Liam suggested we meet the founder of the Visitation sisters. A good choice, I think. And while she wasn’t on poor terms with most clergy, she did have a few obstacles in her life.
As a young noblewoman, Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal already had a reputation of devotion to works of charity and of reverence for the liturgy. She was widowed at age 28 while raising four children. A few years after this tragedy, she met a traveling preacher who happened to be the Bishop of Geneva. He is known today as Saint Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. Their meeting is depicted in Sainte-Pierre Cathedral in Annecy.
Jeanne-Françoise confided in her new spiritual director a desire to become a nun. But he steered her away from this choice while her children were still young. Instead she took a personal vow of chastity and of obedience to Bishop Francis.
Her spiritual director had conceived of a place for women in ministry, and perhaps he had this widow in mind all along. The two founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in 1610 in Annecy, France, twenty-two miles south of Geneva. The women were to be drawn from among those who had been rejected from other religious communities because of ill health, or because they were older. Widows too were welcomed, as were people who desired to live a religious life but lacked the physical endurance for the rigors of life in the 17th century convent.
Unlike nearly all existing women’s communities of that day, there would be no cloister. The women would serve the needy materially and spiritually, attending to the works of mercy, living among people, especially the poor.
And for six years, the fledgling institute worked. Jeanne-Françoise was criticized for her work among the poor. Once when confronted, she is reported to have said, “What do you want me to do? I like sick people myself; I’m on their side.”
In a way, her Visitation Order echoed the service of the Beguines in earlier centuries. She was fortunate to have Francis de Sales as her director. His acclaimed An Introduction to the Devout Life was written for the encouragement of lay people toward holiness. His Treatise on the Love of God was written for Jeanne-Françoise and the Visitation women.
Like today’s Church, other Catholics were not as open to the idea of religious women serving in the world. The Archbishop of Lyons, Denis-Simon de Marquemont, ordered all Visitation women to the cloister in 1616. Francis de Sales was unable to convince him otherwise.
Acceding to the dictate of the archbishop was in keeping with the virtue of Jeanne-Françoise. This summary from the Visitation USA web page is quite lovely:
In place of numerous external austerities, the founders of the Visitation invite us to an interior discipline where love has a paramount place. This love is to be expressed primarily through the practice of two virtues: humility and gentleness.
Another saintly friend, a certain parish priest, Vincent de Paul, wrote this of Jeanne-Françoise:
(S)he suffered such interior trials that she often told me her mind as so filled with all sorts of temptations and abominations that she had to strive not to look within herself…But for all that suffering her face never lost its serenity, nor did she once relax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.
Women today are free for religious life in convents and homes, behind walls or outside of them, with sisters or with husbands and children. Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal showed the way. And while the archbishop of Lyons is forgotten, Jeanne-Françoise is counted among the saints. She walked and talked with them while on Earth. She exemplified the virtues of Christ and of his mother. Worthy women worldwide venerate her as a role model. We would probably all do better to adhere a little closer to her style and outlook. I suppose I would.
The Basilique de la Visitation in Annecy: