Saint Francis de Sales
by Catherine Fournier
Saint Francis de Sales
Gentle Christ of Geneva
Doctor of the Church
Feast Day: January 24
Patron: authors, educators, journalists, teachers, writers, deaf people, deafness
Symbol: bald man with a long beard wearing bishops robes most commonly depicted holding a pen and a book, less often with the Sacred Heart or picture of the Virgin
Saint Francis de Sales taught a very important less on to all the people who knew him, and the whole Church. He knew that holiness is the most important thing in anyone's life - the one thing we all need to work towards, and the one thing we need to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
What is holiness? Christ told us what holiness is when He said, 'Be holy, as the Father is holy." We are holy when we follow God's plan instead of our own, when we know and love God with all our heart, and when we give all our thoughts, actions, words and desires to God.
This sounds like it would be hard for an ordinary person to do, doesn't it? Priests and monks and nuns, who spend all day praying and going to Mass have time and opportunity to give their lives to God, but the ordinary people are too busy with everything else to do that. This is what most people think nowadays and what most people thought in the time of Saint Francis.
Saint Francis de Sales taught a different idea though. He realised that God wouldn't ask everyone to be holy, and then only accept one way of following Him. God made us, He knows that we have to work, and eat, and clean houses and all kinds of other stuff. Surely since He made us, and He made our work, our work should be a way to be holy and follow God too. He taught that everything in our lives should be given to God, not just our prayer. He taught that everything should be done for God, not just going to Sunday Mass.
Going to school, doing homework, cleaning up your room, taking out the garbage, playing with your little sister, riding your bike, swimming, taking care of little children, reading a book, everything in your life can be given to God. And because it's given to God, it should be done as carefully and as well as you can. That will help make it and you holy, as the Father is holy.
The oldest son of the Count de Sales, Saint Francis was born near Annecy in Savoy, a region of France, in 1567. He showed an inclination towards the priesthood from a young age, studied philosophy and theology in Paris, then received a doctorate in canon and civil law from the University of Padua. Despite his academic successes and the careers open to him through his family's wealth and position, he remained firm in his desire to enter the priestly life. In prayer, he received a message telling him to "Leave all and follow Me."
When he returned home, with the reluctant consent of his parents who had planned other things for him (a prominent position and a advantageous marriage no doubt) Francis entered the priesthood. He travelled and evangelized throughout the Duchy of Savoy, worked to overcome the heresies of Calvinism, and converted many Protestants back to the Church. While engaged in this work, he was appointed as the coadjutor to the Bishop of Geneva, finally succeeding him in 1602.
As bishop, he worked tirelessly for the clergy and people, preaching, teaching and writing extensively. He provided spiritual direction for his entire diocese and beyond, preaching Lenten sermons at various places outside his diocese. His most famous work, Introduction to a Devout Life written in 1609, showed how even ordinary life can be sanctified and dedicated to God. No problem, no detail was too small to receive attention, dress, entertainment, his main concern was to lead each reader to the love of God and the imitation of Christ.
Saint Francis de Sales was a friend of Saint Vincent de Paul, and helped found the Order of the Visitation with Saint Jeanne de Chantal. In a time of history when fanaticism was common, and extremes advocated widely, Saint Francis provided a model of restraint and humility for all. His concern for the sanctification of the laity and preservation of the religious life in the changing times was an important milestone in the development and history of Christ's Church.
Francis Bonaventure was born on August 21st, 1567, at the castle of Sales in Savoy. As the eldest son of a prominent nobleman, he was destined, for a career in the world and a seat in the senate of Savoy. Outwardly charming, he possessed a firmness of purpose leading him gradually towards the priesthood, in spite of all the pressures of his parents and background.
When sent to Paris to complete his education, he came in contact with post-Tridentine humanism which enlisted the classical learning of the Renaissance in the service of the Christian mind and spirit. This insight was to form and inspire his life. Francis grasped and applied that humanism more easily and naturally than any: as he said, those who would be religious should avoid ostentation but wear clothes that fitted them.
He struggled with doubts and temptation until one day in prayer before a statue of Mary he took a vow of chastity; the temptation fell away from him 'like the scales of leprosy.' He also at about this time, received an interior message "Leave all and follow Me." From 1586 to 1591 he attended the University of Padua to study law and obtained a Doctor's degree. But his vocation was now clear, though only to himself; he maintained a quiet, firm dignity against the inevitable clash with his father and was ordained priest on May 13th, 1593.
He soon was called by Claude Granier, bishop of Geneva, to the difficult task of winning back from Calvinism the people of the Chablais district. In a time and place ravaged by endless and bitter religious wars Francis brought a spirit of mission which was charitable and persuasive. While engaged in this work, he was sent to Paris in 1602 to negotiate about the condition of Catholics in the reconverted territories. There he came in contact with the great figures of the religious and mystical revival taking place at the time: Henri de Joyeuse, Berulle, and Mme Acarie (Bd Mary of the Incarnation). In July on the death of Granier he became bishop of Geneva and returned to Annecy. Constantly journeying and preaching, without pomp or fuss he gradually drew the entire diocese into the habit of his holiness. He exerted himself particularly in the sacrament of penance, carrying his knowledge of the soul to both prince and peasant.
In the midst of his constant pastoral work he found time to write the book which has made him best known to succeeding ages, the Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), a work which sprang immediately from his care for souls, and which was based on the problem of how to live a Christian life in the world.
Francis's great work showed how ordinary life can be sanctified - every type of ordinary life, but especially that of busy, well-to-do people. No problem is too small for him, dress, entertainments, flirtations, the daily interchange of husband and wife, but he deals with them all so as to guide his reader to the final end: the love of God and the imitation of Christ. He showed how there is no real struggle between nature and grace, flesh and spirit, no violent tension between a Christian life and the ordinary sphere of social duties.
This was not sentimentality, but an approach to perfection and a total harmony of the human person with the framework of Christian virtues. He was uniquely suited by his life's circumstances to develop this teaching which combined the openness and graciousness of the Renaissance with the rural wisdom of Savoy, the Truths of traditional Catholicism with a new understanding of the human condition.
When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind. He has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station, and his calling,
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the noblemen and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by 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.
Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its color, so each 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.
Father in heaven, You prompted St.Francis de Sales to become all things to all men for the salvation of men. May his example inspire us to dedicated love in the service of our brothers. Amen