Yesterday was the feast day for St. Vincent Ferrer. His feast day rolls around every year on April 5, although it wouldn’t be observed if it were on a Sunday, during Holy Week, or during Easter Week. The same could be said of St. Isidore (April 4) or St. John Baptiste de la Salle (April 7). Yet St. Vincent Ferrer got an awful lot of notice this year. It wasn’t a particularly significant anniversary of his death (592 years ago, yesterday), so I am genuinely puzzled as to why he got all of this sudden attention.
I don’t know much about St. Vincent, but I can’t call myself a fan because he got one of the biggest questions of his day wrong.
After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the cardinals elected a new pope, Urban VI. When Pope Urban VI didn’t do what the cardinals expected him to do, they tried to invalidate his election and elect a new pope who took the name Clement VII. There were two men who claimed to have been elected Bishop of Rome – one of them had to be an anti-pope. St. Vincent Ferrer backed Clement VII. St. Catherine of Siena supported Urban VI. Both St. Vincent and St. Catherine were Dominicans, and indeed, the whole Dominican order fractured at the time.
Eventually, there were three claimants to the papacy, which was reduced back down to two at the Council of Constance in 1415 and finally to one in 1429 (ten years after St. Vincent’s death). Today, most Catholic scholars acknowledge that Urban VI was legitimately elected and that the Office of St. Peter was handed down through his successors. In other words, St. Vincent was backing the wrong horse. Nevertheless, 36 years after his death, Vincent Ferrer was canonized by Pope Calixtus III.
The main things that I draw from this episode in Church history are that even a saint, with all the gifts of grace and holiness that is implied in that title can make wrong judgments; and making a wrong judgment about a person does not necessarily reflect negatively on an individual’s personal holiness. The most glaring modern example would be the judgment of Pope John Paul II regarding Fr. Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
It follows from this that I am wary of appeals to holiness and legitimacy by association. So, when somebody tells me that an alleged visionary’s confessor was a canonized saint, therefore her visions are legitimate, I immediately think of the counter-examples cited above. Vincent Ferrer might be a canonized saint today, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t follow the wrong pope during his life on earth.