Life of Saint Vincent de Paul: Chapter 9: The Jansenists

[Saint Vincent de Paul]
While Vincent de Paul was striving, by charity and patience, to renew all things in Christ, the Jansenists (So called from their founder, Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Utrecht, who died, however, before his heresy had been condemned) were busy spreading their dangerous doctrines. When the Abbe de Saint Cyran, the apostle of Jansenism in France, first came to Paris, Vincent, like many other holy men, was taken in by the apparent piety and austerity of his life. It was only when he knew him better, and when Saint Cyran had begun to impart to him some of his ideas on grace and the authority of the Church, that Vincent realized on what dangerous ground he was standing.

“He said to me one day,” wrote the Saint long afterwards to one of his Mission Priests, “that it was God’s intention to destroy the Church as it is now, and that all who labor to uphold it are working against His will; and when I told him that these were the statements made by heretics such as Calvin, he replied that Calvin had not been altogether in the wrong, but that he had not known how to make a good defense.”

After such a statement as that there could be no longer question of friendship between Vincent and Saint Cyran, although the latter, anxious not to break with a man who was held in such universal esteem as Vincent de Paul, tried to persuade him that he, Saint Cyran, was really in the right, justifying himself in the elusive language which was more characteristic of the Jansenists than the frank declaration he had just made.

Vincent, however, was too honest and straightforward, too loyal a son of the Church, to be deceived. Realizing fully the danger of such opinions, he soon became one of the most vigorous opponents of the Jansenists, who, indeed, soon had cause to look upon Vincent as one of the most powerful of their enemies. But although he hated the heresy with all the strength of his upright soul, Vincent’s charitable heart went out in pity to those who were infected with its taint, and it was with compassion rather than indignation that he would speak of Saint Cyran and his adherents. Not until they had been definitely condemned by the Church did he cease his efforts to win them from their errors – efforts which were received, for the most part, in a spirit of vindictive bitterness.

The teaching of the Jansenists, like that of most other heretics, had begun by being fairly plausible. The necessity of reform among the clergy had come home to them forcibly, as it had to Vincent himself; the Jansenists’ lives were austere and mortified. The book which contained their heretical doctrines, the Augustinus of Jansenius, was read by only a few, and these mostly scholars. That the Sacraments should be treated with the greatest respect and approached only by those who were fit to approach them seemed at first sight a very reverent and very proper maxim. Many people of holy lives took up this teaching enthusiastically, among them some of Vincent’s own Mission Priests. When Antoine Arnauld, the youngest of the famous family which did so much to further Jansenism, published his book Frequent Communion, which might more truly have been called “Infrequent Communion,” it was received with delight and eagerly read. That Vincent clearly saw the danger is shown by one of his letters to a member of the Jansenist company who had written protesting against the attitude that Saint Lazare was taking in the matter:

“Your last letter says that we have done wrong in going against public opinion concerning the book Frequent Communion and the teaching of Jansenius. It is true that there are only too many who misuse this Divine Sacrament. I myself am the most guilty, and I beg you to pray that God may pardon me…. You say also that as Jansenius read all the works of Saint Augustine ten times, and his treatises on grace thirty times, the Mission Priests cannot safely question his opinions. To which I reply that those who wish to establish new doctrines are always learned and always study deeply the authors of which they make use. But that does not prevent them from falling into error, and we shall have no excuse for sharing in their opinions in defiance of the censure of their doctrine.”

The letter was answered by a second protest in favor of Arnauld’s book, which was met by Vincent with equal energy:

“It may be, as you say,” he writes, “that certain people in France and Italy have drawn benefit from the book; but for a hundred to whom it has been useful in teaching more reverence in approaching the Sacrament, ten thousand have been driven away . . . For my part, I tell you that if I paid the same attention to M. Arnauld’s book as you do, I should give up both Mass and Communion from a sense of humility, and I should be in terror of the Sacrament, regarding it, in the spirit of the book, as a snare of Satan and as poison to the souls of those who receive it under the usual conditions approved by the Church. Moreover, if we confine ourselves only to what he says of the perfect disposition without which one should not go to Communion, is there anyone on earth who has such a high idea of his own virtue as to think himself worthy? Such an opinion seems to be held by M. Arnauld alone, who, having made the necessary conditions so difficult that Saint Paul himself might have feared to approach, does not hesitate to tell us repeatedly that he says Mass daily.”

It is evident that so cold and narrow a teaching could not but be repugnant to a man of Vincent’s breadth and charity. The monstrous heresy held by the Jansenists that Christ did not die for all men, but for the favored few alone, filled him with a burning indignation. No one could have deplored more than he did the unworthy use of the Sacraments; but he held firmly to the truth that they had been instituted by a loving Saviour as man’s greatest strength and as a protection against temptation and sin. And he was not going to believe that He who had been called the Friend of sinners and had eaten and drunk in their company would exact from men as a condition of approaching Him a perfection that they could never hope to attain without Him.

Indeed, the chief aim of the company of Mission Priests was to draw the people to the Sacraments as to the great source of grace, and it seemed to Vincent that the means taken by the Jansenists to destroy certain evils were very much more dangerous than the evils themselves. It was better, according to his opinion, even at the risk of abuse, to make the reconciliation of a sinner to his God too easy rather than too hard. The rule of the Mission Priests lays down that “one of the principal points of our Mission is to inspire others to receive the Sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist frequently and worthily.” The teaching of the Jansenists sought, on the contrary, to inspire such awe of the Sacraments that neither priests nor people would dare to approach them save at very rare intervals.

It was the great mass of the people – poor, simple and suffering, those children of God whom Vincent loved and in whose service the whole of his life had been spent – whose salvation was in danger. It was against them that the Jansenists were shutting the doors of salvation. Is it any wonder that Vincent de Paul fought against them as only men of strong conviction can fight, with heart and soul aglow in the battle? Compared with this all other evils were light. His business was to relieve suffering, to comfort sorrow, but above all to help men to save their souls. There could be no yielding, no compromise with error.

Rightly, therefore, did the Jansenists see in Vincent de Paul the most dangerous of their enemies, and it was not surprising that both during his life and after his death they hated him and assailed him with abuse. He was “insincere, treacherous, a coward,” they declared. They spoke of the “great betrayal”; they held him up to ridicule as an ignorant peasant; but Vincent went quietly on his way. The question “What will people say?” did not exist for him. He simply did his duty as it was made clear to him by God and his own conscience. It was hard to fight against such uncompromising honesty as his, and more than once the man whose ignorance the Jansenists had ridiculed tore their specious arguments to tatters with the weapon of his strong common sense.

Nevertheless, the dangers of Jansenism were a continual anxiety to Vincent, and there were other sorrows no less poignant to be borne. Foreign missions had been established in Africa and Madagascar, and in the latter station no less than twenty-seven Mission Priests had lost their lives. Some, it is true, had died the martyr’s death; but the work had not prospered. It was difficult to get news from far countries in those days, and there were often such long intervals between the death of one priest and the arrival of another that any good that had been done was lost.

“There is nothing on earth that I desire so much as to go as your companion in the place of M. Gondree,” wrote Vincent to one who was just about to set forth on this dangerous mission; but the darker side of the picture is not left untouched. “You will need the strongest courage,” he writes; “you will need faith as great as that of Abraham.”

The Madagascar Mission was, humanly speaking, a failure; the natives were hostile, the missionaries not sufficiently numerous; it was necessary in the end to give up the enterprise.

The Lazarists were at work also in Poland, in Ireland, and in the Hebrides. Vincent had a gift for rousing zeal and charity in the hearts of others, and there were always plenty of volunteers for the most dangerous posts. But there were times when his heart nearly failed him at the news that came to him of the sufferings of some of his sons on their far-distant missions. There were times when apparent failure weighed him down with sorrow, and the death of young Mission Priests who had given their lives for the salvation of their fellowmen caused a grief almost too heavy to be borne. But Vincent knew

How far high failure overtops the bounds
Of low success.

He could afford to leave his work and theirs in the hands of God. He had done what he could, and God asks no more of any man.