Besides Madame De Gondi and Jane Frances de Chantal, one must immediately add, of course, Louise de Marillac. There were many others. A large number of Vincent’s letters are, basically, spiritual direction for his priests, brothers, sisters, and friends.
Vincent’s work for the reform of the clergy included retreats for ordinands, the Tuesday Conferences, retreats for priests, and seminaries. His influence on diocesan priests and on future bishops in France was enormous. He founded 20 seminaries. He took part in the Council of Conscience for a decade, advising the king on the selection of bishops. Many of the great spiritual leaders of the time took part in the Tuesday Conferences which he organized. Abelly states that more than 12,000 ordinands made their retreats at St. Lazare during Vincent’s lifetime. Numerous others made post-ordination retreats there and in other houses of the Congregation.
From 1633 on, Vincent also gave frequent conferences to the Daughters as part of their formation. Many of these were transcribed in one way or another. They form one of the principal fonts for understanding the life, mission, and spirituality of the community. The principal elements in the Common Rules of the Daughters also come from Vincent’s pen, though they were finally edited, approved, and published by his successor, René Alméras, in 1672. Vincent often talked to the Daughters of Charity about the need to teach the catechism. He encouraged them to open schools for poor girls. Numerous such “little schools” were opened in France during his and Louise’s lifetimes, as well as one in Poland.
Vincent also gave regular conferences to the members of the Congregation of the Mission. These were one of the principal means for the ongoing formation of the community from its foundation in 1625 until Vincent’s death in 1660. They have become, along with the Common Rules he composed, one of the principal sources for the heritage of the Congregation through the centuries.
Shortly before his death, Francis de Sales asked Vincent to take over the direction of the Visitation nuns. From 1622 on, he gave regular conferences at their monastery and was one of the principal counselors of Jane Frances de Chantal. Unfortunately, we have no copies of Vincent’s talks to the Visitation nuns.
As the founder of the Confraternities of Charity, St. Vincent wanted its members to be well-formed in the spirituality that was proper to their state in life. He recommended that they read the work of Saint Francis de Sales (whom Vincent knew personally), Introduction to the Devout Life, which is perhaps the most successful spiritual work in the history of the Church. The following year, 1618, Vincent and Francis were both in Paris and they established a relationship of friendship which had a profound influence on Vincent’s spiritual and psychological development. Francis’ writing provided the women in the Confraternities with a solid spiritual vision of their life as Christians.
Later in 1617, Pierre de Bérulle asked Vincent to accept the parish in Châtillon because the negligence and scandalous lives of the local clergy were paving the way for conversions to Protestantism. Seeing the poverty of the local people, Vincent formed the first group of Ladies of Charity. Many other groups followed. Throughout his life Vincent accompanied these groups as their principal formator, writing rules for them and addressing them individually or communally on numerous occasions.
The popular missions preached by Vincent and his newly founded community were a formative experience. Catechesis, or basic Christian instruction, played a very significant role in the course of all the popular missions. In fact, late in his life, Vincent wrote to a Priest of the Mission: “I have been deeply saddened by the fact that, instead of giving the regular catechism instruction in the evening, you have given sermons during your mission. This should not be done: (1) because the person who preaches in the morning might have difficulty with that second sermon; (2) because the people have greater need of this catechetical instruction and derive greater profit from it; (3) because, in giving this catechetical instruction, it seems there is, in a certain sense, greater reason to honor the manner Our Lord Jesus Christ used to teach and to convert the world; (4) because it is our custom, and Our Lord has been pleased to bestow immense blessings on this exercise, which offers a greater means to practice humility.” Vincent insisted that there be two catechetical sessions each day during the missions, one around midday (“le petit catéchisme”) and another in the evening (“le grand catéchisme”).
Around 1613 the De Gondis hired Vincent as the tutor for their son Pierre. Vincent had full responsibility for his intellectual, moral, and religious formation. He was also in charge of the household staff and gave them religious instruction. In addition, he taught catechism and evangelized the peasant farmers on the De Gondi estates. At the same time, he became spiritual director of Madame De Gondi. In a sermon, given probably in this period, he spoke of the “infinite usefulness” of the catechism in forming others.
During his 16 months as pastor at Clichy, in 1612-13, Vincent became very aware of the need to offer more adequate training to candidates for the priesthood. He opened a school where he began to form a dozen youngsters who wanted to become priests. Among these was his future faithful companion, Antoine Portail. At this early date, Vincent’s interest in the formation of the clergy is already evident.
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