Saint Francois-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval (+1708), the first bishop of Quebec, two centuries before ‘Canada’ even existed, began life in France, a descendant from nobility on both sides. Destined for the priesthood, he showed a high degree not only of intelligence, holiness, piety and devotion, but also a shrewd practical sense, with the capacity to administrate, to organize funds and to deal with men amicably in all their foibles and fractiousness. He was, in the truly Pauline sense, all things to all men. He lived a life of deep prayer, discipline and recollection, the source of his immense apostolic activity and fruitfulness.
With the death of his father, along with two older brothers in battle, Francois became the eldest son, and had to discern inheriting and taking over his family fortune and affairs – which his mother and his own bishop advised, but which would have meant abandoning his ecclesiastical path.
Fortunately for history and for Canada, Francois set his face like flint for the priesthood. Ordained on May 1st, 1647, Pere Francois gave his all to the priesthood, and whatever task he was given, he accomplished admirably. His deepest desire was to become a missionary, after his famous namesake; originally, he applied to be sent to Asia, but this plan was blocked, and the young, dynamic priest spent years in more quiet and hidden ministry – one of the virtues he strove to especially cultivate was patience, which bore fruit. Still only 36, the decision was made to ordain him the first bishop, the ‘Vicar Apostolic’, of New France, on the propitious day of December 8th, 1658, the future universal feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Francois set sail in April, arriving in Quebec on June 16, 1659, and immediately set to work for the next half-century establishing the Church in New France, his vast diocese extending from the eastern seacoast to Lake Michigan, even if almost all the Catholics lived in Quebec City, whose population, in 1665, consisted of 550 souls, living in 70 houses, one-quarter of them members of religious orders.
Bishop Francois built upon the foundation laid by the heroic work of the Recollets and the Jesuits; Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant had been martyred a scant ten years before the new bishop’s arrival, with many members of the Order still toiling away in the hinterlands.
Francois gave his life to his work, paving the way for bringing over many new settlers – the hardy and hard-working habitants – as well as a parochial system and priests to serve them, founding la Grand Seminaire – still operational – on March 26, 1663, which he saw as the intellectual and spiritual centre of the diocese. The new bishop strove to balance the authority of the Church and State – with such contentious issues as selling liquor to the ‘Natives’, and his conflict with the secular arm, the Governors, was never-ending.
In all this, the good bishop realized, as we all must do, that much of the ‘fruit’ of our lives will be borne by others after us, but by the time of Saint Francois’ death on this day in 1708, the population of New France had risen to thousands. The Church in Quebec, right up until its near-collapse in the revolution tranquil of the 1960’s, witnessed a vibrant and full Catholicism, with large families, a strong devotional life, music, literature, culture, heritage, the best of what it meant and should mean to be ‘Canadian’, all built on the solid Faith that Saint Francois de Laval, along with many other heroic men and women hidden to history, brought to this wild land.
We all owe him, and them, a great deal of gratitude, and Saint Francois de Laval provides a model for what a bishop should be. The Church in Canada needs to hear a clear affirmation of the Church’s moral teaching; a reappropriation and handing on of the rich intellectual tradition of the Church; and, perhaps most of all, a renewed fidelity to the liturgy. What we need far less of is a muted, milquetoast, laissez-faire, happy-clappy Catholicism – witness the tragic state of our school system, and the disorder at so many Masses across this land – whose message is intellectually and morally flaccid, and is leading consciences and souls at best to mediocrity, and at worst to nowhere good.
As Saint Paul exhorted the new bishop Timothy, which Saint Francois lived to the full:
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ.