Lifelong CatechesisForming Catholic identity across generations
For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor, 1567-1622
Born in Savoy in the south of France, Francis studied in Paris and at the University of Padua where he received his doctorate in law at the age of twenty-four. Despite the opposition of his father and an offer of a high government position, Francis chose to become a priest and was ordained in 1593. Unknown to Francis, his cousin had proposed him as the provost of the chapter of Geneva. The pope appointed Francis to this academic post and, somewhat reluctantly, Francis took up these duties.
Francis’ first love, however, was ministering to the poor and preaching, and these things he did with great enthusiasm. His preaching style was very simple, but effective. The oration style of the times called for filling sermons with quotations from Greek and Latin, but, although he was an excellent scholar, Francis chose to preach in clear language and thus won a large following.
But a greater mission was in store for Francis de Sales. The people of Chablais, an area south of Lake Geneva, had fallen into Calvinism, and the few Catholics left in the area were too afraid of violence to declare themselves openly. Francis volunteered to go to Chablais and win back the people to Catholicism. Within months of his arrival, Francis was the target of two assassination attempts and other trials, but his simple message of love had its effect.
During this period, Francis began writing tracts which set forth the teachings of the Church versus the errors of Calvinism. These papers—the originals are still preserved in the archives at Annecy—were copied many times and distributed widely. When Claude de Granier, the bishop of Geneva, came to visit him a few years after his arrival in Chablais, he found that the Catholic faith had been firmly reestablished there.
The bishop had for some time considered Francis as a worthy successor and proposed to the pope that Francis be appointed as coadjutor of the see of Geneva. Pope Clement VIII, having heard of the good works of Francis, invited him to Rome where he was to be examined before his appointment. The pope and others, including St. Robert Bellermine and Cardinal Frederick Borromeo (cousin of St. Charles), put thirty-five complex theological questions to Francis. These he answered knowledgeably, yet with simplicity and modesty, and his appointment was confirmed.
Francis succeeded to the see of Geneva upon the death of Bishop de Granier in 1602. As bishop, Francis continued to live in an austere manner. While preaching in Dijon in 1604, he met Jane Frances de Chantal with whom, in 1610, he founded the order of the Visitation nuns. Francis also continued to write. In his Treatise on the Love of God, he wrote, “The measure of love is to love without measure.”
Francis de Sales died in 1622, having carried on his preaching and ministrations almost up to his death. The beatification of Francis took place in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, the first beatification to take place in that church. He was canonized three years later and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877. Francis was named patron of journalists by Pope Pius XI; he is also the patron of authors, other writers, and of the deaf.
We celebrate the memorial for St. Francis de Sales on January 24.
Francis' message today: Despite the clear danger to himself, Francis did not hesitate to volunteer to help bring back the “lost sheep” of Chablais. Each of us probably knows some lost sheep, family members or neighbors who no longer go to church. We can encourage them to return to the faith by prayer, our example, and a quiet word or two.