From eternity, St. Jane de Chantal continues the mission begun on this earth together with St. Francis de Sales: to prevent the bonds of love that unite chosen souls to Heaven from being broken.
The former Baroness de Chantal enters the church of the Monastery of Annecy, no longer clothed in the ornaments of former days, but adorned with the virtues that distinguish her in the governance of the Order of the Visitation. She approaches the coffin where St. Francis de Sales lies.
Unfortunately – or perhaps providentially – this faithful disciple did not have the opportunity to see him at the moment of his death, to hear a piece of advice that he might pass on to his spiritual daughters, to receive a last gaze from the guide who left her forever… These two great Saints who, together, marked history with their close affiliation, were separated without farewells. Why? To purify their affection in the fire of confidence and make it similar to the sublime love that envelops the Blessed Trinity.
Kneeling beside the inert body of the Bishop of Geneva, St. Jane sighs in her heart for a final gesture of fatherly affection. At a certain point, she reverently takes his hand and places it on her head, and to the surprise and astonishment of the nuns who witness the scene, he immediately responds to that manifestation of esteem with the sweetness that had so characterized him in life, caressing his daughter’s head for several moments!
This miraculous event – which some claim took place before the burial of St. Francis de Sales in January 1623, and others situate in August 1632, when the remains of the Holy Prelate were exhumed and found incorrupt – illustrates the intensity of the love that united the two Saints on earth, to the point of transcending the limits of eternity.
A girl with a strong and lively spirit
Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot de Chantal was born in Dijon, on January 23, 1572, during the pontificate of St. Pius V. Her father was the magistrate Bénigne Frémyot and her mother, Marguerite de Berbisey, died when the girl was only eighteen months of age, leaving behind three children to the care of her spouse.
A few hours after coming into the world, the infant girl was baptized with the name of Jane, in honour of the Blessed commemorated on that day, St. John the Almoner. Years later, when anointed with the holy oil of Confirmation, she was given the name Frances, in homage to the sweet Poverello of Assisi.
Unlike her sister Margaret, two years older, Jane was an extremely vivacious child. Just when her father thought she was busy with her daily duties under the eye of her governess, he might be surprised to find her running after chickens in the barn, while her little three-year-old brother Andrew cried, startled by the tremendous commotion created by Jane’s mischief.
While the firstborn took pleasure in sewing, embroidery, and music, and Andrew in reading, Jane preferred horseback riding and asking her father questions, drawing him into filial debates. Her relatives even commented on the lack of femininity they felt she displayed, thinking it was due to her mother’s absence. However, the father sensed something deeper in his daughter’s way of being, and so he defended her and reinforced the strength of spirit that she showed in little everyday actions.
Her modesty, for example, stood out when she was among girls her age. To her humility were united a combative purity and vigilance, which gave her a horror of everything that might separate her from God, especially people of bad character. She had such an aversion to heretics that when such persons took the little child into their arms to carry her, she would begin to scream until they let her go!
“This is how they will burn in hell…”
Among the episodes that marked her childhood, one draws special attention for revealing to what degree her external attitudes were a reflection of an innocence that was never tolerant towards evil.
One day, when Jane was only five years old, her father was at home arguing with a Calvinist pastor, who explicitly denied the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Upon hearing this, the girl – who was following the conversation from a distance – declared to the heretic, without human respect and with the determination of a preacher: “Our Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament, because He himself said it. If you wish to deny what He has said, you make a liar of Him.”
Seeking to earn the good graces of the little one, the Calvinist gave her some caramel candies. But Jane immediately threw them into the fire, declaring: “This is how the heretics, who do not believe what Jesus Christ said, will burn in hell.”1
“Virtus vulnere virescit”
In her adolescent years, Jane’s golden innocence took on the crimson hue of trial, as she witnessed the devastation resulting from the religious wars in her homeland. Churches were destroyed, and crosses could be seen cast into the streets. Quite often the girl showed how much she suffered contemplating this scenario, shedding discreet tears.
When Bénigne Frémyot decided that the time had come for his daughter to start a family, he recommend Christophe de Rabutin, the Baron of Chantal, as a spouse. She serenely assented, trusting in her father’s discernment.
“Virtus vulnere virescit – courage grows stronger with a wound.” This motto, which the Baron of Chantal displayed on his coat of arms, reached perhaps its maximum form of expression when the bonds of marriage united Jane to this noble family.
The couple had four children, but when these were still very young, a painful trial ensued: Christophe was accidentally shot during a hunt and died a few days later. With manly courage and peace of mind, Jane faced this harsh blow that left her a widow at twenty-eight years of age.
Maternal affection and purity of heart
It did not take long for her to make up her mind not to marry again, like the strong Judith praised in Sacred Scripture: “And chastity was joined to her virtue, so that she knew no man all the days of her life, after the death of Manasses her husband” (Jdt 16:26). She then made a vow of chastity, taking Our Lord Jesus Christ as her Spouse.
Jane disposed of numerous belongings and donated a great part of her wealth to the poor, beginning to live almost like a nun inside the castle. Instead of taking part in the social festivities that her noble condition offered her, she spent her time caring for her children and seeing to the needs of the servants and field workers. All the pleasures that filled the daily life of a French lady of the early seventeenth century were rejected by her and replaced by prayer and the practice of charity.
The young widow’s physical beauty was no longer set off with adornments and jewels, but with maternal affection united to purity of heart. Her countenance had become a clear mirror of her interior. Nevertheless, to her affliction, this prompted her father’s zeal to search for another suitor.
However, from all eternity Providence had reserved for Jane de Chantal a very different partner from that imagined by Bénigne Frémyot. It was not at court that she would find him, but in the pulpit… The baroness’ father had not been able to understand the longings of his daughter, who faithfully let herself be guided by the breath of the Holy Spirit.
United by an entirely supernatural bond
On one occasion when she was returning from a friend’s house, Jane had a mystical vision. There appeared to her the figure of a cleric wearing a black cassock, white surplice and a biretta on his head, seeming to be ascending a pulpit to preach. The scene remained in her mind until she reached the castle, together with the following words: “Behold the man loved by God and by men, into whose hands you must place your conscience.”2 Then the vision vanished, but it was enough to fill her soul with a gentle joy.
After a time, the premonition was confirmed: the same ecclesiastic contemplated by her appeared in the pulpit of Dijon. He was the Bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, who had come to preach during Lent. The baroness was in the first row, right in front of the Saint. His words resounded in the depths of her soul, while a certainty led her to repeat inwardly: “It’s him, it’s him!”
A few days later, St. Francis spoke to Andrew Frémyot, the Archbishop of Bourges and Jane’s brother, to ask him about the distinguished lady in mourning attire who always listened to the sermon so attentively, from the same place. The prelate replied that she was his sister, who was anxious to personally meet the renowned preacher. This is how the most pure relationship between Jane de Chantal and Francis de Sales began, and how it led these two souls, so distinct but so united on the supernatural plane, to together found the Order of the Daughters of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
New type of alliance between the children of light
The holy friendship that was thus established between the two evokes the sublime union existing among the Saints in Heaven, entirely characterized by the most pure and heartfelt affection. This is how St. Francis de Sales wrote to St. Jane in a note: “It seems that it was God who gave me to you. I am more and more convinced of this. At the moment all I can say to you is: recommend me to your Guardian Angel.”3
Later, he pondered in another letter the precious quality of this spiritual relationship: “This friendship is whiter than snow, purer than the sun; that is why I did not rein it in… allowing it freely follow its course.”4
St. Francis de Sales “felt so united to his correspondent that he dropped from his language all words that indicated any distinction. He even spoke of ‘our heart’, which he saw and perceived as ‘being one’. Only ‘He who is unity by essence’ could ‘merge two spirits so perfectly that they were no longer but one spirit, indivisible and inseparable.’ The tone of their correspondence sometimes ran the risk of causing surprise. For example, the affectionate good nights which he wished her: ‘Good night, my dearest daughter, but a million good nights. Remain as you are, always sweet, and take the rest required by our body.’”5
More than a noble sentiment, the love between the two reflected a new type of alliance between the children of light, by which the grace that dwells in the soul of one communicates to the soul of the other and leads to a love for God that each would never attain alone.
Sublime letters destroyed out of prudence
On the part of St. Jane, there was an unconditional surrender to her spiritual father: she received his missives with such veneration that she sometimes knelt down to read them… On one occasion, she wrote to him: “O my father! When will I have the consolation of speaking to Your Most Illustrious Lordship? For in comparison with this, all the rest is nothing to me.”6 And if affection overflowed from the soul of St. Francis, it was because the holy mother had become a faithful receptacle, fully consonant with him, as is evident in another of her missives: “See then, my Father, my weak heart which I place in your hands, that you may apply to it the appropriate remedy.”7
The most pure love between the two intensified until the day when Providence called St. Francis de Sales to enjoy the Beatific Vision. After his death, the letters from Jane that were with the holy Bishop of Geneva were sent back to her and the prudence of Mother de Chantal led her to make a totally unexpected decision: to burn them!
As soon as her spiritual daughters learned of this resolution, they tried to convince her against it, pointing out that the missives would contribute to the formation of other souls who longed for holiness. All their efforts were in vain!
Knowing the wicked tongues of those who envied the supernatural relationship between them, Jane thought it best to destroy them, because they contained expressions that, taken out of context, could be misinterpreted by hardened hearts… Only a few of these letters have passed down to history.
Her mission continues in Heaven
Mother de Chantal was not shaken by the physical absence of St. Francis at her side. On the contrary, she energetically continued the apostolate begun together with him, and in a short time she founded eleven monasteries in the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Savoy. Most of the vocations that populated them came from noble families, who, like the Foundress, abandoned the privileges of the world in order to give themselves to the service of the Church.
By 1641, when Mother Jane de Chantal was sixty-nine years old, the Order of the Visitation already had eighty-seven convents, having also spread throughout Switzerland, Poland and Italy. That year, after the General Chapter of the Order, she bid farewell to the community of Annecy and left for the house of the Visitation sisters in Moulins.
On the way she passed by Paris, where she was due to meet with Queen Anne of Austria, who very much desired to talk with her. Afterwards she made a general Confession with St. Vincent de Paul, who at that time had become her spiritual director.
When she stopped in Nevers she felt that her health, already weakened, was worsening and arriving in Moulins she sensed that she was on the threshold of eternity. After receiving the last Sacraments, she asked that passages from the lives of some Saints be read. In her right hand she held a crucifix and in her left a lighted candle, in remembrance of the day of her religious profession.
After repeating the name of Jesus three times, she surrendered her soul to God. It was December 13, 1641. Her spiritual daughters mourned the loss of that mother who represented the Blessed Virgin for them, and moved by enthusiasm and veneration they kissed that heart where the name of Jesus was written, a symbol of her definitive surrender to God.
From eternity the passionate heart of the holy baroness would continue its mission. It can be said that until today that heart continues to beat, pumping charity throughout the Mystical Body of Christ, preventing the bonds of love that unite the chosen souls on this earth to Heaven from being broken! ◊