THE VISION OF THE SHEPHERD OF THE BLESSED FRANÇOIS DE LAVAL
Faculty of Theology and Religious Sciences Laval University
François de Laval was born in Montigny-sur-Avre, France, in 1623. After studying Letters and Philosophy at the Collège de Laflèche, he began his theology at the Clermont College in Paris in 1641. Destined to the clerical state, he had, however, to take the responsibility of the Montigny family following the death of his two elder brothers. He continued his preparation to the priesthood which he received in 1647. Later, he renounced the Seigniory of Montigny with its rights and he stayed at the Hermitage of M. de Bernières in Caen from 1654 to 1658. He was chosen as vicar apostolic in Tonkin, then, later on, he accepted to go instead to Canada which was then called New France. He was consecrated a bishop in Paris in the chapel of the Holy Virgin (no longer in existence) of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on December 8, 1658, aged 35. He arrived in Québec City on June 16, 1659. He lived there until his death, except for his three voyages to France. The Québec Diocese was erected in 1674. After his resignation in 1685, Bishop de Laval came back to Canada in 1688, retired at the Quebec Seminary that he had founded and died there in 1708.
TOTALLY ABSORBED BY HIS MINISTRY
This seventeenth century bishop, closely related to the circles of religious renaissance in France and to the missionary efforts that accompanied the opening of new countries to commerce and colonization, presents us with the figure of a remarkable shepherd. François de Laval did not leave any major spiritual writings. From him were left mainly pastoral and personal letters, reports to the king of France or the Pope. As we go over them, we discover an innovative and intense pastoral activity. He was completely absorbed by his ministry as a shepherd and his spiritual experience, of which he says very little, was constantly modeled by the pastoral task that he chose or that commanded his attention. Although he frequented the circles of the Assemblée des Amis or Aa, the Caen Hermitage of M. de Bernières, the Jesuits he was always very fond of, he was never overly influenced by them. It is his ministry which came first. And although he was a XVIIth seventeenth century man by his mortification practices, for example, that Brother Houssart likes to enumerate thoroughly, or again by his devotions like the devotion to the Holy Family and the Holy Angels, François de Laval was also a shepherd like the one suggested by the Vatican II council, accomplishing his ministry "in holiness, with impetus, humility and courage" and finding in it "an ideal road to holiness".
Indeed the Blessed François de Laval allowed himself to be totally penetrated by his ministry. The testimony of his contemporaries insist on this. Mother Juchereau admired in him "all the virtues that Saint Paul requests from a bishop". M. de Vilermaula, Sulpician priest of Montreal, at the death of Bishop de Laval, regretted "a shepherd filled with the spirit of the apostles and quite similar to those holy bishops who are today the object of our worship". The influence of François de Laval is perceived from his ministry as a shepherd because his personal spiritual experience is totally permeated by his ministry.
MOVED BY PASTORAL CHARITY
One can say that François de Laval, without being, strictly speaking, a disciple of Bérulle, illustrates the latter's vision of the shepherd whose life is not separated from the function, and where "what counts above all for a priest is to be a priest, as what is important for a creature is to be a creature and for a Christian is to be a Christian: ratify his condition". There is in François de Laval a unity and harmony of life which is the fruit of a constantly alert pastoral charity. He cannot, like several bishops do at that time, separate the pastoral ministry (the "cura animarum") from his responsibility as a bishop.
That is why he takes it upon himself to do several times the pastoral visitation of those regions where the low population density over a vast territory renders the undertaking most arduous (about 2000 inhabitants in 1659, divided into three population clusters, Québec, Three-Rivers and Montréal, over a distance of about 250 kilometers). One can see him "driven in a small bark canoe by two peasants, without any suite except for one cleric only", we are told in the Relations des jésuites. He stops for confirmations even where there are but 3 or 4 families. On his arrival in Québec, he had nothing more urgent than visiting the 60 to 75 families that formed the main cluster of the colony at that time. Then he dashed "upon the snows as early as the first winter to visit his flock, not on a horse or in a carriage, but on snow-shoes and on the ice".
When he resigned, the 65 year old bishop, after a four and a half year stay in France, asked to retire in Québec City. It is with his people that he wanted to spend his last years. "If I return, it is only to come to the end of my days in peace and to have the consolation of dying in the bosom of my Church", he wrote to the minister of King Louis XIV, M. de Seigneley. At eighty years old, he traveled once more from Québec to Montreal to administer confirmation in the absence of Bishop de Saint-Vallier then in France.
AT THE SERVICE OF ALL
François de Laval follows in the wake of Charles Borommeo in Milan, "the light of the Prelates of our recent times", will he say. Shepherd of an immense territory the size of North America that was to be a province of France, he consecrated his whole life and his energy to his people. No category of persons escaped his tender care.
The evangelization of Amerindians was dear to his heart. He saw in it "the most important occupation in the Church". He fought to have their human dignity recognized by opposing the traders who exploited them by the spirits trade "to get beavers from them", as Marie de l'Incarnation put it in a letter to her son Dom Claude Martin in 1662.
Also with the settlers and the rest of the population, he maintained a narrow contact and raised up a solidarity which manifested itself in the creation of confraternities like that of the Holy Family.
For diocesan priests, he wanted them to be gathered in a Seminary attached to the Seminary of Foreign Missions of Paris "to serve as Clergy for this new Church".
This sollicitude for persons is the authentic mark of a shepherd. Fr. Ragueneau recognizes with admiration in Bishop de Laval "a perfect model of true bishops".
While it was consecrated in great part to the establishment of institutions, the pastoral work of the saintly bishop, François de Laval, will above all aim at touching the hearts and open them to the Good News lived fraternally, faithfully and radically. That is why, with a bit of humour maybe, he will remind missionaries Claude Trouvé and François Salagnac, that if the language is necessary to deal with the Savages, it is however one the least important parts of a good missionary, the same way as, in France, to speak French well is not what makes one preach fruitfully".
November 12, 1997.
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