Francis de Sales: Lawyer, Reformer, Saint

Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was one of the leading figures in the Catholic Reformation. In his book, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation, on which I have drawn extensively for this post, Jerome Williams characterizes de Sales as “an accomplished and well-rounded Christian humanist scholar,… an intrepid and tireless missionary,…an indefatigable reforming bishop,…a spiritual director and mystical teacher,…founder of a religious order,…and[a pioneer in] a spirituality explicitly aimed at the laity.”

de Sales was the oldest of thirteen children in a well-to-do family. He studied the humanities with the Jesuits in Paris, attaining a master of arts degree. He then went to University of Padua from which he graduated in four years with a doctorate in both civil and canon law. He was prepared for a life in the law, and was so impressive at his examination with the bar examiners that he was offered the office of senator in the Duchy of Savoy. Although his father had built an estate for him, fully equipped with a law library, de Sales chose instead to become a priest. He was ordained in 1593 at the age of 26, and became a priest of the Diocese of Geneva.

Geneva was then heavily Calvinist, and had left the Duchy of Savoy to join the Swiss Confederation. John Calvin outlawed Catholic worship in the region, which had a population of about 50,000, and the historic Catholic population dwindled from many thousands to a few hundred. In 1594, however, Savoy regained part of the region. Francis was sent there to bring the people back to their Catholic faith.

de Sales understood that a major problem which had led to the success of Calvinism in the region was the corruption of the clergy. He spent six months preaching in the region, but with little success. He then turned to writing, which would become perhaps his strongest talent. Indeed, he is today commemorated by the Catholic Church as the Patron Saint of writers.

Appointed Provost of Geneva, de Sales turned his efforts to preparing short publications on Catholic doctrine, “in defense of the Faith of the Church.” He went door-to-door slipping these publications under people’s doors, as well as leaving them in churches and city squares. His friendly and non-confrontational  manner, combined with these publications, resulted in a successful evangelization, through which many fallen-away Catholics returned to the Faith.

Seven years after these efforts, de Sales was named Bishop of Geneva. He made pastoral visits all over the diocese, and instituted the Forty Hours devotion as part of his efforts directed toward the ordinary lay Catholic. He was a popular spiritual director, but extended these individual efforts, again by his writing, with publications aimed at repudiating the notion that only the clergy could become spiritually proficient. As Williams has pointed out, these works were designed “to fuel the aspirations to holiness among those who were not called to consecrated religious life.”

de Sales’ most popular work of this type was the Introduction to the Devout Life, which is still widely circulated today. He also wrote a Treatise on the Love of God, another very accessible work which employs hundreds of references to common life with which the laity would be familiar. Indeed, references to animals, birds, bees, fruits, and plant life are common in this work, and are employed to strengthen the doctrinal point being addressed by use of metaphor. For example, de Sales writes that “A falcon with its hood removed will spot its prey and begin to fly in pursuit….In the same way faith removes our hood of ignorance and we can see what is beyond our reach.”

Francis had many notable followers, the most prominent of whom was Jane de Chantal, with whom he founded the  Visitation Sisters in 1610. Once again, this congregation aimed at the Catholic laity, enlisting people who did not wish to become members of a contemplative order, but who wished to help the sick and poor in their own homes.

de Sales died in 1622 at the age of 55. He was canonized a saint in 1665, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1877.

de Sales teaches today’s would-be evangelizers two critical lessons. First, clear and concise written works are enormously helpful in teaching the Faith and effecting conversions. Second, a pleasant personality which treats the prospective convert with respect and love is more effective than fire and brimstone preaching. Thomas Merton and Bishop Fulton Sheen did both of these in the twentieth century; Bishop Robert Barron does so today. May their tribe increase!

References:

Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God. Excerpts are contained in Three Ways of Loving God (Paraclete Press, 2014), at 87-145.

Jerome Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017)

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