St. Vincent Ferrer, Confessor
ST. VINCENT FERRER was born at Valentia, in Spain, on the 23rd of January, 1357. His parents were persons distinguished for their virtue and alms-deeds. They made it their rule to distribute in alms whatever they could save out of the necessary expenses of their family at the end of every year. Two of their sons became eminent in the church. Boniface, who died general of the Carthusians, and St. Vincent, who brought with him into the world a happy disposition for learning and piety, which were improved from his cradle by study and a good education. In order to subdue his passions he fasted rigorously from his childhood every Wednesday and Friday. The passion of Christ was always the object of his most tender devotion. The Blessed Virgin he ever honoured as his spiritual mother. Looking on the poor as the members of Christ, he treated them with the greatest affection and charity, which being observed by his parents, they made him the dispenser of their bountiful alms. They gave him for his portion the third part of their possessions, all which he in four days’ time distributed amongst the poor. He began his course of philosophy at twelve years of age, and his theology at the end of his fourteenth year. His progress was such that he seemed a master in both studies at the age of seventeen; and by his affectionate piety he had obtained an eminent gift of tears in that tender age. His father having proposed to him the choice of a religious, an ecclesiastical, or a secular state, Vincent, without hesitation, said, it was his earnest desire to consecrate himself to the service of God in the Order of St. Dominick. His good parents with joy conducted him to a convent of that Order in Valentia, and he put on the habit in 1374, in the beginning of his eighteenth year. 1
He made a surprisingly rapid progress in the paths of perfection, taking St. Dominick for his model. To the exercises of prayer and penance he joined the study and meditation of the holy scriptures, and the reading of the fathers. Soon after his solemn profession, he was deputed to read lectures of philosophy, and at the end of his course, published a treatise on Dialectic Suppositions, being not quite twenty-four years old. He was then sent to Barcelona, where he continued his scholastic exercises, and at the same time preached the word of God with great fruit, especially during a great famine, when he foretold the arrival of two vessels laden with corn, the same evening, to relieve the city; which happened, contrary to all expectation. From thence he was sent to Lerida, the most famous university of Catalonia. There continuing his apostolic functions and scholastic disputations, he commenced doctor, receiving the cap from the hands of Cardinal Peter de Luna, legate of Pope Clement VII. in 1384, being twenty-eight years of age. At the earnest importunities of the bishop, clergy, and people of Valentia, he was recalled to his own country, and pursued there both his lectures and his preaching with such extraordinary reputation, and so manifestly attended with the benediction of the Almighty that he was honoured in the whole country above what can be expressed. As a humiliation, God permitted an angel of Satan to molest him with violent temptations of the flesh, and to fill his imagination with filthy ideas, the fiend rather hoping to disturb than seduce him. Also a wicked woman who entertained a criminal passion for our saint, feigned herself sick, and sending for him on pretence of hearing her confession, took that occasion to declare to him her vicious inclinations, and did all in her power to pervert him. The saint, like another Joseph, in the utmost horror, and in an humble distrust of himself, without staying to answer her one word, betook himself to flight. The unhappy woman, enraged at his conduct, acted the part of Potiphar’s wife in calumniating him. But her complaints meeting with little or no credit, she, upon reflection, became sensible of her fault: and, being stung with remorse, made him public amends to the best of her power. The saint most readily pardoned her, and cured a disturbance of mind into which she was fallen. The arms which the saint employed against the devil were prayer, penance, and a perpetual watchfulness over every impulse of his passions. His heart was always fixed on God, and he made his studies, labour, and all his other actions a continual prayer. The same practice he proposes to all Christians, in his book entitled: A Treatise on a spiritual Life, in which he writes thus: “Do you desire to study to your advantage? Let devotion accompany all your studies, and study less to make yourself learned than to become a saint. Consult God more than your books, and ask him, with humility, to make you understand what you read. Study fatigues and drains the mind and heart. Go from time to time to refresh them at the feet of Jesus Christ under his cross. Some moments of repose in his sacred wounds give fresh vigour and new lights. Interrupt your application by short, but fervent and ejaculatory prayers: never begin or end your study but by prayer. Science is a gift of the Father of Lights: do not therefore consider it as barely the work of your own mind or industry.” He always composed his sermons at the foot of a crucifix, both to beg light from Christ crucified, and to draw from that object sentiments wherewith to animate his auditors to penance and the love of God. 2
St. Vincent had lived thus six years at Valentia, assiduously pursuing his apostolical labours, under great persecutions from the devils and carnal men, but in high esteem among the virtuous, when Cardinal Peter de Luna, legate of Clement VII. in Spain, was appointed to go from thence in the same capacity to Charles VI., king of France. Arriving at Valentia in 1390, he obliged the saint to accompany him into France. While the cardinal, who had too much of the spirit of the world, was occupied in politics, Vincent had no other employ or concern than that of the conversion of souls, and of the interests of Jesus Christ: and the fruits of his labours in Paris were not less than they had been in Spain. In the beginning of the year 1394, the legate returned to Avignon, and St. Vincent, refusing his invitations to the court of Clement VII., went to Valentia. Clement VII. dying at Avignon, in 1394, during the great schism, Peter de Luna was chosen pope by the French and Spaniards, and took the name of Benedict XIII. He commanded Vincent to repair to Avignon, and made him Master of the Sacred Palace. The saint laboured to persuade Benedict to put an end to the schism, but obtained only promises, which the ambitious man often renewed, but always artfully eluded. Vincent in the mean time applied himself to his usual functions, and by his preaching reformed the city of Avignon; but, to breathe a free air of solitude, he retired from court to a convent of his Order. Benedict offered him bishoprics and a cardinal’s hat; but he steadfastly refused all dignities; and, after eighteen months, earnestly entreated to be appointed apostolical missionary; and so much did the opinion of his sanctity prevail, that the opposing his desire was deemed an opposition to the will of heaven. Benedict therefore granted his request, gave him his benediction, and invested him with the power of apostolical missionary, constituting him also his legate and vicar. 3
Before the end of the year 1398, St. Vincent, being forty-two years old, set out from Avignon towards Valentia. He preached in every town with wonderful efficacy, and the people having heard him in one place followed him in crowds to others. Public usurers, blasphemers, debauched women, and other hardened sinners, every where were induced by his discourses to embrace a life of penance. He converted a prodigious number of Jews and Mahometans, heretics and schismatics. He visited every province of Spain in this manner, except Galicia. He returned thence into France, and made some stay in Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphiné. He went thence into Italy, preaching on the coasts of Genoa, in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Savoy: as he did in part of Germany, about the Upper Rhine, and through Flanders. Such was the fame of his missions, that Henry IV., king of England, wrote to him, in the most respectful terms, and sent his letter by a gentleman of his court, entreating him to preach also in his dominions. He accordingly sent one of his ships to fetch him from the coast of France, and received him with the greatest honours. The saint having employed some time in giving the king wholesome advice both for himself and his subjects, preached in the chief towns of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Returning into France, he did the same, from Gascony to Picardy. Numerous wars, and the unhappy great schism in the church, had been productive of a multitude of disorders in Christendom; gross ignorance, and a shocking corruption of manners, prevailed in many places; whereby the teaching of this zealous apostle, who, like another Boanerges, preached in a voice of thunder, became not only useful, but even absolutely necessary, to assist the weak and alarm the sinner. The ordinary subjects of his sermons were sin, death, God’s judgments, hell, and eternity. He delivered his discourses with so much energy, that he filled the most insensible with terror. Whilst he was preaching one day at Thoulouse, his whole auditory was seized with trembling. At his sermons persons often fainted away, and he was frequently obliged to stop, to give leisure for the venting of the sobs and sighs of the congregation. His sermons were not only pathetic, but were also addressed to the understanding, and supported with a wonderful strength of reasoning, and the authorities of scriptures and fathers, which he perfectly understood and employed as occasion required. His gifts of miracles, and the sanctity of his penitential life, gave to his words the greatest weight. Amidst these journeys and fatigues he never ate flesh, fasted every day, except Sundays, and on Wednesdays and Fridays he lived on bread and water, which course he held for forty years: he lay on straw or small twigs. He spent a great part of the day in the confessional with incredible patience, and there finished what he had begun in the pulpit. He had with him five friars of his Order, and some other priests to assist him. Though by his sermons thousands were moved to give their possessions to the poor, he never accepted anything himself; and was no less scrupulous in cultivating in his heart the virtue and spirit of obedience than that of poverty; for which reason he declined accepting any dignity in the church or superiority in his Order. He laboured thus near twenty years, till 1417, in Spain, Majorca, Italy, and France. During this time, preaching in Catalonia, among other miracles, he restored to the use of his limbs John Soler, a crippled boy, judged by the physicians incurable, who afterward became a very eminent man, and bishop of Barcelona. In the year 1400, he was at Aix in Provence: in 1401, in Piedmont, and the neighbouring parts of Italy, being honourably received in the Obedience 1 of each pope. Returning into Savoy and Dauphiné, he found there a valley called Vaupute, or Valley of Corruption, in which the inhabitants were abandoned to cruelty and shameful lusts. After long experience of their savage manners, no minister of the gospel durst hazard himself among them. Vincent was ready to suffer all things to gain souls, and to snatch from the devil a prey which he had already seemingly devoured. He joyfully exposed his life among those abandoned wretches, converted them all from their errors and vices, and changed the name of the valley into Valpure or Valley of Purity, which name it ever after retained. 4
Being at Geneva in 1403, he wrote a letter to his general, still extant, in which, among other things, he informed him, that after singing mass he preached twice or thrice every day, preparing his sermons while he was on the road: that he had employed three months in travelling from village to village, and from town to town, in Dauphiné, announcing the word of God; making a longer stay in three valleys in the diocess of Embrun, namely, Lucerna, Argenteya, and Vaupute, having converted almost all the heretics which peopled those parts: that being invited in the most pressing manner into Piedmont, he for thirteen months preached and instructed the people there, in Montserrat, and the valleys, and brought to the faith a multitude of Vaudois and other heretics. He says, the general source of their heresy was ignorance and want of an instructor, and cries out: “I blush and tremble when I consider the terrible judgment impending on ecclesiastical superiors, who live at their ease in rich palaces, &c., whilst so many souls redeemed by the blood of Christ are perishing. I pray without ceasing the Lord of the harvest that he send good workmen into his harvest.” 2 He adds, that he had in the valley of Luferia converted an heretical bishop by a conference; and extirpated a certain infamous heresy in the valley Pontia; converted the country into which the murderers of St. Peter, the martyr, had fled; had reconciled the Guelphs and Gibelins, and settled a general peace in Lombardy. Being called back into Piedmont by the bishops and lords of that country, he staid five months in the diocess of Aoust, Tarentaise, St. John of Morienne, and Grenoble. He says he was then at Geneva, where he had abolished a very inveterate superstitious festival, a thing the bishop durst not attempt; and was going to Lausane, being called by the bishop to preach to many idolaters who adore the sun, and to heretics who were obstinate, daring, and very numerous on the frontiers of Germany. Thus in his letter. Spondanus, 3 and many others say, the saint was honoured with the gift of tongues, and that, preaching in his own, he was understood by men of different languages; which is also affirmed by Lanzano, who says, that Greeks, Germans, Sardes, Hungarians, and people of other nations, declared they understood every word he spoke, though he preached in Latin, or in his mother-tongue, as spoken at Valentia. 4 Peter de Luna, called Benedict XIII., sent for him out of Lorrain to Genoa, promising to lay aside all claim to the papacy. The saint obeyed, and represented to him the evils of the schism, which would be all laid to his charge; but he spoke to one that was deaf to such counsels. He preached with more success to the people of Genoa for a month, and travelled again through France and Flanders, and from thence, in 1406, over all the dominions of Henry IV., king of England. The years 1407 and 1408, he employed in reforming the manners of the people of Poitou, Gascony, Languedoc, Provence, and Auvergne: at Clermont is still shown the pulpit in which he preached in 1407. An inscription in a church at Nevers testifies the same of that city: he was again at Aix in October, 1408. Benedict XIII., being returned from Genoa, stopped at Marseilles, and came no more to Avignon, but in 1408 went to Perpignan. In the same year the Mahometan king of the Moors, at Granada in Spain, hearing the reputation of St. Vincent, invited him to his court.—The saint took shipping at Marseilles, and preached to the Mahometans the gospel with great success at Granada, and converted many; till some of the nobles, fearing the total subversion of their religion, obliged the king to dismiss him. He then laboured in the kingdom of Arragon, and again in Catalonia, especially in the diocess of Gironne and Vich; in a borough of the latter he renewed the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, related at length in his life. 5 At Barcelona, in 1409, he foretold to Martin, king of Arragon, the death of his son Martin, the king of Sicily, who was snatched away amidst his triumphs in the month of July. Vincent comforted the afflicted father, and persuaded him to a second marriage to secure the public peace by an heir to his crown. 5
He cured innumerable sick everywhere, and at Valentia made a dumb woman speak, but told her she should ever after remain dumb, and that this was for the good of her soul; charging her always to praise and thank God in spirit, to which instructions she promised obedience. He converted the Jews in great numbers in the diocess of Palencia, in the kingdom of Leon, as Mariana relates. He was invited to Pisa, Sienna, Florence, and Lucca, in 1410, whence, after having reconciled the dissensions that prevailed in those parts, he was recalled by John II., king of Castille. In 1411 he visited the kingdoms of Castille, Leon, Murcia, Andalusia, Asturias, and other countries; in all which places the power of God was manifested in his enabling him to work miracles, and effect the conversion of an incredible number of Jews and sinners. The Jews of Toledo embracing the faith, changed their synagogue into a church under the name of Our Lady’s. From Valladolid, the saint went to Salamanca, in the beginning of the year 1412, where meeting the corpse of a man who had been murdered, and was carrying on a bier, he, in the presence of a great multitude, commanded the deceased to arise, when the dead man instantly revived; for a monument of which a wooden cross was erected, and is yet to be seen on the spot. In the same city the saint entered the Jewish synagogue with a cross in his hand, and, replenished with the Holy Ghost, made so moving a sermon, that the Jews, who were at first surprised, at the end of his discourse all desired baptism, and changed their synagogue into a church, to which they gave the title of the Holy Cross. But St. Vincent was called away to settle the disputes which had for two years disturbed the tranquillity of the kingdom of Arragon, concerning a successor to the crown. The states of Arragon, Catalonia, and Valentia were divided. The most powerful among the Catalonians were for choosing count Urgel, but the bishop of Saragossa, who opposed his election, being murdered, so impious and inhuman a crime occasioned a general detestation of that candidate, destroyed his interest, and was an alarm to a civil war. At last the states of the three kingdoms agreed to choose nine commissaries, three for each kingdom, who were to assemble in the castle of Caspé in Arragon, on the river Ebro, to decide the contest, which was to be determined by the concurrence of not less than six of the commissaries appointed for this purpose. St. Vincent, his brother, Boniface the Carthusian, and Don Peter Bertrand were the three commissaries for the kingdom of Valentia. The saint therefore left Castille to repair to Caspé. Ferdinand of Castillo was declared the next heir in blood, and lawful king by the unanimous consent of the commissaries. Saint Vincent on that occasion made an harangue to the foreign ambassadors and people present, and when he had named Ferdinand king, a prince highly esteemed for his valour, virtue, and moderation, the acclamations of all present testified their approbation. Ferdinand hastened to Saragossa, and was proclaimed on the 3rd of September, 1412. He made the saint his preacher and confessor; yet the holy man continued his usual labours throughout Spain and the adjacent isles, and seemed to take more pleasure in teaching an ignorant shepherd on the mountains, than in preaching to the court. After having long endeavoured to move Peter de Luna to resign his pretensions to the papacy, but finding him obstinate, he advised king Ferdinand to renounce his obedience, in case he refused to acknowledge the council of Constance; which that prince did by a solemn edict, dated the 6th of January, in 1416, by the advice of the saint, as Oderic Raynold, Mariana, and Spondanus most accurately relate. 6 The saint laboured zealously to bring all Spain to this union, and was sent by king Ferdinand to assist at the council of Constance. He preached through Spain, Languedoc, and Burgundy, in his way thither. The fathers of the council pressed his arrival, and deputed Hannibaldi, cardinal of St. Angelus, to consult him at Dijon, in 1417. Gerson wrote to him also an earnest letter expressing a high esteem of his person. 7 But it does not appear that St. Vincent ever arrived at Constance, notwithstanding Dupin and some others think he did. The saint’s occupations made him leave few writings to posterity. The chief of his works now extant, are, A Treatise on a Spiritual Life, or On the Interior Man, A Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, A Consolation under Temptations, Against Faith, and Seven Epistles. 8 6
St. Vincent having laboured some time in Burgundy went from Dijon to Bourges, where he continued his apostolical functions with equal zeal. In that city he received pressing letters from John V. duke of Brittany, inviting him to visit his dominions. The saint, convinced it was a call from God, passed by Tours, Angers, and Nantz, in his way thither, being every where received as an angel from heaven, and in all places curing the sick, and converting sinners. The duke resided at Vannes: in which city the saint was received by the clergy, nobility, and people in bodies, and the sovereign thought no honours sufficient to testify his esteem of his merits. St. Vincent preached there from the fourth Sunday of Lent till Easter Tuesday, of the year 1417; and foretold the duchess that the child she then bore in her womb would one day be duke of Brittany, which came to pass, for the eldest son then alive died without issue. All the diocesses, towns, and countries of Brittany heard this apostle with great fruit, and were witnesses of his miracles. His age and infirmities were far from abating anything of his zeal and labours; he rooted out vices, superstitions, and all manner of abuses, and had the satisfaction to see a general reformation of manners, throughout the whole province. Out of Brittany he wrote letters into Castille, by which he engaged the bishops, nobility, and Don Alphonsus, regent of that kingdom for King John the Second, yet a minor, to renounce Peter de Luna as an anti-pope, and acknowledge the Council of Constance, to which they accordingly sent ambassadors, who were received with joy at Constance, on the 3rd of April, 1417. Pope Martin V. elected by the council in November, wrote to the saint, and deputed to him Montanus, an eminent theologian, confirming all his missionary faculties and authority. Henry V. king of England, being then at Caen in Normandy, entreated the saint to extend his zeal to that province. He did so; and Normandy and Brittany were the theatre of the apostle’s labours the two last years of his life. He was then sixty years old, and so worn out and weak that he was scarcely able to walk a step without help; yet no sooner was he in the pulpit, but he spoke with as much strength, ardour, eloquence, and unction, as he had done in the vigour of his youth. He restored to health on the spot one that had been bed-ridden eighteen years, in the presence of a great multitude, and wrought innumerable other miracles; amongst which we may reckon as the greatest the conversions of an incredible number of souls. He inculcated everywhere a detestation of law-suits, swearing, lying, and other sins, especially of blasphemy. 7
Falling at last into a perfect decay, his companions persuaded him to return to his own country. Accordingly he set out with that view, riding on an ass, as was his ordinary manner of travelling in long journeys. But after they were gone, as they imagined, a considerable distance, they found themselves again near the city of Vannes. Wherefore the saint perceiving his illness increase, determined to return into the town, saying to his companions, that God had chosen that city for the place of his burial. The joy of the city was incredible when he appeared again, but it was allayed when he told them he was come not to continue his ministry among them, but to look for his grave. These words, joined with a short exhortation which he made to impress on the people’s minds their duty to God, made many to shed tears, and threw all into an excess of grief. His fever increasing, he prepared himself for death by exercises of piety, and devoutly receiving the sacraments. On the third day the bishop, clergy, magistrates, and part of the nobility, made him a visit. He conjured them to maintain zealously what he had laboured to establish amongst them, exhorted them to perseverance in virtue, and promised to pray for them, when he should be before the throne of God, saying he should go to the Lord after ten days. During that interval, under the pains of his distemper, he never opened his mouth about his sufferings only to thank Almighty God for making him, by a share in the cross, to resemble his crucified Son: for he suffered the sharpest agonies not only with resignation and patience, but with exultation and joy. His prayer and union with God he never interrupted. The magistrates sent a deputation to him, desiring he would choose the place of his burial. They were afraid his Order, which had then no convent in Vannes, would deprive the city of his remains. The saint answered, that being an unprofitable servant, and a poor religious man, it did not become him to direct anything concerning his burial; however, he begged they would preserve peace after his death as he had always inculcated to them in his sermons, and that they would be pleased to allow the prior of the convent of his Order, which was the nearest to that town, to have the disposal of the place of his burial. He continued his aspirations of love, contrition, and penance; and often wished the departure of his soul from its fleshy prison, that it might the more speedily be swallowed up in the ocean of all good. On the tenth day of his illness, he caused the passion of our Saviour to be read to him, and after that recited the penitential psalms, often stopping totally absorpt in God. It was on Wednesday in Passion-Week, the 5th of April, that he slept in the Lord, in the year 1419, having lived, according to the most exact computation, sixty-two years, two months, and thirteen days. Joan of France, daughter of King Charles VI. duchess of Brittany, washed his corpse with her own hands. God showed innumerable miracles by that water and by the saint’s habit, girdle, instruments of penance, and other relics, of which the detail may be read in the Bollandists. The duke and bishop appointed the cathedral for the place of his burial. He was canonized by Pope Calixtus III. in 1455. But the bull was only published in 1458, by Pope Pius II. His relics were taken up in 1456. The Spaniards solicited to have them translated to Valentia, and at last resolved to steal them, thinking them their own property, to prevent which the canons hid the shrine in 1590. It was found again in 1637, and a second translation was made on the 6th of September, when the shrine was placed on the altar of a new chapel in the same cathedral, where it is still exposed to veneration. 8
The great humility of this saint appeared amidst the honours and applause which followed him. He wrote thus, from the sincere sentiments of his heart, in his Treatise on a Spiritual Life, c. 16: “My whole life is nothing but stench: I am all infection both in soul and body: everything in me exhales a smell of corruption, caused by the abominations of my sins and injustices: and what is worse, I feel this stench increasing daily in me, and renewed always more insupportably.” He lays down this principle as the preliminary to all virtue, that a person be deeply grounded in humility. “For whosoever will proudly dispute or contradict, will always stand without the door. Christ, the master of humility, manifests his truth only to the humble, and hides himself from the proud,” c. 1, p. 70. He reduces the rules of perfection to the avoiding three things: First, the exterior distraction of superfluous employs. Secondly, all interior secret elation of heart. Thirdly, all immoderate attachment to created things. Also to the practising of three things: First, the sincere desire of contempt and abjection. Secondly, the most affective devotion to Christ crucified. Thirdly, patience in bearing all things for the love of Christ, c. ult. 9
Note 1. During the grand schism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, those countries which acknowledged each pope were called his Obedience.
Note 2. Luke x. 2.
Note 3. Spondan. ad an. 1403.
Note 4. Baillet says he preached in French, Spanish, and Italian, and where these languages were not understood, in Latin; but alters his authors to suppress the miracle.
Note 5. Bolland, p. 501. n. 23.
Note 6. Their authority renders the mistake of Fleury’s continuator inexcusable, who pretends that the saint only acted in compliance with the king’s inclination.
Note 7. Gerson, t. 2. p. 658. ed. nov.
Note 8. The sermons printed in three volumes under his name, cannot be his work, as Dupin and Lappe observe; for his name is quoted in them, and they answer in nothing the character and spirit of this great man. Perhaps they were written by some one who had heard him and his companions preach. There is also a treatise on the End of the World, and on Antichrist, under his name. Some reprehended him for affirming the end of the world to be at hand; but he meant no more than the apostles and fathers by the like expressions; for the duration of this world is short in reality, and in public calamities we have signs which continually put us in mind of its final dissolution, and might be well employed by this saint to move the people with a more lively faith to fear that terrible day. But only God knows the time; and the fifth general council of Lateran forbids any preachers on any conjectures whatsoever to pretend to foretel or determine it, (Con. t. 14, p. 240,) though the time of God’s judgment is certainly near to every one by death. Some also found fault with the troops of penitents who followed Vincent with disciplines. But they were sincere penitents, in whom appeared the true spirit of compunction; very opposite to the fanatical heretics of Germany called Flagellantes, who placed penance entirely in that exterior grimace of disciplining or flagellation, teaching that it supplied the salutary purposes of the sacraments: not to mention other abuses which Gerson discreetly censures, t. 2. ed. nov. p. 660.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IV: April.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866.