Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Vincent De Paul: The Trailblazer

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Vincent De Paul: The Trailblazer

Article excerpt

Vincent de Paul: The Trailblazer. By Bernard Pujo. Translated by Gertrud Graubart Champe. (Notre Dame, Indiana: The University of Notre Dame Press. 2003. Pp. xiii, 329. $40.00.)

For more than three centuries, most biographies of Vincent de Paul have been distorted by tenacious hagiographic myths. Untangling the Vincent of myth from the Vincent of history, and understanding the Vincent of history within the contest of his faith, life, and times in seventeenth-century France has been an elusive achievement.

Bernard Pujo has written a popular biography of Monsieur Vincent that presents him as a "Trailblazer." The work's greatest strengths emerge in the author's descriptions of the political realities of seventeenth-century France. For example, his explanations of the Fronde, and France's interminable continental warfare are particularly well done.

While the author gives wonderfully vivid accounts of Vincent's trailblazing, a realistic and convincing portrait of the trailblazer as a person, priest, reformer, founder, and servant of the poor is not achieved. This failure to come to grips with the complexities of the trailblazer's personal story weakens the story of his trailblazing.

The work's other faults are the result of a non-specialist writing in an area in which he is only marginally acquainted, while uncritically relying on a relatively small number of largely French sources.

Pujo correctly portrays the young Vincent de Paul as an ambitious, intelligent, talented, ecclesiastical climber of average faith and unremarkable piety hailing from a modest farming family with modest connections. Pujo's story of how this unremarkable Vincent de Paul became the great Monsieur Vincent is in the end an entirely unconvincing rehashing of the myths dating from the saint's first biographer, Louis Abelly. These myths have been largely discredited by contemporary Vincentian historians.

One example is the saint's famous "Tunisian Captivity" based on Vincent's autograph accounts of his capture by the Barbary pirates and his being held as a slave in North Africa for two years, before a miraculous escape in a skiff across the Mediterranean. …

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