Francis De Sales (1567-1622)Bishop and Doctor of the Church
The tumultuous years in France after the Protestant Reformation formed the background for Francis de Sales. He was born on August 12, 1567, into a family of nobility of what was then the Kingdom of Savoy, which bordered France, Italy and Switzerland. He received his schooling under the Jesuits at the College of Clermont in Paris and the University of Padua where he earned a Doctorate in both Civil and Church Law.
To the great disappointment of his father, Francis gave up a most promising civil career in favor of the priesthood. After his ordaination, he was sent as a young missionary to the Chablais district of Savoy for four years. There he became famous for his pamphets in defense of the faith. These writings are now collected into a book known as The Catholic Controversy. By the end of his missionary apostolate, Francis had persuaded about 72,000 Calvinists to return to the Catholic Church.
Francis was ordained a a bishop and named the Bishop of Geneva in 1602, but resided in Annecy (now a part of modern day France) since Geneva was under Calvinist control and therefore closed to him. He was never permitted to take his seat in the cathedral in Geneva. His diocese became famous throughout Europe for its efficient organization, zealous clergy and well-instructed laity – a monumental achievement in Francis’ time. Francis’ fame as a spiritual director and writer grew. He was persuaded by others to collect, organize and expand on his many letters addressing spiritual subjects, and to publish them in 1609 under the title, The Introduction to the Devout Life. This became his most famous work and remains a spiritual classic found in bookstores throughout the world today.
Francis’ special project was the writing of A Treatise of the Love of God, over which he prayed and labored many years. It is also still published today. His desire to write a companion to the Treatise, On the Love of Neighbor, was not realized. Francis de Sales died on December 28, 1622, at the age of fifty-five. In addition to the works above, his published letters, sermons and conferences comprise approximately thirty volumes. The enduring value and popularity of his writings led the Church to bestow on him the title, Patron of Catholic Writers. Francis is also the patron of the Deaf community for his efforts in developing sign language, the Oblate Sisters, Brothers and Fathers of St. Francis de Sales, the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, and of the Sisters of the Holy Visitation of Mary, which he co-founded.
Francis collaborated with St. Jane Frances de Chantal in founding the religious order of the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary (VHM), known for the simplicity of its rule and traditions and for its special openness to widows. It was through the persistence of one of these sisters some two hundred fifty years later, Mother Marie-Therese Chappuis, VHM, that Fr. Louis Brisson, a priest of Troyes in France, founded the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales – a community of priests and brothers dedicated to living and spreading the spirit and teachings of Francis. Fr. Brisson also founded a community of sisters with the same name.
The spirit and reputation of Francis and the influence of his writings spread rapidly after his death. The Church formally declared him to be a saint in 1655 and in 1867 gave him the rare title of Doctor of the Church – a title conferred on fewer than thirty-five other saints in the history of the Church, all of whom are renowned for their writings. Francis’ de Sales memorial is observed by the Church on January 24.