“Why are so many people drawn to St. Francis de Sales after their first contact? It is because his spirit is a short, sure, and successful way to find the Lord. In his spirit, you find medicine for your worries and salve for you injuries: the peace that every heart seeks.”
So wrote Bl. Louis Brisson (1817-1908; feast day October 12), a French priest who founded the Oblates and Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, of the seventeenth-century episcopal giant who inspired what has been called by scholars “the nineteenth-century Salesian Pentecost.” That century, so full of religious dynamism and religious confusion, was a fitting time for the “Doctor of Charity” to play a new, vital role in the spiritual nourishment of the faithful and in the foundation of an array of new religious congregations. Besides Brisson’s two institutes, the Salesian spirit gave rise to such groups as St. John Bosco’s Salesians and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales (Fransalians), as well as to various lay societies. Furthermore, increased demand for the writings of this gentle saint resulted in many new editions and translations, both scholarly and popular. Although the douceur (“gentle sweetness”) of St. Francis de Sales was the common energy behind all of these activities, each leader in the Salesian Pentecost put a personal stamp on the effort. Brisson’s contribution was to learn St. Francis de Sales at the feet of the Visitation Order and to transform de Sales’ spirituality into something fit for a far wider audience than it ever had had in the seventeenth century.
The Visitation Order was the beating heart of Salesian spirituality, and it is there that Louis Brisson imbibed the spirit of St. Francis de Sales. When de Sales co-founded the Visitation with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, he unknowingly established the chief means by which his thought and writings would be preserved. To be sure, his works flourished outside the order, especially in the continuous popularity of his Introduction to the Devout Life. Nevertheless, most laymen contented themselves with the Introduction, whereas the Visitation nourished itself on his whole corpus and lived the form of religious life that he and Madame de Chantal had personally designed.
For most of his priestly life, and even as a seminarian, Brisson had pastoral care of the Visitation convent in Troyes. Through his connection with that convent, he met their sometime mother superior, Ven. Mary de Sales Chappuis, known as “the Good Mother.” Chappuis was convinced that God had a special call to Louis, a call to found a congregation of priests devoted to the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. The latter had himself hoped to establish a congregation of priests, but he never found the opportunity before his death. When the Good Mother began prophetically to unveil to Brisson his future as a religious founder, the young priest was understandably suspicious. He put up his guard against her blunt claims about God’s will for him, and he closed himself off to the idea of the congregation. Still, he lived and breathed Salesian air at the convent, which became a spiritual home to him for the next few decades. Eventually, he would soften to the Good Mother and become her champion, to the point of writing a biography as part of her cause for canonization.
Whereas St. Francis de Sales had originally aimed much of his spiritual writing at an audience of social elites, Brisson translated that Salesian spirit for a much broader population, especially for the workers facing the spiritual challenges of the industrial revolution. Bishop de Sales and Madame de Chantal were of the high nobility. So also was the original recipient of the spiritual direction letters at the basis of the Introduction to the Devout Life. There were occasional seventeenth-century efforts to simplify Salesian principles for use by humbler folk, but the chief consumers of Salesian texts remained the upper class devout. Even so, the seeds of wider application were there from the beginning, and de Sales wrote thus: “It is an error, nay more, a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth.” Brisson would bring devotion to the ever-changing industrial “workshops” of the nineteenth century.
Brisson augmented de Sales’ elite spirituality with a spirituality of labor fitting to the context of the industrial revolution. Brisson was no stranger to work. His parents had come from simple agricultural families, and his father had left the farm to start a retail business. Even as a priest, Brisson combined a love of new science and technology with a willingness to get his hands dirty. He taught science at the minor seminary and built several intricate astronomical clocks that predicted movement of the heavens. Science and clockmaking were a spiritual pursuit for him: “The more perfect a clock works, the more it resembles the creation of God … The clock continues to tick until that hour comes in which we leave this world and go to God where time no longer exists.” Later on, he would bring a strong working knowledge of architecture and building techniques to his congregations’ building projects, often personally directing the jobs. Work itself was spiritual: “If the world wishes to free itself from evil, then it must do so by the order established by God—through work. When sanctifying and deep-reaching events come to fruition, it will be due to the power through which all things are accomplished: by the action of the worker.” And, in order to save the world, the nineteenth-century apostle had simultaneously to keep in close contact with the workers and never to “shrink back from manual labor when it presents itself,” as if it were “something extraordinary or unusual.”
Brisson therefore looked especially to the workers in developing his sense of apostolic mission. Shortly after the 1848 revolution in France, he addressed the industrial workers of Troyes, telling them that their labors echoed the manual labor of Christ and that work had its end in both the temporal and the spiritual needs of the family. A diary entry from this period shows that he believed there could be “sanctity in the factory.” In the 1860s, the textile factories of Troyes employed two or three thousand of teenage girls, and Brisson saw there an opportunity for a new apostolate, the “Youth Work.” In his conversations with some of these girls, he found they were restless and listless on their day off, Sunday. He rented a building where they could relax, play sports and games, and receive a bit of religious instruction, while being supervised by a lay hostess. Soon, he began setting up Christian residences for the housing and education of such young women. These apostolates served as the basis for Brisson’s first religious congregation, the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, co-founded with St. Léonie Aviat, who had been a boarding student at the Troyes Visitation under the Good Mother. Themselves imbued with the Salesian spirit, the sisters would bear it to others.
The male Oblates, founded later, would also have a fundamentally Salesian mission. Brisson eventually accepted the Good Mother’s vision for an order of “priests who will spread the spirit of Francis de Sales.” Over the latter decades of Brisson’s life, the Oblates engaged in a wide array of apostolates, including schools, orphanages, youth centers, sports clubs, and foreign missions. The prophetic Good Mother had transmitted the Salesian spirit, and the practical Brisson decided what to do externally with that spirit, as circumstances dictated.
Regardless of what external works they did, the Oblates and Oblate Sisters maintained their Salesian spirit primarily through a short, little-known writing of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, called The Spiritual Directory of St. Francis de Sales. The Directory, which had been in continuous use in the Visitation order, is essentially a rule of life, a set of spiritual practices for living out daily the principles found in the Introduction to the Devout Life and other writings. At the heart of it is a habit called the “direction of intention,” by which one explicitly and repeatedly offers one’s actions to God throughout the day. Brisson saw in the Directory a simple, adaptable basis for living true devotion in every state of life, from the cloistered Visitation sister to the humblest urban laborer. He told his Oblates that their goal was to see “the Directory lived by you, lived by those you guide, and lived by the entire community in whose midst you labor.”
Bl. Louis Brisson lived to see his two congregations attacked in the anticlericalism of early twentieth-century France. From the perspective of civil law, both institutes ceased to exist in their country of origin. Schools and many other apostolates were legislatively stolen from them. And yet, he had already lived to see his congregations grow to full stature and spread Salesian spirituality internationally. His guidance had placed them on a firm foundation, and today the Oblates and Oblate Sisters continue to live out and preach the sweet devotion of the sainted bishop of Geneva.