St. Francis de Sales
I never heard of Saint Francis de Sales, or any of the other Catholic saints during my evangelical lifetime. We had our Christian heroes who were eloquent preachers, missionaries, and writers, mostly of the last few centuries, but we didn’t call them saints. Upon becoming Catholic and learning about his story, I discovered a special kinship with de Sales.
Born in France in 1567, he is the patron saint of writers and those in media, whose name I chose at my Confirmation because of my own calling from God. It seemed a natural for other reasons as well. My father’s name was Frank (Frantisek), a derivation of Francis, my paternal grandmother’s name was the feminine spelling, Frances, as was my middle name and that of various aunts and cousins.
During the so-called Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, de Sales was known for his apologetic apostolate of preaching, publishing, writing letters, spiritual direction, and one-to-one witness. Coming from nobility he kept his call from God to the priesthood secret while he became a soldier and earned a doctorate in law and waited for God’s time to answer that call.
Apparently de Sales was neither a natural pastor nor a gifted preacher. Some reported his ineptness to the bishop. De Sales turned his attention over the mountains to Switzerland which was Calvinist territory and planned an ambitious evangelistic expedition to try to bring 60,000 Catholic defectors back into the fold. Everyone thought it was a bad idea, and his entourage turned out to be only himself and his cousin. After three years of incredible hardship trudging through the countryside on foot and enduring personal suffering with doors slammed in his face and rocks thrown at him, even his cousin left him. Not a single person had converted.
Not one to give up, and since people wouldn’t open their doors to him, de Sales decided to reach them by approaching them under their doors. He copied his own sermons by hand (the printing press was only in its beginning stage) and slipped them under doors—he was the forerunner of modern tract distribution. People felt less threatened to read his apologetic truth in private, gradually responded enthusiastically to his message, and returned to the one true Church. He is said to have been the catalyst for the conversion or restoration to the Catholic faith of 40,000 (Butler’s Lives of the Saints says 72,000!) Protestant-Calvinists.
In 1604 his friendship with a godly widow, Jane de Chantal, who came to him for spiritual direction, led to both of them embarking on a deeper life of holiness and mystical union with God which gave focus and power to their personal lives and led to the establishment of an order and convent of Visitation nuns which continues to this day.
As I studied de Sales’ strategy of witness, I learned that with his gentle humility, sincere compassion, and genuine goodness of heart he poured himself out to the poor in spirit and the poor in worldly goods as much as he did to the noble in high places; he was as much at home in the courts of kings and princes as he was in the humble cottages of peasants. All were given his prayers and insightful attention and spiritual direction without measure.
It interests me that he influenced people primarily through writing letters, as I am doing, although I use e-mail and publishing. In fact, he wrote his most famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, as letters to a Christian lady in the secular world to show that the pursuit of holiness applied equally to busy people in the mainstream of public life or involved in family life as to religious contemplatives in cloisters.
At one time he wrote, "I have more than fifty letters to answer. If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same and so I shall go on until I have finished." What a good example of patience and steadfast purpose! De Sales didn't even have a typewriter or computer, printer, copy machine, fax, ballpoint pen, e-mail, an Internet web site, blog, texting, cell phone, iPod or iPad or even a reliable snail-mail service. I believe he would have used all the modern technology and media if he were living in this age.
He is said to have been overworked and often ill because of his workload of preaching and instruction. He believed spiritual direction was his first duty as a bishop. His vigorous occupation didn’t weaken his inner spiritual life or disturb his peace. On the contrary, he believed that his mission from God was to encourage lay people whose lives seemed ordinary that they could and should live lives of holiness to the same degree as monks and nuns. He advised busy people, “Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart and talk to God, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others.”
He died at the young age of 55 longing for the contemplative life but more in demand than ever by the Pope and even by king Louis XIII.
Since I have begun my Catholic journey at such an advanced chronological age, I certainly don’t expect the spectacular results in my apologetic apostolate as de Sales had. Nevertheless, I ask for his intercession for my writing and publishing, that I might be granted wisdom to carry out my calling from God in my sphere of life and at my season of life. May I be as faithful in the opportunities God gives me as he was.
Saint Francis de Sales, pray for me.
One of my favorite pieces of counsel from Saint Francis de Sales follows:
Be at Peace
Do not look in fear at the changes of life;
rather look at them with full hope as they arise.
God, whose very own you are,
will deliver you from them.
Since He has kept you hitherto,
He will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it,
God will carry you in his arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
The same everlasting Father who cares for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you His unfailing strength to bear it.
Put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination;
Be at peace.END