When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, many wrote about the significance of the choice of his papal name, Francis. Commentators insisted that this symbolized his indebtedness to the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit missionary. He himself explained his choice of name with his profound veneration of St. Francis of Assisi. But there may be an overlooked “third” Francis: St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622), the great master of spirituality, Doctor of the Church and bishop of Geneva. What do I mean? For both Pope Francis and St. Francis de Sales:
1. Reform is central: St. Francis de Sales studied theology and worked as a priest and preacher in the wake of the Council of Trent. Reform was in the air; attempts were being made to retrieve the spiritual power sources of faith, and to eliminate sources of scandal from within. DeSales called this the “cutting of the aqueducts.” Pope Francis likewise emphasizes reform. Yet, for both men, “reform” has not been primarily a political thing: It is the constant struggle to let the Church be salt of the earth and light to the world.
2. Simplicity trumps polemics: When St. Francis de Sales became bishop of Geneva, almost his entire flock was Protestant. Instead of engaging in polemics against Protestant brethren, he chose to emphasize—without shying away from controversies or compromising Catholic teaching—the simplicity at the heart of the Catholic faith, and adopted a preaching style that was generous, respectful, and sympathetic. His most famous statement about this new style was “You attract a lot more flies with a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.” Pope Francis’s decision to first talk simply about the Christian life and then address hot-button issues follows this idea to the letter.
3. Leaders should be Gentle: DeSales was, like his most famous follower, St. Alphonsus of Liguori, a teacher of gentleness. In his renowned “Introduction to the Devout Life” (1609), DeSales shows himself to be a sensitive pastor who takes human frailty seriously, warning against shepherding with harshness and rigorism (rejecting, in particular, the rigorism of Jansenism). Furthermore, gentleness, for DeSales as for Pope Francis, does not mean a stance of indifferent mercy, but just the opposite: namely, practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (which most Catholics don’t even remember).
4. Marriage is a Christian Vocation: DeSales articulated in his “Introduction to the Devout Life” that the main goal of marriage is mutual and gentle companionship for the sake of spiritual transformation. Yet, a hundred years after his death these sentences were censored when the Church was criticized by Jansenists of having become lax in its view of marriage. Pope Francis’s decision to convene a synod on the family is a clear sign that he also sees matrimony as a centerpiece of the Church’s teaching.
5. Engagement with the Media is useful: St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists because of how well he articulated the faith in his writings and disseminated them even among Protestants. Pope Francis is also a journalistic missionary of sorts. Although it was Pope Benedict XVI who started a Twitter account for the pontiff’s office, it is Francis who began using social media for reaching out to millions of people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His brisk, simple spiritual advice is perfectly suited for the Twitter generation.
6. A Sense of Mission: And finally, the common thread that weaves through nearly everything these two men of the Church have said and written is that of mission in a time of turmoil: Both have realized that a self-content Church that is not dynamically reaching out beyond the pews is doomed to wither away.
Pope Francis, then, is a man who embodies the best of what Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, and Francis de Sales offered—three giant saints of the middle ages and modernity who worked tirelessly to lead men and women to Christ.
Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of religious history and theology at Marquette University and the author of the forthcoming book The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten Story of a Global Movement (Oxford).