Each of the major biographies of Vincent de Paul, one each in four centuries, interprets the life of the saint from a special perspective linked to the author’s time.
The first major biography was written by Louis Abelly (1604-1691). It was commissioned by the Congregation of the Mission and published in 1664. Its purpose was to gather information about its subject before eyewitnesses died or lost their memories of him. The overarching purpose, however, was to prepare for his eventual canonization. For this reason Abelly divided his presentation into three section: life, works and virtues, corresponding to the Church’s categories. Abelly worked with a team of Vincentians who wrote to many of Vincent’s contemporaries to solicit information. The team undoubtedly arranged the materials but Abelly wrote the introductory sections that presented the submitted texts.
Abelly’s biography proved to be too long and he decided to cut one of the sections and, in the process, he edited most of the work. Changes are visible on nearly every page. This second edition was published in 1667. These two editions gave rise to many other versions in various languages and have shaped the popular understanding of the saint.
The second major biography was by Pierre Collet, C.M., (1793-1770) published in 1748. The author was not a biographer but rather a theologian, commissioned by the Congregation to write this work. Nevertheless, he took Abelly’s materials along with other original materials that had come to light since 1664 and arranged the whole into a strictly chronological presentation. His guiding principle was that Vincent de Paul, now canonized, had been a saint throughout his entire life. Collet’s selection of texts and information proved that thesis, which was especially directed against Jansenists. Numerous abridgements of this biography were made in the nineteenth century and these were publishing in many European languages.
The third major biography was written by Michel Ulysse Maynard (1814-1893), a diocesan priest and well-known author in nineteenth century France. Maynard was able to use the sources of the Vincentian archives, but he showed a lack of historical finesse when he reported as facts many events that, even in his time, were regarded as pious fabrications. He did so to present the ideal man to nineteenth century readers. Maynard’s work, however, places Vincent de Paul in the context of his time and the biography has much useful information not found elsewhere. The work was published in 1860, to honor the bicentennial of the saint’s death.
The fourth major biography was the work of Pierre Coste, C.M. (1873-1935). Before writing it, he prepared an up-to-date edition of the writings of Vincent de Paul in 14 volumes. He then turned to the biography, published in 1932. It was soon translated into Italian and English. Rich in historical context and details, it presents his subject nearly encyclopedically, but free of legends. His subtitle, “The Great Saint of the Great Century,” offered a model to criticize the work: Too much of the Great Century, too little of the Great Saint. Nonetheless, Coste’s careful and analytical work cannot be overlooked.
Apart from the major biographies listed above, there are others of particular interest: Michel Ulysse Maynard, Arthur Loth, José María Román, C.M., and Jaime Corera, C.M.
John E. Rybolt, C.M.