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St. Vincent Ferrer (April 5)

April 5, 2006

In 1348-1350, the Black Death swept Europe with devastation: physical, social and spiritual. Victims of the plague suffered a high fever, gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs, frequent stabs of sharp pain, vomiting, spitting of blood and hemorrhages just below the skin that resulted in black blotches (hence the name “Black Death”). Death usually followed in a matter of hours or days. A man who went to bed feeling fine could be dead by morning. An estimated 25 million people, roughly a third of the population of Europe, succumbed.

The aftermath is hard to even imagine. Seemingly overnight, the world fell apart. Priests and doctors, so badly needed, were especially hard-hit because they ministered to the sick and caught the plague themselves, dying soon after. Panic-stricken, people isolated themselves in an attempt to avoid the plague, leaving their sick to die alone. The dead were dumped unceremoniously in mass graves by the few unsavory characters who could be paid enough to collect their bodies. Charitable efforts were largely suspended as “every man for himself” became the rule of the land. Crops were left to rot in the fields because there was no one to harvest them. Social structure broke down because there weren’t enough officials left to carry on the ordinary functions of government. People either became fanatically religious in hopes that their zeal would persuade God to spare them or became utterly disillusioned with religion and plunged into debauchery, drinking and carousing. Because the shortage of priests was so acute, many unworthy men were admitted to holy orders, creating scandal and a further lowering of morality. Society would never be the same.

The year the Black Death subsided, 1350, was the year today’s saint was born. St. Vincent Ferrer, born in a noble, pious family in Spain, quickly absorbed the faith of his parents and made it his own. Even as a child, he fasted weekly, developing a deep devotion to Mary and to the Passion of Christ. Because he saw the poor as members of Christ, he made personal sacrifices in order to add to the alms he helped his parents distribute. A brilliant student who combined study with prayer, he pursued his studies as a Dominican friar, earning a doctorate, memorizing the entire Bible, and immersing himself in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. He endured vicious temptations from the devil, who filled his imagination with filthy ideas and induced a woman to try seduce him on the pretense that she was ill and wanted him to hear her confession. When he fled, she publicly accused him. When nobody believed her, she repented, at which St. Vincent not only forgave her, but healed her as well.

As a young friar, St. Vincent taught philosophy, then theology, preaching on the side, and came to the attention of Cardinal Peter de Luna, papal legate of the antipope Clement VII.

This was indicative of yet another source of social breakdown. The papacy, forced by anarchy in Italy to flee to France for safety in 1309, had become heavily influenced by French politics. Pope Gregory XI finally returned the papacy to Rome in 1376, but died suddenly soon after. The Italian elected to succeed him, Urban VI, not only refused to play French politics, but also lacked the necessary tact and diplomacy to bring about the reforms he knew were so desperately needed. In reaction to his overbearing attempts to correct the worldliness he saw in the clergy, the French cardinals (falsely) declared his election invalid and selected Clement VII to take his place. Thus began the Great Schism of the West, with each claimant to the papacy excommunicating his opponent and all his followers. No one knew for sure which claimant to the papacy was the real pope, or who was really in communion with the Church, for a great many years.

St. Vincent was swept into this conflict, on the wrong side. In the service of Cardinal de Luna, he defended Clement VII as the true pope, and when de Luna succeeded Clement VII as Benedict XIII, St. Vincent defended his claim to the papacy too…for a time. Behind the scenes, he was urging Benedict XIII to step down in order to bring about a healing of this scandalous division in the Church. Benedict XIII kept promising to do so, but, to St. Vincent’s grief, never followed through. Finally, realizing that Benedict XIII wasn’t budging, St. Vincent began to preach against him, advising King Ferdinand of Spain (who seems to have been leaning in this direction anyway) to withdraw the obedience of Spain from Benedict XIII, thus breaking the antipope’s political power and paving the way for his deposing in 1417. Antipope John XIII had already been deposed in 1415, and pope Gregory XII had abdicated that same year, so the way was finally clear for the Church to start fresh with Pope Martin V. Jean Gerson, the famous French theologian, stated: “Without Vincent, the reunion of the Church could not have been achieved.”

In the meantime, and in the midst of this scandalous confusion of leadership, St. Vincent found himself called to an extensive ministry of preaching on the open road. In 1398 he fell dangerously ill and was at the point of death when he experienced a vision of Jesus and Sts. Francis and Dominic, who urged him to preach repentance. In this vision, Jesus touched him and healed him. It took a year for St. Vincent to receive permission to begin this work in earnest, but once he did, he spent the last 20 years of his life traversing Europe on foot, carrying a large cross, and bringing tens of thousands of people to repentance, including thousands of Jews and Moslems. He is thought to have had the gift of tongues, because he was understood everywhere he went (including Germany, Greece, Italy, England, France, Scotland & Ireland), even though he only preached in Limousin, the language of his native Valencia.

He practised what he preached, continuing the life of sacrifice he had begun as a child. Having slept on the floor or on sticks (when he slept at all), he rose at 2am to pray the Divine Office, go to confession and then devoutly celebrate Mass. He was known for being a very careful liturgist, knowing that Christ alone can offer fitting worship to the Father and that Christ speaks through the Mass. He didn’t want any mistakes (never mind innovations) of his own to get in the way of that pure worship. He spent the day in preaching and hearing confessions, then had a large bell rung in the evening to call the sick and infirm. This came to be known as the “miracle bell” because so many were healed, and even raised from the dead, through his ministry. At night he prepared his sermons at the foot of a large crucifix.

St. Vincent’s preaching was as effective as it was needed. He visited towns that hadn’t seen a priest in 30 years, and the moral climate showed it. His favorite topic was the Last Judgment, not because he was morbid, but because he wanted people to reform their lives so that they could face this judgment with joy. A gifted speaker, he knew how to appeal to emotion–he often had to stop and wait until the crowd had stopped sobbing–without neglecting the intellect. He presented the truth to people who hadn’t heard it for decades. His strictness was born of his compassion for sinners, and they knew it. He could see what sin was doing to their souls and pleaded with them to reform for their own sakes. They responded in droves. A crowd of penitents ranging from 300 to 10,000, many of whom had been hardened sinners, prostitutes, and blasphemers, followed him wherever he went. One might expect such a motley crew to cause trouble sooner or later, but they never did. The example of their new, holy way of life was an powerful witness to the truth of St. Vincent’s preaching wherever he went.

He was still on the road, in the midst of his preaching in western France, when he fell ill again. His companions tried to convince him to return to his native Spain, but he was too sick. He turned aside to the city of Vannes, where he was received with great joy that turned to sorrow when they realized he had come to die. He urged the people to preserve after his death the peace that he had so often preached during his life. On the tenth day of his illness, he had the Passion read to him, then recited the penitential psalms, often stopping, totally absorbed in God. On this day in 1419, at the age of 62, he passed into eternity.

“St. Vincent reduces the rules of perfection to avoiding three things: first, the exterior distraction of superfluous activities; secondly, all interior secret elation of heart; and thirdly, all immoderate attachment to created things. Also to the practicing of three things: first, the sincere desire of contempt and abjection; secondly, the most affective devotion to Christ crucified; and thirdly, patience in bearing all things for the love of Christ.” -Butlers Lives of the Saints

St. Vincent, lover of souls, pray for us in the midst of our own social disorder, that we may learn the lessons you preached so well. May we reform our lives now so that the Last Judgment will hold no terrors for us.

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