A Sermon for Sunday: St Jean Frances de Chantal & Sunday XI Post Pentecost; Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

St. Jean Frances de Chantal/Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Jean Frances de Chantal, as well as commemorating the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. St. Jean de Chantal was the daughter of the president of the parlement of Burgundy. At the age of twenty she was married to Christopher de Rabutin, Baron de Chantal, a French army officer. They lived at his estate in Burgundy. She was able to put his household in order, was noted for charitable works and had several children. All seemed set for a long and happy marriage. In 1601 disaster struck. Her husband was tragically killed in a shooting accident. This left her a widow at an early age with a young family. She decided not to marry again and to live a celibate life. She lived for a time with her father and then with her father in law. However, it was far from clear how best to direct her energies for the rest of her life. In 1604 the decisive turning point came. She heard the great preacher St. Francis de Sales. She recognised him as the man she had once seen in a vision and he became her spiritual director. He advised her to continue to fulfil her duties as a mother to her young children and to her father and father in law, but to devote her time more to the religious life and works of charity. She believed that she had a vocation to become a nun, but St. Francis de Sales advised her to wait until her children were sufficiently grown up to take responsibility for themselves. In 1607 St. Francis finally formulated a plan for a new order called the Sisters of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary. It was inaugurated at Annecy in 1610. The aim of the order was to provide a means for women to enter the religious life who had been debarred from the existing orders for women, either because they were too young, or  too old, or their circumstances were deemed unsuitable. It was not intended to be an enclosed order so that the sisters were able to exercise an active ministry of charitable works. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with visionary plans, it encountered much opposition and St. Francis had to make it a more enclosed order (under the Augustinian rule) than was originally intended. Other convents were established and the order slowly grew. St. Jean continued to experience many trials and tribulations. Her son died in 1627 and there was a plague in France the following year. She often experienced a sense of spiritual dryness and desolation, but she persevered until her death in 1641 at the age of sixty nine.

There is much to learn from the life of St. Jean de Chantal today. Her perseverence in the face of adversity was remarkable. The tragic death of her husband at such an early age could have broken her. She found it difficult to forgive her husband’s killer, but gradually was able to establish relations with him and eventually even became the god mother to his son. Though she recognised that she was now called to celibacy she did not use this as a pretext to abandon her responsibilities to her young family. It was necessary to be patient and to wait until her children were grown up and able to take responsibility for themselves. That being said, she did not use her duties to her family as a pretext for neglecting her religious observances and charitable works of mercy towards others. In this she benefited from the advice and spiritual direction of St. Frances de Sales. He always emphasised in both his preaching and life that the best way of spreading the gospel was by exercising charity towards others. It was through his wise advice that she was able to overcome the opposition of her family to her becoming a nun. This was because she followed his advice of not abandoning her duties to her family before her children were sufficiently mature to take responsibility for themselves. It was only then that she entered a religious order. She was devoted to her vocation as a mother with responsibility to bring up her children, but she was faithful to God first. She was faithful to her religious calling, but not in such a way as to be brought into irreconcilable opposition to her family.

It is always difficult to get the balance right between taking a stand on principle and being pragmatic about what is actually possible in a given situation. If we never take a stand on anything and always compromise we are in danger of not being faithful to our own distinctive vocation. On the other hand, if we make everything a matter of principle and never compromise over anything we will find ourselves continually at odds with everyone else, since any disagreement they have with us  will become a matter of principle. Perhaps the most difficult area to know where to get this balance right is over relations with our own families, especially if they (or some of them) do not share our faith. We must strive to find a balance between principle and pragmatism. We must not allow our responsibilities towards them to divert us away from our religion, but also must not make our religion an unnecessary obstacle to good relations with them. If we always strive to exercise charity towards others, even if they are hostile to us, it is possible that their attitude may change over time. It is the case that love attracts miracles. Goodness is of its very nature expansive, in that charity suffereth long and is kind, rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth. The great miracle that was wrought in the case of St. Jean de Chantal was that she was brought into contact with St. Frances de Sales and this became a case of heart speaking to heart. Together they were able to work the miracle of establishing a new order. They persevered and adapted in the face of narrow minded opposition from those who could not accept an order that did not fit into the existing established categories. In practice, this meant that they had to compromise by establishing a more enclosed order than they originally intended. It was again necessary to be pragmatic about what was realistically possible in the situation.

Above all St. Jean de Chantal used the trials and tribulations of her life as opportunities. Though she  often spoke of spiritual dryness she did not allow her difficulties to make her bitter and remorseful about her sufferings. In this she was a faithful servant of him who came not to serve, but to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Let us pray that we may be enabled by the grace of God to persevere in our own trials and tribulations today, knowing that all things work together for good to them that love God.

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