Given the growing challenges now facing Christians, a valuable source to turn to, for wisdom and strength, is St. Francis de Sales. Pope Benedict XVI called de Sales “a great teacher” whose influence has been “immense”; Blessed Paul VI named him the “Jewel of Savoy,” who helped lay the foundation for Vatican II’s call to universal holiness; and Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical celebrating his life and work.
Born in 1567 into a family of aristocrats, Francis was the first of six sons, the oldest of thirteen children. His father had decided that Francis would become a lawyer and sent him to the finest schools with that goal in mind. Francis obliged but was also drawn to sacred theology, attending religious discussions whenever he could. During one such meeting, an intense debate arose over predestination, and Francis became convinced of his damnation to hell. The blow to his psyche was so great that he underwent a tremendous personal crisis that was to last two years, and only emerged from it after a life-altering experience. Reciting the “Memorare” on his knees before a statue of Our Lady of Good Deliverance at the parish of Saint-Étienne-des-Grès in Paris, Francis was overcome with feelings of peace and gratitude. His terror about damnation was lifted, and he concluded that God had only good in store for him if he became a true disciple of Christ. He consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin, promised to devote his life to God, and took a vow of chastity.
His transformation not only changed Francis’s religious outlook from despair to affirmation, but formed the basis of de Sales’s Christian spirituality, which came to be known as the Way of Divine Love—a theme at the heart of his two greatest works, Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God.
From that moment, de Sales exhibited five extraordinary qualities, which have much to teach contemporary Christians:
1. He had no fear.
At the time he offered his life to God, Francis had already received his law degree, and his father was still trying to arrange his son’s affairs, securing his appointment as a senator and choosing a noble heiress to become his bride. But Francis, offered these privileges and enticements, politely declined, announcing his attention of becoming a priest. His father was outraged, but Francis’s resolve was not weakened, and God soon rewarded him when the Bishop of Geneva intervened and convinced Francis’s father to allow his son to pursue his religious calling.
Once ordained, Francis became an exceptional evangelist for the post-Reformation Catholic Church, venturing into territory fiercely hostile to Catholicism, at great personal risk. He was banned from preaching and escaped numerous assassination attempts. He out-maneuvered his opponents by writing countless tracts, answering objections to Catholicism with his lawyerly brilliance and distributing the tracts everywhere he ventured. (This is one of the many reasons he became the patron saint of writers.) Eventually the local communities relented and allowed de Sales to preach openly—and by one estimate, he brought back 70,000 former Catholics to the Church.
2. He was not an escapist.
A signature of Francis’s theology was his belief, unusual for his time, that holiness was meant for everyone—not just a privileged few. He took the teachings of Christ—“Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—and St Paul—“This is the will of God, your sanctification”—as universal commands. In his mind, the baker, teacher, and officer who followed the beatitudes and lived out the cardinal virtues could attain holiness, as much as the monk or cloistered nun. And he was not impressed by those who thought they could attain a higher degree of sanctity by withdrawing from the dominant culture, inside a supposedly protected enclave: “There are evil spirits that go to and fro in desert places quite as much as in cities,” he wrote. Francis knew that original sin resided in every heart, and no one could escape it. The hard work of living a Christian life, he taught, comes from within, and not from living in an artificially created Christian town or community.
3. He was not a defeatist.
Because of his confidence in God, Francis never gave up a vital Christian mission, no matter the obstacles. Among his maxims were: “Perseverance is the most desirable gift we can hope for in this life”; and “Enlarge your heart by a frequent protestation that you will never give in.” In his encyclical on Francis, Pius XI marveled at the saint’s poise and determination:
It is almost unbelievable with what vigor and constancy he defended the cause of Jesus Christ among the people. … In order to bring them the light of faith and the comforts of the Christian religion, he was known to have travelled deep valleys and to have climbed steep mountains. If they fled him, he pursued, calling after them loudly. Repulsed brutally, he never gave up the struggle; when threatened he only renewed his efforts. He was often put out of lodgings, at which time he passed the night asleep on the snow under the canopy of heaven. He would celebrate Mass though no one would attend. When during a sermon, almost the entire audience one after another left the Church, he would continue preaching. At no time did he ever lose his mental poise or his spirit of kindness. … It was by such means as these that he finally overcame his most formidable adversaries.
4. He was not an angry polemicist.
As Pius XI indicated, the gentleness and humility of Francis in the face of provocation was legendary, and for this reason many called him “the Gentleman Saint.” He famously said, “The measure of love is to love without measure.” Though he warned against false compassion—so prevalent in our own day—and “did not strip piety of that severity which is in harmony with the Christian manner of life,” as Pius XI wrote, Francis repeatedly warned against rash judgments and losing one’s temper: “the business of finding fault is very easy, and that of doing better very difficult.” “We accuse our neighbor for little, and we excuse ourselves in much.” “He who could take away detraction from the world, would take away from it a great part of its sins and iniquities.” And finally: “Since the goodness of God is so great that one single moment suffices to obtain and receive his grace, what assurance can we have that a man who was a sinner yesterday is so today?”
It’s a fair bet that Francis de Sales would not have been a fan of flame wars on the internet, or politicians and talk show hosts who verbally burn their opponents at the stake. When he was asked why he never succumbed to anger, his reply was consistent and swift: “Would you wish for me to lose in fifteen minutes, what I have spent my whole life trying to control?”
5. He kept his mind on the eternal, and lived every day for it.
If there is one subject that consumed Francis daily, and a message he fervently spread, it was eternity. In his view, a happy and long life was an infinite tragedy, if it did not end in the arms of God. He was blunt about the rewards of this world, compared to those of Heaven: “Whoever thinks well on eternity troubles himself little about what happens in these three or four moments of mortal life.” “The shortest life is the best life if it leads to the eternal.” And, “What is not for eternity, can be nothing but vanity.”
Francis de Sales had a gift for spiritual direction, and the timelessness and practicality of his advice remain priceless for modern Christians, subject as we are to vast temptations but still in pursuit of holiness.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.