Dorothy Day kept one of Fritz Eichenberg's woodcuts on her writing table in order to keep a symbol of poverty's embrace and scandal before her. The image was not of Francis of Assisi, but of Vincent de Paul. As founder of the Congregation of the Mission—which today is a nearly four century-old religious institute with an American superior general—Vincent's legacy is still vital and now present in 78 countries.
I have always considered Vincent as a kind of scary uncle that no one liked to invite to family affairs. The picture I formed was of a man whose demeanor was gentle, but whose visage was skeletal. His clothes either smelled like moth-balls or were rank with sweat. He would repel little children.
How wrong I was! For the change of mind I have Bernard Pujo's sympathetic biography of Vincent de Paul to thank. Originally appearing in French as Vincent de Paul, le précurseur (Éditions Albin Michel, 1998), Pujo has retraced the steps of Monsieur Vincent from his boyhood days in the pastures of the Landes, situated on the banks of the river Adour near Dax, to the precincts of the French court. His is a rags-to-riches story that would be difficult to duplicate in any era.
Vincent was born to a peasant family in 1581 and earned the favor of a local patron who saw to his education. Pujo brings out the details of family and community life in that region of France to establish how much Vincent struggled to free himself. In his early chapters, Pujo portrays Vincent as a social climber. From studies in Toulouse and later Saragossa to entrance into holy orders, Vincent repeatedly sought to curry favor among noble acquaintances in order to obtain a good benefice. Even before entering the diaconate, at age 18, he took possession of his first parish in Tilh, and fast-tracked for ordination.
Sometime in his early twenties, Vincent was made heir to a small fortune granted by an old woman in Toulouse. In order to collect, he had to travel and search out a fellow who had swindled the inheritance. This led him to Marseilles. When justice was done, he hoped to return by sea, but three Turkish brigantines overran his ship, whereupon Vincent was wounded and sold into slavery. Pujo makes expert use of Vincent's letters recounting this time, including a period of learning at the feet of a Muslim alchemist. His escape in 1607 allowed him to spark his career again, which was made easier by the knowledge obtained from the Turk while in captivity.
Gradually, the young priest rose in prominence in clerical and cultural circles. He caught the attention of Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the Oratorians and a leading light among the French intelligentsia. Through Bérulle, Vincent's circle widened to include then Bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales. The future saint put Vincent in touch with Jeanne de Chantal and upon the bishop's death, Vincent would become her confessor. Another benefactress he came to know was Louise de Marillac, whose collaborative duties included governing the Daughters of Charity, a company of women who initially sought to give relief to the sick and poor in rural areas. All the while, his income grew.
Although he later thought Vincent's plans replicated the work of the Oratory, Bérulle was instrumental in securing for Vincent a position with the de Gondi family, which occupied notable military and ecclesiastical posts for several generations, including the see of Paris. It was while in their employ that Vincent had an epiphany: worldly stature held no significance for him anymore. From then on, the Gondi family's trust in Vincent's capabilities moved them to shower money on every project he proposed. What began as simple and singular preaching tours through the French hinterlands grew to enlist scores of priests in various evangelization and charitable ministries throughout France. The Mission increased to include spiritual formation of priests and, among the women, the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens.
What is remarkable about Vincent's life is that spiritual development of French nobility and the poor in their care, seems blissfully unencumbered by the events of the day. Throughout much of Vincent's ministrations, he was able to move with relative ease in the midst of war (30 Years War), heresy (Jansenism), schismatics (Huguenots), and political intrigues (Cardinal Richelieu, among others). Some might argue that it was precisely because of such circumstances that the Congregation of the Mission arose at all. But in the end Pujo finds that this movement is no mere contrivance through the hands of one man. In fact, it is Providence who is guiding the work. This is not the emptying of Vincent's spiritual activity, but the confirmation of it.
A fair assessment of this book will have to point out the few but noticeable grammatical mistakes as well as the somewhat paltry coverage of the relationship between Vincent and Jeanne de Chantal. Yet these seem so minor in comparison to the insights that await the reader, some of which are found in the copious notation. Pujo's biography makes excellent use of sources and he is judiciously critical of earlier biographers. A useful timeline and thorough index are also included. Vincentians and all who are drawn to their charism—to say nothing of historians of early modern France—will find Pujo's work amply rewarding.