Five hundred years ago, the Church and the world plummeted into crisis. The Protestant Revolution split Europe into warring factions. In the wake of Martin Luther’s preaching, Germany erupted in a revolt among the peasants that ended in terrible slaughter.
England and the northern European countries gathered under the flag of the new Protestant faith while the rest of Europe held to Catholicism. The tensions eventually broke out in the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 –1648.
As Europe was reeling 500 years ago from the most radical revolution it had ever faced, God raised up a saint who showed the way through a crisis. It was not through anger, violence, and revenge, but through kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.
Francis de Sales was known as a gentleman saint not only because he was from a noble family, but also because he was a gentle man.
A YOUNG ARISTOCRAT
Francis de Sales was born on Aug. 21, 1567, in the Château de Sales into the noble Sales family of the Duchy of Savoy, in southwestern France — an area that had been swept by Calvinist fervor. His family were land-owning aristocrats, and Francis’ father planned for his oldest son to receive the finest education to prepare him to be a lawyer.
When he was 16, Francis traveled to Paris to receive a liberal arts education. As an aristocrat, he went to college with his own servant, personal chaperone, and tutor. Although by now Francis had already turned his mind to higher things, he obeyed his father and took lessons in gentlemanly activities: dancing, horseback riding, and fencing.
The quiet teenager was tall and handsome, with blue-gray eyes and a respectful, kindly manner. When he was 17, he took part in a theological discussion about predestination — the Calvinist doctrine that God chooses some to be saved and some to be damned. Francis entered a crisis of faith, believing that he was not one of the elect. The worries shifted him into a depression that made him physically ill.
Three years later, while visiting a church in Paris, he came out of that dark tunnel of doubt and had a profound experience of God’s mercy. He knew God was love, and focusing on the Blessed Virgin, he dedicated his life to God and the priesthood.
PRIEST AND PROVOST
After completing his studies, Francis returned to his home territory, which was part of the Diocese of Geneva. Geneva was the center of the Protestant religion of John Calvin, and a majority of the population had left the Catholic faith for the new religion.
Francis was ordained in 1593. Just 26, he was immediately offered a position as provost at the Geneva cathedral by Bishop Claude de Granier. As provost, Francis held an important post in the diocese, but not having parish responsibilities, he was able to embark on an ambitious program of apologetics and evangelization among the Calvinists.
For six years he struggled with little success and tremendous opposition. The Protestants not only vowed to close their ears to his preaching, but he had to take refuge in a castle because of repeated assassination threats and attempts.
In 1599 he was promoted to be coadjutor of the diocese and was sent on a mission to preach at the court of King Henry IV of France. He made a strong impression, and it was no surprise that, when Bishop Granier died in 1602, Francis de Sales was appointed bishop of Geneva.
PREACHER AND PASTOR
To put Francis de Sales in the wider context, he became bishop of Geneva in 1603 — the same year Queen Elizabeth I of England died. The Reformation had erupted in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. In the intervening 86 years, Protestantism had taken root across Europe.
The persecutions and massacres on both sides of the religious divide had solved nothing. The wars and threats of war only made the bitter divisions worse. Fifteen years after becoming bishop of Geneva, at the end of his life, Francis de Sales would witness Europe plunge into the religious wars that would last for 30 years. The Protestant revolution ended — as many revolutions do — in bloodshed.
Resentment, revenge, and retaliation ruled the day. There had to be another way.
Francis de Sales pioneered a different path. He met everyone with kindness, reminding them that “a spoonful of honey gathers more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.” He was a passionate and eloquent preacher, speaking tirelessly about the simplicity, goodness, truth, and beauty of the Catholic faith. He worked hard to make sure the clergy and people in his own diocese were faithful. He rooted out corruption and indifference and worked with apostolic zeal to purify and renew the Church.
He brought Franciscans to work in the diocese, and in the spirit of his namesake, he lived in chastity and poverty. One of the stories about Francis de Sales is that St. Francis of Assisi appeared to him and said: “You desire martyrdom, just as I once longed for it. But, like me, you will not obtain it. You will have to become an instrument of your own martyrdom.”
MYSTIC AND WRITER
Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers because he one of the first Catholic teachers to address laypeople with a treatise on the spiritual life. He taught that holiness is possible for busy laypeople as well as devoted religious, and his Introduction to the Devout Life echoes the gentle, firm, and loving style for which he is famous. As opposed to the harsh and judgmental attitude of the Calvinists, he proposes a God of love, proclaiming that charity prevails over penance.
His writings include sermons and apologetics works opposing Calvinism, as well as letters and personal guides for spiritual growth. Like all great writers, Francis de Sales is very quotable.
All of his work grew out of his dedicated life of prayer: “Half an hour’s meditation each day is necessary — except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”
About human faults, his gentle nature speaks: “When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”
On maintaining inner peace, he advises: “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”
St. Francis de Sales teaches all of us that despite our differences of religion or opinion, we are beloved children of God. He writes, “We must never undervalue any person. The workman loves not that his work should be despised in his presence. Now God is present everywhere, and every person is his work.”
That love of others begins with a true appreciation of who we are as beloved of God — created in his image and likeness.
St. Francis de Sales’ struggle to accept God’s love was the beginning of his spiritual journey. Acceptance of ourselves in God’s sight is the foundation for confidence. So he says in his gentle way, “Be who you are and be that well.”
DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
Eventually, St. Francis de Sales had great success in his efforts to bring back the faithful from Calvinism. His success was not so much in the content of his argument, but in his delivery and life. His converts saw his life and wanted to be like him.
St. Francis de Sales speaks to us today with the same message and method. His life and witness is a reminder that in our work of evangelization, it is easy to win an argument and lose a soul. If we would follow St. Francis de Sales’ example, all our writing and speaking would echo his own openheartedness, open-mindedness, and gentleness of spirit. One of his mottos was: “He who preaches with love, preaches effectively.”
The answer to the strife and division in our world and our Church today is the same as it was 400 years ago. The bitter arguments, personal attacks, and anger that we see among members of different Catholic tribes get us nowhere. The suspicion and blame between members of different political groups, different religious groups, and different ethnic groups only end in further heartbreak, anger, and bloodshed.
St. Francis de Sales shows us a better way. His is the way of patience, listening, debate, and discussion, but most of all, his is the way of prayer. St. Francis de Sales led a devout life, and the word devout means “devoted.” From his first experience of God’s love and mercy, he was devoted to knowing the source of that mercy and to sharing it with others with passionate zeal and patient hope.