Bishop and Doctor of the Church
The tumultuous years in France after the Protestant Reformation formed the background for Francis de Sales. He was born on August 12, 1567, into a family of nobility of what was then the Kingdom of Savoy, which bordered France, Italy and Switzerland. He received his schooling under the Jesuits at the College of Clermont in Paris and the University of Padua where he earned a Doctorate in both Civil and Church Law.
To the great disappointment of his father, Francis gave up a most promising civil career in favor of the priesthood. After his ordaination, he was sent as a young missionary to the Chablais district of Savoy for four years. There he became famous for his pamphets in defense of the faith. These writings are now collected into a book known as The Catholic Controversy. By the end of his missionary apostolate, Francis had persuaded about 72,000 Calvinists to return to the Catholic Church.
Francis was ordained a a bishop and named the Bishop of Geneva in 1602, but resided in Annecy (now a part of modern day France) since Geneva was under Calvinist control and therefore closed to him. He was never permitted to take his seat in the cathedral in Geneva. His diocese became famous throughout Europe for its efficient organization, zealous clergy and well-instructed laity - a monumental achievement in Francis' time. Francis' fame as a spiritual director and writer grew. He was persuaded by others to collect, organize and expand on his many letters addressing spiritual subjects, and to publish them in 1609 under the title, The Introduction to the Devout Life. This became his most famous work and remains a spiritual classic found in bookstores throughout the world today.
Francis' special project was the writing of A Treatise of the Love of God, over which he prayed and labored many years. It is also still published today. His desire to write a companion to the Treatise, On the Love of Neighbor, was not realized. Francis de Sales died on December 28, 1622, at the age of fifty-five. In addition to the works above, his published letters, sermons and conferences comprise approximately thirty volumes. The enduring value and popularity of his writings led the Church to bestow on him the title, Patron of Catholic Writers. Francis is also the patron of the Deaf community for his efforts in developing sign language, the Oblate Sisters, Brothers and Fathers of St. Francis de Sales, the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, and of the Sisters of the Holy Visitation of Mary, which he co-founded.
Francis collaborated with St. Jane Frances de Chantal in founding the religious order of the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary (VHM), known for the simplicity of its rule and traditions and for its special openness to widows. It was through the persistence of one of these sisters some two hundred fifty years later, Mother Marie-Therese Chappuis, VHM, that Fr. Louis Brisson, a priest of Troyes in France, founded the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales - a community of priests and brothers dedicated to living and spreading the spirit and teachings of Francis. Fr. Brisson also founded a community of sisters with the same name.
The spirit and reputation of Francis and the influence of his writings spread rapidly after his death. The Church formally declared him to be a saint in 1655 and in 1867 gave him the rare title of Doctor of the Church - a title conferred on fewer than thirty-five other saints in the history of the Church, all of whom are renowned for their writings. Francis' de Sales memorial is observed by the Church on January 24.
What popes said about him...
Pope Pius XI, in the encyclical in which he names Francis the heavenly Patron of all writers, praises him "not only for the sublime holiness of life which he achieved, but also for the wisdom with which he directed souls in the way of sanctity" [Rerum omnium perturbationem, 1923, no. 4].
One of Francis' enduring insights -- upon which he expounded in his classic book, Introduction to the Devout Life -- is that holiness is not contrary to, nor in competition with, the demands of everyday existence. Rather, he taught that holiness should infuse anything and everything we do, most especially in the day-to-day responsibilities that our personal vocation entails. Today, we know this teaching as the "universal call to holiness" championed in the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" from Vatican Council II. In a letter celebrating the 400th anniversary of the saint's birth, Pope Paul VI wrote: "No one of the recent Doctors of the Church more than St. Francis de Sales anticipated the deliberations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council with such a keen and progressive insight. He renders his contribution by the example of his life, by the wealth of his true and sound doctrine, by the fact that he has opened and strengthened the spiritual ways of Christian perfection for all states and conditions in life. We propose that these three things be imitated, embraced, and followed."
The saintly life of Francis de Sales is rich in many ways, perhaps none more so than his fulfillment of the dual command of perfection: to love God and love neighbor. His emphasis on the former yielded an experiential union with God in prayer which he enjoyed and about which he taught others; his embrace of the latter inspired his spiritual friendship with St. Jane de Chantal and his many pastoral works, including the founding of the religious order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
As Pope John Paul II would say of him on the 400th anniversary of his episcopal ordination: "With a particularly voluminous correspondence, he also accompanied with great discernment and a gradual pedagogy adapted to each situation, appropriately using highly coloured images, the souls who entrusted themselves to his spiritual direction .... Since he was passionately in love with God and man, his attitude to people was fundamentally optimistic and he never failed to invite them, to use his own words, to flourish where they were sown. Still today, and I am very glad of it, the works of Francis de Sales are part of our classical literature; it is the sign that his teaching as a priest and bishop finds an echo in the human heart and has an affinity with the deepest human aspirations. I invite pastors and faithful to learn from his example and his writings, which are always up to date. "
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