The History of Religious Life
Great Saints and Their Spiritual Contribution
St. Frances de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Fr. Hardon: The Spirituality of St. Frances de Sales.
The written sources are fairly well exhausted in the lineup that I give there.
Notice the number of letters that he wrote. Two thousand letters of St.
Frances de Sales we still have in existence.
What is the significance of St. Frances de Sales? May I first ask, whether,
we talk about the spirituality of St. Frances de Sales, we are talking about
Sister: [Her comment or question is inaudible.]
Father Hardon: No.
What does Salesian spirituality mean? The spirituality of whom?
Sister: St. John Bosco.
Fr. Hardon: Well now, you are absolutely right. But what saint
founded the Salesians? St. John Bosco. Okay. Both the men
and the women.
First of all, Frances de Sales built on St. Ignatius, notably of course,
his spiritual exercises and Ignatius stress on human liberty. He found out and
he was the one who has ever since has been saying and is one of those passages
in the Introduction to the Devout Life that the real difference
between saints and would be saints. There are those who are saints voluntarily
cooperated with Gods grace. The has beens, pardon me, the would have beens
are those who had the grace but did not cooperate.
Second, his spirituality is a product first of all, of the bishop who
was moreover very active in the Episcopal ministry. He was especially
effective in converting many Protestants to the Church. Figures seem sometimes
exaggerated but the biographers keep repeating in the neighborhood of 70,000
As a bishop he was extraordinarily active in the Episcopal ministry particularly
in convincing those many Protestants that God loved them. Because you will recall
somewhere along the line, we touched on this either in this class or the other
one, that in Calvins vision of God, and Calvin is the great father and god
you might say of classic Protestantism, God for all eternity foresaw whom he
would predestine for Heaven and whom he would condemn to Hell; but where Calvin
parted with historic Catholicism was to claim that God not only foresaw but
And thirdly, that God foreordained some for Heaven and others to Hell irrespective
of their conduct. In other words, it is not that those who would go to
Hell would go because God foresaw that they would abuse the graces but rather
that for His own glory He wanted some to vindicate His Justice and some to vindicate
His Mercy. Thats Calvin. De Sales was brought up in that mentality,
combined with the Swiss and French mentality, goes very strong in the direction
of Calvinism. In France, as you know, they became the Huguenots. At
any rate its all very well, we are now talking as Catholics, its all very
well, to say that God predestined some people for Heaven and others to Hell.
If I can subjectively convince myself that while I am one of those that God
has predestined for Heaven, thats great. Then I am happy on earth and
I am going to be happy after death. The trouble is that not everybody,
well, is all that convinced.
De Sales was not convinced at all. He was convinced, if he had any conviction
that he was on the, I should have put this but if I place it this way, it is
on the left side. De Sales, therefore, in his own life was discouraged.
He was despondent and he saw that this kind of pedestinarianism makes for discouragement
and finally despair because, and this is not an unimportant feature of his spirituality,
the essence of Hope is not only trusting in Gods Goodness or His Grace, it
is also trusting that I have the freedom and the will power to shape my destiny.
Does that make sense? Thats why, by the way, he wrote his famous treatise On
the Love of God. There are two great books in Christian hagiography on the
love of God; Bernard and de Sales. Now de Sales wrote the way he did on
Gods love in order to make sure that no one would despair. Not despair either
in conjuring up a God who would have the demonic gall of condemning some people
irrespective of their merits to Hell. But also of a God who so loves man,
and this is de Sales through and through, who so loves man that He gave man
the freedom by which he is to love God in return. Because the love of
God, and this is de Sales, the love of God is not only Gods love for us, it
is also our voluntary and free and deliberate and responsive love of God.
Number Three. The Spirit of St. Frances de Sales can be said to be synthesized
or capsulized in The Order of theVisitation. I commend to your
reading if you havent done it something about the origins of the Visitation
Order. I know it quite well. I may have mentioned somewhere along the
line after I entered the Order, my mother wanted to become a Byzantine nun.
I did tell you that I wrote a letter of recommendation which didnt work. The
Visitation Order is an Order, therefore, they take solemn vows. Frances
had hoped that the Visitations would be the breakthrough among womens religious
communities that would engage in the active apostolate outside the community
as religious. He did not succeed. But his ideas and his spirit opened
up for Vincent de Paul that we will take next.
It is also interesting to note that officially the Church considers Frances
de Sales the founder of the Byzantine nuns. Now no doubt Frances wrote
The Rule but its also a tribute to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, in other
words, her humility. As a matter of fact, he did not have all that much
contact with her. He was a busy person; not too often did he see her,
and the correspondence was not that frequent, which says something, as you know,
one of the great stories of spiritual direction in the history of the Church:
Frances de Sales counseling Jane de Chantel.
Aware of a divided Christendom, Frances de Sales like Ignatius, represents
a spirituality in modern times. Because whatever else is true of the Christian
world since the 16th century, it is a divided Christian world and
that consequently, we should be concerned and part of our apostolic zeal should
be towards converting as we still may say falling back to full communion with
the Church, which is more theologically accurate. Those who are Christians,
but not Catholics, I dont hesitate saying and I mean it, the quality of every
community founded since the 16th century should include a concern
for our separated brethren.
In many ways, for example this community, you are mainly Catholics, right
the girls here but not only am I correct? Now there are all kinds of prudence
and concern, all I am saying is our concern is not only for those who are
Catholic but also for those who both Christian, are not as we say, of the household
of the Catholic faith.
He is the Heavenly Patron so declared by the Church of the Catholic Press.
He was a first rate pamphleteer. This is about a century or a little more
after the discovery of print. He saw the Protestants using the printed
word to weaken and even destroy the faith of believers. He wrote extensively,
desired to combine contemplation in the active apostolate for women. He referred
to that before. He did, however, get a number of concessions but he never
got the full concession of having women be religious and yet engage in the act
of external apostolate. He made the rule for the Byzantandines, though
strongly contemplative, remarkably, if I can use the word, easy. About
easy, I dont mean it was childs play but unlike Teresa he did not stress in
the pursuit of contemplation mortification, penance, solitude, silence.
He stressed, rather affectivity, the intention that I have with which I do whatever
I do. He is a great apostle of doing things out of love for God. And you
will grow in the contemplative spirit provided you keep telling God you are
doing this out of love for Him and of course mean it.
How to Reach Perfection for the Laity
Finally, de Sales as the author of the great classic on How to Reach
Perfection for the Laity. This is of course the introduction
to The Devout Life. We can all profit from the book but its immediate
purpose is to assist the laity. At this point, I would like to just mention
in passing that I touched on before, but de Sales gives me the occasion for
saying more about it. As religious, we are not to be satisfied with engaging
in apostolic work which may be in some either corporal or spiritual work of
mercy and as it were keep our spirituality to ourselves; no, we have apostolic
obligation to communicate the charism of our institute to others. Such
things as third orders or oblates or lay associates is part of the history of the
Churchs sanctification. And when we were following the Institute on
Religious Life according to the norms that the Holy See was giving us, they
could not made it plainer. In my hours of conversations with the officials
in Rome, that we want to have involved in the Institute not only religious but
also the laity, the faithful. Because over the centuries the great, well, authors
of the spiritualities weve even so far seen and the several more we still have
to see. Where indeed are the founders or in this case re-formers, re-founders
if you wish, of religious institutes? But they made sure that their spirit
affected other people. And I dont hesitate saying this least I dont
have the time, and I likely wont have the time to talk about this when we come
to modern spiritual life, by that time it will be April and May and that is
the end of that.
I think a large part of our problem in religious active institutes like we
belong to is due to the fact that we have expanded our apostolic work, good
work, that needs to be done; and in the process, we have had to involve an increasingly
large number of the laity. I just happened to check on one occasion, the
faculty at Marquette University in Milwaukee so I could quote the figure; I
counted them. There were 100 Jesuits on the faculty, administration and
teachers. There were 1100 lay staff, administration, and teachers.
On that proportion, I think you know what I am driving at. That proportion I
think can be fairly duplicated in many, if not most other institutes; but my
dear friends, therein lies not merely a problem but a crisis. Either those
with whom our religious work or with whom religious associate or who in many
ways portray and present the apostolate we are engaged in to the public as witnesses
of what we are suppose to be. Either we take some means, and we must take the
means, this is no easy thing, to help those people acquire some of our spirit
or we are going to harm and I dont hesitate to say even destroy our communities.
And the more the state demands all kind of degrees and academic training and
skills and certification and licensing, the more people work with us and we
with them. We are as human as everybody else; I am afraid that many religious
spend most their working hours in the company of others who are not religious
and less still members of their own community and among their own. Do
you agree? And we better know what we are doing. As I have more than once
sometimes in long reports to the Holy See pointed out when they asked What
happened? At any rate, de Sales in many ways gives the answer.
We are to sanctify the laity and not merely as it were use them and hire them
to do a job. We go to a quarter of, dont we? Let me start the features
we can finish this up in two weeks hence.
First Feature - Divine Love
Let me just mention one and that will be plenty. Divine Love is the primary
goal of sanctity. Yet as, if youve read the Treatise on Divine Love
by St. Frances, it is by now you must know, for St. Frances divine love was
essentially that deeply interior affection that the loving soul has which he
called devotion. Devotion is deeply personal, sincere, committed love.
As a consequence, de Sales as you reread his Introduction to the Devout Life
he talks very little comparatively speaking of the kinds of penance and mortification
and the heavenly structure even monastic discipline that we have come to associate
with other forms of spirituality. I dont really know why, but my own
explanation of this is this. I believe that Francis de Sales came at that
period in human, especially Western history, while the neat classification of
society, the kind of orderly organized systematic life that people used to live was
disappearing. He was entering an age of disorder, of confusion, of unpredictability.
And he was chosen by God to give us a spirituality that can cope with the disorder
of modern society. Am I clear in what I am trying to point out?
That we can be sanctified without being all that programmatic, all that organized,
all that structured, all that monastically do this at this time and do something
else at another time. Now dont misunderstand me, de Sales was organized.
Dont you think its good to hear this? That, but of course, this is Ignatian
that I am so deeply in love with God that whatever I do including riding,
I come back to the New York subways, I can be growing in sanctity because the
God that I love is with me and what is best of all, I am with Him.
Second Feature - Acts of Divine Love
The second of the eight features we are looking at necessarily, briefly, are
the acts of divine love are the primary means to sanctity. Behind this
feature is a profound principle of theology. Other things being equal,
any given act which I perform, a good act, is that much more pleasing to God
as it is performed from a higher and purer motive. Motivation elevates
every action. There are as we say three determinants of the morality or,
in this case, the spirituality of an action: what I do, how I do it, and
why. De Sales great contribution to the history of Christian spirituality is
to bring out the importance of the why. That no matter what I am doing,
the more my motive for doing whatever it is, is the love of God, I am growing
in holiness because I have as we say sanctified, elevated what I am doing.
Third Feature - Methodical Mental Prayer
We know he was methodical from his writings, even his conferences.
We have parts to it and subordinate parts to the major parts. His Treatise
on the Love of God and his Introduction to the Devout Life is systematized.
There are three reasons I would say for this. First of all, his own natural
temperament he was a methodical person and consequently you would expect his
spirituality to reveal a certain amount of to use a word Methodism; which by
the way is why John Wesley was called a Methodist. He was so methodical.
We dont use the word to apply to Catholic people like Frances de Sales, but
I should say that they have much in common: Wesley and de Sales. First then
Secondly, his profession he had been as you know a lawyer. And a lawyer
may lack other virtues but if hes ever going to win a case, he better be
logical, so he was logical, organized, methodical.
And thirdly, he was a disciple of St. Ignatius. And after I read it ten
times, I thought to myself, I guess we all figure that St. Ignatius was very
systematic, very methodical, well, he was. In any case, de Sales being
a disciple of Ignatius and a product of the spiritual exercises, he was structured
in so far as we can speak of Ignatius spirituality as being structured.
The value of methodical mental prayer for de Sales was one that he stressed,
especially in counseling other people. The value of method is it tends
to create habits. If you have certain things that you do at a certain
time you do it at nine oclock today, you do it at nine oclock tomorrow.
Whats today? Saturday. Tomorrow is Sunday. You do it at nine
oclock on Monday. By Tuesday if you dont do it at nine oclock, youll feel
guilty. So method or system tends to induce habit. In fact all psychologists
of habit tell you if you want to develop a habit presumably a good one, organize
your doing it certain things done in a certain sequence and at a certain time
in a certain way. Ive got into the habit for example, of writing.
When I write for, well, for publication, I have found that my most effective
(I was going to say weapon) my most effective instrument is not a typewriter,
least of all a lead pencil, even a ball point. It must be a pen and must have
jet black ink. Then my thoughts flow. We get into habits and consequently
the more systematic a person can be in planning his spiritual life the more
likely that spiritual life will become habitual, makes sense. Certain things
you do on Tuesday, certain things you do on Wednesday at 7:30. Does that
make sense? At any rate de Sales discovered the value of system or of
method in the inducing of sound spiritual habits.
Fourth Feature - Simplicity of Prayer
Now he was himself a very learned man. Nevertheless, he simplified
his prayer and this is perhaps one of the distinctive features of the prayer
of St. Frances de Sales as he practiced it and preached it is it concentrates
on the person of Christ. He was no St. Dominic. He was certainly not a
Thomas Aquinas. Now he could be as you noticed, if you read some of his
writing, he could be could be quite profound and theological, but it is rather
the person of the Savior in this sense he had a lot in common with St. Francis
of Assisi. The spiritual life is centered on Christ and for Frances the
prayer was mainly to Christ or meditation about Christ.
Fifth Feature - Liturgical Prayer
Fifth, liturgical prayer, no great discovery but he emphasized it gives structure
to the spiritual life because the liturgy itself is structured. Christmas
comes around always on the 25th of December. Imagine having
Christmas coming on the 11th of December or the 4th
of July just to spoil everything. What would we do on the 4th
of July? There is a cycle. There are seasons. Within the seasons
there are certain days. We are now in the season of Lent. And consequently,
and this is great wisdom, any religious community that ignores the liturgical
cycle is endangering its spiritual life. Now this is not to say that for
Frances it was the same kind of structure that say the monastic communities
had, remember the Divine Office and so on and everything centering literally
around that Divine Office. Although, when he finally came to found the
Visitation sisters or nuns as they prefer to be called, though he himself as
you remember wanted them to be more active in the apostolate, he finally under
suasion of, well, of his own Metropolitan Bishop. He was a very obedient
man, though a bishop he had a Metropolitan, whom he could have ignored but he
didnt. The Metropolitan insisted that the womens community or thats
what is was that he was founding be monastic as far as possible. So that liturgy
became so structured in the Visitation community that it became the center of
that community. But even in his Introduction to the Devout Life notice
the stress on the Mass, on the Feasts of the Church and so on. All
I can tell you is that if we start re-thinking our even our prayer life concentrating
seeing during Lent on certain mysteries of Christs life, in the Easter season
certain other mysteries, on Sundays certain other attributes either of God or
mysteries of Christ. It will do something to your spiritual life, which
Frances felt was essential for sound religious living.
Sixth Feature - Eucharist and Penance
Sixth, the Eucharist and Penance are as we call them sacraments of preservation. Remember,
he is writing in the 17th century, before the advent of our present
frequent communion. In any case, he required both of his penitents and
gave very lenient permissions for his day to receiving communion often.
What are the two sacraments of Eucharistic preservation; Eucharist and
Penance. What do they preserve? Penance preserves from sin.
The Eucharist preserves in grace. In the two, grace and sin, are perfect
contraries. So much so that in theology we say we can describe the state
of sin is the absence of grace or the presence of grace as the removal of sin.
There are then two basic elements to the spiritual life. One is to be
rid of sin the other is to grow in grace. These two sacraments take care
of each. Penance to have us, first of all, have our sins forgiven, to cope with
the sins sinful tendency which we have a, well, we have an urge to commit
certain sins. Penance gradually overcomes our natural concupiscence
and gives us that self-mastering which except for the sacrament we would not
achieve. And the Eucharist, receiving as faith tells us the Author of
Grace, preserves this grace in our souls.
Seventh Feature - Optimism
Seven, Frances de Sales was a strong optimist. He had himself been very pessimistic,
deeply affected by the Calvinism of his day, but his optimism was born of grace.
Meaning what? Meaning that, although he came on one occasion in his life
to the point of despair but though he despaired of his own lack of virtue and
his own inability to do what he should, his trust that Gods grace would save
him made him an extraordinary gentle, kind, peaceful, understanding and for
our purpose, optimistic person who is not that by nature at all. If you
have any pessimistic streaks in you, if you tend to moods or despondency, you
might read more of St. Frances de Sales, because grace can change you.
Eighth Feature - Growth in Perfection as Growth in Devotion
Finally, growth in perfection as growth in devotion. We saw earlier first of
all that every title of his book and the French title is exactly what the English
translation is Introduction to the Devout Life. You might almost say
that Frances de Sales coined the expression devotion. Devotion for him
is as it should be for us too as votum. You notice the centerpiece of
devotion is the same as the Latin word for vow. Whats vow in Latin? Votum.
What is votum? That which is willed. Thats what a votum
is; that which is willed; chosen and willed. And consequently, Frances
placed great stress on wanting to become holy, wanting to become a saint. Did
you come across that passage in the Introduction to the Devout Life? It
scares you. When he was asked why there are not more saints, all kinds of reasons
that people give, he gives only one reason. Now of course there are saints
and Saints. Saints, well, with a small s; saints with a bigger S and
great big Saints.
Now the size of our sanctity will depend on the amount of grace but in essence,
in essence, perfection means, in the Latin word perficere means, to finish,
to complete. Who then has reached Christian perfection? The one
who is as far as God is concerned, finished, completed; thats as far as shes
going. What? Am I making sense? In other words, for some of us now look
all of us have a lot farther to go than I am afraid most of are going.
Have no fears that any of us are going to be, you might say, pygmies or midgets
and I wish I got more grace so I could become a bigger saint. Have no
fears, youve got plenty to work on with the grace youve got. The point
is the perfection is the fulfillment of that sanctity which God has in store
for me. I read once, I hope the author is wrong, he speculated that people
live as long as God knows they need to live to reach their degree of sanctity.
Its not too encouraging, especially when you see holy people die young.
Then you wonder how much longer do I have to live having done such a poor job
so far. In any case for de Sales the grace is up to God. Dont worry
how much grace youve got, whether youve got enough. Go to the sacraments,
do your prayer, youll get the grace. Ah, but my dear friends in Christ, de
Sales would tell us, the secret is this votum. Are we clear?
Its how much we cooperate thats what devotion means. It is loving God
by giving Him my will. And the more completely and totally I give Him
my will, the more holy I will become. Although it is by now not just one heroic
act of the will and then we relax and go into supernatural hibernation.
Ive made my act of the will for the year. No, no, this is an on-going
enterprise. So much then for growth in perfection as growth in devotion.
We shall become as perfect as we want to be. God wants all of us
to be holy. Have no fears that you wont become say a St. Teresa of Avila.
Have no envy. Dont worry that others are getting more graces. You
look to yours. Use yours. Use that will.
Now some typical statements. Contemplation is a loving, simple
and constant attention of the mind to divine things. Notice what de Sales
is saying, we pray contemplatively when, of course, using our wills but if I
can use the expression, we stop thinking and we start looking. Whereby thinking
I mean reasoning and some of us are great reasoners and our faculty of ratiocination
as its called has been sharpened to a razors edge. But in the presence of
God, theres some reasoning weve got to use. For example, Ive got to
reason myself into why I should be praying. Well, all right, do it.
But once youve got something that you believe in, look at it and this is where
Christ comes in. This looking at is not a speculative kind of reflection.
It is rather looking at a scene, at a word of Christ, at some episode in the
Gospels and just staying there. Contemplation is staying put in the presence
Second, to despise any at Christian perfection is a great sin.
That deserves to be memorized. We assume of course that people have the vocation.
Now in one sense every Christian has the vocation. But there are some
who obviously have the vocation and thus are religious. It is then good
moral theology as I have been telling people and spiritual directors and priests,
tell the people a religious who does not strive after perfection and has really
given up is in the state of grave sin. And here you dont coast; this striving
Third, man is the perfection of the universe; spirit is the perfection
of man; love the perfection of spirit; charity the perfection of love.
Only de Sales could coin that compound sentence. What is he really saying?
He is saying put together the last word and the first word of that sentence
and you have the key. Mans highest function before God is to love.
This is why God made the world. God made the world in order to be loved by His
creatures. And why as we teach that given all the logic of Gods
creative work, He could not have stopped at the irrational, inanimate and therefore
unloving creation. Puppies and cats dont love, they may cuddle. You can
do all kinds of things and oh, one of the the ads in the New York subways
are something. One that I just noticed, in fact, on the way to the airport
yesterday, showing a puppy and a cat, sweet looking things and the caption above:
We need a haven of love. A haven of love? If you wish to give either
permanent or temporary lodging to strayed beasts, by the way this is my commentary
on the ad please call
They had several numbers. The same city that
gave abortion to the nation. The city where a single abortion mill I am told
by women who stand outside, average from one to two hundred and fifty abortions
a day. Only man can love and what de Sales is saying, God made the world in
order to be loved and it is up to us to fulfill His divine purpose of creation.
Fourth. The death and passion of our Lord is the sweetest and
most compelling motive that can animate our hearts in this mortal life.
Only a mystic can say that and mean it. Because as he knew and were learning,
if you want to love God the way were suppose to with that devotion, that willingness
that God expects of us, well have to pay, well have to suffer, well have
to endure pain. To do anything you need motivation and the harder it is
the higher must be the motivation. To sit down to a good meal you hardly
need motivation. All you need is one look at the dish. You dont
even have to think. But as the action becomes more demanding, as its
harder, you need higher and deeper motivation. And the highest and deepest
motivation we can have for suffering is the realization that God became man
in order to suffer for us. Humility is the recognition that we are absolutely
nothingness and it keeps us constant in this estimation of ourselves.
Again, only a Francis of Assisi or Frances de Sales could say that we are absolutely
nothing because everything we naturally think about ourselves suggest that we
are something. In any case, the more humble we are the more surely, and
this is Frances de Sales, we have a chance of becoming holy. The only
danger in the spiritual life and the more you work at other virtues, the more
youve got to look to your humility.
And finally, speaking to the Visitation Community, the peculiar
spirit of the Visitation is the spirit of profound humility towards God and
of great gentleness with our neighbor. Ah, how wise Frances was.
You remember that passage in the Gospels where Christ tells us to learn from
Him. How does that go? Learn of me for I am meek or gentle and
humble of heart. Meekness being gentleness. Those two virtues
go together; they are inseparable. Humility and gentleness. Only
humble people are gentle. Proud people are always, memorize the adverb,
they are always harsh. Oh they may be sweet externally but there is a coldness,
theres a sharpness, there is a thoughtlessness about pride for the best of
reasons because what is pride except preoccupation with self. I notice
what Frances does, he distinguishes these two virtues profoundly by saying that
humility belongs to our relationship towards God and gentleness to our relationship
with our neighbor. So the more genuinely humble I am before God, the more
gentle Ill be in dealing with others. And of all people both in his own
life and in his teachings who could teach this it was he, Frances de Sales,
who was masculine to the last hormone in his body, nothing effeminate about
de Sales strong, firm, constant. The only mistake that people can make
is to suppose that gentleness means softness just the opposite. Only
strong people can be gentle because among my definitions of gentleness, it is
power restrained by love. Some people seem to be gentle but they are sentimental.
It takes a person who you know could crush you, I dont mean physically, but
say intellectually, who allows you to make mistakes and doesnt laugh at your
mistakes. It takes a person of strong virtue who can see weakness around
him and not consider that he or she is better than somebody else. In any
case, so much for de Sales.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica