St. Francis de Sales – Bishop, Doctor of the Church – Feast Day: January 24
- Born: August 21, 1567 in the Chateau de Sales, Duchy of Savoy, France
- Died: December 28, 1622 at the age of 55 in Lyons, France
- Canonized April 8, 1665
- Declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX November 16, 1877
- Patronage: Journalists, Writers, Deaf, Christian Unity
I remember it clear as day, although it was 15 years ago. There I sat in front of Fr. Myles Gaffney, our Diocesan Vocation Director, while he went on to ask me: “So, how long have you been thinking of becoming a priest?”
“How long?” I responded. “If you would’ve told me last year that I’d be sitting here in front of you today, telling you what I’m telling you, I would’ve told you that you were crazy!” About half an hour later, I walked away from the church office, reflecting on how much I had just ‘bombed’ my first interview for priestly discernment. I held in my hand a brand-new book, one that Fr. Myles had generously offered and insisted I take with me. I got in the car, set it down on the passenger seat and thought about how – other than the Bible my parents had given me at Confirmation – this was the first religious book I ever owned.
Such was my “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. He had me within the first few pages. It was the way he referred to everyone who would ever read his book as “Philothea,” which means “a soul in love with God.” It’s been said that we can only give to others what we ourselves already have. In the case of St. Francis, the quest of his life consisted in a relentless effort to share with others the privileged reality of his own soul. “The tree is known by its fruit.” (Luke 6:44)
Francis was born of noble blood. Both his father, François de Sales de Boisy, and his mother, Françoise de Sionnaz, came from high-class families. As is evident by all three of their first names, they had a rather strong devotion to St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was the oldest of six boys, and as was common for children of large families during that time, his father had his eldest son’s life all set out before he could even speak. The plan was for Francis to become a judge. While he initially followed his earthly father’s will by way of studying in Paris and then going on to Padua and earning a doctoral degree, the will of his Heavenly Father ultimately triumphed. A hint of what lay ahead for Francis popped on the radar screen while he was taking a course on theology alongside his courses on law. At that time, something powerful spoke to him in such a way that he was driven before a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There he knelt before Our Lady, made a vow of chastity, and consecrated his life to her.
Upon receiving his PhD from Pancirola in 1592, Francis was appointed lawyer before the Senate of Chambery. By now his father had managed to not only secure his future career, but had also found his son the perfect wife! As history shows, this was not to be. Right when it seemed to everyone around him that Francis had the world by the tail, he went on to shock everyone by revealing his intention to enter the priesthood. Not a minute was wasted. Within a year’s time – 1593 – he was ordained by Bishop Claude de Granier of Geneva. He appointed Francis to the highest office in the diocese: Provost of the Chapter of Geneva.
HIS IMMEDIATE FRUITS
With the Protestant Reformation being the ‘New Kid on the Religious Block’ (1545-1563), there was no shortage of work for Francis. With fervent zeal, he devoted himself to preaching, hearing confessions and engaged many Protestants in rhetorical discourses, longing to help them see the error of their ways. Less than 10 years into his priesthood, the bishop who ordained him, Claude de Granier, passed from this life to the next. So it came to pass in the year 1602 that Francis was consecrated as Bishop of Geneva. It is said, “When Pope Clement VIII heard the sample of teaching which de Sales had given in his (the Pontiff’s) presence when he was being promoted to the rank of Bishop, the Holy Father used these words of Proverbs to congratulate him: ‘Go, my son, and drink the water from your cistern and the rivers of your well; let your fountains flow far abroad, and distribute your waters in the streets.’”1
With an ever-burning love for God and souls, Francis developed catechetical instructions pertinent to the times in which he lived and made sure that they were available for both clergy and laity. He visited all the parishes within his diocese, reformed religious orders, and devoted his life especially to the poor. A story is told that one day, while sitting just prior to dinner, it was reported that a stranger wished to see him. Suppertime arrived and messengers called Bishop to the table, only to hear him respond, “Is not one soul worth more than the supper?” For 10 hours, by the clock, this man talked the whole time while Francis showed not a sign of either impatience or weariness.
Amazingly enough, the sacrificial aspect of his life for others did not weaken, but rather strengthened him for ministry. For we who live in the 21st century, texting and email have become our favorite modes of communication. Back then, Francis reached out to those in need mostly through letters. He once commented, “I have more than fifty letters to answer. If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same and so I shall go on until I have finished.”2 Is it any wonder they called him ‘the Gentleman Saint’?
Desiring to ignite hearts with a burning love for God, Francis offered spiritual direction to lay people living ordinary lives in the world. While common to us these days, spiritual direction used to be reserved only for monks and nuns. He wanted to proclaim from the housetops how everyone is called to holiness in the world – and that this happens primarily through the vehicle of one’s occupation and vocation, whatever that might be. It was by means of expressing this truth through the way that he lived out his vocation as Bishop that he was inspired to pen his famous “INTRODUCTION TO THE DEVOUT LIFE.” His intention was to write a book that would inspire ordinary people to climb the mountaintop of holiness. As Francis put it, “When God created the world he commanded each tree to bear fruit after its kind; in the same way, he commands Christians, the living trees of his Church, to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his kind and vocation.”3
In 1622, while he was making a Christmas Tour, traveling with Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy, they arrived in Lyon, France. Bishop Francis “chose to stay in the gardener’s hut at the Visitandine monastery in that city. While there he suffered a stroke, from which he died on 28 December 1622.”4
THE TREE OF THE CROSS
While there are other books and many letters that were written by Bishop Francis, his universal message of love for God always comes back to the love given to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, on the Cross. For it is from the tree of the Cross that was born the fruit of eternal life, namely, the flesh and blood of Our Lord consumed in the Holy Eucharist.
It’s true; St. Francis emphasized it over and over again throughout the course of his life. All of us are called to holiness – and holiness means the cross. I pray that, through the words of St. Francis below, you will find the strength, the grace, the hope and the courage you need at this time in your life to carry your cross.
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
Your Cross – St. Francis de Sales
The everlasting God has in his wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross
that he now presents to you as a gift from his inmost heart.
This cross he now sends you, he has considered with his all-knowing eyes,
understood with his divine mind, tested with his wise justice, warmed with loving arms
and weighed with his own hands to see that it be not one inch too large
and not one ounce too heavy for you.
He has blessed it with his Holy Name, anointed it with his consolation,
taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from Heaven,
a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.
– Fr. Jerome Lavigne
1 The Franciscan Book Of Saints, ed. Marion Habig, OFM, (Franciscan Herald Press, 1959).
2 “St. Francis de Sales,” Catholic Online; available from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=51; Internet; accessed 31 December 2013.
3 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1950), 39.
4 “Our Heritage,” DeSales University.