The True Nobility of St. Jane Frances de Chantal
Currently 1 in 11 people are aged 65 and older around the world. By 2050, this proportion is projected by the United Nations to be one in six. Projections also show that the global number of people aged 80 and over will triple over the next 30 years. Numbers aside, it is of great importance for all of us to better care physically, emotionally, and spiritually for our aging family members.
To this effect, the article will look at how to cherish and celebrate the aging with us now, how to care for them when their time comes to meet Our Lord, seeking healing, and the importance of praying for them when they have passed. To better reflect on this, we will look at the life of St. Jane Frances de Chantal.
She was born in 1572 in Dijon, France. Her father and mother were both of the nobility and were faithful Catholics. At the tender age of 18 months, her mother passed away while giving birth to a baby boy, Andre, who would become the archbishop of Bourges. Her father, now a widow, would have the sole responsibility of raising her. She was brought up in a faithful household and grew in devotion of the sacraments and love for the Church.
As she grew in beauty and wisdom, many men vied for her hand in marriage. While she was staying with her newly-wed sister, one such man, a rich wealthy landowner, showed a particular interest in Jane. However, it was intentionally concealed from her that he was a Calvinist. The shock of this information would have been scandalous both to Jane and her father. Her sister, in hopes that Jane would live near her, was not entirely forthcoming in sharing this information. Jane’s intelligence allowed her to see through this man’s deception and rejected any further advances from him.
After five years of living with her sister, Jane was summoned by her father to come home. The Baron de Chantal had requested Jane’s hand in marriage. The match was greatly received by everyone. Jane had found a righteous man in which to carry out her vocation as a married woman.
This time in her life was filled with much joy. The married couple were greatly suited for one another. Jane, who had much skill in practical, executive matters, took on the management of the household. She had to economize in many areas, initially finding 15,000 ecus of debt. She scheduled Mass to be said daily at her home and was very tactful in having everyone staying in the house, guests included, to attend. The servants looked up to her and the nobility would join by means of an encouraging word from Jane who would tell them the peasantry would be so encouraged by their attendance.
Jane not only took her own household matters into consideration but also those who lived on her land. She spent countless hours attending to the poor, the sick, and the elderly. During one particular year of famine, in 1600, she opened a soup kitchen for those in need. She would do her best to give them practical advice as needed, but also cared for their emotional and physical needs.
What an example we have from St. Jane Frances de Chantal in visiting the sick. I can remember when my grandmother had a stroke when I was 13. She lived the next ten years of her life in a nursing facility with the left side of her body completely paralyzed. My Mom, in particular, was very committed to visiting her on a regular basis. When I was in high school I would often go with my Mom to see her. I must admit that oftentimes I asked myself “What good am I doing?” In my selfishness, I did not see the point.
Looking back, I can only imagine what each visit must have done for my grandmother’s soul. When we weren’t there, she spent much of her day alone scooting along the hallways in her wheelchair. When we arrived, she became animated and began telling us all about The Battle of Oriskany, how she believed we were related to St. John Paul II, teaching me Polish phrases she knew, and then she might make it back around to The Battle of Oriskany. Through being present, through listening, we reminded her of who she was, a person born in the image and likeness of God. I also learned a bit about who I was, as well. We helped to break through her isolation, even just for a moment.
The things we do for our aging family members, do not, necessarily, have to be extravagant. Flowers can do wonders. In reality, who doesn’t yearn to be seen? Recently, I visited my wife’s grandparents and fixed their door handle which had given them problems for weeks. Their appreciation was so exuberant I felt like a hero!
St. Jane Frances de Chantal continued in her routine. While there was much joy in the household, it would not evade tragedy completely. Her sister would pass away at the age of 23, and although Jane would eventually have three children reach adulthood, two of her children died almost immediately after birth. Sometime after the famine of 1600, one of her most trying events took place.
It began with the illness of her husband. He took his illness with courage and thankfully was turning the corner in his recovery when his cousin came to visit. It was his cousin’s idea that fresh air and a day of hunting deer would be good for the Baron de Chantal. Hunting was not the baron’s favorite activity but knowing that his cousin preferred it, ascended to joining him. Upon entering a wooded area, the two became separated. The baron, wearing colors resembling that of a deer, was then accidentally shot by his cousin.
He suffered from his injuries for nine days, contracting fever at day five. Jane implored the doctors to attempt to extract the bullet but the doctors knew full well that it was no use. Jane gave every comfort she could to her husband while she was beside herself with grief. Her husband however, showed valiant bravery and immense peace upon his death. He is quoted as saying “Oh, let us honor Divine Providence and look at this trial from above. . . If a Heavenly Physician does not cure me, these gentlemen can do nothing.”
In a time when so many people seek to have power over death by euthanasia, what testament does this give us? He told his wife “Sweetheart, the judgments of God are best, I must love them and die.” In the peace he had in his soul, he was able to forgive his cousin, saying “I pardon him with all my heart, he shot me by accident; I have often wounded Jesus Christ by malice.” He made sure this forgiveness was recorded in the public records. He said he would disinherit any of his children who sought to avenge his death.
Death can be most difficult for those who remain on this earth. St. Jane Frances de Chantal suffered a period of grief that some have said lasted about three years. She desired arduously to be alone with the Lord during this time. She said “Our Lord drew me so irresistibly to Himself that I felt impelled to leave all for His sake, and only the thought of my little children prevented me from flying to hide myself in the Holy Land.”
Faithful to her vocation as a mother and to her responsibilities of the estate, she suffered interiorly through all of this. She bore many well-meaning visits from multiple noble women when she just wished to be alone with the Lord. She stood publically as the new Godmother of the child born to her husband’s cousin, the one who had accidentally shot her husband.
Her father-in-law, aged 75, ordered her, under threat of disinheriting her children, to leave her home and move in with him at his estate. She did so, having to find her place in caring for this short-tempered man with patience and kindness. The bravery, the courage and resolve to accept this as God’s Divine Providence gave her a unique crown of spiritual martyrdom.
God’s grace was abundant to her during this time. Eventually, she began to take spiritual direction from St. Francis de Sales. St. Francis was pivotal in assisting her with discernment for God’s will for the rest of her life. He instructed her to be patient with herself. With time and the proper moment, she was able to take the next step in serving God.
Once her children were old enough, she, along with St. Francis de Sales established an order of religious sisters. This order was intended for women who were widows, like Jane, to join and serve those who were sick and poor. Jane, using what she had learned from managing her husband’s estate, did an excellent job establishing and administering these initial convents.
For a time, especially in the city of Annecy, the sisters had a great positive effect on the sick and suffering. The active life of these women were not well-received. Female religious communities in France at this time, were only cloistered. One cardinal in particular ordered the community to look like the rest and requested that these women abandon their active ministry and become a cloistered order. Jane, following the lead from St. Francis de Sales, graciously accepted these instructions. The order is known today as the Visitandine Sisters.
Once again, the life St. Jane Frances de Chantal thought she would have, was altered. The sisters adjusted to cloistered life. Many of them coming from noble families, had to learn how to do things for themselves that their servants had once done such as tending a garden, or milking a cow. As all contemplative orders, these sisters’ prayers for the suffering were indispensable.
Even for those who may have already passed away in our lives, our prayers that our loved ones may enjoy eternal rest in heaven cannot be stressed enough. Dante, in his Purgatorio, shows with his creativity the importance of this spiritual work of mercy. Even though it’s a work of fiction, he uniquely gives the reader a very tangible sense of the urgency in which the souls of purgatory ask for prayers from their family. Pondering even this imagined view of Purgatory has altered my wife’s and my own personal perspective of praying for the dead.
We are all in need of God’s mercy and wish to embrace Him in our heavenly home. After having fulfilled her promise of visiting every convent in her order she passed away on December 13th, 1641.
Not long before her death, she had been invited to attendance in the French court by Queen Anne of Austria. She visited with the royal family, feeling uncomfortable with the extravagance which surrounded herself. This noble-born woman was after finer riches. As the Roman philosopher, Seneca, says “The glory of our ancestors, is not our own property, and the applauses bestowed on those who are gone before us, constitute not our inheritance.” She had realized what her true inheritance was, a place with Our Lord in Heaven. Let us be resolved by the life example of this holy woman, to care for those who are most vulnerable and seek to store our true treasure.