Saint of the Day: St. Francis de Sales – January 24
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is an interesting counterpoint to John Calvin (1509-1564) who preceded him. Both men are united by the City of Geneva. Calvin was its spiritual leader and made it a great center of the Reformation and St. Francis de Sales would become bishop of Geneva, although his headquarters were in Annecy, since Geneva no longer permitted Catholicism. Both men were well educated. Their fathers had intended for them to be lawyers and high government officials. Both studied theology and were perplexed by the issue of predestination – that certain people were saved and others were not because it had all been determined by God from eternity.
The notion of predestination overwhelmed St. Francis as a young student at Paris and almost crushed him, because he felt that he had been damned from all eternity for all eternity. He became physically ill and depressed and could barely get out of bed. Calvin dealt with it by assuming that he and members of his Reformed Church had been predestined for salvation.
St. Francis left his bed and in prayer at church, in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, he affirmed his belief in God as a God of love. Our salvation rests on our faith and reliance on a God of love; on God who is love. This transformative experience would lead not only to a long life spent reforming and re-establishing Catholicism, but more importantly, suffusing that Catholicism with the gentleness of the Love of God.
This focus on divine love renewed a sense of spiritual priorities as seen in the Gospels. Exterior practices and observances, including penance and mortification, were second to a conversion of the mind, heart, and spirit. He led many back to Catholicism not so much by his learned teaching and writing but by the simplicity of his life as a bishop and his comfort in visiting the small towns and the countryside of his diocese at risk of his personal safety.
It might be easy for Catholics to focus on the triumph of St. Francis as a major figure in the Counter-Reformation, but this would miss the point of his life. St. Francis called people to an authentic Christianity based on the history and tradition of the Catholic Church. Yet his focus on the faith and its sacraments was a focus on the Divine Love. It was a protest against the emptiness of a faith based on predestination and severity and it was also a re-affirmation of a joyous faith of love as presented in the Gospels. His life and teaching presented a path of profound reformation and conversion for all Christians and those who seek God with a sincere heart.
St. Francis de Sales’ spirituality became a centerpiece for the religious order of The Visitation that he would found with St. Jane Frances de Chantal and for centuries of Catholics who would follow. St. Francis de Sales also inspired the founding of the Oblates of St. Frances de Sales and the Salesians of St. John Bosco.