Next Monday, January 24, the Church celebrates the liturgical feast of St Francis de Sales. He was a pastor full of zeal and a teacher of charity, as the Salesians remember him. He inspired Don Bosco who elected him as patron of the order he founded: the ‘Society of Saint Francis de Sales’ known as ‘Salesian Society’. Pope John Paul II, on the Fourth Centenary of the episcopal ordination of St Francis de Sales, said that the saint was adviser of popes and princes, endowed with great spiritual, pastoral, and diplomatic qualities.
Knowing the lives of the saints and their spiritual and human virtues was a concern in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. On April 13, 2011, at a general audience in St Peter’s Square, he mentioned that “[i]n the past two years we have been accompanied by the figures of so many saints.” In these catecheses, he underlined, “We have learned to know them more closely and to understand that the whole of the Church’s history is marked by these men and women who with their faith, with their charity, and with their life have been beacons for so many generations, as they are for us too.”
A month earlier, the Supreme Pontiff, in a general audience at the Paul VI Hall on March 2, 2011 had spoken about St Francis de Sales. “Francisco was born in 1567, in a French border region, he was the son of the Lord of Boisy, an ancient and noble family of Savoy,” he began. The Holy Father highlighted that his life straddled two centuries, the 16th and 17th, and he summed up in himself the best of the teachings and cultural achievements of the century that was drawing to a close, reconciling the heritage of humanism striving for the Absolute that is proper to mystical currents. Benedict XVI recalled that St Francis received a very careful education; he undertook higher studies in Paris, where he dedicated himself to theology, and “[a]t the University of Padua, where he studied jurisprudence, complying with his father’s wishes and graduating brilliantly with degrees in utroque iure, in canon law and in civil law.”
In his harmonious youth, reflection on the thought of St Augustine and of St Thomas Aquinas led him to a deep crisis. This prompted him to question his own eternal salvation and the predestination of God concerning himself; he suffered as a true spiritual drama the principal theological issues of his time – “He prayed intensely but was so fiercely tormented by doubt that for a few weeks he could barely eat or sleep.”
The Pontiff said, “At the climax of his trial, he went to the Dominicans’ church in Paris, opened his heart and prayed in these words: ‘Whatever happens, Lord, you who hold all things in your hand and whose ways are justice and truth; whatever you have ordained for me… you who are ever a just judge and a merciful Father, I will love you Lord…. I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy and will always repeat your praise…. O Lord Jesus you will always be my hope and my salvation in the land of the living.’”
In this way, the Pope adds, the 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating love of God: “‘loving him without asking anything in return and trusting in divine love; no longer asking what will God do with me: I simply love him, independently of all that he gives me or does not give me. Thus, I find peace’ and the question of predestination – which was being discussed at that time – was resolved, because he no longer sought what he might receive from God; he simply loved God and abandoned himself to his goodness. And this was to be the secret of his life which would shine out in his main work: the The Treatise on the Love of God.”
The Call to the Priesthood
Overcoming his father’s resistance Francis followed the Lord’s call and was ordained a priest on 18 December 1593. After almost ten years, in 1602, he became Bishop of Geneva, during “a period in which the city was the stronghold of Calvinism so that his episcopal see was transferred, ‘in exile’ to Annecy.”
The Holy Father quoted a sentiment of Sales at this time – as the Pastor of a poor and tormented diocese in a mountainous area whose harshness was as well known as its beauty – he wrote: “I found [God] sweet and gentle among our loftiest rugged mountains, where many simple souls love him and worship him in all truth and sincerity; and mountain goats and chamois leap here and there between the fearful frozen peaks to proclaim his praise” (Letter to Mother de Chantal, October 1606, in Oeuvres).
Nevertheless, the Pope emphasized that the influence of his life and his teaching on Europe in that period and in the following centuries is immense. “He was an apostle, preacher, writer, man of action and of prayer dedicated to implanting the ideals of the Council of Trent; he was involved in controversial issues dialogue with the Protestants, experiencing increasingly, over and above the necessary theological confrontation, the effectiveness of personal relationship and of charity; he was charged with diplomatic missions in Europe and with social duties of mediation and reconciliation.”
Above all, St Francis de Sales was a director: from his encounter with a young woman, Madame de Charmoisy, he was to draw the inspiration to write one of the most widely read books of the modern age, The Introduction to a Devout Life. Speaking of another fruitful encounter, the Holy Father mentioned that a new religious family was to come into being from “his profound spiritual communion with an exceptional figure, St Jane Frances de Chantal: The Foundation of the Visitation, as the Saint wished, was characterized by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility.”
The way of perfection in Divine Love
Benedict XVI highlighted that the life of St Francis de Sales was a relatively short life but was lived with great intensity. He died in 1622, at the age of 55, “after a life marked by the hardness of the times and by his apostolic effort.”
The Pontiff emphasized that the figure of this Saint radiates an impression of rare fullness, demonstrated in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the riches of his affection and the “sweetness” of his teachings, which had an important influence on the Christian conscience.
Pope tells us that, in reading his book on the love of God and especially his many letters of spiritual direction and friendship, one clearly perceives that St Francis was well acquainted with the human heart. “St Francis de Sales summed up in a famous sentence: ‘man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of man; love, that of the spirit; and charity, that of love.’”
Saint Pope John Paul II, on the Fourth Centenary of the episcopal ordination of St Francis de Sales (2002), sent a letter to Bishop Yves Boivineau of Annecy. The Holy Father called Francis the “Doctor of divine love,” recalling that “Francis de Sales did not rest until the faithful accepted God’s love, to live fully in it, turning their hearts to God and uniting themselves with him. This is how, under his direction, many Christians walked on the path of holiness.”
John Paul II added that Francis showed them that all are called to live an intense spiritual life, whatever their situation and profession, for “the Church is a garden filled with infinite flowers where there are flowers of different sizes, colors, fragrances: in brief, of different perfections. For they each have their price, their grace, and their substance, and make a most pleasing perfection of beauty in the gathering of their rich variety” (The Treatise on the Love of God).
Francis de Sales was beatified by Alexander VII in 1661 and canonized by him in 1665. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, in 1877. The relic of his heart is preserved in a golden shrine, offered by King Louis XIII.
St Francis de Sales, pray for us!