St. Francis de Sales (François de Sales)

St. Francis de Sales (François de Sales)

In an age of religious division and strife, Francis de Sales (François de Sales) was a voice of reason and charity and a leader in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Plagued by lifelong doubts about his faith, he was revered as a saintly man by both Catholics and Protestants precisely when violence was the usual recourse for religious controversy.

Francis’s father expected him to be either a lawyer or a military officer and raised him accordingly, sending him to the University of Paris to study rhetoric and humanities under the Jesuits and then to the Padua Law School. He was not much interested in the hidebound teachings of the Dominicans and Jesuits, consummate Scholastics who followed the old ideas of Thomas Aquinas.

He found himself fascinated by the new ideas of the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who taught predestination. Struggling with doubts, he finally came to the conclusion, at age 19, that his main concern was to love God in this life and to entrust his eternal fate to the hands of this God.

During Francis’s days in law school he resolved to become a priest. He became involved with the Catholic diocese of Geneva-Annecy, an area particularly hard-hit by Protestant proselytism. He was ordained in 1593, and through some papal connections was appointed provost of the diocese.

Francis’s position allowed him to begin a mission to the resident Protestants. He conceived it as based on charity toward the poor, care of the sick, and evangelical preaching instead the conventional Counter-Reformation tactics of law and military force. Francis endured daily hardships of harassment, cold, violence, and threats.

When offered another diocese by Henry IV, he refused, saying, “Sire, I am married; my wife is a poor woman, but I cannot leave her for a richer one.” Miracles were associated with his mission. The area, Protestant for some 60 years, largely returned to the Catholic Church within four years.

Francis soon became bishop of Geneva, where his patience and mildness became proverbial. He often dared to walk the streets of the city where Calvin had his headquarters 50 years earlier. In fact he dialogued with the reformed leader and scholar Theodore Beza. Though again plagued by doubts, his philosophy was “Love will shake the walls of Geneva; by love we must invade it.”

Francis produced a stream of writings that proved that the pen was mightier than the sword. Among his most famous books were Introduction to the Devout Life (1608). He also became renowned as a spiritual director, having a profound effect on the founders of two Catholic Counter-Reformation orders, later declared saints, Vincent de Paul and Jane de Chantal. Protestant King James of England and Scottish Calvinists in Aberdeen read his literature. He had a vast correspondence, perhaps sending out 20,000 letters.

He suffered an agonizing death in 1622, was beatified by Pope Alexander VII only 39 years later, and was canonized by 1665. He was declared doctor of the church in 1877 partly for his irenic affects on religious dissent and patron saint of journalists and writers in 1923.

Among the organizations that claim direct connection with him today are Visitation Sisters, Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Salesians of Don Bosco, and the St. Francis de Sales Association.