August 12: Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, Religious

Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of widows and parents separated from their children


<<<      An aristocratic widow’s grief is transformed into love of God      >>>

Today’s saint was well born and acted like it. She was educated, refined, beautiful, witty, and wealthy. She married a baron, lived in his castle, and together they raised four children. But then tragedy struck like lightning. Her husband was killed in a hunting accident. Jane was a widow at just twenty-eight. She found it nearly impossible to forgive the man who had caused her husband’s death. Grief and anger consumed her. But in 1604 she heard a homily that she needed to hear, from a wise, holy bishop who spoke with great erudition, passion, and eloquence. It was the great Saint Francis de Sales on one of his endless tours across Southern France. He was in Dijon, Jane’s homeland, and she saw in him the embodiment of the spiritual guide whom God had promised her in a mysterious vision. The two bonded in a holy friendship not unknown among the saints and remained close until de Sales’ death.

Jane de Chantal wanted to become a nun, but Francis dissuaded her…for the time being. Once she had provided for her children and taken care of various practical matters, she was finally ready to uproot herself and move to Annecy, near Geneva, Switzerland, to start a Congregation of religious sisters. Her fourteen-year-old son was rightly perplexed at his mother’s decision to leave him for God, even though Jane had arranged for the boy to be cared for by Jane’s brother, a bishop. In one of history’s most poignant, yet humorous, illustrations of Christ’s commandment to leave father and mother and wife and children for Him, the boy dramatically blocked his mother’s departure for the convent by lying on the floor across the threshold of the door. A priest in the room asked Jane if her son’s tears would change her mind. “No,” Jane replied, “but still, I am a mother.” She cried, and then stepped over her son’s supine body, and left. Moved? Yes, definitely. Deterred? No. Not in the least.

Jane Frances de Chantal founded the Congregation of the Visitation in 1610. Its sisters were often women who had been unwelcome in other religious congregations due to illness, age, or the inability to live the strict life of penance and fasting required in most convents. The Visitation nuns’ initial active apostolates were eventually curtailed in favor of a cloistered existence based on the traditional rule of Saint Augustine. Saints Francis and Jane prized two virtues in their nuns above all others: humility and gentleness. The Annecy Visitation Convent grew into a magnet for Catholic aristocrats, princes, and princesses attracted to Jane’s practical savoir-faire, charm, gentility, and holiness.

After the death of Saint Francis de Sales in 1622, Jane destroyed all of the correspondence they had exchanged over the years. They were truly co-founders of the Visitation order and spiritual twins. Incredibly, another spiritual giant, Saint Vincent de Paul, replaced Francis de Sales as Jane’s spiritual director. Jane grew in holiness behind the walls of her cloister and developed a reputation as a saint, one which she rejected. After many physical and interior sufferings, she died a holy death, was beatified in 1751, and canonized in 1767. She was indeed rewarded by Christ a hundredfold for having cut ties with her family. There were eighty-six Visitation convents established by the time of Jane’s death, and the Order continued to expand after she died. Visitation convents are still present in many countries throughout the world. Saint Jane Frances de Chantal is buried in a sumptuous golden tomb in the Visitandine church in Annecy, just a few feet from the tomb of her holy mentor, Saint Francis de Sales.

Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, your commitment to God grew out of grief over your husband’s untimely death. May we convert every sadness, loss, and trial in our lives toward the good, redirecting our hurts into an ever more intense love of God. Amen.

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