St. Francis De Sales:
Bishop and Gentle Pastor of Souls
'Let us be what we are and be it well!'
The word 'saint' is used in many ways, often to describe somebody who seems to be a very good person, but the word in general means someone who is close to God and follows the ways of God. This is something we are all capable of doing, because to become a saint you do not have to be perfect. Nobody is perfect, we are all human. The Church refers to a saint as someone whose life on earth is over and who is now in heaven with God. This is a person who may have stepped away from God's will at times, as we all do, and who is human just as we all are. But, this is also someone who has tried to say 'yes' to God just as Mary did and hardly ever 'no'. Saints show us the way to God through everyday experiences.
St. Francis de Sales was a 16th century Bishop noted for his spirit of optimism. He was a man ahead of his time, because he wrote, preached and lived a very contemporary message. He explained how we could live and experience the presence of God in this world. He was born in 1567 in the Sales family castle in, Savoy, France. When Francis was a student in Paris and Padua, he experienced a great spiritual crisis. It was from the depths of his despair that he called out to God, placed his hope in his mercy and promised to praise him always.
In his suffering, Francis went to the Church of St. Stephen in Paris, where he knelt in front of the image of Our Lady of Kind Deliverance. He promised that he would recite the rosary every day if his inner pain were brought to an end. He then caught sight of a card of the Memorare of St. Bernard. He said the prayer and felt a complete and utter transformation. A great peace came over Francis and he was healed. Jesus came to Francis, not to condemn him, but to save him.
Francis chose to respond to God's call to the priesthood. He was ordained at the age of 25, and consecrated the Bishop of Geneva at the age of 35. Francis lived in Annecy until his death 20 years later. When he became bishop, he made sure that all the priests in his diocese were well formed spiritually, so that they could function as true shepherds of their people. He encouraged them to study everything good. He believed that learning for a priest was the 'eighth sacrament of the Church', knowledge of the scripture and theology being necessary for the personal holiness of the priest. He always encouraged gentleness and compassion. This was only one of Francis' contributions to society. By being so dedicated to ensuring priests were functioning as best they could, he provided a better service for their people.
By the end of his missionary apostolate, Francis had persuaded 72,000 Calvinists to return to the Catholic Church. Calvin's followers believed they were the elect people, who had been chosen to go to heaven, before they were born. This idea is known as predestination. The fact Francis managed to persuade so many to go back to the Catholic Church is a great achievement and a contribution to society in the long run.
Francis' charitable work led the Church to give him another title: Patron of the Hearing-Impaired, after he devised a sign language to communicate with a young man who suffered from impaired hearing, whom he had taken into his household. The creation of a sign language is a great contribution to the hearing-impaired in society.
Francis got to know a wealthy young widow, Jeanne de Chantal. After the tragic death of her husband, Jeanne felt a vocation to devote her life to God. Francis became her spiritual director and after a few years he helped her form a new religious order knows as the Visitation Sisters.
However, Francis' special project was the writing of 'A Treatise on the Love of God', over which he prayed and worked for many years. Because of his writings, he became patron of writers and journalists.
Unlike many other saints, whose lives were full of extraordinary occurrences, beyond the reach of everyday people, Francis' life was, in short, far from sensational. His ideals of moderation and charity, of gentleness and humility, of cheerfulness and abandonment to God's will are expressed with a common sense that has earned him the reputation as the 'Gentleman Saint'.
Francis de Sales died on 28 December 1622 at the age of fifty-five.
The Church finally declared him to be a Saint in 1665 and gave him the rare title of Doctor of the Church in 1867. This title was awarded to just over 30 other saints in the history of the Church who are renowned for their writings. The Church observes his feast day on January 24.
To commemorate the 400 anniversary of his birth, Pope Paul VI wrote an Apostolic Letter in 1967 in which he commended the relevance of Francis de Sales to our modern age. He stated,
"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 of life. We propose that these things be imitated, embraced and followed."
Natalie Nobar, Year 9
St. Michael's Convent School,
Barnet, North London.