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Who was St. Francis de Sales?

St. Francis de Sales (1566-1622) Missionary preacher, ecumenical reformer, bishop of Geneva, renowned spiritual director, author of religious classics, founder of a religious order, patron of the press and of the deaf … the exemplary life of St. Francis de Sales remains a spiritual treasure in the history of the Church. 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”

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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