When Louis XIII was on his deathbed, with all the Bishops and Archbishops of France ready to offer him their services, it was M. Vincent, the humble Mission Priest, who prepared him to meet his God. During the last days of the King’s life, Vincent never left him, and in his arms Louis XIII breathed his last. Then, having done the work for which he had come, Vincent slipped quietly out of the palace to hasten back to Saint Lazare and his beloved poor.
Some remarks made by the King during his illness and certain other words of Vincent’s were remembered by the Queen, Anne of Austria, who had been left Regent during the minority of her son. Richelieu was dead, and Mazarin, his pupil, a crafty and unscrupulous Italian, had succeeded him as chief Minister of State. His influence over the Queen was growing daily, but it was not yet strong enough to override all her scruples. She was a good-natured woman, quite ready to do right when it was not too inconvenient, and it was clear to her that of late years bishoprics and abbeys had been too often given to most unworthy persons. In France the Crown was almost supreme in such matters; the Queen therefore determined to appoint a “Council of Conscience” consisting of five members, whose business it would be to help her with advice as to ecclesiastical preferment.
Mazarin’s astonishment and disgust when he heard that Vincent de Paul had been appointed one of the number were as great as Vincent’s own consternation. The responsibility and the difficulties which he would have to face filled the humble Mission Priest with the desire to escape such an honor at any price; he even applied to the Queen in person to beg her to reconsider her decision.
But Anne was obdurate, and Vincent was forced to yield. “I have never been more worthy of compassion or in greater need of prayers than now,” he wrote to one of his friends, and his forebodings were not without cause. If Mazarin had been unable to prevent the Queen from naming Vincent as one of the Council of Conscience, he had at least succeeded in securing his own nomination. In the cause of honesty and justice, and for the Church’s welfare, the Superior of Saint Lazare would have to contend with the foremost statesman of the day, a Minister who had built up his reputation by trading on the vices of men who were less cunning than he. Well did Vincent know that he was no match for such a diplomatist; but having once realized that the duty must be undertaken, he determined that there should be no flinching.
He went to Court in the old cassock in which he went about his daily work, and which was probably the only one he had. “You are not going to the palace in that cassock?” cried one of the Mission Priests in consternation.
“Why not?” replied Vincent quietly; “it is neither stained nor torn.”
The answer was noteworthy, for a scrupulous cleanliness was characteristic of the man. As he passed through the long galleries of the Louvre he caught sight of his homely face and figure in one of the great mirrors that lined the walls. “A nice clodhopper you are!” he said amiably to his own reflection, and passed on, smiling.
Among the magnificently attired courtiers his shabby appearance created not a little merriment. “Admire the beautiful sash in which M. Vincent comes to Court,” said Mazarin one day to the Queen, laying hold of the coarse woolen braid that did duty with poor country priests for the handsome silken sash worn by the prelates who frequented the palace. Vincent only smiled – these were not the things that abashed him; he made no change in his attire.
At first it seemed as if his influence were to be paramount in the Council. Nearly all the priests of Paris had passed through his hands at the ordination retreats and those who belonged to the “Tuesday Conferences” were intimately known to him. Who could be better fitted to select those who were suitable for preferment? Mazarin, it is true, objected to the Council on principle, but that was simply because he considered that bishoprics and abbeys were useful things to keep in reserve as bribes for his wavering adherents. Certain reforms on which Vincent insisted were not to his mind either, although he offered no opposition. It was not his way to act openly, and he bided his time; the wonder was that Vincent was able to do what he did so thoroughly.
In the meantime it began to dawn upon the public that the Superior of Saint Lazare was for the moment a man of influence. It was already well known that he was a man of immense charity, with many institutions on his hands, several of which were in urgent need of funds. It seemed a very simple thing to offer him a large sum of money for the poor on condition that he would put in a good word for a brother or a nephew who was just the man for a bishopric or anything else that might offer.
Vincent’s reception of these proposals was disconcerting. “God forbid!” he would cry indignantly. “Better that we should all go without the barest necessities of life.”
Some would come with a recommendation from the Queen herself, which made things doubly embarrassing; but in spite of everything Vincent remained faithful to his first determination to choose for bishoprics no priests save those worthy of the position by reason of their virtue and learning.
Now, it was exceedingly unpleasant for needy noblemen to be obliged to sue to a peasant priest in a shabby cassock for the preferment of their relations; but it became quite intolerable when the shabby priest refused to listen.
“You are an old lunatic,” said a young man who had been refused a benefice through Vincent’s agency.
“You are quite right,” was the only answer, accompanied by a good-natured smile.
Another day a gentleman who had come to recommend his son for a bishopric was so angry when Vincent explained that he did not see his way to grant his request that he answered the “impertinent peasant” with a blow. Vincent, without the slightest allusion to this treatment, quietly escorted him downstairs and saw him into his carriage. Insulted another day in public by a magistrate whose interests he had refused to forward, the Superior of Saint Lazare made the noble answer: “Sir, I am sure that you try to acquit yourself worthily in your office; you must allow me the same freedom of action in mine.”
But Vincent’s strangest adventure was with a Court lady of high rank, a certain Duchess in the household of the Queen. Catching her royal mistress in an unguarded moment, this lady succeeded in inducing the Queen to promise the bishopric of Poitiers to her son, a young man of very bad character. The Queen’s courage, however, failed her at the prospect of breaking the news to M. Vincent, and she commissioned the Duchess to let him know of the appointment. Off went the great lady to Saint Lazare, and, flouncing into the Superior’s presence, haughtily declared her errand. Vincent, aghast, begged her to sit down and talk the matter over, but Madame declined curtly. She was in a great hurry, she replied; the Queen had spoken; there was nothing more to be said. She would be obliged if he would make out the deed of nomination and take it to Her Majesty to sign.
What was to be done? To resist would only provoke; submission seemed the wisest, if not the only course.
Next morning at an early hour M. Vincent made his appearance at the palace with a roll of paper in his hand and was shown into the Queen’s presence.
“Oh,” said Her Majesty, not without some embarrassment, “you have brought me the nomination of the Bishop of Poitiers.” Without a word, Vincent handed her the roll, which she proceeded to unfold.
“Why,” she cried, “what is this? It is blank! The form is not drawn up at all!”
“If Your Majesty’s mind is made up,” said Vincent quietly, “I must beg you to write down your wishes yourself; it is a responsibility which my conscience forbids me to take.” Then, noticing the hesitation of the Queen: “Madame,” he said hotly, “this man whom you intend to make a bishop spends his life in public houses and is carried home drunk every night. That his family should want to get him out of Paris is not surprising, but I ask you if an episcopal see is a fitting retreat for such a person.”
Convinced by Vincent’s vehement presentation of the facts of the case, the Queen consented to revoke the nomination, but she openly confessed to him that she had not courage to face the Duchess. “Suppose you go and make my peace with her,” she said pleasantly, despatching the unfortunate Vincent on this very disagreeable errand.
He was shown into the lady’s presence and carried out his mission with the greatest possible tact, but the Duchess could not control her fury. Seizing a heavy stool, she flung it at the head of the unwelcome messenger, who bowed and retired from the house with the blood streaming from a wound in his forehead. The brother who had accompanied him and who was waiting in the antechamber, justly indignant, begged to be allowed to give the great lady a piece of his mind. “Come on,” said Vincent; “our business lies in another direction.” “Is it not strange,” he said, smiling, a few moments later, as he tried to staunch the blood with his handkerchief, “to what lengths the affection of a mother for her son will go!”
Such incidents did not pass unnoticed by Mazarin, who looked with jealous eyes on Vincent’s influence with the Queen. As time went on he resolved at any cost to rid the Court of the presence of this man, whose simple, straightforward conduct baffled the wily and defeated their plans; but an attempt to get him ejected from the Council met with such stormy opposition that the Prime Minister determined to change his tactics. There was no man whom he revered or admired so much as M. Vincent, he declared enthusiastically; no one who was of such use in the Council of Conscience.
But the summoning of the Council rested with Mazarin, and the intervals between its meetings became longer and longer. Anne of Austria’s sudden spurt of energy – she was a thoroughly indolent woman by nature – began to die out as she became accustomed to her new responsibilities; she was only too glad to leave all matters of State to a man who declared that his only desire was to save her worry and trouble. In course of time the Council of Conscience ceased to meet, and the distribution of bishoprics and abbeys fell once more into the hands of Mazarin, who used them, as of old, for his own ends.
Vincent de Paul, in bitter grief and sorrow, was forced to witness an abuse that he had no longer any power to check. “I fear,” he wrote in after years to a friend, “that this detestable barter of bishoprics will bring down the curse of God upon the country.” A few years later, when civil war, pestilence and famine were devastating France, and Jansenism was going far to substitute despair for hope in the hearts of men, his words were remembered.