30 January 2007

St Francis De Sales

Taken from Athanasius Contra Mundum

St. Francis de Sales, born in 1567, is a doctor of the Church and one of the most unecumenical saints on the calendar. Initially he began his training as a lawyer, but later after a brief struggle with his father, he entered the sacred priesthood for the diocese of Geneva, Switzerland, then located in Annecy because the Calvinists controlled Geneva. During his studies one day, the question of predestination, the chief Calvinist doctrine was brought up. St. Francis struggled bitterly with this question, and finally subordinated his reason to his Catholic faith and said "Even if I am damned before all eternity Lord, I will still love you." This allowed him to escape his Calvinist scruples. This event foreshadowed his lifelong work, converting people in Switzerland back to the true faith. He volunteered to preach in a region called Chablais, which by treaty was Catholic, however the Calvinist authorities refused to allow the true Church its civil administration, and even things like the celebration of the sacraments of Extreme Unction, Mass and many of the ceremonies of the Mass.

After working for eleven years, and suffering many attempts on his life for preaching the true faith, he began to see progress. He wrote, in a letter to St. Jane Frances de Chantal:

"For three years I was quite alone there, preaching the Catholic faith, and God has granted me on this journey the very fullest consolation, for whereas formerly I could only find a hundred Catholics in the whole of the Chablais, I was now not able to find a hundred Huguenots." (From the deposition of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, pg. 81; Quoted in 33 Doctors of the Church, pg. 582)
What I particularly like about this story is that St. Francis preached the true faith in a region hostile enough to cause someone to take his life, and he brought success. Ecumenical dialogue which is all the rage in this day, hasn't produced a fraction of the results. For his efforts in that region he was called "The Apostle of the Chablais", while in our time he would have been sent to re-education counseling, or else denied entry to seminary in the first place for believing such antiquated notions of conversion and penance. One of the ways St. Francis managed to work conversion was through writing small tracts, and slipping them under doors and in windows, on account of this he is patron saint of the Catholic Press.

In 1602 he was consecrated Bishop of Geneva, which again in practice was Annecy since the Calvinists would not permit the true faith in Geneva. In fact he only visited the city twice.
According to the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia:

His first step [as Bishop] was to institute catechetical instructions for the faithful, both young and old. He made prudent regulations for the guidance of his clergy. He carefully visited the parishes scattered through the rugged mountains of his diocese. He reformed the religious communities. His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. He had an intense love for the poor, especially those who were of respectable family. His food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He completely dispensed with superfluities and lived with the greatest economy, in order to be able to provide more abundantly for the wants of the needy. He heard confessions, gave advice, and preached incessantly. He wrote innumerable letters (mainly letters of direction) and found time to publish the numerous works mentioned below.
When visiting France, St. Francis became acquainted with the French royal family of King Louis XIII, and he made an impression with a certain Bishop in the royal entourage from Lu├žon known to history as Cardinal Richelieu. He also became good friends with prominent clergymen in Paris, and struck up a good friendship with St. Vincent de Paul. With St. Jane Frances de Chantal he founded the order of Visitation nuns for orphans and widows who did not possess the strength for the more austere orders. The obstacles to founding it were so great that St. Francis declared "God made it [the visitation order] out of nothing, as he made the world." St. Jane wrote concerning him "This new Institution brought down upon him much censure, contradiction and contempt. It was openly declared to be a folly, and many persons of high standing asserted this, some even telling him so to his face." However it was done, and the Visitation would endure and flourish (until after Vatican II anyway), and more than two centuries later the order would have St. Therese's aunt and her sister as members.

In 1622 he died in Lyons, France, from a brain condition. The doctors of the time made his death far more painful than it needed to be, since most of their instruments and techniques were rather unadvanced to put it mildly. He was canonized by Pope Alexander VII in 1665, and was made a doctor of the Church by Bl. Pius IX.

Among his many writings and sermons which are in print, St. Francis' spiritual classic is his "Introduction to the Devout Life". It is a collection of directions addressed to "Philothea" (from Greek: lover of God), which were arranged and adapted in a way to make up a practical guide to Christian perfection. It is a detailed guide, or direction, for laity living in the world to attain spiritual perfection. Pope Pius XI said concerning this work:

And would that this book, which in its own day was considered unequaled by any in the same line, be used today by all as it once was in the hands of all, and then truly Christian piety would revive throughout the world, and the Church could rejoice in the widespread holiness of her children.
One of the elements that characterizes not only this work, but St. Francis' entire approach to spiritual direction, was that he did not attempt to subordinate his directees toward a given school of thought, or to certain saints only, or to the latest pastoral initiative coming out of a committee. He never turned anything aside unless it were against the Gospel. His effort was bent upon the individual soul, and his kindly manner valued the liberty of each soul to choose for or against the true faith. This he turned to great effect in Switzerland, where he inspired many to enter the Church and at the same time instructed the soldiers to keep order, rather than forcing conversion which could be extremely damaging, and in truth is the proper expression of state authority.

When declaring St. Francis de Sales a doctor of the Church, Bl. Pius IX declared in his bull Dives in Misericordia concerning St. Francis:
Acknowledging himself the debtor of the wise and the ignorant, being made all things to all, he strove to teach the simple and rude in simple language; among the wise, he spoke wisdom. He also gave forth the most prudent counsels regarding preaching and obtained that the vitiated eloquence of the times should be restored to the ancient splendor set forth in the example of the Holy Fathers; and from this school came forth most eloquent orators from whom the richest fruits have been redounded for the universal Church. Therefore, he has been held by all to be the restorer and master of sacred eloquence.

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