Collection: Be Who You Are

ARTIST: Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS


Be Who You Are And Be That Perfectly Well.
—Saint Francis de Sales

His feast day is January 24.

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Francis was born in the family castle just 21 years after the death of Martin Luther, and contributed enormously to the success of the Counter Reformation. The Council of Trent, which embodied the true principles of self-reformation of the Church, finished its final session just four years before Francis's entry on the earth.

His life was contemporaneous with a galaxy of saints that mark any period of challenge to the Church: Pope Saint Pius V whose Dominican habit became the model for today's pontifical dress, SS. Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis Borgia, Stanislaus Kostka, Aloysius, John Berchmans, Vincent de Paul, Peter Baptist, Peter Canisius, Peter Claver, Peter Fourier, Jane Frances de Chantal, John Francis Regis, and Mary Magdalene de Pazzi. His time was similar to that of the great Apostolic Age, a second visible coming of the Holy Spirit.

Of high lineage on both sides of the family, Saint Francis may have aspired to almost any position in the state. Francis was the eldest son of Francis, Seigneur de Nouvelles, and Frances of Sionas, (it's not a surprise then that he was named Francis!). Born prematurely (7th month), Francis was a sickly child. The day following his birth, he was baptized Francis Bonaventure. Because his health was so delicate, his mother and Abbé Déage taught him the virtuous life at home.

Perhaps Francis was influenced in later life because of the room in which he was born --Saint Francis's room. Here there was a painting of Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and fish. Today's saint certainly imitated his patron's simplicity and gentleness.

Abbé Déage accompanied Francis everywhere during his youth. After his home schooling, his father prepared him for a senatorship by providing Francis with an education at the best nearby schools. While studying at the Collège of Annecy, Francis made his first communion and received confirmation. Francis knew his father's aspiration but, at age nine, he was already certain of his vocation to the priesthood and received the tonsure. Still, his father expected him to pursue a career in politics.

That Saint Francis was so gentle and understanding may be attributed to a youthful experience wherein he knelt before the statue of our Lady of Saint Etienne de Gres, plunged in a depression that verged on despair. There he prayed that, should it be God's will, he might yet love and praise Him even in Hell. Then it swept over him that this was an impermissible acquiescence in his own damnation, and with that he was forever set free from the blackness that momentarily had engulfed him. It was from a heart full of joy that he was able to pass on the sweetness of the Gospel to so many generations of people in all walks of life.

This fear that God would desert him was lifted, but as a result he learned the special care and handling of those who similarly doubted their salvation. His gentleness arose not from weakness but from his own experience of spiritual suffering.

Francis longed to devote himself to the Christian ministry, but his father wished him to take up more worldly pursuits. Francis obediently went to the University of Paris at age 14 to read for the law. But instead of attending the Collège de Navarre (reserved for the nobility of Savoy), he studied at the Jesuit college of Clermont (1580-1588), where he thought his vocation would remain strong, because the school was renowned for piety as well as learning.

So, accompanied again by the Abbé Déage, Francis took up residence in the Hôtel de la Rose Blanche, Rue Saint- Jacques nearby. He studied philosophy and rhetoric, but insisted on also learning theology. To satisfy his father, but without enthusiasm, he took lessons in riding, dancing, and fencing. Secretly, Francis was all the time planning for the priesthood but during his studies comported himself as did other wealthy young gentlemen at the university. He completed his legal studies in Padua, where he received his doctorate at age 24 (1591). He acquired a knowledge that ranged over all subjects with a grasp on the inner meaning of each and an ability to integrate them into a whole.

He rejoined his family at the Château de Thuille on the Lake of Annecy. He had confided his desire to devote himself wholly to God only to his mother, his cousin Father Louis de Sales, and a few intimate friends, but he knew that he would have to tell his father. To satisfy his father, he might have become a priest that continued to dress foppishly and greedily collected stipends, as did many young men of the time (some of whom had later conversions, such as Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Sulpicians; and Armand de Rance, reformer of the Trappists), but Francis sought perfection.

While qualifying as a senator for Savoy and ripe for a brilliant marriage, he disappointed his father by announcing his vocation to the priesthood. Upon the death of the provost of Geneva and at the prompting of his cousin Louis, Francis explained the situation to his bishop. He was appointed immediately as provost to the diocese of Geneva, by which he became second only to the bishop himself. As expected, this garnered his father's assent, though grudgingly, to his career in the Church, and six months later, on December 18, 1593, Francis was ordained a priest.

Thus Francis, Count of Sales, sacrificed rank and fortune for a life of piety and charity. Immediately he showed himself to be dedicated with exceptional enthusiasm for the poor. As a preacher he was distinguished for his fervor, sincerity, and simplicity. Being easily understood by the common people, Francis charmed all who heard him. As an apostle he was humble and eager, practicing great austerities, suffering hardship, and being undeterred by difficulties or dangers.

Already Calvinism held sway in large parts of the sparsely populated diocese. Catholicism was proscribed in the cathedral city itself, so the bishop functioned from Annecy. The poverty and difficulties of the diocese were an added attraction to Francis, though to his father they were merely unpleasant facts.

At his chapter Bishop Claud de Granier announced that he wished to send missioners to the south shore of Lake Geneva at the request of the Duke of Savoy. The bishop explained the difficulties and dangers that such a mission would entail. Nevertheless, the young priest Father Francis volunteered for the apostolate. The bishop eagerly accepted his offer. But Francis's father objected. Thus, Francis had the disappointment of undertaking his mission without his father's blessing.

On September 14, 1594, the Triumph of the Holy Cross, Francis and Father Louis set out on foot to win back the Chablais. Trying to convert the Calvinists of Geneva and Chablais was a perilous occupation. Armed clashes accompanied differences of belief between Protestants and Catholics of the time. The duo preached daily in Thonon, gradually extending their efforts to the villages surrounding it.

One night Francis was attacked by wolves and escaped by spending the night in a tree. There was at least one attempt to poison him, several times he was shot at by lurking assassins, and once he was attacked and beaten by a hostile crowd. Time passed with little apparent success. It is a miracle that Francis and Louis did not become discouraged, especially concerning that throughout this period Francis's father continually wrote to his son commanding and imploring him to give up.

Seeking a new way to reach hearts, Francis found his pen to be the most successful tool for conversion. He used every spare moment to write out and copy pamphlets and leaflets to reach the Calvinists (eventually these were gathered into a volume entitled Controversies, which reconciled many lapsed Catholics to the Church). He used little more than stock arguments against Calvinism, but he used a gentler style -- trying to catch flies with honey. Those Calvinists who did go to hear him discovered that he spoke, not as a logician avid for victory over his opponents, but as a father anxious only for the welfare of his children.

Francis persisted and his sermons began to be more popular, conversions more numerous. It is said that within two years Francis won over 8,000 converts by preaching Catholic doctrine with great love, understanding, and persistent patience. Eventually, most of the region returned to the Church according to most sources. On one occasion after a sermon on the Blessed Sacrament at least 600 Calvinists knelt and made their peace with God.

During his five years of missionary work, Francis arranged to hold private conversations with Calvin's successor Theodore Beza and directly question him regarding the Calvinists' rigid interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Beza saw his dialectical dilemma: logically it led to his saying that there must have been a time when, because of the gross errors of Rome, the true Church ceased to exist, until restored by Calvin. This was to admit that the firm promises of Christ had been broken -- at least for a while. After some careful thought, Beza dodged the trap by conceding that it was possible to save one's soul in the Catholic Church, and went so far as to add, "One cannot deny that the Roman Church is the Mother Church." This admission led to a discussion of works necessary for salvation. Francis had hopes for Beza's conversion, but the offering of a pension gave the appearance of a bribe.

He showed the way to balance worldly circumstances with spiritual demands. His type of sanctity is one with which we can identify for it is one of balance in which breadth and moderation and tranquility are involved. His spirituality attracts without frightening the average Christian and so it becomes one we can all imitate in living up to our calling to love God.

The life and teachings of Saint Francis came as a ray of new light upon the problem of the saints being too holy and the model of their lives too unattainable for us mere mortals living average lives. He used to say that the saints are indeed the salt of the earth, but for that very reason they must be in the world -- each life must be lived where God planted it. He insisted that goodness does not do violence to our nature; it does not restrict but rather expands it; grace, falling upon it, illumines it and brings out its beauty as the light of the sun enhances the beauty of stained glass.

He taught that holiness is not cheaply won, but rather the greatest of all miracles of faith. Nevertheless, there are no circumstances of human life which need be inimicable to the attainment of sanctity. He called the path of holiness a "pleasant road." He said that God has made us for Himself so that we should rest in Him, and that we can rest in Him now, and yet be ourselves, not some imitation of His creation.

Those under his spiritual direction were allowed to persist in some worldly interests and amusements that others might have condemned as positively incompatible with a devout life. It's not that he believed that these would sanctify his charges, but that conversion is gradual, and if their desire for perfection was allowed to grow rather than being discouraged, eventually the penitent would abandon these interests as distasteful without further urging from their director.

He forever preached tranquility, patience with self, and cheerfulness even in the midst of struggle. All was to be subordinated to fidelity. Holiness, he continually insisted, is a matter of the will; and it is consummated not necessarily in achievement but essentially in perseverance. It is a matter of love, not fear. Holiness, in his conception of it, should be well rounded and not suppress anything in us that is not bad of itself for all our goodness is His and our very wretchedness makes us fitter objects for His mercy and power.

As provost of Geneva he was generous and considerate, ever mindful of the poor. As a mystic he was an optimist and a humanist, steeped in the learning of the Renaissance and the writings of the early Fathers. He stressed the joys of earth and Heaven, and the Christian doctrine of pure love reflected in a natural and overflowing charity and goodwill. "Just as the soul is the life of the body," he said, "so charity is the life of the soul." "Charity should continue to increase in us until we draw our last breath."

"Always," he wrote, "be as indulgent as you can, never forgetting that one can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar."

"If," he added, "you must go to excess on one or the other side, let it be towards indulgence, for no sauce was ever spoiled by sugar. The human mind is so constituted that it hardens itself against severity, but loving kindness makes it pliable. Anger is quieted by a gentle word just as fire is quenched by water, and there is no soil so barren but that diligent tenderness brings forth some fruit."

"I would rather account to God for too great gentleness than for too great severity. Is not God all love? God the Father is the Father of mercy; God the Son is a lamb; God the Holy Spirit is a Dove -- that is, gentleness itself."

Francis de Sales belongs to the great line of Quietist mystics who found in their own heart, rather than in routine and formality, an inner shrine where they adored the Divine glory. He had no sympathy with intolerance or persecution, and declined honors and preferment, refusing to accept the archbishopric of Paris.

"He who prays," he said, "should be so absorbed in God as to forget that he is praying." And of impatience in prayer, he wrote, "People are willing to wait half a year for their seed to bring forth corn, and they wait years for apples to bear."

Always he insisted on gentleness: "Nothing softer than oil or sweeter than honey can be found, but when either boils it burns more fiercely than any other liquid."

He had wise words also to say about matrimony: "Bees cannot stay in a place where there are echoes or rebounding of voices; nor can the Holy Ghost remain in a house where there are clamor, strife, contradictions, and altercations... Husband and wife should confess and communicate, and recommend to God with a more than ordinary fervor the happy progress of their marriage, renewing their good resolutions to sanctify it more and more by mutual love and fidelity, and taking new breath, as it were in the Lord, for the better supporting the duties of their vocations."

Francis lacked ambition, and continuously refused better offers. Cardinal de Retz tried to induce him to become his coadjutor with the right of succession to the see of Paris; Milan, almost by force, twice tried to secure him for its archbishopric; and the pope wished to elevate him to the college of cardinals. Smilingly he brushed advancement aside with the mild jest that a man who has a poor wife should not desert her simply because he has the prospect of a wealthy marriage.

In 1599, Francis was chosen coadjutor to the bishop of Geneva, Switzerland. Although initially unwilling to become coadjutor, he eventually saw it as God's will and agreed. Francis, however, fell seriously ill and almost died. When he recovered he traveled to Rome, where he was examined by Pope Clement VIII, Cardinal Baronius, Saint Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal Frederick Borromeo (a cousin of Saint Charles Borromeo) and others. They proposed to Francis no less than 35 abstruse questions of theology, all of which Francis answered with simplicity and modesty. His appointment was confirmed and he succeeded to the see of Geneva upon the bishop's death in 1602, taking up residence in Annecy.

He was the ideal person to be coadjutor, combining his deep commitment to the faith with a love of his fellow men and women. He was indefatigable in the discharge of his office: organized conferences for the clergy, directed them to teach catechism in simple words, insisted on unadorned straightforward preaching, and established a seminary at Annecy that he visited regularly.

As bishop Francis followed a strict rule of life. He reorganized his household on lines of the strictest economy. He fulfilled his episcopal duties with unstinted generosity and devotion. He usually arose at 4:00 a.m. Each day he devoted himself to prayer, study of the Scriptures, visiting the poor, and the general business of the diocese. He organized the teaching of the catechism throughout the diocese, and at Annecy gave the instructions himself. Children loved him and followed him about.

He was also known as an outstanding confessor (he directed Blessed Marie Acarie in Paris for a time), as well as Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, whom he met in 1604 while preaching Lenten sermons at Dijon. With Saint Jane de Chantal he founded the Order of the Visitation in 1610. He was extremely influential as a director or souls because he excelled in gently leading ardent hearts to the extremes of self-sacrifice and the love of God.

When forming the Visitation nuns, he had hoped for a group of women contemplatives who would be engaged in charitable work outside the convent. The traditional idea of cloistered nuns was too ingrained in the popular mind to allow this to happen. The order proposed taking the practical Saint Martha as its patron but this was stopped by the local bishop. Saint Vincent de Paul circumvented this limitation on his Sisters of Charity by having no habits or perpetual vows (they wore uniforms and made annual vows), and so they were free to work among the needy.

So great was his care for individuals that some of his converts set out his teaching in a Treatise on the Love of God, published in 1616. Just before his death in 1622, a nun asked him to write down the virtue he most desired. He wrote one word: "Humility."

Schamoni has a contemporary portrait of Saint Francis that was painted during the last year of his life. He appears to be broad shouldered, nearly bald, and square faced with high cheekbones. He sports a luxuriant, curly beard and short mustache. His nose looks as though it may have been broken at least once. Yet the remarkable trait is his eyes --large, dark, deep-set and very kind.

In 1622, Francis accepted an invitation to meet Louis XIII and the duke of Savoy at Avignon. Though he knew the winter journey would be hard on him, he wished to obtain from Louis certain privileges for the French part of his diocese. So he prepared by arranging the affairs of the diocese before leaving. After preaching to crowds in Avignon, he stayed for a month in a gardener's cottage belonging to the Visitation convent at Lyons. Though fatigued, he continued preaching in bitterly cold weather through Advent and Christmas. On the feast of Saint John, "The Gentle Christ of Geneva" died of a paralytic seizure. After he had received the last sacraments, he lay murmuring words from the Bible expressive of his humble and serene trust in God's mercy. The last word he was heard to utter was "Jesus."

His body was translated to Annecy in January 1623 and to a new shrine in 1912. Many miracles followed his death. Some years afterward when his coffin was opened, his body was found incorrupt, and the most delicious fragrance spread all through the convent. His relics were translated to Annecy in 1623 and again to a new shrine in 1912.


In addition to his major works, Saint Francis composed many pamphlets and was a prolific writer of letters, especially to his Visitation sisters.

Introduction a la vie devote (Introduction to the Devout Life) was originally published in 1609 in the form of letters to 'Philothea' (lover of God) (a compound of Madame de Chamoissy, a cousin by marriage and his own mother). These letters were written without the thought of being published. Because he addressed the letters to a woman, many men refrained from reading them.

The Introduction came into existence at the insistence of King Henry IV and a group of Jesuits to whom Madame de Chamoissy had shown the letters she had received from Francis. Francis did not want them published, but the Jesuits said they intended to do so if he refused to do it.

Treatise on the Love of God (1616) was addressed to a fictitious 'Theotimus' to counter the problem of men not reading advice given to a woman, though he notes that he is not speaking to any one sex but to the human spirit, equally in men and women.

Both works are intended for use by men and women living in the world. He makes his reader understand that they, with their domestic cares and responsibilities, are called to be saints and may even reach a higher plane than those withdrawn into cloisters. He shows how the love of God, when it becomes all-dominant, permits coordinating of the aspiration to personal holiness with the most accurate fulfillment of all mundane occupations.

He shifts the ascetic stress from the physical plane to the unseen mortification of the will. Physical asceticism has sometimes been seen as a contest in austerity. Francis wanted to counteract such excesses, much as Saint Benedict did in his Rule. His austerities included meekness, mildness, modesty, and mortifications of the heart (e.g., bearing wrongs patiently).

Rather than extreme fasting, he recommends: "Eat the things that are set before you... It is, in my opinion, a greater virtue to eat, without choice, that which is laid before you, and in the same order as it is presented, whether it be more or less agreeable to your taste, than always to choose the worst; for although the latter way of living seems more austere, yet the former has, notwithstanding, more resignation, since by it we renounce not only our own taste, but even our own choice; and it is no small mortification to accommodate our taste to every kind of meat, and it keeps us in subjection to all occurrences. Besides, this kind of mortification makes no parade, gives no trouble to anyone, and is happily adapted to civil life."

In Introduction he insists upon the need for spiritual poverty, i.e. detachment: "But if you are really poor, dear Philothea, be likewise, for God's sake, actually poor in spirit; make a virtue of necessity, and value this precious jewel of poverty at the high rate it deserves; its luster is not discovered in this world, and yet it is exceedingly rich and beautiful."

He continues: "Your poverty, Philothea, enjoys two great privileges, by means of which you may considerably enhance its merits. The first is, that it came not to you by chance, but by the will of God, who has made you poor without any concurrence of your own will... The second privilege of this kind of poverty is that it is truly poverty. That poverty which is praised, caressed, esteemed, succored, and assisted (referring to voluntary poverty accepted under vow) is not altogether poverty: but that which is despised, rejected, reproached, and abandoned, is poverty indeed... for which reason their poverty exceeds that of the religious; although otherwise the poverty of the religious has a very great excellence."

Speaking on sanctity in the world in Introduction: "It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say that devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman. It is true, Philothea, that a devotion purely contemplative, monastical, and religious, cannot be exercised in these vocations; but, besides these three kinds of devotion, there are several others proper to conduct to perfection those who live in the secular state... Nay, it has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world."

He adds that contemplation is even more necessary to lay folk than to religious, for whereas the cloister is designed to encourage a recollected life, social activities tend to dissipate it. "As birds, wherever they fly, always meet with the air, so we, wherever we go, or wherever we are, shall always find God present."

Francis warns his reader not to place too much importance on mystical experience. "...I do affirm that he who in his rapture has more light in the understanding to admire God, than heat in his will to love Him, is to stand on his guard; for it is to be feared that this ecstasy may be false, and may rather puff up the spirit than edify it, putting him indeed as Saul, Balaam, Caiphas, among the prophets, yet leaving him among the reprobates."

—Excerpts from Saint Francis de Sales by Katherine Rabenstein