Like his fellow saint, Francis de Sales, who was his friend and contemporary, Vincent de Paul performed an invaluable service to the Catholic Church in a period of confusion and laxness. But unlike the aristocratic bishop of Geneva, Vincent was born in poverty, of peasant stock. His birthplace was Pouy, near Dax in Gascony, in southwest France; the year was 1576. Jean de Paul and Bertrande de Moras, his parents, were sturdy farming people who reared a family of four sons and two daughters. Observing young Vincent's quick intelligence, his father sent him to be educated by the Cordelier Brothers at Dax. When the boy had been at school for four years, a lawyer of the town engaged him as tutor to his children, thus enabling Vincent to go on with his studies without further expense to his parents. Vincent continued his education at the Spanish University of Saragossa, and then returned to France to attend the University of Toulouse. At the age of twenty-four he was ordained priest by' the bishop of Perigueux, but remained at Toulouse for another four years to take the degree of Doctor of Theology.
Beyond an aptitude for study and a certain persistence in achieving his ends, there is nothing in Vincent's life up to this time to suggest his future fame and sanctity. He now went on a short journey which was to change his whole life. The scholarly young priest was to be captured at sea by pirates and sold as a slave in Africa! This extraordinary happening came about in the following way. Vincent, having returned home after receiving his degree, went back to Toulouse to recover by process of law a small legacy which had been left him by an old woman of that city. Homeward bound, he made the trip from Marseilles to Narbonne by water, on board a small coastwise vessel. The ship was set upon by three brigantines manned by Barbary pirates, who were at this time a menace to all Mediterranean shipping. When the Christians refused to strike their flag, the infidels attacked them with arrows. Three were killed and several, including Vincent, were wounded. Those who remained alive were put in chains, and the pirates straightway sailed to Africa with their human cargo. Landing at Tunis, the pirates led their prisoners through the streets of the city, after which they were brought back to the vessel and sold to the highest bidder, like cattle. Vincent, bought by a fisherman, was sold again to an aged Moslem, a humane man, who had spent fifty years in search of the "philosopher's stone." He grew fond of his slave, to whom he gave long lectures on alchemy and Mohammedanism; he even promised to make Vincent his heir and also to communicate to him all the secrets of his science if he adopted the religion of Islam. The young priest, terrified that his faith would be corrupted in this alien environment, prayed for divine protection, particularly for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin.
Vincent continued firm in his faith and lived on with the old man until his death, when he became the property of his master's nephew, who soon sold him to a renegade Christian, a native of Nice. This man, a convert to Mohammedanism, had three wives, one of whom was a Turkish woman. She often wandered into the field where the new Christian slave was at work, and out of idle curiosity would ask him to sing songs in praise of his God. With tears running down his cheeks Vincent would obediently sing certain Psalms, among which was Psalm cxxxvii, "By the waters of Babylon," in which the Jews bewailed their captivity. The Turkish woman now began to reproach her husband for abandoning his religion, and kept on until, without herself accepting the faith, she made him return to it. He repented of his apostasy, and he and Vincent made their escape from Africa together. They crossed the Mediterranean safely in a small boat, landed near Marseilles, in June, 1607, then traveled up to Avignon. There the apostate confessed, and abjured Mohammedanism before the papal vice-legate. The following year, accompanied by Vincent, he went to Rome, where he entered the order of the Brothers of St. John of God, who serve in hospitals.
Vincent now returned to France and chanced to be brought to the attention of Queen Marguerite of Valois, who appointed him her almoner. This office gave him the income from a small abbey. For a time he lodged in the same house as a lawyer, who was one day robbed of a considerable sum. He openly charged Vincent with the theft and spoke against him to all his friends. Vincent did nothing save quietly deny the charge, adding, "God knows the truth." For six years he bore the slander, making no further denial, and at last the real thief confessed. Speaking as though the victim had been someone else, Vincent once told this story at a conference with his priests, in order to show that patience, silence, and resignation are generally the best defense of innocence.
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