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  • A Confessor and His Spiritual ChildFrancois de Sales, Jeanne de Chantal, and the Foundation of the Order of the Visitation
  • Ruth Manning

I have never understood that there was any bond between us which carried any obligation except that of charity and true Christian friendship, which St Paul calls the bond of perfection, and that is truly what it is, for it is indissoluble and never weakens. All other bonds are temporal . . . broken through death or other circumstances; but the bond of love grows and strengthens over time. It is exempt from the scythe of death . . . So there, dear sister (and permit me to call you by this name, which is the one by which the Apostles and the first Christians expressed the intimate love they had for one another), this is our bond, these are our chains, the more they are tightened and press against us, the more they bring us comfort and freedom. Their strength is sweetness; their violence is gentleness; nothing is more pliable; nothing is stronger.1

This was one of the earliest letters written by François de Sales to Jeanne de Chantal following their first meeting in 1604. After just a short period of acquaintance, a deeply emotional friendship had formed between them. De Sales's love and admiration for his spiritual daughter were unstinting, and these sentiments were reciprocated. Such a relationship between a director and his directed was not unique in the history of the Catholic Church. Confessional relationships were a common feature of the Catholic Reformation when the post-Tridentine Church placed greater emphasis on the sacrament of penance and launched a newly trained profession of directors of conscience and personal confessors.2 As Olwen Hufton pointed out, this is also [End Page 101] a story about women: women, elite widows in particular, demonstrated an enthusiasm for the confessional experience that far outstripped that of their male counterparts.3 Thus a woman like Louise de Marillac sought the direction of Vincent de Paul after the death of her husband, while the baroness Jeanne de Lestonnac chose the guidance of the Jesuit Father Bordes. The confessional relationship between François de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal proved especially fruitful: together, they made the first major attempt to establish an active female apostolate on French soil: the Order of the Visitation. This chapter seeks to explore the unique dynamics of this relationship and the ways in which this historical collaboration contributed to the beginnings of a new type of social Catholicism, 'le catholicisme au féminin'.4

In 1640, eighteen years after François de Sales's death, his friend Jean-Pierre Camus, the bishop of Belley, published a biographical tribute to him.5 He portrayed the life of the saint through the medium of re-created conversations, and devoted several chapters to what Camus recognized as de Sales's distinctive relationship with female parishioners.

Once someone said rather unkindly to the bishop that he was continuously surrounded by women.

'It is not that I wish to make a presumptuous comparison,' François answered, 'but it was similar with our Lord . . .'

His friend continued the matter by saying: 'Well, I certainly don't know why they gather around you so much, for it seems to me that you say very little to them.'

'Is it little to let them talk as much as they will to me?' asked François. '. . . Don't they talk enough for us both? I really think they come to me because I am a good listener . . .'

But his friend, rather than drop the subject, pressed on to say that he always notices that the bishop's confessional was surrounded by many more women than men. [End Page 102]

'What would you have?' he replied. 'Are not women more devout than men? How I wish men were as much interested in penitence!'6

Whether or not this conversation ever took place, the author's point is clear; de Sales was noted for his direction of women. Camus went on to contrast de Sales's practices with those of other prelates of their time.

I have been told of a certain prelate who was so determined that no women...


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pp. 101-117
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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