Wednesday, January 24, 2007

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

Almost 50 years ago, someone in Rome suggested to me that Francis de Sales had the vocation to found Opus Dei. He did not do it – or could not – because of the juridical understanding of holiness as circumscribed to the “state of perfection.” This involved leaving the world, taking vows and wearing distinguishing dress. This state of affairs (i.e. the recognition of the universal call to holiness) had not substantially changed up to the time of the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law of 1917.

“What Is Not in the Code, Doesn’t Exist”

In the historical milieu of “the grave and great questions facing the Church – missionary expansion, problems derived from secularism or the modernist crisis, etc. – the Codex was seen as the answer. It would foster the formation and improvement of the clergy to direct the ecclesiastical organization, while offering improved or new channels for pastoral action. This view was solidly grounded. But one must also recognize that, without doubting the Code’s undeniable advantages, it was sometimes applied too rigidly. The traditional flexibility of Canon Law to welcome renewing and rejuvenating movements in the pastoral life of the Church was curtailed. Some even claimed that what was not regulated or recognized in the Codex could have no citizenship in the life of the Church. A phrase circulating in Rome and attributed to Cardinal Gasparri, Secretary of State until 1930 and principal mover of the new Code, had acquired the status of a maxim: quod non est in Codice non est in mundo”[1]

The Universal Call to Holiness Was not in the Code; Therefore, Opus Dei Came 100 Years Too Soon

“When the consultors of the Sacred Congregation for Religious examined the 1917 Code of Canon Law, they saw that Opus Dei, as a pastoral phenomenon, raised problems almost beyond solution within the juridical framework of Title 17 of Book Two, no matter how its canons were interpreted. On the other hand, reforming the Code to provide norms suited to a new institution was at this time an impossible dream. No wonder, then, that a high official of the Curia said to Dan Alvaro that `L’Opus Dei era giunto a Roma con un secolo di anticipo’ [Opus Dei had come to Rome a century too soon], and all that could be done was `to wait, since there was no adequate canonical framework for what the Work represented.’”[2]

The Mind of St. Francis de Sales

“I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

“Tell me, please… whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not his sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion… destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or it is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion…. (E)ach person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.

“It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge… that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.

“Therefore, in whatever situation we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.”

[1] “The Canonical Path of Opus Dei,” Scepter (1994) 139.
[2] Andres Vazquez de Prada, “The Founder of Opus Dei, Volume III: The Divine Ways on Earth,” Scepter (2005) 20.
[3] “The Introduction to the Devout Life,” Part 1, chapter 3: Office of Readings for January 24, Volume III, 1317,

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