Pope invites to spiritual life with a letter dedicated to St. Francis de Sales

Pope Francis reflects on the magisterium of St. Francis de Sales in an apostolic letter published on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the saint's death.

Giovanni Tridente-December 28, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
The Pope in front of the Nativity Scene

The Pope at the audience in which he announced the publication of "Totum Amoris est" (CNS Photo/ Vatican Media).

On the fourth centenary of the death of the bishop and doctor of the Church who lived in France at the end of the 17th century, Pope Francis dedicated a reflection to his magisterium, in order to draw from it lessons for our times.

Man's experience of God is totally anchored in his heart; only by contemplating and living the Incarnation can one read history and inhabit it with confidence; ask oneself in every moment and circumstance of life where "more love" is found; cultivate a healthy spiritual and ecclesial life; learn to distinguish true devotion through discernment; conceive one's existence as a realistic path to holiness in daily occupations....

These are the innumerable insights that Pope Francis has drawn from the life and example of St. Francis de Sales and has given to the Church today through the Apostolic Letter Totum amoris est. A text based largely on the Treatise on the love of God of the holy bishop of Geneva, who lived from 1567 to 1622, published on the day of the fourth centenary of his death.

In a way, it is also about presenting to the Christians of our time the legacy of this pastor who proclaimed the Gospel from his youth "opening new and unpredictable horizons in a world in rapid transition".

The same "change" that the Church is experiencing today, called - Francis writes - not to be self-referential, "free from all worldliness", but at the same time able "to share people's lives, to walk together, to listen and to welcome", as he had already said last year to the bishops and priests with whom he met during his trip to Bratislava.

Of noble origin, Francis de Sales chose the path of the priesthood after completing his legal studies in Paris and Padua. Because of his talent, he was sent as a missionary to the Calvinist region of Chablais; he was later appointed coadjutor to the bishop of Geneva, whom he succeeded from 1602 to 1622. His apostolate developed mainly in contact with the world of the Reformation, using a non-oppressive method of "the missionary".dialogueThe "God of the world" that generated in the interlocutor the desire for God to be welcomed with freedom.

It is no coincidence that in his best-known texts, Treaty y FiloteaLet it be clear that the relationship with God is always "an experience of gratuitousness that manifests the depth of the Father's love," Pope Francis reflects in the Letter.

Totum amoris is initially inspired by the biographical experience of the Holy Doctor of the Church, who among other things is also the patron of the work of St. John Bosco - not by chance known as "Salesian" - who took from him the principles of optimism, charity and Christian humanism.

The synthesis of his thinking

Pope Francis begins by making it immediately clear what is the synthesis of the thought of St. Francis de Sales, namely, that "the experience of God is an evidence of the human heart," which uses wonder and gratitude to recognize the One who leads to the depth and fullness of love in all circumstances of existence.

An attitude of faith that leads to "a truth that presents itself to the conscience as a 'sweet emotion', capable of arousing a corresponding and unrenounceable well-wishing for every created reality".

The criterion of love

The ultimate criterion remains that of love, which is the culmination of a deep desire that must be tested through discernment, but also through "an attentive listening to experience" that matures evidently through a disinterested relationship with others. In short, there is no doctrine separated from the illumination of the Spirit and without true pastoral action.

The essential features of theology

Although his intentions never included the pretension of elaborating a true and articulated theological system, Pope Francis recognizes in the French saint and mystic some essential features of doing theology, which make use of "two constitutive dimensions": the spiritual life - "it is in humble and persevering prayer, in openness to the Holy Spirit, that one can try to understand and express the Word of God" - and the ecclesial life - the "feeling oneself in the Church and with the Church".

Gospel and culture synthesis

Inevitably, he also relied on the example of his pastoral action, which matured in circumstances of epochal change that posed great problems and new ways of looking at them, from which also emerged a surprising demand for spirituality, as was the case in the Calvinist environment he had to face as a missionary in the Chablais.

"Knowing these people and becoming aware of their questions was one of the most important providential circumstances of his life," writes the Pontiff. So much so that what initially seemed a useless and fruitless endeavor became a "fruitful synthesis" between "Evangelization and culture", "from which he derived the intuition of an authentic, mature and clear method for a lasting and promising harvest", which knew how to interpret the changing times and guide souls thirsty for God. This, after all, was also the purpose of his Treaty.
What does St. Francis de Sales still have to teach today? Pope Francis in his Apostolic Letter Totum Amoris Est highlights "some of his crucial decisions is important also today, to live the change with evangelical wisdom".

Relationship between God and man

In the first place, it is essential to start again from the "happy relationship between God and the human being", to reread it and propose it to each person according to his or her own condition, without external impositions or despotic and arbitrary forces, as St. Francis explained in his Treaty. Rather," writes the Pope, "we need "the persuasive form of an invitation that keeps man's freedom intact".

True devotion

One must also learn to distinguish true devotion from false devotion, in which one often feels fulfilled and "arrived at", forgetting instead that it is rather a manifestation of charity and leads to it: "it is like a flame with respect to fire: it rekindles its intensity, without changing its nature". One cannot be devout, in short, without the concreteness of love, a "way of life", which "gathers and interprets the little things of every day, food and clothing, work and rest, love and offspring, attention to professional obligations", thus illuminating one's vocation.

The ecstasy of vital action

The culmination of this commitment of love for every man is translated into what the holy bishop calls "the ecstasy of work and of life", which comes from the "central and most luminous pages of the Treaty"as Pope Francis calls them.

It is an experience "which, in the face of all aridity and the temptation to turn in on itself, has found the source of joy", a true response to today's world, invaded by pessimism and superficial pleasures. The secret of this ecstasy lies in knowing how to go out of oneself, which does not mean abandoning ordinary life or isolating oneself from others, for "he who presumes to elevate himself towards God, but does not live charity towards his neighbor, deceives himself and others".

The mystery of the birth of Jesus

Pope Francis also dedicated Wednesday's general audience to the saintly bishop and doctor of the Church, dwelling in particular on some of his thoughts on Christmas, including the one entrusted to St. Joan Frances de Chantal - with whom, among other things, he founded the institute of the Visitandine: "I prefer a hundred times to see the dear little Child in the manger, rather than all the kings on their thrones".

And, in fact, the Holy Father reflected: 'the throne of Jesus is the manger or the road, during his life when he preached, or the cross at the end of his life: this is the throne of our King', 'the road to happiness.'

The authorGiovanni Tridente

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