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The Catholic Defender: Saint Francis de Sales

The city of Geneva in Switzerland is situated at the western end of the forty-five mile long lade of the same name, near the French boundary. In the sixteenth century the Dukedom of Savoy lost this city, as well as the province of Vaud on the north side of the lake and that of Chablais on the south side, to the Calvinists of Switzerland.

By giving up his claim to Vaud, the duke of Savoy finally regained Chablais; but the people of the latter province had meanwhile become fanatical Calvinists. The bishop of Geneva resided at Annecy, some twenty miles south of Geneva.

A prominent noble family of Savoy at this time was that of De Sales; and Saint Francis de Sales, who was born in 1567 at the Chateau de Sales, near Annecy, became its most illustrious member.

He was appointed to the chair of the Annecy cathedral chapter, and was ordained priest on 18 December 1593.

His early years of priesthood in the Calvinistic district of Chablais were largely coloured, perforce, by extraordinary missionary controversy.

He preached with courage, and his technique of patient dialogue and prayer was to prove a determining factor in the return of Thonon and Chablais to the Catholic faith.

Already from the year 1534 the city of Geneva had become the bastion of Protestantism, and Calvin had conquered the whole region.

The Catholic faith was suppressed with raids, pillaging and massacres; churches were destroyed, worship forbidden, priests exiled or done to death.

In 1877 he became the first writer in French to be named doctor of the church. In addition to his spiritual works, his writings include controversies against Calvinists, letters, sermons, and documents on diocesan administration.

His bishop sent him to Rome on diocesan business; and on 24 March 1599 he was appointed coadjutor bishop at the age of thirty-one.

In 1602 he journeyed to Paris to organise the restoration of Catholic worship in the Gex area, part of his diocese and now reverted to French jurisdiction. Francis accomplished this task in nine months.

He developed a great reputation as a writer, preacher, and debater in defense of the Catholic faith. In 1602, Francis Bishop of Geneva. One of the most important challenges he faced in the diocese was the reform of the clergy.

Francis was ordained bishop on 8 December 1602 and became the good shepherd amongst his people. He was tireless in visiting his 450 parishes; he organised the further formation of his clergy, proclaiming that learning was the eighth sacrament for a priest. He concerned himself with the reform of monasteries, and the catechesis of the young.

He spent hours in the confessional, dialogued with the Calvinists, preached the Advent and Lenten homilies in many cities in Savoy and France, undertook spiritual direction both viva voce and in correspondence, took part in theological discussions, and with his friend Senator Antonio Favre founded the Florimontane Academy; and in the midst of this multitude of activities he found time to publish in 1608 his Introduction to the devout Life (Philothea) and in 1616 his Treatise on the Love of God

Francis was destined by his father to be a lawyer so that the young man could eventually take his elder’s place as a senator from the province of Savoy in France. For this reason Francis was sent to Padua to study law.

After receiving his doctorate, he returned home and, in due time, told his parents he wished to enter the priesthood.

His father strongly opposed Francis in this, and only after much patient persuasiveness on the part of the gentle Francis did his father finally consent.

Francis was ordained and elected provost of the Diocese of Geneva, then a center for the Calvinists. Francis set out to convert them, especially in the district of Chablais. By preaching and distributing the little pamphlets he wrote to explain true Catholic doctrine, he had remarkable success.

His life and message were uncompromising and simple: greed causes suffering for both the victims and the perpetrators.

An order of cloistered nuns, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, was founded by Francis de Sales at the request of Jane Frances de Chantal in 1610.

The Order was founded on 6 June 1610; but in 1618 the very strict canonical rulings of the day were insisted on by the Primate of France, Denis Marquemont, and all aspects of the external apostolate were suppressed.

At 35, he became bishop of Geneva. While administering his diocese he continued to preach, hear confessions, and catechize the children. His gentle character was a great asset in winning souls. He practiced his own axiom, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”

He was a gifted young man: of brilliant intellect, persevering, purposeful, serene, affable, irresistibly charming, and above all, consumed with the love of God.

Besides his two well-known books, the Introduction to the Devout Life and A Treatise on the Love of God, he wrote many pamphlets and carried on a vast correspondence. For his writings, he has been named patron of the Catholic Press. His writings, filled with his characteristic gentle spirit, are addressed to lay people. He wants to make them understand that they too are called to be saints.

As he wrote in The Introduction to the Devout Life: “It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman…. It has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world.”

In 1622 he was obliged to undertake another painful journey: to go to Avignon to the members of the royal family of France, and accompany them via Rodano to Lyons. He was a guest at the Bellecour convent of the Visitation Sisters at Lyons and there met the Reverend Mother Jane de Chantal for the last time.

Francis died of a stroke on 28 December 1622. His funeral was solemnised at Annecy on 24 January following, and his remains transferred to the Visitation Convent.

In spite of his busy and comparatively short life, he had time to collaborate with another saint, Jane Frances de Chantal, in the work of establishing the Sisters of the Visitation. These women were to practice the virtues exemplified in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth: humility, piety, and mutual charity. They at first engaged to a limited degree in works of mercy for the poor and the sick. Today, while some communities conduct schools, others live a strictly contemplative life.

Several times he miraculously escaped death at the hands of assassins.

Francis was canonised on 19 April 1665 by Alexander VII; many years later in 1877, Pius IX declared him a Doctor of the Church, the first French-speaking member of that august assembly.

Such is the resumé of the life of our patron, a life full of extraordinary splendour and benevolence. In the following pages we shall endeavour to present the principal features of this remarkable saint and seek to understand why Don Bosco was inspired to choose him as our model and protector.

Francis was the first to receive a solemn beatification at St. Peter's, Rome (1661). In 1877 he became the first writer in French to be named doctor of the church. In addition to his spiritual works, his writings include controversies against Calvinists, letters, sermons, and documents on diocesan administration.

Saint Francis de Sales was beatified by Pope Alexander VII in 1661 and the same Pope canonized him in 1665, 43 years after his death.

A prominent noble family of Savoy at this time was that of De Sales; and Saint Francis de Sales, who was born in 1567 at the Chateau de Sales, near Annecy, became its most illustrious member.

Don Bosco tells us that he was attracted by two essential aspects of the moral and spiritual characteristics of Francis de Sales:

  1. his apostolic energy, his zeal for the salvation of souls, his defence of the truth, his fidelity to the Church; and

  2. the Christlike gentleness that imbued his zeal: his charming manner, his patience, his extraordinary sensitivity.

The vital source of both these qualities is a deep, solid and decisive conviction, namely, that love is the totality of God and the totality of man. Thus it is possible to group the affinities found in our two saints under the three following aspects.

Words from Saint Francis de Sales:

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.

Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.

Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.

Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others, and talk to God.

To live according to the spirit is to love according to the spirit.

Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.

Make friends with the angels, who though invisible are always with you. Often invoke them, constantly praise them, and make good use of their help and assistance in all your temporal and spiritual affairs.

By turning your eyes on God in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with God. Begin all your prayers in the presence of God.

There are no galley-slaves in the royal vessel of divine love - every man works his oar voluntarily!


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