Francis de Sales was one of the 13 children of a nobleman of Savoy, in eastern France. Frail as a child, he was tutored privately; but he proved to be highly intelligent, and naturally truthful and docile.
As a teenager, Francis was sent to study at the University of Paris. The sons of nobles who frequented this university usually lived in the College de Navarre. Preferring a less worldly residence, Francis signed up with the Jesuit College de Clermont. He studied theology and became adept at it, and he also took a vow of perpetual chastity.
Before long, however, he underwent the traumatic temptation of fearing the loss of his soul. Finally, he prayed, “O God, even if I may not be permitted to see You in heaven, grant nevertheless that while alive I may love You with all my heart.” After he had made that total offering of himself, the terrible temptation ceased completely. This dreadful trial taught him how to sympathize with people who had grave spiritual difficulties.
Although Francis had majored in theology, he had not yet declared his intention to become a priest. He knew well that his father wanted him to remain in the world and marry, so along with theology he studied the “social arts” of riding, fencing and dancing. After his term in Paris he went to Padua, Italy, to take a course in law. Only in 1593 did he succeed in getting his father’s permission to be ordained a priest of the diocese of Geneva.
In his early priestly years, Father Francis quickly acquired a reputation as a clear and moving preacher, a helpful confessor, and a great benefactor of the poor.
In those days, the diocese of Geneva, in French Switzerland, also extended into Savoy, France. The French reformer John Calvin had by that time won over many Savoian Catholics to Protestantism, and weakened the morale of the remaining Catholic minority. The duke of Savoy asked the bishop of Geneva to send Catholic priests into the Savoian district of the Chablais, in order to win its population back to the Church. Francis volunteered, and was accepted. Fearing for the life of his son, Francis’ father told the bishop that he had no intention of seeing his priest son martyred. But the young priest urged the bishop to stand firm. Whatever the risk, he considered this mission to be his duty.
The father’s fears were not baseless. Francis, while working in the Chablais, was beaten up once by a mob and twice escaped assassination. (He was also treed one whole night by hungry wolves.) But by perseverance and prayer he won back many lapsed Catholics and strengthened the wavering. One device that he used was to write, publish and distribute leaflets that summarized the teachings of the Church. The approach he took was also effective. He did not condemn anybody; he just showed his love for them.
In 1602 Father Francis was consecrated bishop of Geneva. Now his influence became still wider. His skill as a spiritual director led him to establish, in collaboration with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, the order of Visitation nuns. The Sisters of St. Joseph, too, are traceable to his inspiration.
But St. Francis also did much to cultivate lay piety. A series of spiritual letters that he wrote to a lay relative, later collected into a book, became his famous Introduction to the Devout Life. Particularly because of this brilliant little work, he would eventually be proclaimed a doctor of the Church. The spiritual doctrine that he teaches is firm but gentle. As he himself points out, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Canonized in 1665, St. Francis de Sales was in 1933 declared by Pope Pius XI the patron saint of journalists. This was because of his doctrinal leaflets. Francis might also be appropriately designated patron saint of premature infants. He himself had been a “preemie”!
–Father Robert F. McNamara