THE MARIAN DEVOTION OF THE BLESSED FRANÇOIS DE LAVAL
Faculty of Theology and Religious Sciences Laval University
The Marian devotion has known various accents throughout the history of Christian spirituality. Quite different is the tenderness of the middle-age Christian for the mysteries of the Mother of Sorrows, the insistance on the effectiveness of the Rosary for the healing of hearts of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Monfort and the mystical contemplation of the soul of Mary of Monsieur Olier. It is therefore normal to try and discern the tone and the colors of the Marian devotion of the Blessed François de Laval. We will see that François de Laval, living in the middle of the French XVIIth century during the full religious and spiritual flowering, will develop a devotion to Mary nourished by the Berullian spirit of several environments with which he was in contact.
We have several unequivocal testimonies that the devotion to Mary was important in the spiritual experience of the Blessed François de Laval. His first biographer, Bertrand de La Tour (circa 1700-1780), notes that the day of his consecration, December 8, 1658, was the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin "to whom he always had a great deal of devotion and whom he has since chosen as patron saint of his cathedral with Saint Louis, king of France." De La Tour was only repeating here the words of the vicar-general M. de la Colombière who, in his funeral oration at the Quebec cathedral on June 6, 1708, during the 30th day anniversary mass, said, "Never has a prelate given more care to have the Queen of angels honored in his diocese and to inspire love for her in his diocesan flock." Let us try to rediscover the main circumstances when Mary entered the life of François de Laval.
On a form of consecration to the Blessed Virgin by the members of the Marian congregation of the Jesuit Fathers of Paris and whose original can be found at the Paris National Archives, one can find the signature of François de Laval on the occasion of his second voyage to France, dated February 2, 1673, on the feast of the Purification of Mary. This document also bears the date of February 2, 1634. At that time, François de Laval was a student at the Collège de Laflèche. One can presume that this latter date represents that of his admission into the Marian Congregation of the Collège de Laflèche.
These congregations, born from the initiative of the Belgian jesuit Jean Leunis who had gathered the best students in his class during the 1562-1563 school year into "a small circle for the practice of the devotion to Mary and for the exercise of a few pious works", had been officially approved on December 19, 1584. The devotion to Our Lady was quite in honor in these congregations. The reciting of the short office of the Blessed Virgin was generally the rule. It is within the Marian Congregation of the Collège de Laflèche that Father Bagot founded, in 1630 or 1632, the Aa (the "Assembly of Friends" or of "Good Friends"). It was the origin of the one in Paris where one will find François de Laval, François Pallu, future bishop of Tonkin, and Henri-Marie Boudon. François de Laval will be faithful all his life to the spirituality of the Marian Congregations in which, for the members, the devotion to Mary has "an especially privileged place among the principal means of pursuing their work of charity and zeal."
In 1658, François de Laval will be consecrated bishop of Pétrée, Vicar Apostolic in New France, on the feast of the Immaculate. This choice does not seem to be fortuitous. Later on, François de Laval will mark with celebrations or foundations this feast of the Immaculate Conception. He is not for all that the firt to promote the devotion to the Immaculate in the colony, but he willingly enters this current which marked the origins of New France. In 1664, on September 15, he establishes the parish of Quebec under the title of the Immaculate Conception, then, on July 11, 1666, he consecrates the new cathedral to the Immaculate Conception and places his entire diocese under this patronage. In 1665, he reiterates with the priests of his Seminary the vow to the Immaculate that the jesuit Fathers had been doing since 1635. Finally, on the vigil of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, 1677, he inaugurates the new building of the Quebec Seminary.
As we end this part on the manifestations of the Marian devotion in the life of François de Laval, let us quote this letter received from Fr. Gravier on the occasion of the donation of a gold ciborium to the Illinois Mission: "It is your mission, Your Grace, since it is under the protection of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady… and although you have always been the father of all our missions, this one, Your Grace, must be particularly close to you because it is the mission of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin and because of the beautiful present that you give it."
Through these various manifestations of devotion to Mary, François de Laval is revealed as actively involved in a Marian climate that he did not create. He favored it and he contributed, as the shepherd of his Church, to put the patronage of Mary in honor. Is it possible to go any further and to qualify what was François de Laval's personal perception of this patronage of Mary? Let us try to do this by examining his writings from which we will bring out the leads for reflection and interpret them.
Although François de Laval left no spiritual writings as such, it remains that certain letters are revealing about his feelings and his sensibility toward Mary. One is struck by the numerous mentions of Mary in the writings of François de Laval. In his more official documents like the reports to Rome on the state of his diocese, one finds mere references. In other personal writings, François de Laval shows the desire to explicitly invoke the patronage of Mary. One could think at first that those are only stylistic phrases at the end of a letter or document. Without denying here that François de Laval was following ecclesiastical usages, an attentive study of the formulation of these numerous mentions of Mary reveals certain constants that, to me, do not appear insignificant.
There is first a phrase that comes back several times, like a chorus. It is the following: "Our Lord and his Holy Mother." It is used, among others, in letters where the personal life of François de Laval suffers turmoil. On June 9, 1687, he writes to the priests of his Seminary as he thinks he will not be allowed to come back to Canada: "Whatever the case may be, it is from the hand of Our Lord and of his holy Mother that we must receive everything as a very special grace…" Elsewhere, one reads the following mentions: "Our Lord and his holy Mother will decide as they please…" "I bless Our Lord and his holy Mother…"
One can remark that the use of this phrase is preferred to others addressing Mary alone. We find here, I think, an indication of the orientation of the devotion to Mary of François de Laval who tends quite naturally to always associate Mary with her Son in her role as a Mother. The inclination of his soul, could we say, is in the spirit of the Berullian school where Mary is never separated from her Son. For Bérulle, indeed, Mary "is always a Mother… She is always in her quality, her dignity, her love of a Mother, in a natural and spiritual relationship of a Mother."
Following studies by Charles Flachaire, Henri Brémond and André Molien, one recognizes generally that Bérulle has in more than one way renewed the devotion to Mary. François de Laval, without presenting himself as a disciple of Bérulle, seems to enter well into this new tone that the expression of the devotion to Mary takes under the inspiration of Bérulle. The phrase "Our Lord and his Holy Mother" is a valid indication, it seems to me, of the personal perception of François de Laval where the accent is put on the place of Mary in the history of salvation and Christian life. It is logical to take this phrase as an indication of the personal experience of François de Laval because we find it precisely in the letters that have a more personal tone. As to the Berullian climate with which I find it is related, it certainly marked François de Laval. There is first his long friendship with Fr. Eudes who spent twenty years at the Oratoire founded by Bérulle in 1611; there is also a vocabulary which readily borrows the Berullian categories.
Another type of reference to Mary is also found several times in the writings of François de Laval. The model is not always identical. It comes under several variations which I would call circumstantial, but it is characterized in all cases by the recourse to the patronage of Mary as she is associated this time, not only to Our Lord, but to other saints or to the Holy Angels. Here are a few examples. To Henri-Marie Boudon he wrote on September 30, 1666: "Undoubtedly the most blessed Mother and the holy Angels will have obtained this grace for you because of a special love they have for you." And on November 6, 1677, in one of the most beautiful letters that we have of François de Laval, he will say: "Pray to him well, his holy Mother, her holy Spouse, all the holy Angels and blessed Spirits, that he may grant me the grace of never wanting anything save the accomplishment of this divine and lovable will per infamiam et bonam famam." In the fourth and the fifth letter to Boudon that we have, François de Laval uses again several times the model of reference to Mary that we are describing now.
This model of reference to Mary, might I say, is revealing of a vision of the Church. In the spiritual perception of François de Laval, it establishes itself as a mystical link between Christians, the shepherds of the earth ("Ecclesia peregrinans") and the heavenly Church. There is to be found there a very vivid conscience of the solidarity and the communion of the whole Mystical Body of Christ. This communion is penetrated by a pastoral concern to build a living and evangelical community as well among the colonists as in the Indian missions and the mystical link that I have just pointed out is perceived as a function of the apostolate. And in that, François de laval is found faithful to the spirituality of the Marian Congregations for his devotion spontaneously associates Mary to the care of his Church disseminated over a vast territory that he often visits and to the evangelization of the Amerindians that he saw as "the most important function in the Church".
Mary was very present in the life and the work of François de Laval, as we have seen. It remains difficult to define him as belonging to a current or another because, as for the whole of his spirituality, François de Laval remained quite free regarding the influences and the schools. Trained with M. de Bernières at the Ermitage de Caen and oriented toward the formation of a new Church, he carried all his life an ideal of holiness that for him was inseparable from his mission as a shepherd at the service of the Gospel. His devotion to Mary will also be marked by this apostolic orientation. That is why it flourished with ease inside the Marian Congregations. The Berullian characteristics that we believe we have detected will not change its aspect. They contribute however to situate that devotion inside a vision of the mystery of Christ and the Church where Mary has the privileged position that befits her and where Marian piety does not limit itself to the register of devotional practices. I am sure that François de Laval would have felt quite comfortable in the Marian perspectives of the Vatican II Council whose intention was "to carefully bring to light the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mystery of the Word made flesh and the Mystical Body" (Constitution on the Church, no 54).
March 25, 1993.
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