Vincent de Paul and Peace

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 291-302. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].

Presentation of the theme

Beside some brief and short-lived periods of peace, the century in which Vincent lived was a century of war: people suffered the consequences of the wars of religion and the upheavals of the civil wars which were often complicated by foreign wars and continual threats from the Muslim world.

Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, the dove of peace, frightened by the tumult of the weapons of war, disappeared from the skies of the French Kingdom. The Huguenot Party had tried to impose its law on France through the utilization of gold and the intervention of foreign mercenaries: German, English and Dutch soldiers. As a result of continued attacks whole regions of France had been devastated. During the last invasion (1590), the King of Navarre laid siege to the city of Paris. The people, who did not want some cruel dictatorship, were ultimately victorious in defending their city but also paid the price with incredible suffering and 60,000 deaths (out of a population of 300,000 inhabitants). With the Edict of Nantes various means of pacification were established. This resulted, however, in the creation of a state within a state that had its own laws, defense force, fortifications etc. (all of which became the seed for future conflicts).

Thirty years later, thanks to English gold, the Reformers took up arms once again and did not accept the reality of living like other ordinary citizens. During this period Rochelle was captured (1626), Richelieu entered the city of Montauban (1629) and the Peace of Ales (1629) was signed.

From the hill of Landes, the place of Vincent’s childhood, the young Vincent was able to see in the distance the reddish glare of the last fires of the civil war. In the Kingdom of Navarre and the lands of Albert the intolerance of the Huguenots became a nightmare. Not far from Pouy the image of Our Lady of Buglose had been hidden in a marsh to protect it from desecration by the Huguenots (1579). Fifty years later, in 1620, it was found and venerated with great honor.

After some years of peace during the reign of King Henry, the nobles and the members of the elite class began a dispute (with weapons in their hands) for power and influence … the king had disappeared tragically. A civil war was begun, at times loud and noisy, then silenced by bedroom conspiracies, and then once again the reverberating sounds of the weapons of war were heard throughout the land. This war was begun during the time of Marie de Medici and continued until Louis XIV was of age to rule. During this same period a foreign war was being waged as a result of the policies of Cardinal Richelieu … a war that seemed to alternate between success and defeat. These successes and failures, however, were paid for by the poor who were burdened with higher taxes and who very often experienced ruin and misery as a result of the on-going war. The people viewed the armies as an affliction … the soldiers lived off the toil of the people and destroyed whatever they could not carry off. Today people in Lorraine still speak about the destruction that was done by the armies from Switzerland and Croatia. The destruction began in 1635 in Lorraine and then spread like a cancer to Champigny, Picardy, Artois and the Isle of France. The population was decimated by the killing and starvation. Whole towns and villages disappeared. We have in our possession letters written to Vincent by officials in Lunéville, Port-à-Mousson, Rethel and other places … these letters describe the state of extreme misery which the inhabitants had to confront on a daily basis.

Vincent, who had dedicated his life to the service of the poor, became concerned about providing for those persons who had been ruined by the war. He was not satisfied with collaborating in other initiatives that had been begun but rather organized the collection of money and supplies and then delivered and distributed these goods to the people who had been devastated by the war. We have at our disposal accounts from the confreres who spoke about burying the dead, distributing food to the hungry and seeds and other tools to farmers. In Paris Vincent provided for the refugees, especially women religious, young women and girls … all of whom were arriving in Paris from the countryside.

Vincent was not afraid to confront Cardinal Richelieu and plead for peace. Later during the winter of 1649 he risked his own life when he sought peace from Queen Anne of Austria and once against took the same risk in 1652 when he spoke with Cardinal Mazarin and reminded him about the lessons that could be learned from French history. Fearing no one and nothing Vincent revealed himself as a tireless artesian of peace.

His desire for peace, however, did not lead him into a position of blind pacifism and this is reflected in his stance with regard is Islam.

Buda and Hungry had fallen in 1591 into the hands of Islamic forces. The siege of Malta (1571) and the victory at Lepanto marked a temporary halt to the advance of Islam. Nevertheless, the soldiers of the Prophet once again united. The final remnants of the Venetian Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean had fallen and the armies of Islam were advancing toward central Europe. Where would this advance be halted? The answer was given at the siege of Vienna. There at the Battle of Kahlenberg a coalition under the command of Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, was victorious.

Theoretically Northern Africa was under the control of the Ottoman Empire but the government officials in Tunisia, Algiers, Rabat and other cities gave cover to an organization of pirates who extorted trade in the Western Mediterranean and periodically attacked the coastal areas in order to rob those cities and carry off captives who were then sold as slaves in the markets of Magreb and other places. We can still see numerous watchtowers along the coast of Spain, France and Italy where people kept watch over the waters and warned people about the approach of pirates.

Vincent provided material and spiritual relief to those salves and was able to rescue many of them by placing Missionaries in the position of French consul in Tunisia and Algiers. These confreres risked their life and their own freedom as they ministered to the captives.

Vincent had hoped that France and Spain would carry out the plans of Charles V and Philip II, plans that involved the military occupation of Northern African in order to put a halt to the banditry … but one or the other of these rulers would turn their attention to other matters. Vincent, however, was not satisfied with pious desires. He encouraged one of the best seamen of that era to organize an expedition and during the final years of his life gave careful attention to this matter. Vincent also attempted to collect funds in order to make this military operation a reality. In doing so he hoped to put an end to the insecurity that was created by the pirates and at the same time Vincent also wanted to heal an open wound in the side of Christianity.

The prophet Elias saw that he was no better than his ancestors and so we must also admit that our century is no better than the seventeenth century … in fact we have surpassed the horrors that were created by the Thirty Years War and the Fronde. The present material destruction and the suppression of people can very easily be compared to the devastation caused by the armies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Our present era could act more methodically and more scientifically except that people are afraid to label the “infamous” undertakings of war as “scientific”. The slaughter of people in Ethiopia and Cambodia, the genocide in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War, the repression in Latin America and countless other conflicts are further evidence of the horrors of war. Our own country (France) proclaims a desire for peace and yet is the second largest supplier of armaments.

There are Christians and disciples of Saint Vincent on both sides of every barrier, wall or “curtain”. Like Vincent they participate in countless endeavors to alleviate the suffering that results from war. These individuals seek to discover the root causes of war and yet do not embrace a blind pacifism. They support other organizations that promote, on both a social and political level, peace and justice in the world.

The disciples of Saint Vincent always defend the poor and are also concerned about establishing peace because they realize that the poor are often the first victims in all of these various conflicts.


Vincent de Paul and peace

At the time of the upheaval that occurred as a result of continual war, Vincent revealed himself as an “artisan of peace”, an effective and noteworthy arbitrator. Certainly his thinking and his activity were influenced by the events of that era … who would be surprised by that? Yet we might be surprised by the fact that he supported a military expedition to combat slavery in Algiers (CCD:VII:95-97). At the same time, however, Vincent’s thinking and activity are not less significant and provocative for the present era … his thinking was nourished by experience and at the same time his activity was courageously directed toward specific causes. His activity was also intended to bring relief to those individuals who suffered the injustices and the devastations that were caused by the war.

Thinking nourished by experience

It is a small thing to hear or read these things; they must be seen and ascertained with one’s own eyes (CCD:IV:446). Vincent wrote those words in a letter that was addressed to Pope Innocent X. Vincent was neither an ideologue nor a theoretician but felt that experience should ground his actions and should also provide a foundation for organizing his activity. When speaking about war and peace he placed great value on the numerous eye-witness testimonies of those persons who informed him about the devastation and the ruin that occurred in the war torn areas.

“…All we hear are pitiful laments…”

Seeing a large crowd of sick people everywhere moves us to great compassion. Many --- in fact a very large number --- are suffering from dysentery and fever. Others are covered with scabies, purpura, growths, and running sores. Many are bloated, some in the head, others in the abdomen, others all over their body. These diseases are due to the fact that, for almost the entire year, they have eaten nothing but grass and spoiled fruit; some ate bran bread so bad that even the dogs would hardly eat it. All we hear are pitiful laments. They cry out to us for bread and, sick as they are, drag themselves two or three leagues through the rain and over bad roads to get a little soup. Many die in the villages without confession and the last sacraments, and no one will even bury them after their death. This is so true that only three days ago, when we went to visit the sick in the village of Lesquielle, near Landrecies, we found in one house a person who had died for lack of assistance, and his body was half devoured by animals who had entered the house. Is it not a terrible sorrow to see Christians, abandoned there in this way during life and after death? (CCD:IV:104).

“…the misfortune of the war has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere…”

In several ruined towns the leading citizens are in dire need. The pallor of their faces gives ample testimony to this need, and they must be assisted in secret. The same applies to the impoverished nobility in rural areas who, having no bread and reduced to ruin, suffer in addition the shame of not daring to beg for what they need for survival. Furthermore, whom could they ask, since the misfortune of the war has distributed equal portions of misery everywhere? What is more conducive to tears is that the poor people of these border areas not only lack bread, wood, linen, and blankets, but they have no pastors or spiritual assistance because most of the priests have died or are ill, and the churches are in ruins and pillaged. In the diocese of Laon alone there about a hundred of them, where Holy Mass cannot be celebrated for want of vestments. We do whatever we can, but this work is endless. In order to assist the more than thirteen hundred sick persons we have on our hands here in this canton, we have to come and go continually, exposed to the danger of roving bands (CCD:IV:112).

“…No tongue can express…”

No tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits: almost all the churches desecrated sparing not even what is most holy and most adorable; vestments pillaged; priests either killed, tortured, or put to flight; every house demolished; the harvest carried off; the soil untilled and unsown; starvation and death almost everywhere; corpses left unburied and, for the most part, exposed to serve as spoils for the wolves. The poor who have survived this destruction are reduced to gleaning a few half-rotten grains of sprouted wheat or barley in the fields. They make bread from this, which is like mud and so unwholesome that almost all of them become sick from it. They retreat into holes or huts, where they sleep on the bare ground without any bed linen or clothing, other than a few vile rags with which they cover themselves; their faces are black and disfigured. With all that, their patience is admirable. There are cantons completely deserted, from which the inhabitants who have escaped death have gone far and wide in search of some way to keep alive. The result is that the only ones left are the sick, orphans, and poor widows burdened with children. They are exposed to the rigors of starvation, cold, and every type of misery and deprivation (CCD:IV:151-152).

“…the famine here is so bad…”

The famine here is so bad that we see men eating dirt, chewing on grass, stripping the bark off the trees, and tearing up and swallowing the miserable rags that cover them. But what is horrifying --- and what we would not dare to mention if we had not seen it --- is that they are devouring their own arms and hands and are dying in this state of despair (CCD:IV:301).

“…After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die…”

After listening to and reading these eye-witness accounts, we can better understand Vincent’s words that were spoken during the repetition of prayer (July 24, 1655): I renew the recommendations I made, and which can’t be made too often, of praying for peace, that Christ may be pleased to unite once again the hearts of the Christian Princes. There is war in all the Catholic kingdoms: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland --- being attacked on three fronts --- and Ireland, even in the poor, nearly uninhabitable mountains and rocky areas. Scotland isn’t much better off, and we know the deplorable state of England. There’s war everywhere, misery everywhere. In France, so many people are suffering! O Sauveur! O Sauveur! If, for the four months we’ve had war here, we’ve had so much misery in the heart of France, where food supplies are ample everywhere, what can those poor people in the border areas do, who have been in this sort of misery for twenty years? Yes, it’s been a good twenty years that there’s always been war there; if they sow their crops, they’re not sure they can gather them in; the armies arrive and pillage and carry everything off; and what the soldier hasn’t taken, the sergeants take and carry off. After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die. If there’s a true religion . . . what did I say, wretched man that I am. . .! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD:XI:189-190).

Action directed toward the very causes of war

Many times charitable activity is criticized because it only seems to be directed toward the effects of injustice and misery and, therefore, does not really make a contribution to the cause of those who are poor. As we will see, Vincent organized in an effective and on-going manner “national relief” and yet at the same time he was not afraid to confront in a direct manner the causes of those situations and also not afraid to commit himself to the cause of the poor.

“…the intention of rendering some small service...”

On January 22, 1649 Vincent wrote to M. Portail: I did not write you last week; I think you know the reason why. I left Paris on the fourteenth of this month to go to Saint-Germain with the intention of rendering some small service to God, but my sins rendered me unworthy of this. After a stay of three or four days, I came to this place, which I shall be leaving the day after tomorrow to go visit our houses. It is God's will that I be of no use now for anything else. I shall go straight to Le Mans and then on to Brittany (CCD:III:393).

Those words, seemingly insignificant in appearance, refer to a very courageous and valiant action for the cause of peace. Fortunately Pierre Coste provides us with further details about this “small service” which Vincent spoke about: After the Court had left the city for the second time, moved by the unhappy spectacle before his eyes and the thought of what was likely to follow, he made up his mind to profit by his influence over the Queen … On January 14, 1649, he left Saint-Lazare before daybreak, accompanied by Brother Ducournau. The inhabitants of Clichy, who had been plundered on the previous evening by German cavalry, had posted guards, armed with pikes and guns, at the chief cross-roads to protect themselves if necessary from brigands. As soon as the noise of the horses’ hooves was heard in the darkness, the guards rushed out with their weapons turned against the travelers. The result might have been serious if one of the guards had not recognized his old parish priest. At Neuilly, the Saint and his companion had to face another danger; the Seine had risen in flood and now covered a portion of the bridge. They plunged gallantly into the stream, reached the opposite bank safely, and arrived between nine and ten o’clock at Saint-Germain … He begged the Queen to dismiss Mazarin. From Anne of Austria’s apartment he proceeded to those of the Cardinal Minister, to whom he made much the same suggestion, only putting them in a more moderate form (Pierre Coste, The Life and Works of Saint Vincent de Paul, translated by Joseph Leonard, The Newman Press:Westminister, Maryland, 1952, Volume II, p.447-448).

“…There is no other remedy for all these evils…”

Here we present some excerpts from Vincent’s letter to Pope Innocent X: Confident of your paternal affection, with which you graciously hear and receive all your children, even the least, dare I also make known to you the very pitiful state of our France, which is most deserving of compassion? The royal house is divided by dissensions; the people are split into various factions; cities and provinces are ruined by civil wars; farms, cantons, and towns are destroyed, ruined, and burned. The farmers cannot harvest what they have sown and no longer plant anything for the coming years. Soldiers do as they please; the people are exposed not only to their thefts and pillaging, but also to murder and all kinds of torture. Most of the country people are perishing of starvation if not by the sword. Not even priests escape the soldiers' hands; they are treated with inhuman cruelty, tortured, and killed. Young women are raped, and even nuns are victims of their lust and fury. Churches are profaned, plundered, and destroyed; those left standing are, for the most part, abandoned by their pastors, so the people are deprived of the sacraments, Mass, and almost all other spiritual assistance ... But, Most Holy Father, there are twelve hours in the day, and what has not succeeded one time may have better results if tried again. What more can I say? The hand of the Lord is not shortened, and I firmly believe that God has reserved to the care and solicitude of the shepherd of his universal Church the glory of obtaining for us in the end rest from our labors, happiness after so many misfortunes, and peace after war (CCD:IV:445-446).

Action intended to relieve the effects of ward

One of the most significant examples of Vincent’s charity is the organization of relief services that were extended to the victims of the war. We see in that activity the outstanding characteristics of his genius and his holiness. Vincent knew how to make people aware of and sensitive to these events … he also knew how to appeal to people’s generosity. He selected effective and proven collaborators (the Missionaries Mathieu Regnard and Jean Parre) for the task of delivering and distributing the supplies and money that had been collected. He was very concerned about accounting for these various donations intended for the relief of the victims of war and therefore established strict controls.

Creating awareness and sensitivity

Vincent was uniquely eloquent and persuasive in soliciting assistance and appealing to people’s generosity. He told the Ladies of Charity: Ah, Ladies! If all those good works should crumble in your hands, it would be a subject of great sorrow. Oh! What desolation! What a disgrace! ... Doubtless, Ladies, if we examine ourselves closely, we would fear not having done all we could have done for the progress of this work. If you really reflect on its importance, you'll cherish it as the apple of your eye and the instrument of your salvation. Taking an interest in its advancement and perfection, according to God, you'll bring it to the attention of the ladies you know; otherwise, people will apply to you the reproach the Gospel makes to a man who began to erect a building but did not finish it: ...The Brother we assigned to distribute your charitable offerings used to say to me,”'The grain that was sent to the border areas, Monsieur, has given life to a large number of families; they didn't have a single seed to sow; no one was willing to lend them any; the earth was lying fallow, and those areas were becoming deserted because of the deaths and departure of the inhabitants.” We spent up to 22,000 livres on seed in one year, keeping them busy in the summer and feeding them in the winter. See, Ladies, by the good works you've done, what a great misfortune it would be if these should be taken from them! (CCD:XIIIb:432-433)

Together with the Ladies of Charity, Vincent published eye-witness accounts of the events that were occurring in the war torn areas. These accounts were then distributed in the parishes throughout Paris and this provided Vincent with a means to continue to collect funds as well as to give an account of how all the various funds and materials were being utilized.

Sending relief supplies

The one entrusted with delivering these supplies from Paris to the other areas in France was the Missionary, Brother Mathieu Regnard. Because of his incredible ingenuity he was given the name “Renard” (zorro/fox). He made fifty-three trips to Lorraine and was never robbed.

“…Our Lord is protecting our Brother Mathieu…”

Our Lord is protecting our Brother Mathieu in an exceptional way, whereas he is allowing most people in that region to be robbed, right before his very eyes, although he goes there every month with twenty-five hundred livres. Last month he had twelve thousand, the surplus being for the assistance of the men and women religious who are dying of hunger in that district. For two or three months now, God has done us the kindness of bringing together some people of rank in this city to assist the nobility here. His Providence provides us with six thousand livres per month and a little more for this purpose. In the name of God, Monsieur, let us pray and humble ourselves greatly; I entreat you to help a poor Gascon to do so (CCD:II:82).

“…The alms for Lorraine are still coming in…”

The Company is increasing in number and in virtue, by the mercy of God, which everyone recognizes and which was apparent to me during the visitations. I am the only wretch who keeps on heaping new iniquities and abominations on myself. O Monsieur, how merciful God is to put up with me with so much patience and forbearance, and how weak and miserable I am to abuse his mercies so greatly! I entreat you, Monsieur, to offer me frequently to his Divine Majesty. The alms for Lorraine are still coming in, by the mercy of God. Our Brother Mathieu takes 2,500 livres there for the poor every month, and 45,000 livres for the men and women religious. And today we are having the meeting for the assistance of the poor nobles who are refugees. We distributed one thousand or so livres to them last month, and hope that we will distribute as much today (CCD:II:173).

Distribution of material while mindful of the real needs of each person

We have distributed vestments for the churches, and blankets and clothing for our sick. The effect that this has produced on all these border areas is indescribable. People then speak of almost nothing else but of these acts of charity. Our workers take such good care of the sick that, by the grace of God, of five hundred sick persons in the town of Guise alone more than three hundred have been cured. In forty villages in the environs of Laon, such a large number of persons have been restored to perfect health that it would be hard to find there six poor persons unable to earn their own living. We felt it our duty to provide these people with the means of doing so by giving them axes, billhooks, and spinning wheels to put the men and women to work. In this way, they will no longer be dependent on anyone, if some other disaster occurs which could reduce them to the same wretched state. We have also distributed the seeds sent from Paris for this region. They have now been sown, and God is giving great blessings to this. The result is that the poor people bear their trials more patiently, in the hope that the ensuing harvest will bring them great relief. We give several poor pastors two hundred livres a month for their subsistence. By means of this assistance, all the parishes of the deaneries of Guise, Marle, and Vervins are being served. At least in each of these, Holy Mass is celebrated once a week and the Sacraments are administered (CCD:IV:138).

Check employment situation … so as to avoid every form of cheating

I wrote to tell you that you must carry out the distribution according to the orders of M. de Villarceaux and see that the others do the same. I think you have the order he signed and that you will follow it exactly. That, Monsieur, is what I most humbly ask you to do. Also, obtain a receipt from each monastery for what you give them. With regard to the distributions to be made in the other towns where there are individuals from the Company, please instruct them to do the same. They are to follow in their entirety the orders the above-mentioned Sieur de Villarceaux gave you and obtain a receipt for everything they give, because we must keep an account of it so that, whatever the pretext may be, not a speck of it is diverted or applied elsewhere. And please send me by way of Brother Mathieu a copy of the accounts, signed by M. de Villarceaux, and a copy of his orders, if there is one. Also send me every month the amounts you have given out or ordered to be distributed in other places. Never has greater order been seen than what is being required and observed. You have mentioned nothing concerning the number of poor country people who have been given refuge in the town or the faubourg to whom you dispense help. I show that to the good Ladies every month from all the other places. It is only from Toul that I have not shown it to them for a rather long time. It gives them great consolation. Last Saturday we spent two or three hours looking at the other letters and they were extremely gratified by them (CCD:II:74-75).

“…May God give peace to the kingdom, and deliver his people from the evil they are enduring…”

Everyone was deeply moved by the state of suffering of your town and edified by the goodness of those who are willing to contribute fifty livres a week for the relief of the poorest people. Nothing can be added, however, to the two hundred fifty livres sent from here each week. God grant that this can be continued! It is incredible how difficult it is for these Ladies to bear the burden of such a great expense, which amounts to more than fifteen thousand livres monthly for Champagne and Picardy. I most humbly entreat you to believe, gentlemen, that I will do my utmost to give you satisfaction and assistance for your poor in the town as well as in the neighboring villages. The intention of the benefactors is that both be visited and helped by the priest of our Company who is there, as far as what is given to him can be stretched, giving preference to the sick poor and the most abandoned over the less needy. Mon Dieu! gentlemen, how pleased Our Lord is with your concern for the relief of his suffering members! I ask him to be your reward for this, to bless you and your government, to give peace to the kingdom, and to deliver his people from the evil they are enduring (CCD:IV:201-202).

Questions for reflection and dialogue

[A] Violence and insecurity are aspects of our daily reality. Some people fear war; others are living in the midst of war; still others want war to occur. What is our reaction to the reality of war and violence?

[B] Blessed are the peace makers! Peace will become a reality if……

[C] There are individuals and organizations who seek to resolve the causes of conflict. How do I participate in systemic change strategies?


Translate: Charles T. Plock, CM