by Joseph Boenzi, SDB
In his article “Visitation: Mystery of Presence, Community of Women for Women,” Joseph Boenzi, SDB sheds light upon the beginnings of St. Francis de Sales' Visitation Institute. Fr. Boenzi highlights the scope of the new institute and the importance that it had for the Savoyard. From its beginning, the Institute was aimed to attract women and girls “who would begin a new experiment of living together in piety and poverty, enriching themselves only with good works.” Fr. Boenzi stresses that Francis de Sales aimed to create a community where charity towards one’s neighbor and a contemplative life of prayer were perfectly balanced. This was innovative for Francis de Sales’ time, and so his idea would attract some criticism from various quarters, especially since what he was proposing did not seem to be a serious response to the austere demands made by the Council of Trent regarding religious life. It was precisely because religious life was too rigorous and too severe that in the Savoyard’s opinion, only women of robust constitution could endure such a communitarian life. What about women who did not enjoy robust health? Should they be impeded in embracing religious life? Not according to Francis de Sales. In fact, the new Institute would be “for those women and girls who, because of their bodily infirmities or because they have not the inspiration to undertake great austerities, cannot enter the existing or reformed religious communities…” Therefore, his new Institute would create an environment where such women would find a welcoming, gracious refuge with the possibility of living a virtuous life. The author then moves on to state Francis de Sales’ clear scope for the institute and the choice of name for his new religious community. Towards the end of his article, Fr. Boenzi gives details on the expansion of the new Institute and also on the practice of charity by its members, especially towards poor and sick women. Reaching out to these poor women and instructing girls on Sundays, the Sisters of the Visitation – as they became to be known – were an innovation in the field of religious life, especially in a time when monastic or cloistered community life was considered austere and rigid.