This Monday (1/24) is the feast day of St. Francis De Sales, the Bishop of Geneva from 1602-1622. Born of a noble family, St. Francis was groomed by his father from a young age for service as an imperial magistrate. He experienced a profound conversion at the age of 19, however, which set his life on a different path. It was around that time that he was exposed to Calvinism and its version of the doctrine of predestination, and it filled him with despair of attaining eternal life. For several months he experienced a deep depression which left him spiritually exhausted. He found consolation by meditating on the Epistle of St. John, particularly its words about the love of God, and by entrusting himself to the care of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This helped him to emerge from the darkness with immense trust in the mercy and goodness of God. His heart was then set on becoming a priest, and he was ordained in 1593 at the age of 26. The next year he was sent on mission to the region of Chablais (Switzerland). There, Calvinism had taken root after a decades-long campaign to de-Catholicize the region. Churches had been vandalized and there were ordinances that made it illegal for people to listen to Catholic preaching. The hostility of Calvinist partisans made it a very dangerous assignment, but St. Francis was determined, and he creatively circumvented laws against listening to Catholic sermons by publishing pamphlets that explained Church teaching and by engaging in innumerable personal conversations. It was difficult work, but remarkably successful, with almost the entire population of Chablais returning to the Church by 1602, when St. Francis was named Bishop of Geneva.
St. Francis was passionate about sharing the faith with the people under his care, but his style was not polemical. He did not preach fire and brimstone. Rather, he was known for saying: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” He had a way of holding fast to the truth while maintaining friendships with people who held different views. They say that while St. Francis would not move an inch when it came to Catholic doctrine, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his people as their pastor. He was also eminently practical in his spiritual advice to people. During a time when it was common for people to think that only priests, monks, and nuns were called to be holy, St. Francis insisted that the call to holiness is universal. Husbands and wives, working people and nobility – all were called to be saints in their particular state in life. In his spiritual classic, An Introduction to the Devout Life, he guides the would-be saint on how to love the Lord more than those things that would keep us away from Him. Sympathetic to those who struggle with discouragement, he counsels against despairing over imperfections. “We must not be disturbed by our imperfections, since for us perfection consists in fighting against them. How can we fight them unless we face them? Our victory does not consist in being unaware of them, but in not consenting to them… Fortunately for us, in this war we are always victorious, provided that we are willing to fight.” St. Francis De Sales understood people well and ministered to them with gentle empathy, while calling them to respond generously to the great invitation of the Lord to heroic virtue and sanctity, even in the ordinary and mundane aspects of life. If you’re interested in a primer on the spirituality of St. Francis De Sales, you might like Lift Up Your Heart by Fr. John Burns.