Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Vincent Ferrer, the Spanish Dominican who spent most of his life traveling and preaching throughout Western Europe. Counselor to Popes and kings, miracle-worker, and a renowned preacher; St. Vincent was known as a great saint during his lifetime, and while he only preached in Spanish or Latin, everyone who heard his sermons could understand him. When he preached he was said to be able to reach the most hardened sinners. He was called another “Boanerges” (son of thunder) because of his fiery preaching style, and his sermons had the power that only comes through great sanctity and devotion to prayer and sacrifice. Despite the many miracles he worked, and his great fame throughout Europe while he lived, St. Vincent always remained extremely humble. He preferred simple people over the famous, and the solitude of a monastery over the splendor of the royal courts to which he was so often invited. There is much to be learned from this great saint, whose sanctity gave his words their ability to change hearts, and who remained simple and humble in the midst of worldly acclaim.
Early life and priesthood
St. Vincent was born in Valencia on January 23, 1357. He was the fourth child of Guillem Ferrer and his wife, Constanca Miguel. Before Vincent was born, Guillem had a dream in which a Dominican friar told him his son would be famous all over the world. Vincent’s parents were always generous towards the poor, giving what they had left over at the end of each year as alms. Vincent followed their example and always loved giving alms to the poor. From his childhood he had a devotion to Christ’s passion and he always fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. At the age of eight he began his classical studies, at fourteen he began to study theology and philosophy, and at 18 he joined the Dominicans. He took St. Dominic as his example, and he quickly made much progress in his studies and holiness. For three years straight he read only Sacred Scripture and he eventually memorized most of it. In 1379 he was ordained a priest at Barcelona, and he would go on to earn a doctorate in theology at the University of Lleida.
In 1384, when he was 28 years old and his studies were completed, he returned to Valencia. He taught and preached there, and traveled throughout Spain, gaining so much fame that his biographers say it would be difficult to describe the extraordinary impact he had on the Iberian Peninsula. During this time, Vincent experienced many temptations to impurity, which he combatted with prayer, penance, and a constant watchfulness over his passions. His heart was always focused on God, and he offered everything he did as a prayer—his studies, his work, and his preaching. He recommends this practice to the faithful in his “Treatise on the Spiritual Life,” where he writes, about studying:
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.
His biographers tell us that St. Vincent always composed his sermons at the foot of a crucifix, and that the usual subjects of his sermons were sin, death, God’s judgment, hell and eternity.
The Great Schism, Sickness, and a vision of Christ
St. Vincent lived during the Western Schism when there were two (and later three) claimants to the papacy. He was convinced that Clement VII, in Avignon, was the true Pope, while St. Catherine of Siena supported Urban VI in Rome. Although he supported Clement VII, and his predecessor, Benedict XII, Vincent worked tirelessly for reconciliation in the Church. When Benedict XIII refused to resign at the Council of Pisa or the Council of Constance, he lost most of his support, including Vincent’s, who said that the schism had such a negative effect on him that he became seriously ill at this time. It was during this illness that Vincent had a vision of Christ, St. Dominic de Guzman, and St. Francis of Assisi. After this vision he received many supernatural gifts, and he believed that he was a messenger of penance, an “angel of the apocalypse” sent to prepare the world for Judgment.
Traveling and preaching throughout Western Europe
After this vision, it seems that Vincent’s missionary zeal became stronger than ever. He traveled and preached in every province in Spain except Galicia, converting tens of thousands of people, and then he went to Provence, Italy, Germany and Flanders. By this time his fame had reached Henry IV, who wrote to him and asked him to come to England. Vincent went, and preached in all of the main towns of England, Scotland and Ireland. His sermons were always filled with Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church fathers, which he had committed to memory. As we see in so many of the saints, his sanctity and penance gave his words the power to change hearts. He sung mass every morning, preached two or three times every day, spent time hearing confessions, and prepared his sermon for the next day as he traveled from town to town. He never ate meat, fasted every day except Sunday, and slept on hay or small twigs at night. He was invited to the Kingdom of Granada, which was still under Moorish rule, so he set sail from Marseilles and preached throughout southern Spain with so much success that he was finally asked by the Muslim leaders to leave.
When he left Granada he went to Burgundy, and was invited to Brittany by the duke, John V. Vincent arrived in Vannes during Lent of 1417, and he would spend the last two years of his life travelling throughout Brittany and Normandy. By this time Vincent was sixty years old and he could barely walk by himself, but as soon as he stood at the pulpit he began to preach with the same strength and power in his voice as he had in his youth. He became ill during Lent in 1419. During his illness St. Vincent was completely absorbed in prayer, he never complained, and he only spoke to thank God for allowing him to share in Christ’s sufferings. After receiving the sacraments and having Our Lord’s Passion read aloud to him, he died on Wednesday of Holy Week, in Vannes, where his relics can be found in the Cathedral.
St. Vincent Ferrer was one of the greatest preachers the Church has ever known, but even if we are not called to evangelize on the same scale, there are a few important things we can take from his life and example to use in our own lives as we share the gospel in our individual way.
First, St. Vincent believed God had given him a specific mission, and he took that very seriously. Even if we have not been called to be an “angel of the apocalypse,” we each have a mission and it is important that we carry it out generously, the way he did. Second, the reason people listened to St. Vincent and the reason his words changed hearts was that God was able to speak through him. This was possible because he had grown close to God through prayer, penance, and love towards the poor; in short, St. Vincent was living the gospel message before he spoke it to anyone. Third, St. Vincent always remained humble no matter how much fame, renown, and success he had, and humility is the key to God’s heart. One can imagine that it was St. Vincent’s devotion to Christ’s passion and to Sacred Scripture that gave him this virtue in such abundance. This is a great lesson for us, for who can become familiar with Christ’s life and death without becoming more like him? As Christ himself had told us,
“Learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart.” Matthew 11:29