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St. Vincent Ferrer, Pray For Us

St. Vincent Ferrer, Pray For Us

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), “Altarpiece of St. Vincent Ferrer” (photo: Public Domain)

St. Vincent Ferrer is among the most important, and most forgotten, saints of the early Dominican order.

I first learned about St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) about 40 years ago, when I happened by chance to enter one of the most beautiful churches in New York City. If you have never been and prayed there, go to the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on New York’s Upper East Side — 869 Lexington Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets. It is a neo-Gothic jewel in which the spiritual life of the parish gleams as much as does the architectural gem itself. It is a wonderful spiritual home in the Big Apple. (If you’re in New York, note the extended five-hour Reconciliation schedule in the afternoon and evening of April 11).

The Shrine and statue of St. Vincent Ferrer is in the right rear of his namesake Manhattan parish.

St. Vincent Ferrer was among the most important saints of the early Dominican order, yet in many ways he is today often the most forgotten. As one art historian commented, one will occasionally see a reference to “a Dominican saint” in some depiction and, not infrequently, that saint is Vincent Ferrer.

St. Vincent Ferrer was born in the mid-14th century in Valencia on the eastern coast of Spain. He joined the Dominicans at 17. His family was knighted for its role in the liberation of Valencia from Muslim rule. His brother was a leader of the Carthusian order. Vincent studied or taught in Barcelona, Lérida and Toulouse.

He lived during the time of the Western Schism, when competing popes and antipopes lived in Rome and Avignon. St. Vincent supported the Avignon antipope, Benedict XIII, a schism that lasted until 1417, but worked tirelessly for the unity and healing of the Church.

Two distinguishing features about St. Vincent Ferrer make him relevant to us: his focus on judgment and Penance.

St. Vincent is often called the “apostle of Judgment.” In a Europe wracked by religious division and serious plagues, pandemics, and famines, St. Vincent Ferrer reminded people of divine judgment. His motto, often depicted near him (in case you were wondering who that “anonymous” Dominican is) as “Timete Deum et date illi honorem quia venit hora iudicii eius” [“Fear God and give honor to him for the hour of judgment is coming”]. He traveled across Europe—southern France, adjacent regions of Switzerland, northern Italy down through Genoa, and across the Iberian peninsula—preaching repentance and hearing Confessions. He was Apostolic Penitentiary in the Avignon court, and later confessor to the Queen of Aragón, but bringing the healing reconciliation of Christ to all peoples was Vincent’s forte. He set other souls on fire for Christ, too: St. Bernadine of Siena was touched by Vincent.

He was also responsible for thousands of conversions: of Muslims, Jews (a rabbi convert became a future bishop), Cathari, and Waldensians. (Cathari and Waldensians were heretics who were concentrated primarily in southern France and who espoused various dualist doctrines). St. Vincent practiced what he preached: although he may have rubbed elbows with popes and counseled the succession of kings in Spain, he lived an ascetic life and practiced severe penance. His penitents often followed him, wanting to remain under his spiritual guidance.

Death eventually found him in Brittany, that peninsula in the west of France that juts into the Atlantic: he had been preaching across that region from 1417 onwards. One sign of his spiritual impact was the rapidity with which he was canonized: Vincent was raised to the altar in 1455.

Our saint is depicted in an altarpiece by Domenico Ghirlandaio, the Florentine Renaissance painter among whose students was one Michelangelo. The altarpiece, in the Rimini City Museum, places St. Vincent front and center, dressed in the traditional Dominican habit: a white tunic with a black cappa, or hooded wool cape that was typically used during travel and to stay warm. Vincent’s cappa somewhat conceals his scapular and wholly covers the white capuce (the hooded shoulder cape). (Dominicans also wear a leather belt and a rosary but these, too, are concealed on Vincent. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Dominican habit influenced the white cassock today typically worn by the Pope. On the Dominican habit, see here.)

St. Vincent holds a book with his left hand, bearing his motto (“Timete Deum…”). His right hand points to heaven and to God the Father, who crowns the whole altar piece, with his own book in hand, bearing the Greek letters alpha and omega, the First and the Last: see Rev. 22:13. Over Vincent’s right shoulder and also above his pointed finger is the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom Dominicans have always cultivated a great devotion.

St. Vincent is framed by two saints: to his right, with arrows sticking out of him, is the late third century Saint Sebastian, martyred under Diocletian. Roman soldiers were ordered to use him for target practice, but he actually managed to survive; when he was discovered alive after being nursed back to health, he was beaten to death. He is often considered the protector against plague, an association relevant to Vincent’s times. On Vincent’s left is St. Roch, a contemporary of Vincent’s, who was also revered both for miraculously driving the plague from many towns in Italy and his native France as well as to ministering to and often miraculously healing those afflicted by it.

The four kneeling figures, as is traditional in paintings of this era, are from the Malatesta family, the sponsors of the artwork who obviously were devoted to their patron, St. Vincent Ferrer. (According to one art historian, Ghirlandaio accepted the commission for the work in 1493, just prior to his death the following year, and so various hands were part of its execution, even if the overall composition was likely projected by Ghirlandaio. The eventual sum for the work was depreciated by an episcopal court because the work of those other hands was deemed inferior to Domenico Ghirlandaio’s).

In our own day, having experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be able to relate to the focus of St. Vincent Ferrer’s day on the plague and accompanying mortality. St. Vincent and his companions did not retreat from encounter with God’s people but, instead, honestly made people aware of God, his judgments, and human mortality. For a saint who lived more than 600 years ago, he’s amazingly contemporary.

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