Saturday, August 12, 2017

Baroness de Chantal

Today is the feast of St. Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot, Baronne de Chantal. She was born in 1572 to an important political family in Burgundy; she married the Baron of Chantal in 1592 and became active in helping him to manage his estate. He died in a hunting accident nine years later, and she took on the burden of managing the estate and raising their children as a widowed mother. A few years later, she met St. Francis de Sales and convinced him to become her spiritual director. They corresponded regularly, and St. Francis often shared parts of various treatises he was working on.

She eventually began working with St. Francis to build a new religious order, the Visitation of Holy Mary; it was a new kind of order, because the nuns were not intended to be cloistered, but active in the world, since part of the intent was for them to minister to people who could not leave their homes; unlike many religious orders, its rules were designed on the assumption that the elderly and the disabled might join. The problem, however, was that in an attempt to rein in the wild proliferation of religious orders, many of which were poorly thought out, the Counter-Reformation was cracking down on religious orders that did not have a clear structure and that deviated very far from the standard pattern. The Archbishop insisted on cloister; St. Jane Frances and the nuns protested; it went all the way up to the Pope, who sided with the Archbishop. So the nuns gave in. (It's a very good example of the trade-offs that inevitably arise in such matters; the rules being imposed on religious orders were very much needed, and yet St. Francis and St. Jane Frances were certainly right that there was a need for the religious order that they proposed. Two perfectly legitimate, perfectly reasonable lines of motivation, both of them truly concerned with the good of the Church, and both of them right in their way. But they were inconsistent with each other, and, as the ingenuity required to work around the inconsistency was lacking, one of them had to give.)

As superior general of the Visitationists, however, St. Jane Frances was active both in the order and in the convent by her correspondence, which became massive. We only have a tiny portion of it, but hundreds of her letters have survived, and they are virtually all very much worth reading. She was beatified in 1751 and canonized in 1767, and one of the reasons for it was her devotion through all states of life -- as a maiden, as a wife, as a mother, as a widow, as a nun.

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