Holy priests: St. Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales is one of the great priest-saints in the history of the Church. His teachings on Christian holiness allow us to consider him as a precursor of the universal call to holiness proclaimed at the Second Vatican Council.

Manuel Belda-March 11, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes
St. Francis of Sales

St. Francis de Sales was born in 1567 in the castle of Sales (Thorens, Savoy), in one of the oldest and noblest families of Savoy. He studied law at the University of Padua, reaching the degree of Doctor. He was appointed lawyer of the Senate of Savoy, but decided to follow his priestly vocation, being ordained in 1593.

Your life

At the request of his bishop, he initiated with his cousin Louis the re-evangelization of the Chablais, a region located to the south of Lake Geneva, which had turned en masse to Calvinism. He dedicated himself to print flyers with doctrinal content, which he pasted on the walls of the houses and circulated among the population, so that Pius XI, on the occasion of the third centenary of his death, named him patron of Catholic journalists. In September 1598 more than 3,000 Calvinists returned to the Catholic faith.

In 1599 he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Geneva and in 1602 residential bishop, based in Annecy, because Geneva was almost entirely Calvinist. In 1604 he met St. Jeanne-Françoise Frémyot de Chantal, co-founder with him of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God of the Visitation, in 1610.

On December 28, 1622 he died in the Visitation Convent in Lyon, and on January 23 of the following year his body was transferred and buried in the Basilica of Annecy. He was beatified in 1662 and canonized in 1665. On July 19, 1877, Pius IX declared him Doctor of the Church. His feast is celebrated on January 24.

His works

He wrote numerous works, which can be classified as follows: 1) Works of controversy; 2) Treatises on the spiritual life; 3) Conferences to the Visitandines; 4) Sermons; 5) Epistolary; 6) Documents of his episcopal ministry; 7) Constitutions of the Congregation of the Visitation; 7) Various pamphlets.

His most famous works are the treatises on spiritual life: Introduction to the devotional life and the Treatise on the love of God. The first, his masterpiece, is an authentic best-seller The book continues to be published today because it responds to the deepest religious desires of the human heart. In it, the author addresses every Christian who lives in the world and wishes to correspond to the demands of holiness that come with having received Baptism. The truths he proposes therein throb with faith, love and cordiality.

The second book, notes the saint in the PrefaceThe book, written to help the already devout Christian to progress on his path to holiness, presents the story of man's unceasing search for God and God's search for man. This work presents the story of the incessant search of man for God and of God for man, and constitutes a sort of commentary on the Song of Songs.

St. Francis de Sales is known as a great writer. In French literature his prose is cited and pointed out as a model of ductility, delicacy, liveliness of images and expressive richness.

His teachings on Christian holiness

I will limit myself here to pointing out his teachings on Christian holiness, to which, according to the holy bishop, all Christians must aspire. For this reason he has been considered a precursor of the universal call to holiness proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council.

In the Preface from Introduction to the devotional lifeHe presents the purpose of this book and its recipients: "Almost all those who have written about devotion have done so with a view to instructing people who are far removed from the world, or at least they have taught a kind of devotion that leads to this total withdrawal. My intent is to instruct those who live in cities, in families, at court; those who by their condition are obliged to live among their peers (...). To these I teach that an energetic and constant soul can live in the world without absorbing its poisons, find its springs of sweet piety in the midst of the bitter waves of this century and fly among the flames of earthly lusts, without burning the wings of the holy desires of a devout life".

Devotional life without leaving the world

But in what does this devotion or devout life, which can be lived without leaving the world, consist concretely? St. Francis de Sales explains it in the first two chapters. The first is entitled: Description of true devotionand the second: Characteristics and excellence of true devotion. Here is the key text of the first chapter: "The living and true devotion (...) presupposes the love of God; but not just any love, because, when divine love embellishes our souls, it is called grace, which makes us pleasing to his divine Majesty; it is called charity when it gives us strength to do good; but when it reaches such a degree of perfection that it not only makes us do good, but also with care, frequency and promptness, then it is called devotion".

Devotion is, therefore, a certain style, a way of practicing the love of God, that is, diligently, always and promptly. Therefore the holy bishop adds: "In a word, devotion is nothing more than an agility and a spiritual liveliness, by means of which charity does its works in us, or we by it, promptly and affectionately", and thus concludes this first chapter: "Charity and devotion differ from each other only as flame and fire; for charity being a spiritual fire, when it is well kindled it is called devotion, so that this flame of devotion adds nothing to the fire of charity, but rather makes it prompt, active and diligent.

The sweetness of sweetness

And at the end of the second chapter he offers this definition of devotion: "Devotion is the sweetness of sweetnesses and the queen of virtues, because it is the perfection of charity. If charity is milk, devotion is the cream; if it is a plant, devotion is the flower; if it is a precious stone, devotion is the shine: if it is a precious balsam, devotion is the aroma, the aroma of softness that comforts men and rejoices the angels."

As can be seen, for St. Francesco di Sales devotion or devout life is synonymous with perfection of charity, that is, with perfect Christian life: ultimately, in his teachings, this concept means Christian holiness.

According to its own condition

In the third chapter, entitled: Devotion adapts to all kinds of vocations and professionsexplains that devotion or the perfection of charity can be lived in different ways according to one's condition or state in life. This is the key text: "The nobleman and the artisan, the servant and the prince, the widow, the single woman and the married woman must practice devotion in different ways; and not only this, but it is necessary to adapt the practice of devotion to the strengths, chores and obligations of each person in particular (...).

Would it be a reasonable thing if the bishop wanted to live in solitude, like the Carthusians? And if married people did not want to save anything, as the Capuchins do, and if the artisan were in church all day long, like the religious, and if the religious dealt continually with all kinds of people for the good of his neighbor, as the bishop does, would this devotion not be ridiculous, disordered and insufferable? (...) No, devotion spoils nothing when it is true; on the contrary, it perfects everything, and when it is contrary to someone's vocation, it is, without the slightest doubt, false (...). It is a mistake, and even a heresy, to want to banish the devout life from the soldiers' companies, from the workmen's workshop, from the princes' court and from the married people's home".

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