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SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church, 1566-1622

The world was bound to hear of Francis de Sales. Had he never become bishop of Geneva, he would have held one of those high political offices which influence and position easily secure. The eldest son of a well-known marquis, Francis was born on August 21, 1566, in the Chateau de Thorens, in Swiss Savoy. At eleven he had already decided to become a priest, but his ambitious father decided otherwise: his son would have a brilliant career as a senator. With this end in mind, Francis went to the University of Paris to study law. There he excelled in philosophy and rhetoric, humoring his father by taking dancing, fencing, and riding, yet never losing his attraction to the religious life. Six year later he transferred to the University of Padua where, at the age of twenty-four, he received the degree of doctor of law.

The long-delayed showdown between father and son took place in 1592. Returning home from Padua, Francis found both a prospective bride and a seat in the senate awaiting him. He rebelled, but his father was equally obstinate. Then a providential event settled the problem. The provost (head) of the cathedral chapter of Geneva, Switzerland, died, and Francis was offered the vacant post. It was one of the highest posts in the diocese, and his father at last gave in and permitted Francis to enter ecclesiastical life. In December 1593, Francis was ordained a priest.

Since the city of Geneva and large sections of Switzerland were controlled by Protestants, the bishopric of Geneva had been moved to Annecy, France. In 1594, the bishop of Geneva, Claude de Granier, pleaded for missionaries for his crumbling diocese, and Francis was among the first to volunteer. For four years he and his companions risked their lives preaching in the staunchly Protestant Chamblais, an area south of Lake Leman. But through hard work, kindness, and a knack of persuasion, they won back to the Church most of the people of the province. The bishop then chose Francis as his coadjutor and successor and sent him to Rome, where Pope Clement VIII ratified the appointment.

When Claude de Granier died in 1602, Francis was consecrated bishop. His first step was to institute the practice of teaching catechism to the faithful; then, to make sure that the clergy had instruction in the doctrines of the Church, he established conferences and annual synods. He ruled his diocese without pomp or sham, allowing himself enough spare time to visit his parishes, preach, hear confessions, and keep up a huge correspondence.

Francis frequently wrote to Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, with whom he founded a religious institute for women, the Order of the Visitation. Designed for women who were not healthy enough or not inclined toward the rigors of already established communities, the order was maliciously criticized until Francis made it clear that although not outwardly austere, the new community would foster mortification of the will and heart-"the best virtues, not the most esteemed." Founded on June 6, 1610, the order was officially approved under the Rule of Saint Augustine on October 16, 1618.

Francis' name will forever be remembered for two outstanding spiritual writings: Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) and Treatise on the Love of God (1616). The informal style of these books represents a revolution in spiritual writing. Instead of discussing religion in metaphysical terms, he speaks of it in everyday language, making it fresh and appealing and applicable to everyone. There is no trace of the stilted diction then so popular with French writers; Francis' words are simple and completely unpretentious. He speaks to people living in the world and makes it clearly understood that they too are called to be saints. It is easy to see, then, why Pope Pius IX in 1877 proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church, and why later, in 1923, he was named the patron saint of writers and journalists.

Saint Francis died on December 28, 1622, at Lyons, France, after attending a state function in Avignon. Canonized in 1665, he remains one of the best loved and timeliest of saints, for through his books he still speaks directly to the hearts of men everywhere.

 

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