St. Vincent de Paul (1581 - 1660) is associated with his work with the poor. However, at one point in time, he was asked by the Queen of France to serve her as her spiritual director. Recognizing that this might be the Lord's will, he accepted the position, and for the next ten years the apostle to the poor was the adviser to the wealthiest and most powerful woman in France.
Early Life and Seminary
Vincent was born into a poor farming family in the village of Puoy in the province of Guyenne and Gascony. He was the third child of his parents Jean and Bertrane de Paul. It is believed that the family name was taken from a stream that was adjacent to the farm called Paul.
The young Vincent showed an interest and aptitude in studies as he learned to read and write while he helped the family farm through many tasks including herding the family's swine.
By selling one of the oxen, Vincent's father was able to send his son to the Franciscan seminary where he continued his education at the age of fifteen. Later, he would advance to the University of Toulouse in order to prepare for ordination. The atmosphere at the university was hardly pious. There were numerous student uprisings and factions which created great turmoil and led to the murder of at least one school official.
Vincent continued his studies despite the chaos and supported himself through tutoring. At the tender age of nineteen, Vincent was ordained a priest. When he was appointed to serve at a parish, it was pointed out that the Council of Trent had established a minimum age for ordination of twenty-four years of age. Vincent resigned the position and continued his studies completing his bachelor's degree at Toulouse in 1604. Later, he would earn a Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of Paris.
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Captured and Sold Into Slavery
Although there has been some doubt cast upon Vincent's life from 1605 to 1607, the well-known episode of his being captured and sold into slavery continues to be the one supported by the historical evidence. The story is that Vincent received an inheritance from a wealthy patron from Toulouse. The young man traveled to Cartres to sell the property and was abducted by Barbary pirates in his return voyage to Marseilles.
Vincent was subsequently sold as a slave to three masters in short order. He proved to be a poor fisherman for his first master. The second master, who was an alchemist, died while traveling to Istanbul. And the third master was a former Franciscan priest who had converted to Islam in order to obtain his own freedom from slavery.
Through the witness of the faith by Vincent to one of the wives of the third master, Vincent was able to convince the man to escape Islam and return to Europe where he freed Vincent.
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A Parish Priest, Chaplain, and Serving the Poor
After spending some time studying in Rome, Fr. Vincent returned to France where he began his spiritual development in earnest under Fr. Pierre de Bérulle. During this time, Fr. Vincent worked on his character which was prone to anger. Instead of losing his temper, he allowed the Lord to change his heart to have much more tenderness and understanding toward others.
Fr. Vincent was assigned to various parishes as a pastor, and he also served as the chaplain and tutor to a wealthy Parisian family. Through his encounters with the poor, he truly was transformed. Fr. Vincent had begun his studies for the priesthood years before with an eye to obtaining a secure and comfortable position and life of ease. Now, his heart had been changed to share the Good News through word and deed, especially among the poor.
With the aid of the wealthy Gondi family, he was able to set up foundations to help the poor. Through his efforts and the many who supported the work, they established hospitals to serve the poor, ransom many slaves, and provide food and clothing to countless souls. Fr. Vincent founded the Congregation of the Priests of the Mission to organize priests to serve the poor. And, with St. Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity who were sisters committed to serving the poor.
Instead of living a life of ease, Fr. Vincent lived a life of service. He lived like the poor and was constantly finding ways to help them. Instead of wearing fine clerical garb, he would wear out his cassock until it was threadbare while keeping it clean to show he respected the office of the priesthood even as he lived it in poverty.
In Service to the Queen and Country
Then in 1643, he found himself in a new circumstance. The powerful Cardinal Richelieu who had essentially led France for years had died. Then, King Louis XIII had died. This left the queen, Anne of Austria as the sole regent of the land. Having lived in France since she left her native Spain at the age of fifteen to marry the king, she now felt quite alone. The intrigues and the plots of the court had taken its toll on the forty-two year old monarch. She had heard of the holiness of Fr. Vincent, and she summoned him to ask if he would be her spiritual director.
To replace Richelieu, the queen chose another cardinal, albeit, an Italian layman named Jules Mazarin. He was mostly loyal to the queen but nonetheless more of a ambitious politician than a trustworthy statesman. Mazarin saw Fr. Vincent as an obstacle and would mock the priest as often as he could. For his part, Fr. Vincent faithfully served Queen Anne.
The queen established a Council of Conscience to deal with matters of religion and to which she appointed many of her leading ministers including Mazarin. She also included Fr. Vincent, who used the opportunity to bring about positive changes. Unlike many of the other ministers, Fr. Vincent could not be bought. Because of this, the other ministers who opposed one another would either praise or disgrace the priest to goad one another. It was a cross to bear, for Fr. Vincent to serve in this capacity.
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Making a Difference for the Church in France
Of particular note, Fr. Vincent was able to help raise the overall level of the episcopate in France by insisting that the guidelines of the Council of Trent be followed. Despite opposition from Mazarin, Fr. Vincent was able to see bishops installed who were worthy of the office because of their spiritual life and service to the people rather than their political influence or family background. It is said that because of his work over the course of five years on the council that France had never seen a better group of bishops.
Despite his efforts, he did not always succeed. The queen under guidance from Mazarin once appointed a very unworthy man to be bishop. When Fr. Vincent heard this, he immediately told the queen she had made a bishop of a man who was truly an unbeliever. Queen Anne was quite embarrassed and recommended that Fr. Vincent inform the family that it would not do for a man with no faith to be bishop.
Fr. Vincent took a layman with him to visit the Duchess who was the mother of the man. After receiving the message, the duchess who was not one for holding back her anger, seized a chair and threw it at Fr. Vincent. The priest calmly told the lay person that perhaps this was a sign that the visit was over and it was time to leave.
Fortunately, for Fr. Vincent, he only had to endure the life at court for about ten years. Although he had kept up his work for the poor throughout, he mercifully was able to return to it full time. However, during his tenure as a national figure and adviser to the queen, he had helped bring about much good in the reform of the clergy. Fr. Vincent had also appealed to the queen's generous heart, and she had helped his charitable work for the poor. For her part, the queen had kept Fr. Vincent near to her because she knew his impact would be good for the goodness of all of France.
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