Saint Francis de Sales was one of the originators of lay spirituality and the author of the great classic work Introduction to the Devout Life. Born in the Duchy of Savoy on August 21, 1567, he received an excellent education as a young man, becoming a Doctor of Law at the University of Padua. He eschewed a civil career, however, and was ordained in 1593, soon distinguishing himself as a preacher and as a minister to the poor and the sick.
Francis consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin
His father, Francis de Sales de Boisy, and his mother, Françoise de Sionnaz, belonged to old Savoyard aristocratic families. The future saint was the eldest of six brothers. His father intended him for the magistracy and sent him to study in La Roche and Annecy. From 1583 till 1588, he read rhetoric and humanities in Clermont and Paris, under the supervision of the Jesuits. While there he grew more and more interested in theology. After a long and terrible period of discouragement, caused by the question of predestination, he was suddenly freed from his disillusionment as he knelt before a miraculous image of Our Lady. He thereafter made a vow of chastity and consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Francis chose to embrace the ecclesiastic life
In 1588 he studied law in Padua, where the Jesuit Father Possevin was his spiritual director. He received his doctorate and was admitted as a lawyer before the senate of Chambery. His father had selected one of the noblest heiresses of Savoy to be his future wife to be, but Francis rocked the boat by declaring his intention to embrace the ecclesiastic life. A sharp struggle ensued. His father would not consent to seeing his expectations thwarted. Then Claude de Granier, Bishop of Geneva, obtained the position of Provost of the Chapter of Geneva for Francis. As it was the highest office in the diocese, Mr. de Boisy yielded and Francis received Holy Orders in 1593.
After great efforts, Francis reconverted many Calvinists back to Catholicism
Francis de Sales was sent to the Bishopric of Geneva located at the time in Annecy, France. The new provost began by devoting himself with apostolic zeal to preaching, hearing confessions, and the other work of his ministry. He confuted the preachers sent from Geneva to oppose him; and after several difficult years he succeeded by his great efforts to reconvert many of the Calvinists of Geneva to Catholicism. In 1602 he was made bishop of Geneva. At the request of Pope Clement VIII, he interviewed Theodore Beza, who was called the Patriarch of the Reformation. The latter received him kindly and seemed shaken in his beliefs, but he did not have the courage to take the final steps.
Bishop de Sales instituted catechetical instruction for both young and old
As Bishop of Geneva, he carefully visited the some 450 parishes scattered through the rugged mountains of his diocese at great physical cost. His first measure was to institute catechetical instructions for the faithful, both young and old. He made prudent regulations for the guidance of his clergy and reformed religious communities. His goodness, patience and humility became proverbial. His food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He heard confessions, gave advice, and preached incessantly. He wrote innumerable letters (mainly letters of direction) and also found time to publish numerous books. Francis became the close friend of a widow named Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641), who founded the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin under his guidance in 1610, for young girls and widows who felt themselves called to the religious life, but had not the profile for the austerities of the great orders.
Francis felt that one must have a wholly disinterested love of God
A large portion of Francis’ spiritual thought was influenced by the pessimistic Calvinist views of his day on predestination. He felt that one must have a wholly disinterested love of God, without thought for whether one will go to Heaven or hell after death. He once wrote, “Whatever happens, Lord, may I at least love you in this life if I cannot love you in eternity since no one may praise you in hell.”
According to Introduction to the Devout Life, everyone should strive to become pious, and “it is an error, it is even a heresy,” to believe that piety is incompatible with any state of life. In the first part the author helps the soul to free itself from all inclination to sin; in the second, he teaches it how to be united to God by prayer and the sacraments; in the third, he exercises it in the practice of virtue; in the fourth, he strengthens it against temptation; in the fifth, he teaches it how to form its resolutions and to persevere. This book is a masterpiece of psychology, practical morality, and common sense. Its theme was a new one for the times and it became very popular among Catholic circles. By present day standards, his spiritual way may be considered a little too strict and rigorous.
Exhausted by his labors and travels, Francis passed away at the age of 56
Francis was extraordinary not just for his faith or good works, but for exhibiting a certain quality of being. He once said that a “sad saint is a sad sort of saint.” In 1622 he was obliged to accompany the Court of Savoy into France. In Lyons he insisted on occupying a small, poorly furnished room in a house belonging to the gardener of the Visitation Convent. There, on December 27th, he was seized with apoplexy. He received the last rites, repeating these words over and over: “God's will be done! Jesus, my God and my all.” He died the next day, at fifty-six years of age. Huge crowds flocked to visit his remains, which the people of Lyons were anxious to keep in their city. With much difficulty his body was returned to Annecy, but his heart was left in Lyons. A number of wonderful graces have been obtained at his tomb in the Visitation Convent of Annecy. His heart, at the time of the French Revolution, was carried by the Visitation nuns from Lyons to Venice, where it is still venerated today. Saint Francis de Sales was beatified in 1661, and canonized by Alexander VII in 1665. He was proclaimed Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX, in 1877. Saint Francis was named patron saint of writers in 1923. He is also patron saint of the Catholic press and of the hearing impaired. His feast day, both on the General Roman Calendar and in the Church of England, is celebrated on January 24th.
WRIGHT, Francis de Sales: Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. New York: Crossroads, 1993; McBRIEN, Lives of the Saints (HarperCollins, 2001); MACKEY, Works of St Francis de Sales (Annecy, 1892); The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Appleton Co. Nihil Obstat, 1909. Imprimatur +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.