Francis was born the eldest in a wealthy noble family in the Savoy region of France. His father was a severe man who hoped Francis would pursue a career in public service. Francis greatly desired to be a priest but, knowing his father’s desires, he patiently waited to reveal his vocation to his family. Soon after acquiring his doctorate at the prestigious University of Padua, a relieved Francis was able to obtain permission from his father to become a priest.
Not long after he was ordained in 1593, Francis was sent to the Chablais region to reconvert an area that had fallen under Calvinist control. He embraced this work with fervor despite difficult conditions and an initial lack of success. Francis wrote leaflets on the faith for distribution to the people. These were recopied by hand. In 1602, Francis was consecrated bishop of Geneva. With his characteristic determination and gentleness, Francis preached many eloquent sermons, taught catechesis, wrote countless letters, and worked to educate the laity and priests of his diocese.
In 1604, Francis met a young widow, Jane Frances de Chantal. A spiritual friendship developed between the two saints and was the source of fruitfulness both in their lives and in the Church. Together, they founded the Visitation Order of women religious. After working tirelessly his entire life, Francis died and was buried, at his request, at the convent of the Visitations nuns.
Saint Francis de Sales’ prescription: Evangelize with gentleness, humility, and simplicity.
Francis de Sales is known as “the gentleman saint” because he was gentle with people and showed great humility and delicacy in speaking with others. By nature he was inclined to anger but he worked on himself so much that his gentleness and kindness overcame his anger. He wanted to win people back to the Catholic faith and to do this he always used kindness. He didn’t engage in debates or harangue people. When he was working in the Calvinist area of the Chablais, sometimes his life was in danger because the people were so opposed to the Catholic Church. But through it all Francis managed to keep calm and reach out with humility.
At a certain point he decided it might be more effective to write pamphlets, and he wrote many of them explaining the Catholic faith and its teachings. Little by little these had an effect and people started to return to the Catholic faith. Francis always welcomed them back with great kindness and his gracious manner attracted people.
He was also convinced that holiness is for everyone and he was a great spiritual director. His book An Introduction to the Devout Life is still a best-selling volume for lay people who want to grow in holiness. His other best seller, Treatise on the Love of God, is a long work that goes into great detail about how we can love God in our lives.
We can learn a lot from Francis about effective evangelization. Today the internet can be an excellent tool to use in evangelizing, but too often it degenerates into angry debates that don’t help anyone. Francis can teach us a lot about how to evangelize in a way that attracts people instead of driving them away.
Some practical things to do:
- Examine the way you typically interact with others on the internet, especially if you use it to evangelize. Are there some ways you can follow Francis’ lead in order to win people over?
- Pray for missionaries throughout the world.
- Think of small ways you can evangelize among your friends. For example, you might try inviting someone to go to Mass with you, or to pray the rosary together.
Saint Francis de Sales, please pray that I may grow in humility and faith so that, like you, I can give my entire life to God. Amen.
Feast: January 24
Patron: Writers, confessors, the deaf, journalists, the press, teachers
Selection from the writings of Saint Francis de Sales
Devotion is suitable to all sorts of vocations and professions.
In creation God commanded the plants to bring forth fruits, each one according to its kind; even so he commands all Christians, which are living plants of the Church, to bring forth their fruits of devotion, each one according to his quality and vocation. Devotion ought to be differently exercised by the prince, by the gentleman, by the tradesman, by the servant, by the widow, by the married person: and not only so, but the practice also of devotion must be accommodated to the health, the capacity, the employment, and the obligations of each one in particular.
For would it be fit for a bishop to be as retired as a Carthusian, and for married people to store up no more wealth than a Capuchin, for a working person to spend all day in church like a monk, and the religious continually exposed to all the exterior exercises of charity for the service of his neighbor as a bishop, would not this devotion be ridiculous, preposterous, and insupportable? This fault, nevertheless, happens very often, and the world, which does not, or will not discern any difference between real devotion and the indiscretion of those who pretend to be devout, blames and murmurs at it, which cannot remedy such disorders.
No, Philothea, devotion prejudices nothing when it is true, but rather makes all things perfect. The bee draws honey from flowers without hurting them, leaving them as entire and fresh as it found them; but true devotion goes yet farther, for it does not injure any calling or employment, but, on the contrary, adorns and beautifies all. . . .
Wherever we are, we can and ought to aspire to a perfect life.
From An Introduction to the Devout Life (Part I, Chapter 3)
(Taken from public domain edition found on the internet (published in Dublin in 1885): https://archive.org/details/an-introduction-to-the-devout-life/page/n3/mode/1up?view=theater
Image credit: RickMorais, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons