– Miguel Augusto (*)
Yesterday, January 24, was the liturgical feast of St Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church. Through preaching, writing and spiritual counselling, he performed prodigies of apostolate and wrote marvellous works of spirituality, and fought the errors of Protestantism. He founded the Order of the Visitandines with St Jane of Chantal and is the patron of journalists and writers. St Francis de Sales inspired saints such as St John Bosco, founder of the Salesians, who elected him as patron of his Congregation.
In 1854, Don Bosco declared: “Our Lady wants us to create a Congregation. I have decided that we will call ourselves Salesians. We are placed under the protection of St Francis de Sales, in order to participate in his immense amiability.” Don Bosco saw in the saint the model for the service that the Salesians should offer to young people.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in the past: “It is not for nothing that we rediscover traces precisely of this teacher at the origin of many contemporary paths of pedagogy and spirituality; without him neither St John Bosco nor the heroic ‘Little Way’ of St Thérèse of Lisieux would have come into being.”
Given that St Francis de Sales is the patron of the Salesians, O Clarim went to met the Irish Salesian priest Aiden Patrick Conroy who resides in Macau at the SDB Salesian Institute, near the Church of St Lawrence. We asked Father Conroy if it is customary on the patron’s day, to have any particular celebration or event. Father Aiden Conroy, who celebrates his 80th birthday next month told us with a paternal smile that – because of the proximity of the festivity of its founder Don Bosco (31 January), they “only” remember the patron Francis de Sales with affection on January 24 in their prayers, but they usually do not have any liturgical celebration or specific activities on that date. Father Conroy told us that on January 31 yes, this day is dedicated to Don Bosco, starting the day with a Mass in the outdoor sports hall at 8:30 AM for all students, teachers and staff. After the liturgical celebration, activities and games follow, and on this day the students do not have classes.
Father Conroy emphasised that “the same thing happens in other Salesian schools in Macau, with only a few program differences.” He concluded that in the Yuet Wah College, the program would be very similar: the day will start in the same way, with the celebration of Holy Mass at 8:30 AM.
Saint Francis of Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Francis de Sales, the eldest son of the thirteen sons of the Barons de Boisy, was born in the castle of Sales in Thorens-Glières, in a French border region, in the province of Savoy on 21 August 1567. The family, devout of St Francis of Assisi, consecrated the son to this saint, who later took him as an example of life. His mother, Francisca de Boisy, piously taught him from childhood the love of Jesus and Mary.
At the age of ten, he received his first communion and confirmation, and from that day onwards he undertook to visit the Blessed Sacrament frequently.
To satisfy his father’s dream, at the age of fifteen, he was already studying law at the University of Paris (Sorbonne). Parallel to this course, he completed his studies in Philosophy and Theology.
In 1588, already a bachelor, Francisco de Sales began his doctorate in civil and canon law in Padua, Italy. He finished his studies in 1591 and returned to his parents’ home in France the following year. He refused many offers, exposing his decision to be of the Church.
Overcoming the resistance of his father, Francis followed the Lord’s call, and on December 18, 1593, was ordained a priest at the age of twenty-six. Three days later, he celebrated his first Mass. Appointed Archpriest of the Chapter of the Cathedral of Geneva, Francis manifested his gifts of zeal and charity, diplomacy and balance alongside the neediest with much affection. His meekness came to such an extent that his great friend and spiritual son, St Vincent de Paul, said: “O my God, if Francis de Sales is so kind, how will you be?”
With the worsening of Calvinism, he volunteered to evangelise the region of Chablais. In his preaching, in search of dialogue, he encountered many closed doors, snow, cold, hunger, nights out in the open, ambushes, insults and even threats.
St Francis and his Catholic friends went from house to house, and placed hand-written leaflets underneath doors, in which the false arguments of Calvinist heresy were refuted. For this reason, he received from the Church the title of “Patron of Catholic journalists and writers.” These writings were later collected and published under the name of Controversies. After a few years of fierce fighting and persecution, Chablais was fully converted.
In 1602, after the death of Msgr Granier, Francis was appointed the bishop of Geneva. He dedicated himself to the pastoral tasks, attending exemplarily the reforms recommended by the Council of Trent.
In 1604, in Dijon, France, Francis de Sales met Jeanne Francoise Fremyot (St Jane Frances de Chantal), a young lady of noble origin who dedicated herself to the family and also to the works of mercy and charity. At the age of twenty-four, after the death of her husband, she decided to enter the religious life.
The long and intense collaboration between Francis and Jane produced great spiritual fruits, among them the foundation of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in 1610, in Annecy, with the purpose of visiting and helping the poor. Francis wrote the Order Constitutions, inspired by the rule of St Augustine. Eight years later, the Order became a Contemplative Order, and the nuns were called Visitandines.
In 1622, the Duke of Savoy invited the saint to gather at Avignon. The Holy Bishop accepted, through the French part of his diocese, but risking much health due to the long journey, in the middle of winter.
He left everything in order as if he knew he would not return. When he arrived in Avignon, the crowds crowded to see him, and the congregations wanted him to preach to them.
On his return, St Francis stopped in Lyon and stayed in the gardener’s house in the Convent of the Visitation. He attended the nuns for a whole month, and when one of them asked him for a virtue to practice, the saint wrote “humility.”
In the cruel winter, Francis continued his journey, but his health declined until he left for the Heavenly Father’s House. His last word was the name of Jesus. Francis de Sales died on December 28, 1622, in Lyon, France. The cult of the saint began at the very moment of his death.
In 1632, when they opened the St Francis tomb, it seemed that he was in a pleasant dream. And when St Jane of Chantal approached the saint’s body with her religious sisters, she knelt and took his hand and laid it on her head to ask for his blessing. At that moment all the sisters saw that the saint’s hand seemed to come to life, and moving his fingers caressed the humble head of his disciple. Today, in Annecy, the sisters of the Visitation preserve the veil that St Jane used on that day.
Francis was beatified by Pope Alexander VII in 1661, the first to take place in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was canonised by the same Pope in 1665, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, in 1877. Pius XI proclaimed him the patron of journalists and Catholic writers.
“The world is a workshop in which the living stones that are to be used in the construction of the Heavenly Jerusalem are beaten and carved” (…) “Love is the perfection of the spirit and charity is the perfection of love,” St Francis used to say.
Saint Francis of Sales, pray for us!