The modernity of Saint Vincent Ferrer revealed on the occasion of the VIth Centenary of his death

fr. Simone Garavaglia, Dominican novice, Milan

Reading books such as Saint Vincent Ferrer's "treatise on the spiritual life", it is immediately clear that this is a real treasure to be discovered. The teachings collected in this booklet show a holiness lived in an extraordinary way. It is as if Saint Vincent wanted to show the reader "viatore", the "narrow" path he too followed in the footsteps of Christ, in imitation of the Apostles, so as not to get lost in the vicissitudes of the world. We can then start from there to sketch brief notes on the life of Saint Vincent Ferrer, undoubtedly one of the most dazzling models of holiness and the perpetual incarnation of the Dominican vocation.

A Carthusian monk from Serra San Bruno, Dom François de Sales Pollien, invited those who wanted to follow a path of spiritual perfection with authenticity not to read the lives of the saints, but "the writings of the saints, for it is there that they are revealed in the depths of themselves". We can then start with them to draw brief biographical notes of San Vincenzo Ferrer. 

In the preface to the treatise, Saint Vincent wrote: "He who therefore proposes to do good to souls and to edify his neighbour by his words, must first of all possess in him what he intends to teach others"; in this incipit there is a lot of St Dominic, a lot of the Apostles, and one can also see a lot of Christ! Saint Vincent is an emblematic saint for the Order, and for the whole Church - in which he is inserted - because he is a brilliant example of a tireless apostolic life that never stops returning to the source.

Vincenzo Ferrer was born in Valencia around 1350 and entered the Order of Preachers at the age of eighteen. It did not take long for his virtuosity to begin to manifest itself; he immediately distinguished himself. He undertook philosophical and theological studies in Barcelona and Toulouse, immediately demonstrating his great intellectual talents. In a short time, as early as 1385, he became a professor of Philosophy and, later, of Theology in Valencia.

An essential step in the saint's life was his meeting with the Aragonese Cardinal Pedro Martínez de Luna, which took place in 1379 at the court of Peter the Ceremonious. To understand the reasons, we have to go back a little bit.

The Western Christian panorama, at the dawn of this extremely dramatic period  of time - from 1378 to 1417 - is better known as the "Western schism". At that time, on March 27, 1378, Pope Gregory XI died, he who, in 1377, had brought the papal seat back to Rome. The newly elected Pope, the Archbishop of Bari Bartolomeo Frignano, an Italian, as had been loudly and clearly demanded, ascended to the papal throne under the name of Urban VI. 

Shortly afterwards, disputes arose with some French cardinals, who did not recognize the validity of the election; Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII, was therefore elected pontiff; shortly afterwards, he returned to Avignon where he established his own curia. When Clement VII died in 1398, the "pro-Avignonnais" cardinals elected Cardinal Pedro Martínez de Luna, already papal legate of the Pope of Avignon, as Pope Benedict XIII. Considering the knowledge accumulated over time with the preacher Ferrer, who, in a climate of deep instability, sided with the Pope of Avignon, the newly elected Pope did not hesitate to name him as his confessor and apostolic penitentiary. He was also Master of the Sacred Palace. 

In 1398, suffering from a serious illness, he had an apparition of Christ, accompanied by St Dominic and St Francis, during which he was told: "I have chosen you to make you an eminent messenger of the Gospel". Go around the world: I will be with you". He recovers completely after this appearance.

The following year, still because of disagreements with Pope Benedict XIII, he left for an itinerant preaching that was to occupy him, we can say, until his death.

He travelled extensively in large parts of Europe, his preaching was concentrated largely in northern Italy, particularly in Genoa, Savona, Piacenza, Milan, Alessandria, the high valleys of Piedmont and the Monferrato region, as well as in Spain and southern France, especially in Provence. 

If we want to identify the pillars that characterized the Saint's preaching, we can say that they relate to the need for penance as well as to the imminence of judgment. He therefore called for contrition, for the reform of customs and the Church, and vehemently invited Christians to a profound conversion, often mentioning the imminent coming of the Antichrist; his preaching took on a truly apocalyptic tone - which is why he was defined "the Angel of the Apocalypse", especially from 1409, the year of the Council of Pisa, when the third Pope Alexander V was elected; this fact contributed to further accentuating the fractures of the Church. In fact, it was only in 1417, with the Council of Constance, that the Church returned to unity.

At the same time, he performed thousands of miracles and never ceased to have an active and constant role at the diplomatic level in bringing the Church back to unity. He died on April 5, 1419, at the age of 69, in Vannes, Brittany.

Here are therefore some very brief biographical notes of this great Saint of the Order. 

Let us now turn to the model of holiness embodied by Saint Vincent Ferrer; how can we still say today with absolute certainty, after about seven hundred years, that it seems to be of extraordinary relevance? The keys to interpretation could be innumerable; this proposal is one of them. Saint Vincent Ferrer made the Mission his life.  It was a mission, a preaching, which indirectly reminds us how deadly activism and philanthropy are for the Church today. In the form of false but seductive charity, they give the illusion of affirming that they "do good" to others. The risk is that they rather act as "plants" that are difficult to distinguish when planted, being recognizable only by their fruit - to remain in botany, as a chestnut and horse chestnut tree. Today, in an ecclesial reality in which, as we "leave", we often forget the reason why we "leave", sometimes confusing the evangelizing mission of the Church (Christ's missionary mandate - cf. Mt 28:19-20), into a kind of humanitarian mission, in the style of an NGO, Saint Vincent Ferrer brings us back to the dimension of "being". Before going out and being bearers of this missionary joy, that of the Gospel, which the preacher is called to give to the world by giving himself first of all for this purpose, it is impossible to ignore the invitation of the psalmist: "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 45), as well as the message of the prophet Elijah, that is, he who "stands before God" (cf. 1 Kings 17:1). The greatest missionaries of the Gospel, among whom St. Vincent Ferrer is mentioned, were truly "thirsty for Christ". Christ is the source of this living water that quenches thirst (cf. Jn 4:14), the Apostles drew from this source with all their hands, bringing this water to the thirst of the earth. The holy preachers certainly did not go out blind, they first tasted Christ, then they brought the taste of Christ, that is, Christ himself. Saint Vincent Ferrer had become deeply imbued with this Redeemer who preached, reaping countless fruits, precisely because, before learning from him, he had set about following him authentically. He understood that the school of Christ is the school of Love, in which one learns to love, one perceives the profound meaning of this love, to such an extent that one cannot help but involve one's neighbour in it in order to feel oneself a loved son (cf. Eph 1:4). 

Today, then, it is first of all Saint Vincent who, despite the tribulations and scandals that mark the Church, invites us to return to the essence of preaching, Charity. The preacher thus becomes a fervent instrument through which the Church experiences the marvellous "elusive element" of the announced Word, through which the seed cast by a peasant having a faith illuminated by charity towards his neighbour, grows and germinates, whether one watches or sleeps (cf. Mk 4:26-29), with the regenerative help of the Spirit.

According to the advice of the Carthusian monk mentioned above, when returning to Saint Vincent Ferrer's "treatise", one cannot help but perceive how much this saint started from the essence - the book itself expresses essential truths - i. e. that he founded his itinerant mission on a Rock, which despite the storm of the schism has remained solid. The whole text, a reflection of the life of the Saint, not only provides a concrete itinerary of perfection, but also demonstrates the authenticity of his life: a total conformation to Christ, poor, humble and obedient. 

This may seem paradoxical, but Saint Vincent Ferrer, the true "son" of Saint Dominic, who was a tireless itinerant preacher, invites us to stop, not to run in all directions, convinced that we bring what we do not know, to witness a sterile ideology. "To stop" and "to stand before God" then become the means that illuminate the Source, the path to reach it, so that we can show them to our neighbor, thirsting for eternity and therefore for salvation.