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 And so it began… Aidan R Rooney CM reminds us on Facebook

” One day in January 1617, we find Vincent accompanying Mme de Gondi to her castle in Folleville, in Picardy. From nearby Gannes, two leagues away, came the news that a dying peasant wished to see M. Vincent. Immediately he hurried to the sick man’s bedside. In that humble dwelling he sat down by the sick man’s bed to hear his confession. He urged the man to make a general confession of all the sins of his life. The peasant began to recite the sad rosary of his sins. It was worse than Vincent expected. The man had a reputation for being honourable and virtuous but buried in his conscience were burdens that he had never revealed. Year after year, and confession after confession, he had kept silent — through ignorance, shame or hypocrisy — about the most serious sins he had committed. Vincent had the feeling that in a final moment of grace he was dragging a soul from the clutches of the devil. The peasant felt the same. Remorse for a whole lifetime of sin lifted the guilt from his soul. He felt liberated. If it had not been for that general confession he would have been damned for eternity. He was filled with unrestrainable joy. He had his family brought to his home, together with the neighbours and Mme de Gondi herself. He told them his story [12].

With some variations, Vincent spoke about these events at the end of his life … specifically on January 25, 1655 (CCD:XI:163) and May 17, 1658 (CCD:XII:7) [13]. As we will point out later, Vincent spoke with much enthusiasm. With the perspective of time, Vincent discovered in this event and in other similar events the origin and the meaning of his vocation and mission as well as the ministry of the members of the Congregation of the Mission.

The man died three days later [14]. During that time, however, that man publicly confessed his sins which previously he feared to tell in private to his confessor. He gave thanks to God for having been saved by the opportunity to make a general confession (Vincent had asked the man to make such a confession). Madame de Gondi was both moved and shocked by this event. In her concern she spoke to Vincent: “Ah. Monsieur! What’s this?”… “What have we just heard? No doubt it’s the same for most of these poor people. If this man who is considered an upright man was in a state of damnation, what will it be like for others who live more badly? Ah. M. Vincent! How many souls are being lost! How can this be remedied?”(CCD:XI:3).

Vincent de Paul and Madame de Gondi found a way to avoid the possibility of eternal damnation: they organized a popular mission in Folleville. The central theme of that mission was general confession (how to prepare for such a confession and how to make that confession). On January 25, 1617 Vincent entered the pulpit of the church in Folleville. José María Román summarized that event with the following words … the sermon was powerful and easily understood. He instructed them, he moved their hearts and encouraged them [15]. Later Vincent himself realized what had happened and by way of summary he stated: He [God] blessed what I said (CCD:XI:4) [16]. According to his biographers so many people came forward to confess their sins that Vincent requested the assistance of the Jesuits in Amiens. The confessors were overwhelmed with the number of penitents [17].

This event has impacted the biographers of every era in such a manner that they affirm (in my opinion, hyperbolically) that this was the first sermon of the Mission [18] or the first mission sermon [19]. The writings of Vincent de Paul state that the sermon in Folleville was “the first sermon of the Mission (CCD:XI:4). First mission sermon or first sermon of the Mission? Did not Vincent act in the same manner in the different places that were part of the de Gondi estate? Folleville was not the first place where Vincent preached a popular mission nor was he completely original in his preaching. Also at that time Vincent was not the only person preaching popular missions. According to all of his biographers, however, Vincent de Paul, with some other priest, preached popular missions on the theme of general confession in all the neighboring and bordering villages … and with similar success [20]. We will speak more about this later on. It is certain, however, that these experiences had an impact on Vincent or, at the very least, they made him question himself with regard to his vocation and mission. Given the urgent need to provide instruction and pastoral care to so many poor country people could he continue to serve just one family? Should he not dedicate his life to the instruction and salvation of the poor country people? Vincent’s biographer, Pierre Coste, places the following questions in Vincent’s mind: The mission at Folleville clearly revealed to Vincent de Paul what God expected from him. When so many souls in these country villages were endangering their eternal salvation, was it fitting that he should spend the greater part of his time within the narrow circle of a single family, giving lessons to two or three children? After a long and terrible struggle, God had set him free from temptations against the Faith after he had made a resolution to devote the rest of his days to the service of the poor; were his duties as a tutor compatible with this engagement and was there not reason to fear lest the temptation would return if he did not fly from the de Gondis? [21].” [http://famvin.org/wiki/Vincent_de_Paul_in_Gannes-Folleville] #famvin400

St. Vincent would say that his sermon at Folleville was the first sermon of the mission and he considered the date, January 25, 1617, as the day on which the Congregation was born.

For a list of multimedia resources on the Congregation of the Mission, click here.