Many writers, during and after the Counter Reformation, took up the pen on behalf of God and His Catholic Church. But of them all, St. Francis de Sales was quickly recognized for his brilliance, charm, and holiness. He wrote in his classic book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, the following words on friendship: “If your bond of union be the pursuit of science, it is a commendable friendship; still more if it be prudence, discretion, decision, and justice. But if your bond of intercourse be charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, then indeed will your friendship be precious; precious because it has its origin in God, because it is maintained in God, and because it will endure for ever in Him. What a good thing it is to love on earth as we shall love in heaven, and to learn to cherish one another here as we shall do for ever there. I am not speaking of the mere love which charity excites towards all men, but of the spiritual friendship by which two or more souls participate in each other’s devotion and spiritual affections making them of one mind.” What if all journalists wrote with that as their underlying theme? I wish to show in this article some highlights from the life of St. Francis and how it was that a simple bishop of Geneva, who is still read and loved 400 years later, was named patron of journalists.
Fifty years after the revolt unleashed by Luther, the hero of journalists was born in Swiss Savoy on August 21, 1567, at the Chateau de Sales and was named Francis Bonaventure. His father was an aristocrat and took the name of Boisy; his bride, an only child, brought as her dowry the Signory of Boisy and was only 15 when she gave birth to the eldest of her 13 children. His mother took great care for his instruction and formation in the faith. At the age of eight he received his First Holy Communion and Confirmation and only a year later tonsure. Here we see a pattern develop: he wanted to be a priest. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. At 14 he attended the University of Paris, still the most renowned in Europe. His father preferred that he attend the college attended by the sons of nobles; Francis chose instead to attend the Jesuit College of Clermont renowned for piety and scholarship.
Studies came easily for Francis, and while rhetoric was the key to a handsome future he found his love and passion in the pursuit of Sacred Scripture and theology. Nevertheless, to please his father he engaged in the activities requisite of a budding nobleman: horsemanship, dancing, and sword play. Needless to say, he cared little for them; his heart was drawn elsewhere: he took a vow of perpetual chastity, seeking the care and protection of his heavenly Mother.
Fatigued by his studies and perhaps wearied with the incessant debates on predestination, Francis suffered an interior trial that would influence his lifelong work of directing souls. His sensitive and intelligent nature was defenseless before the ultimate question: “Will I be saved?” Our Lord knew Francis needed more than a textbook answer, even if it were that of St. Augustine and St. Thomas! Was he not already imbued with the love of God? What would it be like to lose that certainty? Francis found out. He became obsessed with the fear that he had lost God’s favor. As God is wont to do with His most favored students, He made sure that day or night Francis could find no relief in anyone or anything else. The more he sought guidance from his director and friends, the more “sure” he was that he was lost. There seemed to be only one answer: trust God in spite of all “evidence” to the contrary. And so he did. He cried out: “O Lord, if I am never to see Thee in Heaven, this at least grant me, that I may never curse or blaspheme Thy holy name. If I may not love Thee in the other world—for in hell none praise Thee—let me at least every instant of my brief existence here love Thee as much as I can.” All fear and despair suddenly left him as he knelt at his favorite Marian altar and picked up a prayer card with St. Bernard’s “Memorare.” This heart-wrenching experience prepared him for his work of guiding with the utmost tenderness and understanding the spiritual crises of others.
At age 24, Francis received the Degree of Law from the University of Padua. The next year he made known to his father that he would neither marry the bride picked out for him nor accept the post of senator offered by the prince of Savoy. The bishop of Geneva now living in Annecy since his own diocese was in Calvinist hands, learned of Francis’s reputation of virtue and scholarship and exclaimed, “This young man will be a great personage some day! He will become a pillar of the Church and my successor in this see.” His father, saddened by Francis’s refusals, would not give his consent. Francis was then offered the post of the provost of the chapter of cathedral canons which he accepted. His father relented and because of his sterling formation, Francis received minor orders. Six months later, in 1593, at the age of 26 he was ordained. For his First Mass, Fr. Francis made a resolution that would characterize his life: to use every moment of the day as a preparation for tomorrow’s Mass. As provost of the chapter of Geneva, he became widely known for his simple preaching, his care for the poor, and his patience with the humble in confession.
The Chablais, a district just south of Lake Geneva, had been the target of Protestant agitation for over 60 years. Timid missionaries feared for their life, and when the bishop asked for a volunteer, Canon Francis said, “Monseigneur, if you think I am capable, tell me to go. I am ready, and should rejoice to be chosen.” His father, not as excited as the bishop, would not give his blessing. Yet, the newly ordained Fr. Francis knew it was God speaking to him through the decision of the bishop, and with a holy alacrity, departed with his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales. Finding towns with only a handful of Catholics, the Canons would encourage them to practice their Catholic Faith. Facing the cold, wild animals, and Protestant fanatics, they had to make long walks day and night to return to the safety of the Duke of Savoy’s castle.
There seemed to be little reward and even less fruit for their immense efforts. Ever patient, Fr. Francis turned to writing brief pamphlets in longhand. Using a simple and clear language, the Catholic Faith showed brilliantly against the dark, despairing Calvinism. Both in word and writing, Canon Francis was soon touching the hearts of rough soldiers, timid and long-suffering Catholics, and petulant Protestants. Marking the beginning of Catholic journalism, these pamphlets, working their way through village and farm, were quietly effective. Soon streams of lapsed Catholics were asking for reconciliation. Four years later, the bishop found the Catholic faith restored, and the district predominantly Catholic.
No one so much wanted to mirror our Lord as Fr. Francis. “Come my dear children,” he would say, “Come, let me put my arms around you. Ah, let me hide you in the bottom of my heart! God and I will help you, all I ask of you is not to despair; I will take on myself the rest of the burden!” When questioned for his generosity, he answered, “Has not our Blessed Lord shed His blood for them, and shall I refuse them my tears? These wolves will be changed into lambs; a day will come when, cleansed of their sins, they will be more precious in the sight of God than we are.”
His bishop, ready to make Fr. Francis his successor and coadjutor, brought him to Rome. Pope Clement VIII gathered several Cardinals to question this young priest on 35 questions on theology. St. Francis answered simply and modestly; the pope was more than satisfied and embraced and confirmed his appointment as coadjutor. His reputation spread to the court of France, where he refused the King’s offers to stay and preach in his realm. Consecrated a bishop in 1602, Francis continued his preaching and hearing of confessions along with his taxing administrative work. Calling for the teaching of the Catechism throughout the diocese, his conferences in Annecy were remembered long after his death.
St. Francis’s care for souls continued through the thousands of letters directing his lambs to find their peace with the Good Shepherd. In 1610 he co-founded the Visitation Convent with St. Jane F. de Chantal to meet the needs of the widows and infirm who were called to the religious life. Returning from a trying trip to France, he stopped at Lyons and sought refuge in a cottage on the grounds of the Visitation Convent. After a month of preaching and teaching he received the Last Sacraments and on December 28, after expressing all confidence in God’s tender mercy, he breathed his last. He was 56 years old and in the twentieth year of his episcopacy. In his Treatise on the Love of God, he wrote, “The measure of love is to love without measure,” which he had lived to the very end. St. Francis was beatified by Alexander VII in 1661 and canonized by him in 1665 and proclaimed the doctor of the Church by Bl. Pius IX. His body lies at the Convent of Annecy and his heart in the church of the Visitation at Lyons.
“Go courageously to do whatever you are called to do. If you have any fears, say to your soul: ‘The Lord will provide for us.’ …Trust in him, depend on his providence; fear nothing.”—St. Francis de Sales