“The writings of Francis de Sales, filled with celestial doctrine are a bright light in the Church, pointing out to souls an easy and safe way to arrive at the perfection of a Christian life.” (Breviarium Romanum, 29 January, lect. VI.)
Beatified: 1661 by Pope Alexander VII
Canonized: 1665 by Pope Alexander VII
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1877 by Pope Pius IX
Feast Day (pre-1962 calendar): January 29th
Born just after the close of the Council of Trent, Francis grew up in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church was in sore need of great saints to combat the heresies of the “reformers.” There was a great need, a great responsibility to restore the faith of the lay Catholic who did not know what to make of the rupture taking place all over Europe.
The oldest of six boys, Francis lived in modern-day Switzerland where he made it his mission to convert the Calvinists there who were rapidly leaving the Faith. He would walk through the countryside, talking to people face to face and handing out small pamphlets he had written with talking points in defense of the Faith. He was chiefly combatting the teachings of John Calvin, who was preaching sola scriptura, a false Eucharistic doctrine, and Luther’s take on justification by faith.
Francis received spiritual and academic formation under the Jesuits and excelled in law and theology. He and his father disagreed fiercely about his life’s calling but eventually, in 1593, Francis was ordained to the priesthood. As a priest, he was known for tireless and zealous preaching as well as an emphasis on catechetical and theological instruction of the faithful. He was consecrated a bishop in 1602 and together with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, founded the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1607, which was meant to help young women and widows who were called to religious life.
Among his most famous writings are his many letters, Introduction to the Devout Life, and his tracts or pamphlets which were aimed chiefly at defending the authority of the Church, which had come under such grave attack in the 16th century.
Like many of his contemporaries trying to counter the Protestant Reformation, his writings were aimed at clarity, brevity, and logic, because the words were meant to be heard in sermons or read by the people whose doors he would knock on at any time of day. Largely apologetic in nature, Francis’ writings are approachable and deeply in tune with the soul’s relationship with the Trinity.
Though any of these writings would be excellent to pick up and work your way through, I highly recommend starting with Introduction to the Devout Life. Perhaps many readers are familiar with this work, but until we have mastered virtue and are fully attuned to God’s presence and holy will, it is a book always worth reading again!
Divided into five parts full of “counsels,” St. Francis works his way through an explanation of how to desire and to achieve true devotion to our Blessed Lord. Though many sections of the work are worth quoting, there are a few I would like to focus on due to their relevance in the modern Church. Keep in mind that St. Francis was writing in response to tens of thousands of Christians leaving the True Church for heretical and nonsensical religions, many of which were created virtually overnight in many places. That context is very important.
In the first counsels, he offers practical exercises to attain devotion to Christ that include meditations on heaven and hell, death and judgment, sin and purification, and the choice between eternal fire and eternal bliss. Here Francis gives every Christian instruction in basic prayer and relationship with God through meditation and he teaches us clearly that “fear of judgment is the way of the saints”, and, in particular, is the way of the Doctors of the Church.
In the second counsels, St. Francis discusses prayer and the sacraments. When turning to the Eucharist, he describes it as “the most holy, sacred and sovereign sacrifice and Sacrament of the Eucharist, the very center point of our Christian religion, the heart of all devotion, the soul of piety; the ineffable mystery that embraces the whole depth of divine love, by which God, giving himself really to us, conveys all his graces and favors to men with royal magnificence.”
Here he affirms:
- That the Eucharist is a sacrifice.
- That it is also the center of Christian religion.
- That the Eucharist is how God conveys grace to us and gives himself “really to us.”
It appears these assertions were aimed right at the teaching of the Calvinists; St. Francis affirms that by rejecting the True Presence, the reformers were breaking with 1500 years of teaching and tradition (not to mention Sacred Scripture). In our own age of rampant Eucharistic abuses, we could certainly use more preachers speaking of the Blessed Sacrament with the same reverence and awe with which St. Francis was writing.
He also discusses how we should receive Christ in this most holy sacrament:
Begin your preparation overnight, by various aspirations and loving brief prayers…In the morning rise with joyful expectation of the blessing you hope for, and (having made your confession) go with the fullest trust, but at the same time with the fullest humility, to receive that heavenly food that will sustain your immortal life. And after having said the sacred words, “Lord, I am not worthy,” do not make any further movement whatever, either in prayer or otherwise, but gently opening your mouth, in the fullness of faith, hope, and love, receive him in whom, by whom, and through whom you believe, hope, and love.
Here we see a Doctor of the Church telling us that we are expected to have prepared ourselves to receive the Eucharist the night before, and to have confessed our sins before receiving Holy Communion in our mouths, not our hands. He also gives advice for how to prepare for Communion throughout mass – which I find exceedingly helpful when trying to pray and juggle small children – dividing it into 6 phases of meditation:
- The beginning of Mass: consider and confess your unworthiness and ask God for forgiveness
- Before the Gospel: meditate on Christ’s life
- Between the Gospel and the Creed: think of Christ’s teachings and your resolve to die for them
- Before the consecration: meditate on the Passion and how the priest, along with the congregation, is offering up that same exact sacrifice
- Before Communion: offer every desire of your heart, especially “desiring most earnestly to be united forever to our Savior by his eternal love”
- From Communion to the end of Mass: give thanksgiving to Christ for His birth, passion, death, resurrection, and eternal love for you
In the third counsels, St. Francis de Sales covers the means of attaining virtue through poverty, right relationship with God and others, modesty, mortification, friendship, and recreation. I highly encourage pairing this section with Josef Pieper’s short work, Leisure: the Basis of Culture.
After seeing a number of Catholics fighting over the propriety of things like music and video games, I found this quote from St. Francis particularly interesting: “Walking, harmless games, music, instrumental or vocal, field sports, etc., are such entirely lawful recreations that they need no rules beyond those of ordinary discretion, which keep everything within due limits of time, place, and degree.” Also of note to all of us who spend too much time perusing social media to see whose opinion we will excoriate next is the chapter on “Unseemly Words and the Respect Due to Others” (found on page 126 of this edition of the text).
The fourth counsels deal with combating temptation and achieving peace of mind and heart. With the scandal and tumult in the Church over the last 60-plus years, particularly during the current pontificate, it seems it would benefit us all to turn to St. Francis de Sales, who taught that “unresting anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to the soul, sin only excepted.” He also states that “anxiety arises from an unregulated desire to be delivered from any pressing evil, or to obtain some hoped-for good.” He gives the example that a bird caught in a net becomes even more entangled due to its anxious struggle. Orthodox Catholics are often tempted to become mired in the controversies of our day, over which we have no control. St. Francis teaches us to give this anxiety to God and allow His grace and peace to fill our hearts.
It is not some superfluous proposition to suggest finding peace with the world while fighting against it for the sake of souls; in fact it is one of the keys to the devout life. One can do both — and one must do both. We mustn’t lose hope, and we mustn’t succumb to anxieties, whether about our countries, the Church, the state of our souls, or anything else. As I have written once before, joy will keep us afloat in desperate times, and joy will help us combat the anxiety about which St. Francis warns us so sternly.
Many have pointed out that times of controversy and uncertainty are historically the times when the greatest saints rise up, and St. Francis de Sales is no exception. His priesthood and bishopric were dedicated to stopping the hemorrhaging of Catholics from the Church in Europe during one of the worst schisms in history; that was his path to sanctity. May we too, like this great Doctor of the Church, be dedicated to the care of souls in this time of great crisis.
The fifth counsels are perhaps the ones to which those familiar with this great saint should return most often. The “Counsels for Renewing and Confirming the Soul in Devotion” are meant to renew and strengthen our resolve to strive for the devout life, to humble ourselves further, and to observe and to be cognizant of the condition of our souls. In my opinion, the counsels of parts 1 and 5 can be returned to over and over again with great ease and without ever exhausting devout exercises that strengthen our piety.
As I hope this brief overview of the thought of St. Francis de Sales demonstrates, the Doctors of the Church and the early Church Fathers should be frequent resource in our combat against modernism in all its forms and the crisis not just within the Church, but within our own ability to truly be faithful to God, especially in these difficult times.
In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with some of St. Francis’ closing words from this magnificent work:
When Saint Symphorian was led to his martyrdom, his mother cried out to him, “My son, my son, remember life eternal, look to heaven, behold him who reigns there; for the brief course of this life will soon be ended.” Even so would I say to you: Look to heaven, and do not lose it for earth; look at hell, and do not plunge therein for the sake of this passing life; look at Jesus Christ, and do not deny him for the world’s sake; and if the devout life sometimes seems hard and dull, join in Saint Francis’s song: “So vast the joys that I await, no earthly travail seems that great.”
St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
Jake is a Catholic convert and is passionate about spreading orthodox Catholicism and the traditional Latin Mass through writing and through his work on the Mass of the Ages documentary series. Additionally, he helps his wife, Emily, to run the Catholic All Year Market in partnership with Catholic author Kendra Tierney. He resides in Northern Virginia with Emily and his three children. He can be reached at [email protected] or through Mass of the Ages at [email protected].