BLESSED FRANÇOIS DE LAVAL (1623-1708): THE FATHER OF THE CANADIAN CHURCH
Note on his life and spirituality for the Supplement to the liturgy of the Hours on the day of his liturgical feast, May 6th
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François de Laval was born in Montigny-sur-Avre in the diocese of Chartres in France on April 30, 1623. After studying letters and philosophy at the Collège de la Flèche directed by the Jesuits, he began his theological studies at the Collège de Clermont in Paris in 1641. Destined to the clerical career, he was obliged, however, to take the responsibility of his family, following the death of his two elder brothers. He was nevertheless able to continue his preparation for the priesthood which he received in 1647. He will later renounce his rights to the family seigniory and stay in Caen in Normandy, from 1654 to 1658, with a lay master of spirituality, Monsieur de Bernières, whose nephew will accompany Bishop de Laval to Québec in 1659. Although appointed vicar apostolic in Tonkin in Asia, François de Laval's appointment will be changed for one in New France. He was consecrated a bishop in Paris in the Blessed Virgin chapel, no longer in existence, of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Abbey on December 8, 1658, at the age of 35. He arrived in Québec City on June 16, 1659. The territory of the apostolic vicariate was erected into a diocese in 1674. He became its first bishop and, after heading it during 11 years, he resigned in 1685 and transmitted his charge to Bishop de Saint-Vallier. He will obtain from king Louis XIV the permission to come back for retirement in Québec, as he puts it, "to finish my last days in repose and to have the consolation to die in the midst of my Church". While spending his time in prayer, he will help the new bishop and replace him during his trips to France. He died on May 6, 1708, at the age of 85, following a heel chilblain that occurred during the Good Friday ceremony. He was proclaimed blessed by Pope John Paul II on June 22, 1980.
His pastoral work, from 1659 to his resignation as a bishop of Québec in 1685, is marked by four voyages to France, by the struggle against the methods used in the commerce of beaver skins in which alcohol was given to the Amerindians as exchange currency, by several foundations of which the most important is the Séminaire des Missions Etrangères de Québec (SME), known today as the Séminaire de Québec, that he united to the one in Paris of which he had been one of the founders. His seminary is destined to be at the heart of the life and organization of the Church of Canada: training ground for future priests, society of diocesan priests living a common life, future diocesan chapter, organizational center of the parishes whose pastors are appointed by the bishop and the directors of the Seminary. He also founded the Confraternity of the Holy Family, erected on March 14, 1665, a Minor Seminary in 1668, followed by a school of arts and trades in St. Joachim and numerous parishes, but without a doubt his pastoral visitations will be at the heart of his pastoral action. In those regions, where the low density population is spread out over an immense territory and renders the enterprise most arduous – about 2000 inhabitants in 1659, divided between three population clusters: Québec, Three Rivers and Montréal, over a distance of nearly 250 km – he dashes "on the snow from his first winter to visit his flock, not on a horse or in a carriage, but on snowshoes and on the ice". He travels "carried in a small bark canoe by two peasants" as told in the Relations des Jésuites. He stops for confrmations, even where there are only three of four families.
The starting point in the spirituality of François de Laval is to be found in a marked detachment which was a feature of his temperament. He had acquired this from Monsieur de Bernières during his years spent in Caen. This detachment is "a great system of disappropriation" which can be summed up in the following maxim: "We have no better friend than Jesus-Christ. Let us follow all his recommendations, especially those on humiliation and disappropriation of the heart" as writes his first biographer, Bertrand de la Tour.
For François de Laval, disappropriation is nothing else but the Gospel lived in a radical fashion. He gives this disappropriation a moral sense of self-denial, of course. Thus, disappropriation includes the values of self-denial, poverty, humility since it remains always a certain form of deprivation, but the essence of disappropriation for François resided first in sharing and common disposal of goods. That is why disappropriation becomes a sharing of objects and, by the same token, a brotherly sharing. He wanted, writes Bertrand de la Tour, "the whole clergy to form but a large family" and it is for that reason that he asked that one should never abandon the "disappropriation which leaves everything in common in the hands of the superior".
Disappropriation would be closed upon itself if, in the end, it did not produce an increasing freedom and openness to God's action. As François de Laval advances in age, the fruits of a loving openness to God's will through daily events are manifested in a growing constancy, patience and abandon. It is this confident faith experience that François de Laval lived throughout his life. It is the outcome of disappropriation and it is at the heart of his spiritual experience. "For a long time, God has given me the grace to look at everything that happens to me in this life as an effect of his Providence", he writes in 1687. In the main events of his life, François de Laval quickly looks for their spiritual meaning, either for his pastoral work, or in his personal spiritual itinerary. This "experience of Providence", so to speak, would not be complete unless it stirred up a response. This response is abandon: "It is only right… that we should live only a life of pure abandon in all that concerns us inside as well as outside", he will say after the king's refusal to let him leave for Canada in 1687. To his friend Henri-Marie Boudon, in 1677, he had said: "Everything done by God's hand serves us admirably, although we do not directly see its effects".
François de Laval gives the example of a shepherd who was totally dedicated to his task in a daily and durable fidelity. Upon his death in 1708, he was leaving a reputation of "a shepherd filled with the spirit of the apostles". As we face the challenges of evangelization, his perseverance and his total trust in the Lord can be an inspiration and a stimulating example.
Last updated May 16th 2008/FONT>
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