They’ve been around since 1610, with roots in America dating back to 1799. Today, nine monasteries of the Visitation of Holy Mary remain in the United States, including one in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Nestled near the vehicular madness on City Avenue on land adjoining the bustling campus of St. Joseph’s University, the Philadelphia monastery carries on the centuries-old tradition of contemplative prayer. From the midst of their silent lives comes breaking news of benefit even to those outside the monastery’s walls.
The Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary has approved the request for Visitation monasteries around the world to celebrate a “jubilee year” beginning this Oct. 16, the feast day of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, in honor of the centenary of her canonization.
Why should a sacred celebration accorded to contemplative nuns matter to the rest of us? Because it can help us understand the project of holiness, advance the popularity of devotion and realize the power of grace.
The prayerful presence of the Visitation Sisters embodies a distinctive spirituality bequeathed to them by their saintly founders, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Although it is modeled in the monastery, the Salesian approach to holiness is ultimately intended for, and ideally suited to, people living “in the world.”
In his classic “Introduction to the Devout Life,” de Sales reckons holiness to be the practice of charity “carefully, frequently and promptly” in and through the particular state-in-life to which God calls us, whatever that may be. He explains how everyone can pray, practice virtue and avoid vice in the very midst of this world’s responsibilities.
Building on this enculturated view of sanctity, Francis and Jane initiated an innovative approach to religious life. Their originally non-cloistered order would accept widows and other women who were not able to manage the austere life of mortification demanded in other monasteries.
Instead, the Visitation path to perfection focuses on an ordinarily life lived extraordinarily well through the practice of the “little virtues” and a “daily mutual forbearance” that teaches the sisters “to see God’s will in every circumstance of life.”
From the living laboratory of the monastery comes the formula for anyone to live today well.
That simple approach to holiness would later be popularized through devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the monastery of Paray-le-Monial, St. Margaret Mary (1647-1690) embraced the Salesian plan of holiness, allowing herself to be placed “in the school of him whose heart held nothing dearer than meekness, humility and charity.”
Through a series of apparitions, the Lord Jesus singled out his heart to her as a focus for contemplation of God’s love for all humanity and of reparation for the world’s indifferent response to that love.
Visitation monasteries subsequently fostered devotion to the Sacred Heart, eventually leading to the designation of a universal feast in 1856. Since then, holy hours on first Fridays, novenas, guards of honor and enthronement of the Sacred Heart in homes remain among the most practiced devotions in the church.
The centenary celebration now beginning extends the graces associated with this tradition. In keeping with the jubilee year, a plenary indulgence is granted to all who enter a Visitation monastery chapel on certain dates and under the usual conditions.
Talk of indulgences may seem antiquated, conjuring the financing of crusades and building projects in a “pay to play” scheme for salvation. But the reformed practice really seeks to inspire fervor in all those who strive to love God and neighbor.
Simply stated, an indulgence affords the penitent person an opportunity to counteract the injurious and residual effects of sin. The tradition of granting them builds on the inexhaustible merits of Christ’s own work of salvation, which he bestowed upon the apostles in the power of “binding and loosing” sins (Matt 16:19; 18:18). Those merits, shared in the communion of saints, constitute the “treasury of the Church.”
From that treasury, sinners in every age can receive spiritual aid in their ongoing purification and continual conversion. The benefit accrues to those who detach themselves from affection for any sin, make a valid sacramental confession, worthily receive holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the pope — all done in conjunction with some designated spiritual work.
During the Visitation’s jubilee year, that spiritual work entails visiting a monastery chapel on the first Friday of any month, on the feast days of St. Margaret Mary (Oct. 16), St. Francis de Sales (Jan. 24), or St. Jane de Chantal (Aug. 12), or on the solemnities of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (May 31) or of the Sacred Heart (June 19).
Visitation monasteries are places of quiet prayer, but this year a grand celebration calls us all to rejoice with them.
Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.
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