20 January 2023

Saint of the Week – St Francis de Sales

St Francis de Sales was born premature and very nearly didn’t survive infancy. Both his mother and father were from nobles in the Duchy of Savoy (France) which meant that Francis’ father had great expectations for his son.

Name: Francis de Sales – Doctor of the Church

Born: 21st August AD 1567; Duchy of Savoy

Died: 28th December 1922; Lyons, France

Feast Day: 24th January

Patron Saint of: Journalists, Catholic Press

Francis was gifted with a keen intellect and studied both at the University of Paris and thereafter completed a doctorate in Law from the University of Padua. By this time he was resolved to pursue a priestly calling, and finally won his Father’s reluctant consent. He was ordained priest in 1593 after just 6 months of preparations and immediately appointed the provost of the Chapter of Geneva. Geneva at this time was a Calvinist stronghold, and there he faced considerable local opposition and dangers. He was accused of sorcery and had multiple attempts on his life from would-be assassins. In spite of these tensions, Francis’ preaching was very effective and he even won the attention of the French King Henry IV who had him preach the Lenten sermons for the court. His mission to the vehemently Calvinist region of Chablais was another example of his pastoral effectiveness. He wrote to Pope Clement VIII that before he arrived in the Chablais he struggled to find 100 Catholics; thereafter he struggled to find 100 Protestants!

Francis was appointed bishop of Geneva in 1602 and took up the task with great seriousness. Although Francis suffered from poor health throughout his life, this had little effect in slowing him down in his pastoral ministry. He lost no time in visiting the 450 parishes of his diocese and the various monasteries and convents to ensure order and propriety prevailed. He personally taught the catechism to children and adults alike, he promoted the education of his clergy, and gave himself to long hours in the confessional. To his clear preaching, Francis de Sales added a new weapon in his attempts to win back the Calvinists and lapsed Catholics to the Faith: the pamphlet. He devoted considerable efforts to producing many such pamphlets which could be distributed to homes, in an attempt to reach the hearts and minds beyond the confines of his congregation. Understanding the need to lead by example the Bishop of Geneva undertook dramatic public penances, walking through the streets with a coarse rope around his neck. Slowly but surely his efforts at reform and renewal of his diocese were rewarded. By the time of his death the diocese of Geneva had the reputation of having zealous and well-formed clergy and no less devout and well-catechised laity.

Francis de Sales formed a profound spiritual friendship with St Jane Frances de Chantel with whom he helped found the Order of the Visitation (the ‘Visitandines’). She was well advanced in the spiritual life and proved instrumental in leading Francis to strive more assiduously for the heights of sanctity. Notwithstanding his prodigious talents and competence, Francis’ pastoral success was in no small measure owing to the model of pastoral charity he gave. He sought to win souls by gentle persuasion not by force of argument: he proposed that “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar!” The good bishop understood that souls are more willingly persuaded when they are convinced that the pastor loves them and wants the best for them. Much of Francis de Sales’ pastoral approach emerges in his most famous work ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ which was immediately recognised as a Christian spiritual classic. It is notable for its common-sense approach to cultivating a serious devotional life that is in accord with the individual’s particular circumstances and state in life.

In our own times we seem to find ourselves increasingly uncertain about the evangelising mission of the Church. As a Church are we still trying to “make disciples of all nations” (cf Mt 28:19) or is that finished now? Is it possible (or indeed ‘wrong’) to even suggest that someone’s erroneous religious views are in need of correction? When one reads the lives of saints like Francis de Sales it becomes obvious that not only can the Church desire the conversion of souls to come to faith in Christ, but that this desire necessarily lies at the heart of her entire mission, as an expression of her pastoral charity. It is estimated that St Francis de Sales converted over 70,000 Calvinists to Catholicism, and that’s to say nothing of the innumerable lapsed and lukewarm Catholics who were converted by his example to live a truly pious Christian life. If coming to know and share in the life of Jesus Christ is good for us, how could it be simultaneously bad for others? It would be like wanting to have a life-vest on a sinking ship, but being indifferent to whether anyone else had one on, or saying nothing for fear of appearing to be ‘judgmental’. The truth is every one of us needs to be converted, daily even, so as to ‘turn back’ to Christ when we stray from Him. The fog of religious indifferentism that we see today (even from within the Church) might present itself as being more ‘tolerant’ and ‘kind’ but in reality it proceeds from a grave deficiency in genuine pastoral charity, since it effectively considers the salvation of others’ souls to be of no concern. We pray for saintly pastors like St Francis de Sales who seek above all else the salvation of souls, drawing souls to Christ by their own witness of being transformed by the love of Christ.

St Francis de Sales, pray for us!