This is the brother,” he said. “The sister will not long delay her coming.” St. Vincent de Paul had begun to feel the lethargy he recognized as a sign he would die soon. It was the year 1660, and he was eighty-five years old. He hadn’t been able to walk for years, and had to give up saying Mass because he could no longer stand up. He struggled to get the chapel on his crutches, till his friends finally got him to let them carry him in a chair.
“One of these days,” he told those with him, “the miserable body of this old sinner will be laid in the ground. It will turn to dust, and you will tread it under foot.”
Dear and Generous Friend
The son of a poor family from rural France who proved a brilliant student, Vincent had been ordained a priest at the very early age of nineteen. Five years later, Barbary pirates captured the ship he was sailing on and sold him into slavery. He converted his master and two years later they both escaped and made their way to France.
After more studies and work as a chaplain and parish priest, he dedicated his life to serving the poor, including convicts, and to spiritual care. That included the reformation of the clergy. He founded the Congregation of Priests of the Mission (the Vincentians). With St. Louise de Marillac, he founded the Daughters of Charity. But charity was not the virtue he valued most. Simplicity was. It “is the virtue I love most, the one to which in all my actions I pay most heed.”
As his biographer wrote: Vincent was “a dear and generous friend” to everyone. They knew him because he had spent so much time with them, “sympathizing with every sorrow, and relieving every distress. When their souls were oppressed with sin, into his ear the tale of misery had been poured, and from his lips the words of ghostly counsel and comfort had flowed. Did they yearn, amid the false glitter and fierce struggle of the world, for something higher and purer than they had before known, Vincent was there to point the way, and to cheer them on by his bright example in the narrow path. The tones of his voice, his very smile, were familiar to most of them, and few indeed who had seen and heard but had learned to love and venerate.”
He Fell Asleep
In the last few years of his life, Vincent was constantly in pain. Though he could have used his age and illness as a reason to relax his austere life, he didn’t. He followed the Congregation’s rule and did everything it required. He could have slept in, but he still got up at four and spent three hours praying before Mass.
He did not rest on his accomplishments, great as they were. As he got closer to death, he told his companions, “Alas! my Lord, I live too long, for there is no amendment in me, and my sins multiply with the number of my years.”
On a Saturday in late September, Vincent feel deeply asleep, the kind of sleep a dying man sleeps. He woke to hear Mass on Sunday and was able to receive his Lord, but fell asleep again as soon as his companions carried him back to his room. His friends had trouble waking him and when he tried to speak to his doctor, his speech failed him.
Seeing that he was close to death, his friends asked for a blessing. He raised his hand and started to give them his blessing, in a strong voice. But his voice and strength failed and he barely finished. Later a priest gave him the last rites. It is said that the name “Jesus” would wake him up, and that when those praying around him said, “O Lord, make speed to save me,” he tried hard to reply, “O God, make haste to help me.”
His Last Words
Very early the next morning, an old friend came into his room and asked for a last blessing. The priests of the Mission were in the chapel saying Matins. Vincent didn’t give a blessing. He started to pray St. Paul’s words that “He who hath begun a good work in you will bring . . . .”, but died as he was speaking.
The story is told that the officials investigating his sanctity asked an old blind convict if he had known Vincent. The man said he’d made his confession to him. “He was a very holy man,” he said, and asked them why they asked. The officials said the Church was going to canonize him. “You are wasting your time,” the old man said. “M. Vincent will never allow that. He was much too humble to allow any such thing.” The saint had no choice. The Church canonized him anyway, in 1737.
For other stories of the saint’s deaths, go here.
The story of St. Vincent’s death is taken from Henry Bedford’s The Life of St. Vincent de Paul, which can be read here. The punctuation in the quote has been simplified. The prayer is taken from VinFormation.
The painting is part of “Saint Vincent de Paul brings galley slaves to the faith” by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, in Sainte-Trinité in Paris, used under a Creative Commons license.