Lights of the World

Saint Francis de Sales puts the rule to St. Jane de Chantal by Bertrand François, in Toulouse Cathedral | bit.ly/3qOsn64

Lights of the World is TLC‘s occasional series of vignettes about saints who were newly added to Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018.

By Ryan Pollock

You’ve heard it said that fish don’t know that they swim, that birds don’t know they fly: some truths are so basic, so simply ever-present, that we don’t often think too deeply about them at all. That God works, and that God “works through people,” especially his own, is one of those truths so true it’s easy to forget.

Biographers of Jane de Chantal (1572-1641) note an early life characterized by loss and despondence: born in Dijon, France, she lost her mother before her second birthday, her husband before her 30th, and three of her children in infancy. Inheritance law required she take her remaining three children to her father-in-law’s estate, where she suffered the cruel inhospitality from him and his housekeeper. There she would stay for seven years, petitioning the Lord for a spiritual director, and the grace to forgive the man who had accidentally killed her husband. Nevertheless, her steadfast devotion during this period frequently shines through: “I abandon myself forever to Thy arms. Whether gentle or severe, lead me henceforth whither Thou wilt…”

Francis de Sales (1567-1622), so the story goes, was almost born a man of the law: known for his legal prowess from a young age. He was eventually given the unenviable bishopric at Geneva, stronghold of Calvinist ideology. Francis knew hardship, too, and while his life is not nearly as tragic as Jane’s, he did spend significant time hiding from assassins, and enduring beatings by the mob for his Catholic convictions. Nevertheless, he made it his mission to evangelize the “pretend reformers,” even those he imagined were staging a coup no better than biblical Absalom’s.

Jane met Francis during a series of Lenten sermons he gave at Dijon’s Saint Chappelle. One sermon in particular, on the virtues of forgiveness, opened her heart to forgive her husband’s killer. Overcome with gratitude, Jane asked if he would become her long-hoped-for spiritual director, and he agreed.

Francis shared with Jane his dream to establish an order of religious sisters dedicated to the virtues of Mary at the Visitation, and this dream quickly becomes hers too. This Congregation of the Visitation of Holy Mary would practice Mary’s humility and meekness, especially in their admittance of women religious who were much themselves in need of service – those in poor health and old age, those whom other parts of society would find easy to cast aside. The sisters would follow an Augustinian rule. Francis’ care for Jane and spiritual sisters would continue, and this can be seen especially in his lovely corpus of letters, including his famous Treatise on the Love of God.

Francis was declared a saint in 1665, Jane in 1767. There are today 130 autonomous monasteries of their Order, spread across the globe. If it’s not too much to say, Francis and Jane’s “chance” meeting reminds me of the Visitation itself. Because God works, and because God works through people, meeting the right person can change everything.

Ryan E. Pollock is a publisher with Best Version Media, a premed student, and a parishioner at St. Louis King of France Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.

Most Gracious God, who has bidden us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before you; Grant that we, like your servants Francis and Jane, may see and serve Christ in all people, and know him as the giver of all good things; Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.