SHARING AND COMMON OWNERSHIP : EVANGELICAL IDEAL PRACTICED BY SAINT FRANCIS OF LAVAL
Mgr Hermann Giguère
Faculty of Theology and Religious Sciences Laval University Québec
On June 22, 1980, John Paul II beatified François de Laval, vicar apostolic of New France and first bishop of Quebec (1623-1708), Marie de l'Incarnation, ursuline sister of Tours and Quebec (1599-1672), and Kateri Tekakwitha, Mohawk virgin (1656-1680).
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.
IN CHRIST'S FOOTSTEPS
Reconciling life and function, François de Laval has shown, through his life, fruits that bring us back directly to an evangelical ideal of sharing and common ownership. His stay at Caen put him on this road of following Christ where servants and disciples support one another mutually in the pursuit of an ideal of spiritual freedom, of "désappropriation" (recouncing ownership) will say the authors of François de Laval's time. He will himself frequently use this vocabulary. "Refusal of ownership" leading to real poverty which implies an effective renunciation, but above all an openness to the One who is the WHOLE, the ALL and the ONLY ONE NECESSARY.
IN EVERYDAY LIFE
"Refusal of ownership" which held such an important place in the life of Bishop de Laval, is first experienced on the level of gestures and concrete attitudes in everyday life. It is "self-denial" according to the Gospel. It is the sharing with others of one's gifts and charismas and even of one's material ressources. The community aspect of selflessness that one discovers in the blessed François de Laval is essential to the process itself of "renouncing ownership" whose ascetic character of selflessness comes second.
Even if François de Laval revealed few things on his inner experience, unlike his contemporary Marie de l'Incarnation who lived next door at the Ursulines' Monastery, it does not seem exaggerated to say that while he had attained a "sublime degree of mental prayer", he was above all sensitive to the radical evangelical calling inviting to selflessness, poverty, humility. Those are the attitudes and the gestures connected to them that he meant by the term "refusal of ownership". In spite of the ambiguity of the term in spiritual literature, for François de Laval the process of "refusal of ownership" retains an interesting meaning still today since it promotes first and foremost internal freedom for the service of others and the community.
To succeed in creating a real brotherly communion, the blessed François de Laval will insist on concrete sharing and common ownership of material goods. The essence of "refusal of ownership" for François de Laval resides in this sharing and common ownership of material goods that render the harmony of the hearts visible and tangible.
In the harsh conditions of pioneer life, it often happens that even the necessary is not available. It is for this reason that François de Laval will insist on common ownership of ressources and goods for the priests of his Seminary. Bertrand de La Tour reports these words from M. de Maizerets, second superior of the Seminary, who said that: "The prelate did nothing important except with the agreement of all of us. Our possessions were common with his and I never saw among us any distinction be made between the poor and the rich, nor consideration about birth and condition of anyone, all of us being looked upon as brothers."
Sharing in common material ressources builds the community and the solidarity of members with one another. It is the deep meaning of the donation of his possessions to the Seminary that François de Laval made in 1680. He wanted "the whole clergy to form but one family" and that one should never abandon "the refusal of ownership which leaves everything in common at the superior's disposal."
A ROAD OF LIBERATION
For François de Laval, the "refusal of ownership" favors a liberation towards a greater openness to God's action. There is a detachment that opens and creates a space where the unforeseen from the Spirit can be welcomed and received. Such is the ascetic role of the "refusal of ownership", could we say: "an effort of liberation resulting immediately from faith, liberation from this world in view of the one that is coming…" (Louis Bouyer). In the XVIIth century, the concrete practices or the concrete ways to this liberation may seem sometimes bizarre to us. We find examples of them in the letter of Brother Houssart who was at the service of Bishop de Laval during the last twenty years of his life. But behind those practices, there is a spirit of evangelical destitution that François de Laval and the clerics he brought with him 1659 to Quebec had in common. They had been trained at the school of M. de Bernières at Caen and "they carried to the New World the spirit they had taken there", says the first biographer of the Blessed François de Laval, Bertrand de La tour. The latter speaks of a "great system of refusal of ownership" and gives six spiritual maxims that are the basis of it. They can be summarized in the following: "We have no better friend than Jesus Christ. Let us follow everything he advises, especially humiliation and detachment of the heart".
All things considered, the quest for freedom from the world where we live now implies a judgment of value on the relativity of creation in the style of St. John of the Cross or Teilhard de Chardin. Indeed, according to the latter, the ultimate center of the Christian's existence is not in the world around us (the cosmos might we say), it is beyond, it is Christ himself, Alpha and Omega, as he explains so well in "Le milieu divin".
M. de Bernières had given, in writing, to what he called the Ermitage de Québec or the brothers of Canada, rules of which the first one reads like this: "God is our center and our ultimate end. We were created to possess him, not only in heaven, but also on the earth. The whole desire of God himself is to reunite the creature to the Creator, separated by sin and the affection for created beings. Life is but a passage to arrive at this happy end. Christians should have no other purpose but to flow into God, like rivers flow into the sea. This is the fundamental truth of which we must be intensely persuaded and penetrated in an active manner."
After coming out of an illness that almost took his life, François de Laval stated again for us the deep conviction which underlied his experience of God when he wrote to his friend Henri-Marie Boudon, "It is in such a state that one recognizes the truth that there is only God and that all the rest is nothing but pure nothingness."
François de Laval lived all his life a profound detachment which went well with his temperament but it was also the deep consciousness of God's greatness which was at the heart of this attitude. As soon as he arrived, Mother Marie de l'Incarnation, who had already been in Quebec for twenty years, had perceived this. She wrote to her son on September 17, 1660: "Our bishop is tireless in his work; he is truly the man of the world who is the most austere and detached from material possessions (…), he is dead to all that." On the other hand, his experience of the Ermitage de Caen left indelible traces. The ideal of the "community of charity" of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles where all was in common penetrated him and developed into this theme of "refusal of ownership". This leads above all toward common ownership and sharing. The ascetic aspect of "detachment" remains secondary. The "community of charity" of Jerusalem, writes Louis-Marie Chauvet, "does not designate a legal transfer of property, each one remains the owner of what he has, but the affection he holds for his brothers makes him put everything at their disposal. The ideal pursued is not that of voluntary poverty, but that of brotherly love: one abandons his possessions not out of the desire to be poor but so there is no one poor among the brothers." This text by Chauvet concerning the "community of charity" of Jerusalem describes marvelously this ideal of sharing and mutual support that "refusal of ownership" is for the Blessed François de Laval. One sees, after this quick review, that there is here an attitude that is very rich, very evangelical and very modern in a vocabulary that is not familiar to us. We then discover, beyond the words, a proximity, a relationship, a relevance in the preoccupations and the teachings of the Blessed François de Laval. He did not write long treatises but, penetrated by the Gospel, he let it show in his attitudes and in his whole life.
March 20, 1998.
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