05 Apr Saint Vincent Ferrer, Confessor
Today is the feast day of Saint Vincent Ferrer. Ora pro nobis.
The Life of St. Vincent Ferrer's
From His Birth to His Religious Profession
by Andre Pradel, 1875
In the middle of the fourteenth century there dwelt at Valencia, in Spain, a pious couple, who were not less distinguished by birth than by the virtues which adorned their lives. These were William Ferrer, a descendant of an ancient Catalonian family, and Constance Miguel, the daughter of a naval officer and kinswoman of the Bishop of Valencia. They had already been blessed with two children, when a third was born to them on the 23rd of January, in the year 1350.
History affirms that certain remarkable signs preceded the birth of this child of benediction. One night while the father slept, he dreamed that he entered the church of the Dominicans at Valencia, when one of that Order was preaching to the multitude from the pulpit, and that the preacher, turning towards him, addressed him in these words: “I felicitate you, William; in a few days you will have a son who will become a prodigy of learning and sanctity; he will be the object of your delight and the honour of your house; the world will resound with the fame of his wondrous deeds; he will fill heaven with joy and hell with terror; he will put on the habit which I wear, and will be received in the Church with universal joy, as one of its first Apostles.” Then it seemed to him that the people, who had attentively listened to what was said, thanked God with a loud voice for the marvellous news, and offered him their felicitations likewise. Delighted at these consoling predictions, he joined his thanksgiving to that of the multitude. When he awoke, he related to his spouse all that had transpired in the course of his dream, and they resolved to confer with their kinsman, the Bishop. To William's account of what had occurred Constance added two things equally singular, which she had herself experienced; the first was that from the commencement of her pregnancy she had felt none of the pains which usually accompany that state; and the second, that she frequently fancied she had heard the child, which was near its birth, give utterance to cries like to the barking of a little dog,–a circumstance much resembling the vision of the Blessed Jane of Aza, the mother of St. Dominic.
The prelate clearly understood the meaning of these mysterious signs, and said to them: “Rejoice in the Lord; the child which you are about to bring into the world will be a worthy son of St. Dominic, and will be called to do much good among the people by his preaching. Take great care of him, and educate him holily, that he may correspond to the singular graces with which God will endow him.”
As if to confirm the high opinion which was conceived of this child, God was pleased to work, while it was still in the maternal womb, by its mediation, a remarkable prodigy. Constance went one day to visit a blind woman on whom she was wont to bestow a monthly alms, and having given it to her as usual, she added, “My daughter, pray God that the child which I bear may arrive safe.” The blind woman bent her head on the mother's bosom and said, “May God bestow that favour on you!” At the same instant her material blindness left her, and being suddenly illuminated in her soul with prophetic light, she exclaimed, “Madam, it is an angel you have, and it is he who has cured me of my affliction.” The child, like another John the Baptist, applauded the words of the poor woman by leaping in the womb, and the mother herself gave testimony of it.
Such were the signs that preceded the birth of Vincent Ferrer. This birth was an event for the whole city. The principal inhabitants made it a point of duty to accompany the new-born to the baptismal font. Besides a municipal deputation, three of the chief magistrates were present; and as they could not agree on the name that was to be given to this predestined child, the priest who administered the sacrament was divinely inspired to name him Vincent, a name that was in every way adapted to his future destiny, inasmuch as he would one day attack so vigorously and conquer so gloriously, sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Constance was unwilling that her son should be committed to the care of a strange nurse. This child was too precious to allow any one but herself to bestow on him the cares which tender infancy requires, cares which are doubtless wearisome, but nevertheless alwavs sweet to a mother's heart. She was amply rewarded for this devotedness on her part, for the little Saint gave her but small trouble. Seldom did he cry, and he would remain tranquil wherever his mother placed him. When not asleep in his cradle, he was peaceful and almost recollected. His open eyes would search eagerly for his mother, without being moistened with tears. Nature exhausted her gifts in his behalf. To a charming disposition, with which she endowed him, he joined also a countenance that was so sweet, well-shaped, and sympathetic, that all delighted to gaze upon him and to caress him.
An extraordinary event contributed not a little to increase his renown in the city. Vincent was yet in his cradle, and had hardly begun to lisp, when Valencia was desolated by a continued drought. Public prayers were offered up to obtain a refreshing rain, but not a cloud appeared in the sky. The whole population groaned under the calamity, and Constance shared the common affliction, when, one day, expressing her uneasiness, she heard the child in swathing clothes distinctly pronounce these words: “If you wish for rain, carry me in procession, and you shall be favourably heard.” Cheered as well as surprised at these miraculous words, Constance hastened to the city magistrates to impart to them her message; the latter, considering on the one hand the probity and good sense of the mother, and on the other the marvellous signs which had already drawn public attention on the child, decreed that the procession thus indicated should take place. The little Vincent was carried triumphantly, and scarcely had the procession terminated than the sky became suddenly overcast, and copious rains fell for several hours upon the parched earth. This, and other miracles, bore Vincent's name to the court of the King of Aragon. Queen Eleanor, coming to Valencia, caused him to be taken to her palace that she might see him and caress him.
In learning to speak, the child learnt also how to pray, and was instructed especially in the mysteries of faith. These instructions were imprinted on his soul as upon soft wax, but when once they had taken root they attained the solidity of bronze. There was no need to teach him twice the same lesson on religious matters. This sacred seed bore in his heart its salutary fruits. Penetrated with a sovereign fear of God, and animated with a great desire for good, he carefully avoided everything that could, in the smallest degree, tarnish his innocence.
From his fifth year he showed an intelligence far above his age, which inspired his companions and others with singular veneration for him. He began to study when only six years old, and his masters discovered in him a keen intelligence and a soul full of ardour, which enabled him in a short time to make rapid progress in the knowledge of grammar and letters.
At the age of seven years Vincent entered the clerical state, and was even provided with an ecclesiastical benefice. At twelve his mind was so fully developed as to enable him to penetrate into the difficulties of philosophy, and he devoted two years to that abstract study. In fine, he commenced in his fourteenth year his theological course, and applied himself to this latter science till the time when he began seriously to think of determining the state of life to which the voice of God called him. At this period of his life the virtues of the youth had in nowise slackened. Their growth, on the contrary, was visible, for grace is never weakened in a soul which faithfully responds to its advances. It was his custom to assist daily at Mass, and his greatest delight was to serve the priest. His prayers were long and fervent. He had a tender devotion to our Lord's Passion. He said habitually the Little Office of the Cross, to which he added that of the Blessed Virgin. He fasted regularly on Wednesday and Friday every week. His tenderness for the poor led him into a thousand kinds of good works which charity suggested to him. But what we wish chiefly to remark in our Saint are the dispositions which he manifested from his earliest years for his future calling to the Apostolate.
When yet a child Vincent would commit to memory the leading points of the sermons at which he assisted, and repeat them to his family round the domestic hearth. Frequently drawing away his schoolfellows from their games, he would gather them around him, then mounting a hillock or fence, would recite to them with earnestness, grace, and unction, whatever his recollection inspired him with, imitating the gestures and movements of the preachers whom he most admired. He continued the same practices as he grew up. Thus, during the years of his boyhood, he accomplished much good among the youth of his own age, by speaking to them of God, of the soul, and of heaven. His example stamped on them a living impression. All looked upon him as a saint, so much did the grace of miracles appear to increase with his years. Many essayed to imitate his virtues and to walk in his footsteps, whom he lovingly directed by his good counsels. (2)
from Liturgical Year, 1870
Today, again, it is Catholic Spain that offers one of her Sons to the Church, that she may present him to the Christian world as a model and a patron. Vincent Ferrer, or, as he was called, the Angel of the Judgment, comes to us proclaiming the near approach of the Judge of the living and the dead. During his lifetime, he traversed almost every country of Europe, preaching this terrible truth; and the people of those times went from his sermons striking their breasts, crying out to God to have mercy upon them,–in a word, converted. In these our days, the thought of that awful Day, when Jesus Christ will appear in the clouds of heaven and judge mankind, has not the same effect upon Christians. They believe in the Last Judgment, because it is an Article of Faith; but, we repeat, the thought produces little impression. After long years of a sinful life, a special grace touches the heart, and we witness a conversion; there are thousands thus converted, but the majority of them continue to lead an easy, comfortable, life, seldom thinking on Hell, and still less seldom on the Judgment wherewith God is to bring Time to an end.
It was not thus in the Christian Ages; neither is it so now with those whose Conversion is solid. Love is stronger in them than Fear; and yet the Fear of God's Judgment is ever living within them, and gives stability to the new life they have begun. Those Christians who have heavy debts with Divine Justice, because of the sins of their past lives, and who, notwithstanding, make the time of Lent a season for evincing their cowardice and tepidity, surely, such Christians as these must very rarely ask themselves what will become of them on that Day, when the Sign of the Son of Man shall appear in the heavens, and when Jesus, not as Saviour, but as Judge, shall separate the goats from the sheep. One would suppose, that they have received a revelation from God, that, on the Day of Judgment, all will be well with them. Let us be more prudent; let us stand on our guard against the illusions of a proud, self-satisfied indifference; let us secure to ourselves, by sincere repentance, the well-founded hope, that on the terrible Day, which has made the very Saints tremble we shall hear these words of the Divine Judge addressed to us: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (St. Matth. xxv. 34)!
Vincent Ferrer leaves the peaceful cell of his Monastery, that he may go and rouse men to the great truth they had forgotten,–the Day of God's inexorable justice; we have not heard his preachings, but, have we not the Gospel? have we not the Church, who, at the commencement of this Season of Penance, preached to us the terrible truth, which St. Vincent took as the subject of his instructions? Let us, therefore, prepare ourselves to appear before Him, who will demand of us a strict account of those graces which he so profusely poured out upon us, and were the purchase of his Blood. Happy they that spend their Lents well, for they may hope for a favourable Judgment! (2)
The Miraculous Apostolate of St. Vincent Ferrer
by Andre Pradel, 1875
No sooner had he been installed in his new dignities, than the Saint sought, by every means at his command, to bring about a union of the faithful under one Supreme Head. He daily implored his illustrious penitent to relinquish his claims to the Papacy, so as to do away with the monstrous phenomenon of two heads over one body. At his instance, a large council of prelates, theologians, and canonists was gathered together to discuss the relative claims of the contending parties. With fair speeches Benedict showed himself well disposed, but artfully eluded all negotiation that was likely to terminate the difficulty; in consequence of which a number of his own cardinals abandoned his cause. Seeing that his efforts were useless to induce the Pope to lay aside the tiara, St. Vincent was seized with deep sorrow. He could no longer witness the evils that were crushing the Church without being moved to tears. His residence at the pontifical court was now a tax upon him, and he obtained permission to retire to a convent of his Order at Avignon.
Such was his sorrow that he fell grievously ill; no remedies could diminish the intensity of the fever that consumed him, and for twelve days he lay at death's door. On the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, October 3rd, 1396, a crisis ensued which greatly alarmed those who surrounded his bed of suffering, for they believed that his last hour had come. But God was at that moment pleased to verify in His servant what He had spoken in the book of Job, chap. xi. 17: “When thou shalt think thyself consumed, thou shalt rise as the day-star.”
Suddenly the Saint's cell was flooded with a celestial light. Our Lord, accompanied by a multitude of angels and the glorious patriarchs, Dominic and Francis, presented Himself to the sufferer, saying: “Arise, and be consoled; the schism shall soon be at an end, when men have ceased from their iniquities. Arise, then, and go to preach against vice; for this have I specially chosen thee. Exhort sinners to repentance, for My judgment is at hand.”
Then our Lord promised him three favours: That he should be confirmed in grace; that he should be victorious over all the persecutions raised against him; and that in all his conflicts the Divine assistance should never fail him, and that after having preached the judgment throughout the greater part of Europe, with immense fruit to souls, he should terminate his life holily in a distant country. Finally, He instructed him in all that related to the exercise of his apostolic ministry.
His biographers have not supplied us with details, but it is easy to conceive them from the admirable order invariably followed by the new Apostle in his miraculous calling. Ceasing to speak to the Saint, our Lord, in token of His love, touched him on the face with His right hand, and said to him a second time, “My Vincent, arise;” then He disappeared.
The Divine touch produced its effect. Vincent suddenly felt himself cured, and his heart was filled with ineffable consolation. This marvelous apparition, recorded by the oldest biographers of the Saint, is all the more worthy of belief inasmuch as St. Vincent himself confirmed it in a letter which he wrote to Benedict XIII. fifteen years later. Writing to him in the third person, he says:
“A religious was grievously ill, and he lovingly besought God to cure him and to enable him to preach His Divine Word frequently and ardently as he had been wont to do. While he was in prayer and fell asleep, St. Dominic and St. Francis appeared to him, praying at the feet of Jesus Christ and earnestly supplicating our Lord. After they had finished their prayer, Jesus Christ appeared with them to the religious, who lay stretched upon his bed of pain. He touched him on the cheek with His sacred hand as if caressing him, and at the same time made him clearly understand, in words which the soul alone heard, that he should traverse the world, preaching as an Apostle, as St. Dominic and St. Francis had done, and that his preaching before the coming of Antichrist would be to mankind a merciful occasion of repentance and conversion. At the touch of our Lord's hand this religious was completely cured of his malady.
He at once joyfully undertook the apostolic legation with which he had been divinely entrusted. Divine Providence was pleased to confirm his mission not only by many miracles, as He had done that of Moses, but also by the authority of Holy Scripture, as in the case of St. John the Baptist, because he had need of these powerful helps, on account of the difficulty of his enterprise and the weakness of his own testimony.”
The cell in which St. Vincent received so remarkable a favor and such a miraculous mission was converted into a chapel, which became the object of great devotion. It was destroyed in the revolution, together with the convent which enclosed it. On the morning following his miraculous cure, Vincent presented himself before the Pope to obtain permission to leave the city for the purpose of preaching the Gospel throughout the kingdoms of Europe. But Benedict, unwilling to part with one whose popularity would doubtless benefit his own cause, still detained him at his court. The Saint humbly obeyed, well knowing that particular revelations ought always to be submitted to the control of God's Church, and deferred to a more favorable opportunity the execution of his project.
For two years longer he discharged the duties of Master of the Sacred Palace, and served with an heroic patience and exemplary fidelity him whom he looked upon as the veritable Vicar of Jesus Christ. To secure for the future his attachment to the cause of the Popes of Avignon, the Bishopric of Lerida and a Cardinal's hat were offered him. These honors Vincent courteously, but firmly, declined, saying, “It behoves me to execute the order which I have received from God, for God has commanded me to preach the judgment to all nations.” One day, feeling sad at the resistance which Benedict still offered to his ardent desires, he prayed in tears before his crucifix and offered to God the sorrow of his soul. Our Lord consoled him with these words: “Vade adhuc expectabo te.” He clearly understood that he should no longer resist His solicitations. The Pontiff then allowed him to set out on his apostolic mission throughout Europe, and for that purpose granted him the fullest powers, which were afterwards confirmed by the Council of Constance, and by Pope Martin V.
St. Vincent commenced his new apostolate at Avignon, on the 25th November, 1398. The Church of God had at that time a pressing need of the voice of an apostle, the voice of a saint, to rescue it from the deplorable state in which it existed. There arose, in the year 1378, a schism which divided the allegiance of the faithful between two contending Pontiffs, and, as if to complete the evil, a third rival sprung up in 1409, who asserted an equal claim to the supreme dignity of the Papacy. These unhappy divisions cooled by degrees the fervor of Christian people, and encouraged others in the commission of every species of crime with the hope of impunity. The wickedness of men had reached its summit.
“No, I do not believe,” exclaimed St. Vincent in one of his discourses, “that there ever existed in the world so much pomp and vanity, so much impurity, as at the present day; to find in the world's history an epoch so criminal, we must go back to the days of Noe and the universal deluge. The inns in the cities and villages are filled with persons of abandoned character; they are so numerous that the entire world is infected by them . . . Avarice and usury increase under the disguised name of contracts. Simony reigns among the clergy, envy among the religious. Gluttony prevails to such an extent in every rank of social life that the fasts of Lent, the vigils and Ember-days, are no longer observed . . . In a word, vice is held in such great honor that those who prefer the service of God to that of the world are held up to scorn as useless and unworthy members of society.”
But the worst feature of all in this unhappy state of affairs was that the pastors of souls, drawn from the path of duty by the schism and its consequences, no longer labored with the necessary vigilance to reform their people. The Mahometans and Jews, especially in Spain, instigated by the spirit of evil, made frightful havoc among souls by infecting the country parishes as well as the cities with their superstitions, errors, and wicked example. The devil let loose upon the earth numerous heretics: Wycliffe and his noxious disciples; John Hus and Jerome of Prague, who were so justly condemned by the Council of Constance.
Idolatry even ventured to raise its head once more on the shores of Europe, and threaten to bear off in triumph its deluded followers. There were but few preachers of the Gospel, while men versed in spiritual science were rarely to be met with. St. Vincent regarded this dearth of apostolic laborers as one of the greatest calamities of the age, and bitterly laments it in his “Treatise on the Spiritual Life.” Naturally drawn into a state of indifference and evil, what was there to prevent men from becoming more and more corrupt, when they more frequently heard the voice which led them into depravity than the voice which ought to have incited them to good? The heretics profited by these evil dispositions to broadcast their errors among the faithful; the mountainous districts, into which preachers seldom went, became the principal theatres of their fatal exploits.
Sin had acquired so strong a hold upon the world, the fervor of the good had become so relaxed, the crimes of the wicked had risen to such an excess, that God's patient forbearance with His creatures was well-nigh worn out. The only remedy that could stem the torrent of iniquity was an universal repentance, capable of appeasing the Just and Sovereign Judge. Hence as the Lord sent of old the prophet Jonas to Nineve to convert its inhabitants by threatening them with God's anger, so at this epoch He sent His faithful servant Vincent into the whole world that he might preach the near approach of the terrible judgment; that, filling souls with a wholesome fear, they might open their eyes to see their danger, abandon their evil habits, embrace the yoke of penance, and thus avert the just chastisements of Heaven which their crimes merited.
It is in this light that Pope Pius II. exhibits St. Vincent Ferrer to our view in the Bull of his canonization. We read therein these remarkable words:
“In the countries of the west the number of Jews and infidels increased, who by their wealth and their culture of letters exercised a fatal influence. The last day, the terrible day of judgment, was almost forgotten, but Divine Providence was pleased to restore and beautify His Church by illustrious men. At a favorable moment He sent into the world, for the salvation of the faithful, Vincent of Valencia, of the Order of Friar Preachers, a skillful professor of sacred theology. He professed all knowledge of the eternal Gospel. Like a vigorous athlete, he rushed to combat the errors of the Jews, the Saracens, and other infidels; he was the Angel of the Apocalypse, flying through the heavens to announce the day of the last judgment, to evangelize the inhabitants of the earth, to sow the seeds of salvation among all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, and to point out the way of eternal life.” (Bull S. Ord. Praed., T. V.)
“These words,” observes Father Teoli, “perfectly express what St. Vincent Ferrer was during the last twenty years of his life–an Apostle, and a great Apostle.” The celebrated Lewis of Grenada boldly affirms of him: “After the first Apostles, Vincent is, of all apostolical men, he who has gathered most fruit in God's vineyard.” His contemporaries assert that he frequently had eighty thousand auditors. He was already forty-nine years old when our Lord named him His legate to reform the world; and for the space of twenty years he acquitted himself of that sacred charge, traversing the whole of Europe, and converting to the faith in each city Jews, infidels, heretics, and sinners, by thousands. (3)
Vincent felt that he was the messenger of penance sent to prepare men for the judgment. For twenty years he traversed Western Europe preaching penance and awakening the dormant consciences of sinners by his wondrous eloquence. His austere life was but the living expression of his doctrine. The floor was his usual bed; perpetually fasting, he arose at two in the morning to chant the Office, celebrating Mass daily, afterwards preaching, sometimes three hours, and frequently working miracles. After his midday meal he would tend the sick children; at eight o'clock he prepared his sermon for the following day. He usually travelled on foot, poorly clad. Among St. Vincent's writings are: De suppositionibus dialecticis”; “De natura universalis”; “De monderno ecclesiae schismate”, a defence of the Avignon pontiffs; and “De vita spirituali”. His “Sermons” were published at Antwerp (1570), Augsburg (1729), and Lyons (1816); and his complete works at Valence (1591). He was canonized by Calixtus III at the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome, 3 June, 1455. (6)
Image: Vincent Ferrer, artist: Giovanni Bellini, circa 1465 (12).
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff