Francis de Sales, St.

views updated


Bishop of Geneva, founder of the Order of the Visitation, and Doctor of the Church; b. Thorens, Savoy, Aug. 21, 1567; d. Lyons, Dec. 28, 1622.

Francis lived in what was the independent Catholic Duchy of Savoy, which, with its capital in Turin, straddled the Alps. His birthplace was on the French side of the Alps, some 30 miles south of Geneva. This city, once part of Savoy, had been controlled by John Calvin's followers since 1536, and its bishop had taken refuge in Annecy. By Francis's time the "wars of religion" had given way to a tentative truce but no true tolerance.

His parents, Francis de Boisy and Frances de Sionnaz, were staunch Catholics and loyal members of Savoyard nobility. His father destined his first-born Francis for a career in public life. After two years of primary school in LaRoche, and three years at the College Chappuisien in Annecy, Francis attended the Jesuit College de Clermont in the University of Paris from 1578 to 1588. He studied humanities then philosophy, adding courses on theology by his own choice and without his father's knowledge.

After a brief stay in Savoy Francis went to the University of Padua to study law. There he continued his theological studies and his spiritual formation, assisted in both by his spiritual director, Antonio Possevino, SJ (1534161) a noted theologian and church diplomat. Together they worked out a set of "spiritual exercises" to help him cultivate devotion in a typical student milieu. His law studies, far from being neglected, led to a doctorate in both canon and civil law and high praise from his professor, Guido Pancirolo.

In Paris Francis experienced a crisis that arose in part from his reading of theology and confronting the controversial topic of predestination. As a young man of 19, he became convinced that he was predestined to hell. Much as he prayed, he still felt that, because of his sins, he would be among the damned; for him the worst part was the prospect of being unable to love God for eternity. Deliverance from the temptation came when he could pray: "Whatever may happen, O Lord I will love you always at least in this life will I love you if it is not given me to love you in eternal life." Kneeling before a statue of Our Lady of "Good Deliverance," he prayed the Memorare and then, standing, found himself "perfectly and entirely healed."

As he pursued his studies of law and theology at Padua, the question of predestination arose again as he questioned whether he could accept the position of Augustine and Aquinas as it was being taught, or if he had to reach an understanding more attuned to the scriptural truth of God's will to save all, and to the reality of human free will. The resolution of this crisis again found expression in prayer. Mindful of the fallibility of his own thinking, Francis cautiously yet confidently opted for the more positive view, convinced that God's name is not "the one who condemns," but "the one who saves [Jesus]." His experience of this crisis, in its moral and intellectual phases, was formative of his spirituality with its emphasis on human capacity to love in the present moment, and on the prior unconditional goodness and love of God.

Ever since his early years he felt called to priesthood, but Francis's father knew nothing of this and had other plans for his eldest sonadmission to the bar at Chambery, a proposed marriage and appointment to the Senate of Savoy. Francis agreed to the first of these plans, was coolly polite about the second, but refused the third. Meanwhile without his knowledge efforts were made in Rome to obtain for Francis the recently vacated position of provost, a post second to the bishop. The nominating letters arrived on May 7, 1593, and the next day, Francis asked his father's permission to take holy orders. The nomination as provost served as an enticement, and finally, M. de Boisy gave Francis his blessing. By the end of that year Francis had received all the minor and major orders, being ordained to the priesthood on December 18. He was installed as provost by Claude de Granier, bishop of Geneva in exile in Annecy.

In September 1594 Francis volunteered to undertake a mission to the Chablais, a part of the diocese where the Catholic faith had been banned by Calvinists for more than 50 years. The duke of Savoy had regained tentative control over the region, and wanted his Catholic religion to be restored in it. Bishop de Granier agreed to send two priests into the area. At first Francis and his cousin, Louis, had to stay at an armed castle some ten miles from Thonon, the regional capital, venturing forth to contact local officials and to preach wherever a few people would dare listen to them.

After a year and a half of seemingly futile efforts, multiple trials and frustrations, Francis's perseverance began to bear fruit: conversions, of civic leaders and of increasing numbers of citizens, tardy but necessary backing from the duke, four more priests to help, and the 1598 Treaty of Vervins, which promised a more stable and peaceful Savoy. By September the new situation of Catholics in the Chablais could be celebrated in Thonon. The duke arrived and proceeded to give the remaining Calvinists the choice of embracing the Catholic faith or of leaving his territory. As a trained jurist Francis saw a multiplicity of religions as a threat to the state's unity, and did not openly opposed the duke's measures. But as a priest and missionary, he much preferred persuasion, and never lost hope for a rapprochment among divided Christians, even though his three clandestine meetings with Theodore de Beze, Calvin's successor, showed how unlikely this was.

In 1597 Francis acceded to the request of Bishop de Granier to be named his coadjutor. The following year he took the ailing bishop's place in an ad limina visit to Rome, during which Pope Clement VII invited Francis to appear before a distinguished "jury" of cardinals and theologians, so that they might be as impressed as he was with the learning and piety of the bishop-elect.

In January 1602 Francis left for Paris. His official mission had to do with establishing the faith in a part of the diocese which the duke had given over to France. In that regard results were disappointing, but Francis's presence in Paris was a remarkable success. He interacted with a circle of spiritual leaders at the home of Barbe Acarie, where all the recent currents of spirituality were represented. Francis learned from all these trends, but he identified most with Teresa of Avila's approach, "in which the solid, evangelical virtues were much preferable to visions, revelations, and ecstasies" (A. Ravier). During these months Francis served as Madame Acarie's confessor; he influenced the circle to endorse her inspiration to bring the reformed Carmelites to France, and he encouraged Bérulle to do the same for Philip Neri's Oratoryin which Bérulle eventually found his own vocation.

Francis also made a grand impression on the court and on Henry IV himself, who was struck by the priest's evangelical preaching and positive accessible piety and tried to entice de Sales to remain in France. Francis declined the offer made, as well others made in 1608 and 1619.

On his way back to Annecy, Francis received word of the death of Msgr. de Granier, and prepared for his episcopal ordination, which took place in the church of his baptism in Thorens. He later wrote that on that day "God took me from myself to take me to himself and give me to his people." He gave himself to a full range of pastoral activities: he preached, taught catechism, worked for the reform of his clergy and of local monasteries, visited every parish, including those in remote Alpine villages, and more and more took on a ministry of spiritual direction both in person and by letter.

In 1604 he was invited to give the Lenten sermons in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. There Francis met Barooness Jane Frances Fremyot de chantal (15721641), a young widow with four small children. The spiritual rapport between Francis and Jane was immediate and mutual, and four months later Francis agreed to be her spiritual director. Thus began a relationship which would grow into one of the most celebrated spiritual friendships in the history of the church. For six years the friendship deepened through multiple letters they exchanged and through the visits Jane made to Savoy. The widow de Chantal had a desire to give herself totally to God but did not know what that might mean, especially in view of her children. Francis affirmed her in her existing responsibilities, but also encouraged her to nurture her inner desire until God's further inspiration would show the way. An idea they first discussed in 1607 bore fruit in 1610 in the creation of a new religious congregation, the Visitation of Holy Mary, a community of prayer open to women whose health or age prevented them from joining an existing order. To the end that the community could spread beyond Savoy into France, Francis and Jane saw this modest beginning evolve into a religious order with vows and enclosure (1618). In retrospect Francis saw this foundation as "the fruit of the trip to Dijon," i.e., as flowing from his providential encounter with Jane de Chantal and marked by their respective contributions and by their common spirit.

In 1618 Francis was a member of a Savoyard delegation to the French court; they were to negotiate a marriage between Christine of France, sister of King Louis XIII, and Victor Amedee, crown prince of Savoy. In Paris Francis was much in demand as a preacher and spiritual director; he was again in contact with spiritual leaders such as Berulle and Vincent de Paul; with Mother de Chantal he established a Visitation community in Paris (with Vincent as its chaplain); he met several times with Angelique Arnauld, at that time an experienced convent reformer, who felt drawn to the Visitation; finally he again overcame the efforts of the cardinal of Paris to make him his coadjutor.

Francis returned to his dear Annecy after a year's absence, but his health was failing, and he dreamed of retirement. His brother was named coadjutor but there were two trips Francis had to make: one by order of the pope to oversee a monastic election in Piedmont, the other by order of the duke to be part of a Savoyard delegation to greet King Louis XIII at Avignon. On the return trip, at Lyons, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in the gardener's cottage of the Visitation monastery on Dec. 28, 1622. After some delays his will was found and his body duly returned to Annecy, arriving there on January 24.

Writings. Francis's life and ministry provided the matrix and motivation for all his writings26 volumes in the Oeuvres completes. During the time in the Chablais when few would come to hear him, Francis explained Catholic doctrine in a series of short tracts which were copied (possibly printed) and clandestinely circulated. Francis hoped one day to rework and expand these "meditations," to produce a book to help preachers win over Calvinists "by a style that is not only instructive but affective." He never realized this larger project, but after his death a partial manuscript was found and published in 1672 under the title of Controversies. From the same period and ministry came the first book Francis himself published, The Defense of the Standard of the Cross (1600), a thorough explanation (in response to Protestant objections) of Catholic theology and practice in regard to venerating the cross or crucifix.

The ministry of spiritual direction led Francis to publish a very different kind of book in 1608. One of his directées, Madame de Charmoisy, had moved from Annecy for a time, and so he put in writing some of his advice on prayer and Christian living. These she shared with Fr. Fourier, a Jesuit, who strongly urged Francis to prepare them for publication. The resulting Introduction to a Devout Life was an immediate success, and Francis began to gather other memos he had written to directées, and worked them into an expanded second edition by September, 1609. Finally in 1619 he published the definitive edition, which continues to be recognized as a classic of Christian spirituality.

Prior to writing the Introduction, Francis had begun to write a "booklet" about the love of God and a sequel about love of neighbor. He eventually produced a substantial volume, divided into 12 "Books"all on love for God. While his subject was the practice of love for God, the first four Books contain theological and philosophical underpinnings for the rest. Books five through nine are the core of the Treatise on the Love of God, while the last three show how love of God reigns over all other loves, subsumes all the virtues and gifts and is exercised in everyday life. Though less accessible and less popular than the Introduction, the Treatise, which appeared in 1616, is seen as Francis's major work, comprehensive without being academic. Its teaching on the various forms and states of prayer owes muchas he says in the prefaceto the experience of the early Visitation sisters and that of other directées.

Francis delivered many sermons, only one of which was published in his lifetime. Many others have come down to us: some in his own writingeither fully written out or, more frequently, as sketchy notes for his own use in preaching; others transcribed as he spoke and/or immediately afterward, by "secretaries" skilled in the art of memory (ars memorativa ) and in reconstituting oral presentations. Recent studies have affirmed the basic reliability of these transcriptions and the advantage they have of giving an accurate idea of what and how Francis preached.

The Spiritual Conferences fall into this last category; in fact until very recently three transcribed sermons were included in collections of conferences. Most of the latter were informal, sometimes out-of-door discussions with the first Visitation community, and all were in implicit dialogue with it. A first unauthorized publication prompted Jane de Chantal to prepare the "true spiritual conferences" in 1629. Subsequent editions and translations have varied in their accuracy, contents, and order of presentation. The text published in the 1969 Pléiade edition of his Oeuvres surpasses them all, and is utilized in a recent English translation.

At Clermont College Francis had learned the art of letter writing and he practiced it both in formal correspondence with popes and princes and in personal letters of spiritual direction and friendship. His complete works contain over 2,000 letters, estimated to be one tenth of what he actually wrote. Many of these are letters of a gifted spiritual director. Though written to specific directées in unique circumstances, they have been published in a variety of collections beginning in 1626, and continue to speak to Christians in very different circumstances.

Other short writings, opuscula, which for the most part Francis wrote but did not see published, comprise the last five volumes of the Oeuvres. Included are a early work on the Song of Songs, the spiritual exercises he wrote in Padua, advice to confessors, and many texts related to the Visitation community.

This corpus of published and unpublished works contains a widely recognized spirituality, a "devout" or simply Christian humanism, possible in any calling or circumstance, a "spirituality for all." Some parts of it were written for specific audiences, but according to Francis contemplative religious can benefit from reading the Introduction, and lay people do benefit from the Spiritual Conferences. Underlying all his life and writings can be seen an adaptable spirituality which (1) is rooted in the human heart-center and extends to all facets of life, (2) finds peace in the midst of busyness and in a dynamic conception of prayer and discernment, and (3) sees God acting in ordinary human relationshipsin community, family and especially in friends. His experience convinced him that spiritual friendship is necessary for those living "in the world," himself included. The relationship with St. Jane de Chantal so shaped both of them that it can be said that theirs is a common spirituality expressed in different voices.

These writings also contain a less-well-recognized theology. On some topics Francis can be called Scotist or Molinist, but what he developed over the years, while not a systematic or "school" theology, was a pastoral synthesis of those theological points "which concern for the service of souls and 24 years spent in sacred preaching lead me to think are most conducive to the glory of the Gospel and of the Church." Some of the theological topics he dealt with are the primacy of love, the question of grace and free will, a theology of praise, an analysis of "God's will," the nature of the Church, the sufficiency of scripture, and the role of Mary and the saints. Francis's theology, then, like his writing, was intimately linked to his ministry. It served as a solid foundation for his spiritual teaching and for his psychologically astute spiritual direction.

Francis was beatified in 1661, canonized in 1665, and declared a doctor of the Church in 1877. In 1854 he was named patron of the deaf and in 1923 that of writers and journalists. Shortly after the Second Vatican Council Pope Paul VI wrote: "None of the recent doctors of the Church knew better than St. Francis de Sales how to anticipate, with the profound intuition of his wisdom, the deliberations of the Council" [Acta apostolicae sedis LIX (1967), 115]. That wisdom is becoming better known through the attraction of his writings, through scholarly studies and through religious organizations claiming the saint as founder or patron, as they renew themselves in his spirit, notably Visitation Sisters, Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Salesians of Don Bosco, and the St. Francis de Sales Association.

Feast: Jan. 24.

Bibliography: Oeuvres, 27 volumes (éd. complète, Annecy 18921964). Oeuvres, ed. a. ravier and r. devos, (Pléiade edition Paris 1969). Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, Letters of Spiritual Direction, tr. p. m. thibert, intro. by w. wright and j. power (New York 1988). Spiritual Conferences tr. i. carniero, 2 vols. (Bangalore, India 1995, 1998). Sermon Texts on Saint Joseph by Francis de Sales, tr. and ed. j. chorpenning (Toronto 2000). p. serouet, "François de Sales" in Dictionnaire de spiritualité et mystique, V, 10571097. a. ravier, Francis de Sales: Sage and Saint (San Francisco 1988). e.-m. lajeunie, Saint Francis de Sales: The Man, the Thinker, His Influence, 2 vols. (Bangalore, India 1986 and 1987). w. wright, Bond of Perfection: Jeanne de Chantal and François de Sales (New York 1985). r. champagne, François de Sales ou la passion de l'autre (Montreal 1998). j. langelaan, The Philosophy and Theology of Love according to St. Francis de Sales (Lewiston, N.Y. 1994). t. a. mcgoldrick, The Sweet and Gentle Struggle: Francis de Sales on the Necessity of Spiritual Friendship (Lanham, Md. 1996). h. bordes and j. hennequin, eds., L'Unidivers Salésien: Saint François de Sales hier et aujourd'hui (Paris 1994). h. lemaire, Les Images chez François de Sales (Paris 1962). e. stopp, A Man to Heal Differences: Essays and Talks on St. Francis de Sales (Philadelphia 1997).

[j. power]

About this article

Francis de Sales, St.

Updated About content Print Article