Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in April 2008, a non-Catholic friend asked me: "What is Pope Benedict’s central message?" I told him that, through his words and example, Benedict wants to show people that Catholicism is not a matter of prohibitions and rules but a beautiful and joyful way of life.
The saint whom we commemorate on January 24 had a similar message. Born August 21, 1567, in the Chateau de Sales in the French Alps, he was baptized seven days later (on the feast of St. Augustine) with the name of Francis-Bonaventure. As heir to the chateau and estate where he was born, he bore from the start the surname de Sales. Thirty-five years later he would choose the little church where he was baptized as the site for his consecration as bishop of Geneva.
Francis’s parents gave him a strong Catholic upbringing. At age eleven, he startled his father by asking for permission to receive the rite of tonsure. Though this entailed formal enrollment in the clerical state, it did not oblige the recipient to proceed on to priesthood. His father, Monsieur de Boisy, who had already destined his promising boy for a legal career, gave his reluctant consent, possibly influenced by the consideration that, as a tonsured cleric, his son would be eligible to receive a Church office, with the income attached to it. Many in that day held such sinecures and were technically clerics but remained, from the modern point of view, laymen without pastoral duties or interests. This boy, however, was different. "From my twelfth year," Francis would say many years later, "I had resolved so firmly to belong to the Church that I would not have changed my mind for a kingdom."
Francis said nothing of this to his father, however. In 1578, not yet twelve, he went dutifully to Paris to embark on the education his father had planned for him. He added theology to his other studies. "I studied law," he said years later, "to please my father. I studied theology to please myself." In the autumn of 1584, Francis, now 17, heard some lectures at the Sorbonne on the Song of Songs that imparted a conviction that would remain with Francis all his life long: that the spiritual life is a love story.
Two years later, some lectures about predestination made Francis fear that he might be predestined to damnation. "Shall I never be a sharer in redemption?" he wrote. "Did my sweet Jesus not die for me as well as for the others? Ah, whatever it is to be, Lord, at least let me love you in this life if I am unable to love you in eternity."
Agonizing over the question of his salvation, Francis visited the Dominican church in Paris in January 1587. Hanging on the wall was the Memorare prayer, traditionally ascribed to St. Bernard: "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any who fled to you for succor, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided." When Francis had finished reciting the prayer, all doubts and fears were gone. They never returned.
The year following, Francis journeyed to Padua to begin his formal study of law. In September 1591, just weeks past his 24th birthday, he was made a doctor of both civil and canon law.
It was February 1592 before Francis reached his home in Savoy. His father, now 70, had made generous provisions for his eldest son’s brilliant future: an extensive law library, the purchase of an estate, and even selection of a future wife — an attractive and highly born girl then only 14. Francis was polite to her when they were introduced (he was always polite), but his courtesy lacked warmth. His father was indignant.
At his father’s behest, Francis formally enrolled as a member of the bar in November 1592 at the provincial capital of Chambéry. Several weeks later a letter arrived from the Duke of Turin, then the ruler of Savoy, appointing Francis a senator — a dignity not normally given to those younger than 30. To his father’s fresh disappointment, Francis declined the office. To justify this second refusal he would have to disclose his desire for priesthood. But how could he so deeply wound his 70-year-old father?
The question was answered for him: On May 7, 1593, a letter arrived from Rome appointing Francis provost of the Cathedral Chapter of Geneva — in Church law, the bishop’s principal advisers. A friend with connections in Rome who knew of Francis’s desire "to belong completely to the Church" had arranged the appointment behind the family’s back. When Francis informed his father, the old man shed tears of bitter disappointment but gave Francis his blessing: "Do by God’s command what you say he inspires you to do."
On December 18, 1593, Francis was ordained priest by Bishop de Granier of Geneva. "Enraptured by the thought of his high calling," a witness recorded, "he resembled a man in another world." At his first Mass, Francis wrote later, "God took possession of my soul in a manner I cannot explain." He threw himself into pastoral work with zeal. At Mass, a man who served him at the altar testified, "he seemed to be a man wholly transformed into God. He often stopped, carried away with sighs in a kind of rapture; and when that lasted a while, I would point my finger to the next part of the Mass, and then he would continue."
The Calvinist rulers of Geneva controlled much of the diocese. The bishop wanted to attempt a re-conversion of the territory south of the lake of Geneva, called the Chablais. At a convocation of his clergy only months after Francis’s ordination, the bishop asked for volunteers. No one came forward. When the bishop looked toward Francis, he declared himself ready to go, "if you judge me capable."
The mission was not only difficult, but dangerous. In an area of some 25,000 souls, only about a hundred Catholics remained, cowed into silence by the Protestant majority. Francis set out in September 1594, accompanied only by his priest-cousin Louis. Though often in danger, they persevered, preaching wherever they could, visiting the homes of the tiny Catholic minority, and inviting Calvinist pastors to public disputations. Francis preferred gentle persuasion to harsh polemics. "Whenever I have made use of stinging replies," he said once, "I have repented of it afterward. We accomplish more by love and charity than by severity and rigor." Three times Francis managed to enter Geneva and engage its religious ruler, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor and disciple, in private theological discussions, winning from him the concession that it was possible for Catholics to be saved.
Little by little people began to return to the ancient faith. In 1598, just four years after his mission had started, Francis, still only 31, had achieved the seemingly impossible: the conversion of enough people to justify restoration of the suppressed parishes in the Chablais, with priests to provide for their pastoral care.
Toward the end of this four-year mission, Bishop de Granier, who was in poor health, told Francis that he wanted to make him his coadjutor, which meant that he would succeed de Granier on the latter’s death. After resisting this proposal for many months, Francis finally sent word: "Tell the bishop that I have never desired to be a bishop. But since he wishes it, I am ready to obey and to serve God in all things." Francis chose not to receive episcopal ordination until the elderly bishop’s death in September 1602. During all this time he continued to dress as a simple priest.
In January 1602, de Granier sent Francis to Paris to negotiate with the French King Henry VI, formerly a Protestant but now Catholic, for help restoring the Catholic faith in the diocese of Geneva. Francis preached more than a hundred times while in Paris; though he never spoke against Calvinism, his sermons resulted in the conversion of several prominent Calvinists. "I have always said," Francis remarked, "that whoever preaches with love preaches enough against the heretics, even though he does not say a single word against them."
Though Francis was now technically a prince as well as a bishop, after his ordination in December 1602, he adopted a simple lifestyle. He dispensed with his predecessor’s carriage and went everywhere either on foot or horseback. He tried to spend at least an hour daily in prayer, preached and catechized constantly, and continued to spend much time in the confessional and in spiritual direction — all this in addition to a vast correspondence and his writings, which today fill 26 volumes.
Francis was especially concerned about raising the spiritual and educational standard of his clergy. "Ignorance in a priest," he said, "is worse than malice." To be good a confessor, he said, a priest must be compassionate toward vice in others, and implacable to it in himself.
In March 1604, while preaching a course of Lenten sermons in Dijon, Francis noticed a well-dressed woman in widow’s weeds, sitting opposite his pulpit and seeming to hang on every word. She was Jane Frémyot de Chantal, the mother of four young children and still mourning the death of her husband, Baron Guy de Chantal, with whom she had been deeply in love. Under Francis’s gentle guidance she would become the foundress of a new religious order, the Visitation Sisters.
Francis de Sales’s greatest legacy was his two books on the spiritual life, both classics. The Introduction to the Devout Life was written for a laywoman to whom Francis gives the name Philothea, "Lover of God." The Treatise on the Love of God, expounding his youthful insight that the spiritual life is a love story, was written for Jane de Chantal and her sisters.
In contrast to the prevailing spirituality of his day, which held that perfection was reserved for those who took religious vows as monks or nuns, Francis insisted that the call to holiness was universal. "My intention," Francis writes, "is to instruct those who live in towns, in households, at the court; who very often, under cover of an alleged impossibility, are not willing even to think of undertaking the devout life. . . . Wherever we are, we may and ought to aspire to the perfect life." The world, Francis writes, portrays devout persons as "peevish, sad, and sullen," blind to the truth that "the devout life is a sweet, happy, and agreeable life." Francis reinforced this message with the example of his own life, encouraging countless others, in his day and since, to do the same.
Rev. John Jay Hughes is a priest of the Saint Louis archdiocese and the author, most recently, of the memoir No Ordinary Fool and of Columns of Light: 30 Remarkable Saints, available both in print and as a recorded book from Now You Know Media.