function. Therefore, this is also a dimension that authority must be concerned about.


The apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, states: In consecrated life the role of superiors, including local superiors, has always been of great importance for the spiritual and for mission (Vita Consecrata, #43). There is no lack of explanations for every human group’s need for authority, even though the form of authority might vary from one society to another. We could say that this fact is an anthropological reality of nature that is inscribed in every culture. Christian revelation does not ignore this fact but rather confirms it. With a very suggestive image, Vincent stated the same thing: Superiors are like the pilots who have to steer the ship (CCD:IX:212). Today authority might find itself in a position of greater importance and greater difficulty than in previous eras when there were strong structures that sustained and helped authority to carry out its mission. Today the situation has changed. Structures have lost their credibility and have been weakened to the point that now they need strong individuals who are able to sustain and animate the structures. To say this in another way: previously superiors were accepted and respected by everyone (at least externally). Today this is not so obvious. In addition to institutional authority we need moral authority and perhaps this is more meaningful than ever before. This moral authority, which is not given by reason of one’s office, is attained through dedication to the mission, through disinterested and generous giving of self and through the integrity of one’s life.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM