Mosaic of Sales on the exterior of St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis. / Credit: RickMorais/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
ACI Prensa Staff, Jan 24, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).
Every Jan. 24, the Catholic Church celebrates St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva and doctor of the Church, known as “the saint of kindness” because he reportedly had a bad temper. He relied on divine grace and the maternal care of the Virgin Mary to temper that vice and become a man of virtue.
St. Francis de Sales is also the patron saint of the Catholic press, journalists, and writers. He is considered a spiritual master, inspiring saints such as St. John Bosco and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
‘A bad temper’
Francis was born in 1567 in the castle of Sales, duchy of Savoy (then part of the Holy Roman Empire). He was the eldest of six siblings, with a restless and playful character, to the point that his mother and his wet nurse had to redouble their efforts to take care of him and be attentive to his wanderings.
As a child, he had an irascible temperament. His biographers tell that one day a Calvinist visited the castle in which he lived and little Francis, when he heard about it, took a stick and went to run around the chickens shouting: “Heretics out, we don’t want heretics.”
His father, on the other hand, wanting Francis to grow up well-disciplined, chose a priest named Father Deage, a demanding man, as his tutor. The priest gave Francis a hard time, but, as Francis himself later acknowledged, it helped him in his human and Christian formation.
Nevertheless, Francis’ bad temper would continue to play tricks on him. Sometimes his blunders or outbursts made him the object of ridicule and humiliation, and his soul had to bear the weight of resentment and a desire for revenge. As an educated man of manners, he would control himself to the point that many had no idea of his bad temper.
In spite of this, over time bad experiences accumulated in his heart and Francis suffered a lot. At one point he even thought he feared he would be condemned to hell forever. The mere possibility of such a thing happening tormented him for a long time, and he lost his appetite and began to have difficulty sleeping.
The path of charity
One day Francis said to God in prayer: “I don’t care if you send me all the tortures you want, as long as you allow me to continue loving you always.” Determined to find a way out of his predicament, he began to frequent churches and to pray. One day, in the Church of St. Stephen in Paris, kneeling before the image of the Virgin Mary, he pronounced the famous prayer of St. Bernard: “Remember, O most pious Virgin Mary…”
For the first time in a long time, Francis found some of the peace for which he longed.
This experience cured much of the pride that had tormented him for so long. Francis could better understand the people around him and he realized how imperative it was to treat them with kindness. He went to study law in Padua, as was his father’s wish, but he also enrolled to study theology. In his heart had sprung up the desire to know the things of God more deeply.
At the age of 24, already with a doctorate, he returned to his family to live the ordinary life of a young man of nobility. His father wanted him to marry and obtain an important position, but Francis possessed the desire to consecrate his life totally to the service of God. He confessed to his father his desire to become a priest. At first he was met with stiff resistance, but finally his father agreed. Francis renounced the lordship of Villaroger, which was his right, and was ordained a priest on May 10, 1593.
He first served as canon of Annecy, but upon the death of the dean of the Chapter of the Cathedral of Geneva, a group of influential people (including his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales), interceded and asked the pope to grant the vacant position to Francis.
Concern for those whose faith is weak
Despite the initiative of his friends, Francis, as soon as he could, presented himself to the pontiff as a volunteer to go to the region of Chablais (Savoy), where Calvinism had become dominant and Catholics were harassed all the time.
The saint began to write and publish his homilies, which he put together in pamphlet form. In them he expounded the doctrine of the Church and refuted the Calvinist positions. These writings would later form part of his famous text called “Controversies.”
However, what people admired most about Francis was the patience with which the saint endured the difficulties and pains that his office caused him.
The pope confirmed Francis as coadjutor of Geneva and the future saint returned to his diocese to work with redoubled commitment. Then, on the death of the bishop, Francis succeeded him and took up residence in Annecy.
During this period, Francis had as a disciple named Jane de Chantal, with whom he founded the Congregation of the Visitation in 1610. The spiritual instruction and direction he gave to de Chantal, who was also later canonized a saint, became his famous “Introduction to the Devout Life,” his best-known work.
In 1622, the duke of Savoy invited Francis to join him in Avignon. The bishop accepted the invitation, concerned for the welfare of the French part of his diocese. The trip, however, was risky because of the harsh winter and his declining health. After meeting with the duke, Francis began his return journey.
That journey would be his last.
He stopped in Lyon and stayed in the gardener’s cottage of the Visitation convent. From there he attended to the nuns spiritually for a whole month. It was during this time that he spoke and wrote about humility.
He continued his journey preaching and administering the sacraments until his strength left him. Francis de Sales died at the age of 56, on Dec. 28, 1622.
One day after the bishop’s death, the entire city of Lyon paraded in front of the humble house where he had died. Known for his holiness, his coffin was opened in 1632 and his body was in good condition and looked like he was in a peaceful sleep.
Francis de Sales was canonized a saint in 1665. In 1878 Pope Pius IX declared him a doctor of the Church. Not long after that, John Bosco would make him the patron of his newly founded congregation — the Pious Society of St. Francis de Sales — and make Francis a model for the service of his spiritual sons, the “Salesians.”