Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot de Chantal

In the United States, today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot, Baronne de Chantal. I say "in the United States" because a series of mishaps has led to her date being moved around. In the Extraordinary Form calendar, it is August 21. St. Jeanne died on December 13, so when the Ordinary Form calendar was developed, they moved it to December 12 -- December 13 already being occupied by one of the oldest and most important of the Roman saints, the virgin martyr St. Lucy. But in the U.S., the patronal feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe occurs on December 12, so the U.S. bishops got permission for the U.S. to commemorate her on August 18. But in 2001, Rome changed its mind and decided it should be August 12. And so we find her here.

Jane Francis was born in 1572; at the age of 21 she married the Baron de Chantal. They had seven very good years together, but in 1580, the Baron was killed in a hunting accident, and the Baroness found herself widowed at age 28 with four children. Despite being heartbroken at the loss, she took things in hand and became famous for the business savvy with which she managed the estates she had inherited from her husband as well as for the generosity with which she supported the poor. She considered becoming a nun. In 1604, however, she fatefully met Francis de Sales, and they hit it off marvelously; he became her spiritual director. St. Francis argued that a person of her capacities needed a vocation that was more active than that of a nun would usually have been. He eventually recommended that she might instead form a sort of society of women who were not bound by vows; they would only be in cloister for their early formation, and afterward would be out in the world helping the sick and poor. This eventually grew into a formal religious order, the Congregation of the Visitation, which, because of the unusually flexibility built into its structure, was able to take in women who could not, for one reason or other, join another religious order. St. Francis and St. Jane found considerable resistance to the Visitationists, however, and under considerable pressure from the bishops of the day were forced to turn it into a more conventional religious order. But the order nonetheless thrived, in part due to outside support arising from Jane's continuing reputation for good money management. After the death of Francis de Sales, Jane's spiritual director was St. Vincent de Paul. Thus the Visitationists were a major part of the expansion of what has come to be called the French School, which in great measure dominates Catholic culture throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. St. Jane died in 1641, leaving behind an extensive correspondence that has always made her one of the possible candidates for Doctor of the Church (which she has not, however, been given). The Baroness is a saint who went through every state of life that was possible to a woman in her day -- daughter, wife, mother, widow, nun -- and excelled at them all due to her very practical approach to life, which allowed her to combine a playful spirit with profound priorities and to infuse everyday life with an intense religious devotion.

The first Visitationist convent in the U.S. was founded in 1799, and it is still up and running.

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