St. Francis de Sales, our Patron, was born on 21st August 1567 at Thorens, Savoy, near Geneva in Switzerland and Annecy in France. The parents of Francis were Francis de Sales, generally known as Monsieur de Boisy and Francoise de Sionnaz commonly known as Madame de Boisy. Monsieur de Boisy, by his life, example and firm guidance taught Francis to be an honest, sincere, frank, straightforward and courageous boy with a great sense of justice, kindness, generosity and integrity. From his father, he learned a manly devotion while from his mother he inherited a kind, compassionate and affectionate heart and tender devotion.
In 1573, Francis was sent to a school at La Roche, near Thorens when he was six years old. From 1575, he continued his studies in the school of Chappuis at Annecy. On 17th December 1575, he made his First Communion and received Confirmation. Thereupon he made two major resolutions: he would visit the Blessed Sacrament everyday and would try to learn from the saints how they attained sainthood. On 20th September 1578 Francis received tonsure as he desired to become a priest and belong to the Church entirely.
In September 1578, Monsieur de Boisy sent Francis with his cousins to Paris for higher education. Francis joined the college of Clermont run by the Jesuits. There he studied literature, philosophy and learned arts like fencing, riding, dance etc., befitting nobles. He followed courses in theology for his own satisfaction.
From December 1586 to January 1587, Francis underwent a terrible crisis. There were several causes: his natural tendency to anxiety and the problem of predestination, keenly discussed in theological circles in those days. Above all, there was a mystical dimension to the trial: an unselfish, pure love of God and total surrender to him in which lay the answer to his problems as he was being tempted to despair of his salvation.
One day in January 1587, Francis went into the church of Saint Etienne des Gres. He went to the chapel of our Lady and knelt down in front of the statue. He was inspired to make an unconditional surrender of his salvation to God. Then he saw there a card with the prayer Memorare: “Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary…” He took it and earnestly prayed it. He was instantly healed. The temptation vanished. Strength and confidence returned to him.
In 1588, Francis completed his studies in Paris and returned to Savoy. On 26th December 1588 he was sent to Padua, to pursue his studies further. He had only a short stay at home. In Padua, he studied civil and ecclesiastical law. He also followed courses in theology.
In January 1591 Francis became very seriously ill and received viaticum. There was scarcely any hope of recovery. All the same he was healed. On 5th September 1591 he completed his legal Studies for a Doctorate in law and passed the examination with such great success that he won the admiration of his own professors and of all present. In February 1592 Francis returned to Savoy. He wanted to become a priest. His father was strongly opposed to it. On 24th November 1592 not to displease his father, he enrolled himself as an advocate at the Bar of Chambery.
It was while returning from Chambery on horseback that his belt got unbuckled and his sword fell to the ground. His sword came out of the scabbard with its point directed towards him. Francis understood this to be a clear sign that God wanted him to put aside the sword in order to become a Priest. On 7th March 1593, the document appointing Francis as Provost was signed by Roman authorities, through the mediation of Louis de Sales, his cousin and supported by his own Bishop, Mgr. de Granier.
On 18th September 1593 Francis was ordained deacon, and on 18th December 1593 he was ordained priest by his own Bishop Mgr. de Granier and after three day’s recollection, on 21st December, he celebrated his first mass. After Christmas, he was installed as Provost. As a priest he devoted himself to the spiritual renewal of Annecy. He preached in a simple style, taught catechism and tried to form a dedicated and devoted laity. The ideal of a priest as a man of God, a man of the church and a man of the people blended harmoniously in his life and activity. This ideal was soon to be put to the test.
The district of Chablais in Savoy under the Duke of Savoy had embraced Calvinism. The animosity between Catholics and Protestants had reached it zenith. Churches were destroyed, houses burnt and Catholics and Protestants were at war with each other. The Duke requested the Bishop to send missionaries to Chablais to win the people back to the Catholic faith. The Bishop asked for volunteers. Francis and his cousin volunteered and Bishop de Granier entrusted this mission to Francis and his cousin, Louis de Sales.
On I4th September 1594 both Francis and Louis left for Chablais and reached the castle of Les AIlinges. Thonon was the headquarters of the district. Thonon was not safe for the missionaries as the Calvinists were in no mood to tolerate the presence of Catholic missionaries. So they had to stay in the castle with the soldiers and go daily to Thonon in the morning and come back in the evening. The initial work was extremely hard. They regularly visited the few Catholics in the town of Thonon and began instructing them. Francis also began to contact the Calvinists. The Calvinist ministers forbade the people to receive the Catholic priests and even to listen to them. Calumnies against Francis were circulated. There was constant threat to his life. No one came to listen to him. Every door was closed to him.
Then Francis took a new initiative. He began to write short notices explaining Catholic teaching and left them at the door of the houses of the Protestants. From January 1595 to January 1596 he wrote these articles which were later published as a book, the Controversies. This was one of the most trying periods of his life. He prayed, fasted and did penance, perhaps a little more than his body could support. There was utter poverty. His bishop was too poor and continued to encourage him. The Duke gave him no financial support. M. de Boisy had disapproved his taking up the mission and did his best to persuade him to come back. So he did not help him in any way. Slowly a change for the better began. People began to discuss with him. They flocked to his sermons. Conversions followed. Within a few years, the whole district returned to the Catholic fold. On 1st October 1596 Pope Clement VIII asked Francis to meet Theodore de Beze, the successor of Calvin in Geneva, and try to bring about his conversion. Francis met de Beze in Geneva three times during the year 1597 but these meetings met with no success.
From 1594 Bishop de Granier was thinking of making Francis his Co-adjutor Bishop, and from 1596 the Duke too wanted the same. It was time for ad limina visit to Rome. Bishop de Granier did not enjoy good health. So he decided to send Francis to Rome.
In November 1597, Francis was to leave for Rome but he fell very seriously sick. Only by the end of January 1598, he regained health. The journey was postponed. There were works to be immediately attended to. So only in November 1598, Francis could leave for Rome. After Christmas, Pope Clement VIII gave him audience. On 22nd March 1599 Francis passed brilliantly the examination in the presence of the Pope for nomination to a bishopric. Among the examiners were the great and learned men of the day, the Cardinals, Frederic Borromeo, Bellarmin (later declared saint and doctor of the church), Baronius and Borghese. At the end of the examination the Pope, so much impressed by Francis’ answers, came down and embraced him.
On 1st June 1599 Francis was back in Annecy. He continued his ministry. In 1602 Francis was sent to Paris to meet King Henry IV to treat with him some ecclesiastical affairs. In September of the same year he left Paris for Annecy. On the way he learned that Mgr. de Granier had passed away. In the beginning of November 1602 Francis received the papal bulls of his nomination as Bishop, which due to poverty, he had not asked for earlier. On 8th December 1602 Francis was consecrated Bishop of Geneva in the Church of Thorens. The time of the consecration was for Francis, a time of deep spiritual experience of the Holy Trinity. The Bishop of Geneva was chased away from the see of Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. In 1536, the citizens of Geneva embraced the Reformation. Geneva became a republic. From that time the Bishops appointed to the see of Geneva stayed in Annecy with the hope of returning to the centre of the diocese when the situation changed. They kept the title of Bishop of Geneva.
Francis was rather unlike many of the Bishops of his own days as well as our own. He was easily accessible to everyone. He heard confessions regularly and gave spiritual direction to numerous persons, men and women of various ranks living in different life-situations and wrote numerous letters of direction. At the same time, he was equally available to princes, dukes, bishops, clergy, religious, both men and women and to the people at large especially the poor and the sick.
In 1608 Francis published the most popular book and the best seller of his times, the Introduction to the Devout Life. It was to help both his directees and Christians to lead an authentic Christian life.
On 6th June 1610 St. Francis founded the Congregation of the Visitation of Holy Mary. The objectives in founding this Order was to offer the possibility of leading a religious life to humble, weak women who because of their age or some physical weakness, cannot have access to austere reformed monasteries. They are offered this opportunity provided they are healthy in mind and willing to live a life of humility, obedience, simplicity, gentleness and resignation. Thus he did not neglect the cripples, the one-eyed, the hunchbacks, the lame in body or the lame in the soul. They must strive to achieve a strong love. The co-foundress was Madame de Chantal, a widow who later became St. Jane de Chantal.
While the Introduction to the Devout Life laid a very good foundation for Christian life, it did not explain in detail the growth and experience of divine love. From 1609 to 1616, Francis used all the free moments available for the writing of his second classic, the Treatise on the Love of God. It was published in August 1616. The experience of St Francis himself and that of St. Jane de Chantal and the First Sisters of the Visitation Order he founded form the background of this book.
St. Francis was a mediator and peace-maker. He listened to the contenders with patience and impartiality. His gentleness and kindness brought calm to the angry, made them see reason and accept his decisions. He was a known preacher too. There was perfect harmony between the preaching of St. Francis and his life and activity. St Francis believed and taught that a spiritual director was necessary to guide people to the perfection of love without going astray, wasting time and strength. The letters of spiritual direction written by him to his directees are a mine of wisdom and spiritual and psychological insights. He cherished an intimate friendship with his directees. This friendship earned him their confidence. It made the sacrifices he demanded from them less hard. St. Francis achieved a wonderful harmony in his own life and thought. Philosophy, theology and mysticism blended harmoniously in him.
On 27th December 1622, Francis had an attack of apoplexy which caused a clot of blood in the brain. He succumbed to it and passed away on 28th December, the feast of Holy Innocents about 8 O’clock in the evening. He was just 55.
On 28th December 1661, Francis de Sales was beatified by Pope Alexander VII. On 19th April 1665 Blessed Francis de Sales was canonized by the same Pope. On 16th November 1877, Pope Pius IX declared him Doctor of the Church and in 1923 Pope Pius XI declared him as the Patron of Catholic Writers and Journalists.
The spirit and spirituality of Saint Francis De Sales is as much a relevant message in the modern times as it was during his life time. It is a spirituality of the Heart – first make Jesus live in one’s Heart and then in one’s tongue, in the eyes, in the hands etc. Francis de Sales exhorts each one to live a life of holiness according to one’s vocation living it in the midst of the world, seeking the movement of the Spirit of God in the heart and life of each one, recognizing that every situation, good or bad, pleasant or painful, is revelatory of God’s Will and that one must bloom where one is planted.