Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
It is almost an act of rudeness to limit the life of today’s saint to one page. St. Francis de Sales was a religious celebrity in his own day and age. He was an erudite, humble, tough, and zealous priest and bishop. He was holy and known to be holy by everyone, especially those closest to him. He mingled easily with princes, kings, and popes, who enjoyed his charming and educated company. He incessantly criss crossed his diocese on foot and horseback, destroying his own health, to visit the poor and humble faithful who were drawn to him as much as the high born. He embodied to the fullest that extraordinary pastoral and intellectual productivity, characteristic of the greatest saints, which makes one wonder if he ever rested a single minute, or slept a single night.
St. Francis de Sales was born and lived most of life in what is today southeast France. His father ensured that he received an excellent education from a young age, and his son excelled in every subject. His intellectual gifts, holiness, and engaging personality made him, almost inevitably, an ideal candidate for the priesthood and eventually the episcopacy. He was duly appointed the bishop of Geneva, a generation after John Calvin, a former future priest, had turned that deeply Catholic city into the Protestant Rome, leaving St. Francis as bishop of Geneva in little but name only.
In carrying out his ministry, St. Francis’ weapon of choice was the pen. His apologetic and spiritual works brought back tens of thousands of former Catholics to the faith after they had dabbled in Calvinism. St. Francis’s works were so profound, original, and creative, and his love of God so straightforward and understandable, that he would be declared a doctor of the Church in 1877. In his most well known book, Introduction to the Devout Life, he addressed himself to “people who live in towns, within families, or at court.” His sage spiritual advice encourage the faithful to seek perfection in the mechanics shop, the soldier’s regiment, or on the wharf. God’s will was to be found everywhere, not just in monasteries and convents.
Many arduous pastoral trips through the mountains of his native region eventually wore him out. He never insisted on preferential treatment despite his status. He slept, ate, and travelled as a common man would. When he lay dying, mute after a terrible stroke, a nun asked him if he had any words of wisdom to impart. He asked for some paper and wrote three words on it: “Humility, Humility, Humility.” St. Francis is buried in a beautiful bronze sepulchre displaying his likeness in the Visitation Basilica and Convent in Annecy France.
St. Francis de Sales, we ask your intercession to aid us in leading a balanced life of study, prayer, virtue, and service. You were a model priest and bishop who never met a stranger nor expected special privilege. Help all the faithful, and especially those who teach the faith, to communicate doctrine and spiritual wisdom with the same force, clarity, and depth that inspires your works.
More from Butler’s Lives of the Saints
FRANCIS was born of noble and pious parents, near Annecy, 1566, and studied with brilliant success at Paris and Padua. On his return from Italy he gave up the grand career which his father had marked out for him in the service of the state, and became a priest. When the Duke of Savoy had resolved to restore the Church in the Chablais, Francis offered himself for the work, and set out on foot with his Bible and breviary and one companion, his cousin Louis of Sales. It was a work of toil, privation, and danger. Every door and every heart was closed against him. He was rejected with insult and threatened with death. But nothing could daunt or resist him, and ere long the Church burst forth into a second spring. It is stated that he converted 72,000 Calvinists. He was then compelled by the Pope to become Coadjutor Bishop of Geneva, and succeeded to the see in 1602. At times the exceeding gentleness with which he received heretics and sinners almost scandalized his friends, and one of them said to him, “Francis of Sales will go to Paradise, of course; but I am not so sure of the Bishop of Geneva: I am almost afraid his gentleness will play him a shrewd turn.” “Ah,” said the Saint, “I would rather account to God for too great gentleness than for too great severity. Is not God all love? God the Father is the Father of mercy; God the Son is a Lamb; God the Holy Ghost is a Dove—that is, gentleness itself. And are you wiser than God?” In union with St. Jane Frances of Chantal he founded at Annecy the Order of the Visitation, which soon spread over Europe. Though poor, he refused provisions and dignities, and even the great see of Paris. He died at Avignon, 1622.
Reflection.—”You will catch more flies,” St. Francis used to say, “with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar. Were there anything better or fairer on earth than gentleness, Jesus Christ would have taught it us; and yet He has given us only two lessons to learn of Him—meekness and humility of heart.”
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.