Born into a noble, pious family headed by the Englishman William Ferrer and the Spanish woman Constantia Miguel, Saint Vincent’s career of miracle-working began early. Prodigies attended his birth and baptism on the same day at Valencia, and, at age 5, he cured a neighbor child of a serious illness. These gifts and his natural beauty of person and character made him the center of attention very early in life.
His parents instilled into Vincent an intense devotion to our Lord and His Mother and a great love of the poor. He fasted regularly each Wednesday and Friday on bread and water from early childhood, abstained from meat, and learned to deny himself extravagances in order to provide alms for necessities. When his parents saw that Vincent looked upon the poor as the members of Christ and that he treated them with the greatest affection and charity, they made him the dispenser of their bountiful alms. They gave him for his portion a third part of their possessions, all of which he distributed among the poor in four days.
Vincent began his classical studies at the age of 8, philosophy at 12, and his theological studies at age 14. As everyone expected, he entered the Dominican priory of Valencia and received the habit on February 5, 1367. So angelic was his appearance and so holy his actions, that no other course seemed possible to him than to dedicate his life to God.
No sooner had he made his choice of vocation than the devil attacked him with the most dreadful temptations. Even his parents, who had encouraged his vocation, pleaded with him to leave the monastery and become a secular priest. By prayer and faith, especially prayer to Our Lady and his guardian angel, Vincent triumphed over his difficulties and finished his novitiate.
He was sent to Barcelona to study and was appointed reader in philosophy at Lerida, the most famous university in Catalonia, before he was 21. While there he published two treatises (Dialectic suppositions was one) that were well received. In 1373, he was sent to Barcelona to preach, despite the fact that he held only deacon’s orders. The city, laid low by a famine, was desperately awaiting overdue shipments of corn. Vincent foretold in a sermon that the ships would come before night, and although he was rebuked by his superior for making such a prediction, the ships arrived that day. The joyful people rushed to the priory to acclaim Vincent a prophet. The prior, however, thought it would be wise to transfer him away from such adulation.
Another story tells us that some street urchins drew his attention to one of their gang who was stretched out in the dust, pretending to be dead, near the port of Grao: “He’s dead, bring him back to life!” they cried.
“Ah,” replied Vincent, “he was playing dead but the, look, he did die.” This is how one definitely nails a lie: by regarding it as a truth. And it turned out to be true, the boy was quite dead. Everyone was gripped with fear. They implored Vincent to do something. God did. He raised him up.
In 1376, Vincent was transferred to Toulouse for a year, and continued his education. Having made a particular study of Scripture and Hebrew, Vincent was well-equipped to preach to the Jews. He was ordained a priest at Barcelona in 1379, and became a member of Pedro (Peter) Cardinal de Luna’s court–the beginning of a long friendship that was to end in grief for both of them. (Cardinal de Luna had voted for Pope Urban VI in 1378, but convinced that the election had been invalid, joined a group of cardinals who elected Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII later in the same year; thus, creating a schism and the line of Avignon popes.)
After being recalled to his own country, Vincent preached very successfully at the cathedral in Valencia from 1385-1390, and became famed for his eloquence and effectiveness at converting Jews–Rabbi Paul of Burgos, the future bishop of Cartagena was one of Vincent’s 30,000 Jewish and Moorish converts–and reviving the faith of those who had lapsed. His numerous miracles, the strength and beauty of his voice, the purity and clarity of his doctrine, combined to make his preaching effective, based as it was on a firm foundation of prayer.
Of course, Vincent’s success as a preacher drew the envy of others and earned him slander and calumny. His colleagues believed that they could make amends for the calumny by making him prior of their monastery in Valencia. He did withdraw for a time into obscurity. But he was recalled to preach the Lenten sermons of 1381 in Valencia, and he could not refuse to employ the gift of speech which drew to him the good and simple people as well as the captious pastors, the canons, and the skeptical savants of the Church.
Peter de Luna, a stubborn and ambitious cardinal, made Vincent part of his baggage, so to speak; because from 1390 on, Vincent preached wherever Peter de Luna happened to be, including the court of Avignon, where Vincent enjoyed the advantage of being confessor to the pope, when Peter de Luna became the antipope Benedict XIII in 1394.
Two evils cried out for remedy in Saint Vincent’s day: the moral laxity left by the great plague, and the scandal of the papal schism. In regard to the first, he preached tirelessly against the evils of the time. That he espoused the cause of the wrong man in the papal disagreement is no argument against Vincent’s sanctity; at the time, and in the midst of such confusion, it was almost impossible to tell who was right and who was wrong. The memorable thing is that he labored, with all the strength he could muster, to bring order out of chaos. Eventually, Vincent came to believe that his friend’s claims were false and urged de Luna to reconcile himself to Urban VI.
He acted as confessor to Queen Yolanda of Aragon from 1391 to 1395. He was accused to the Inquisition of heresy because he taught that Judas had performed penance, but the charge was dismissed by the antipope Benedict XIII, who burned the Inquisition’s dossier on Vincent and made him his confessor.
Benedict offered Vincent a bishopric, but refused it. Distressed by the great schism and by Benedict’s unyielding position, he advised him to confer with his Roman rival. Benedict refused. Reluctantly, Vincent was obliged to abandon de Luna in 1398. The strain of this conflict between friendship and truth caused Vincent to become dangerously ill in 1398. During his illness, he experienced a vision in which Christ and Saints Dominic and Francis instructed him to preach penance whenever and wherever he was needed, and he was miraculously cured.
After recovering, he pleaded to be allowed to devote himself to missionary work. He preached in Carpetras, Arles, Aix, and Marseilles, with huge crowds in attendance. Between 1401 and 1403, the saint was preaching in the Dauphiné, in Savoy, and in the Alpine valleys: he continued on to Lucerne, Lausanne, Tarentaise, Grenoble, and Turin. He was such an effective speaker that, although he spoke only Spanish, he was thought by many to be multilingual (the gift of tongues?). His brother Boniface was the prior of the Grande Chartreuse, and as a result of Vincent’s preaching, several notable subjects entered the monastery.
Miracles were attributed to him. In 1405, Vincent was in Genoa and preached against the fantastic head-dresses worn by the Ligurian ladies, and they were modified–“the greatest of all his marvelous deeds, reports one of his biographers. From Genoa, he caught a ship to Flanders. Later, in the Netherlands, an hour each day was scheduled for his cures. In Catalonia, his prayer restored the withered limbs of a crippled boy, deemed incurable by his physicians, named John Soler, who later became the bishop of Barcelona. In Salamanca in 1412, he raised a dead man to life. Perhaps the greatest miracle occurred in the Dauphiné, in an area called Vaupute, or Valley of Corruption. The natives there were so savage that no minister would visit them. Vincent, ever ready to suffer all things to gain souls, joyfully risked his life among these abandoned wretches, converted them all from their errors and vices. Thereafter, the name of the valley was changed to Valpure, or Valley of Purity, a name that it has retained.
He preached indefatigably, supplementing his natural gifts with the supernatural power of God, obtained through his fasting, prayers, and penance. Such was the fame of Vincent’s missions, that King Henry IV of England sent a courtier to him with a letter entreating him to preach in his dominions. The king sent one of his own ships to fetch him from the coast of France, and received him with the greatest honors. 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 to France, he did the same, from Gascony to Picardy.
The preaching of Saint Vincent became a strange but marvelously effective process. He attracted to himself hundreds of people–at one time, more than 10,000–who followed him from place to place in the garb of pilgrims. The priests of the company sang Mass daily, chanted the Divine Office, and dispensed the sacraments to those converted by Vincent’s preaching. Men and women travelled in separate companies, chanting litanies and prayers as they went barefoot along the road from city to city. They taught catechism where needed, founded hospitals, and revived a faith that had all but perished in the time of the plague.
The message of his preaching was penance, the Last Judgment, and eternity. Like another John the Baptist–who was also likened to an angel, as Saint Vincent is in popular art–he went through the wilderness crying out to the people to make straight the paths of the Lord. Fearing the judgment, if for no other reason, sinners listened to his startling sermons, and the most obstinate were led by him to cast off sin and love God. He worked countless miracles, some of which are remembered today in the proverbs of Spain. Among his converts were Saint Bernardine of Siena and Margaret of Savoy.
He returned to Spain in 1407. Despite the fact that Granada was under Moorish rule, he preached successfully, and thousands of Jews and Moors were said to have been converted and requested baptism. His sermons were often held in the open air because the churches were too small for all those who wished to hear him.
In 1414 the Council of Constance attempted the end the Great Schism, which had grown since 1409 with three claimants to the papal throne. The council deposed John XXIII, and demanded the resignation of Benedict XIII and Gregory XII so that a new election could be held. Gregory was willing, but Benedict was stubborn. Again, Vincent tried to persuade Benedict to abdicate. Again, he failed. But Vincent, who acted as a judge in the Compromise of Caspe to resolve the royal succession, influenced the election of Ferdinand as king of Castile. Still a friend of Benedict (Peter de Luna), King Ferdinand, basing his actions on Vincent’s opinion on the issue, engineered Benedict’s deposition in 1416, which ended the Western Schism.
(It is interesting to note that the edicts of the Council of Constance were thrown out by the succeeding pope. The council had mandated councils every ten years and claimed that such convocations had precedence over the pope.)
His book, Treatise on the Spiritual Life is still of value to earnest souls. In it he writes: “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 vigor 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.”
It seems that Vincent practiced what he preached. 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 with which to animate his listeners to penance and the love of God.
Saint Vincent also preached to Saint Colette and her nuns, and it was she who told him that he would die in France. Indeed, Vincent spent his last three years in France, mainly in Normandy and Brittany, and he died on the Wednesday of Holy Week in Vannes, Brittany, after returning from a preaching trip to Nantes. The day of his burial was a great popular feast with a procession, music, sermons, songs, miracles, and even minor brawls.
Born: 1350 at Valencia, Spain
Died: April 5th in 1419 at Vannes, Brittany , France
Patronage: brick makers; builders; Calamonaci, Italy; construction workers; pavement workers; plumbers; tile makers
Representation: cardinal’s hat; Dominican preacher with a flame on his hand; Dominican preacher with a flame on his head; Dominican holding an open book while preaching; Dominican with a cardinal’s hat; Dominican with a crucifix; Dominican with wings; flame; pulpit; trumpet