When writer’s block hits a Catholic writer or blogger, what does she do? Ask a saintly writer for help! St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers, the Catholic press, the deaf, journalists, and adult education. He wrote multitudes of letters and tracts, as well as three books about holiness in the everyday life. His desire to reach others for God through the written word can inspire us as writers today, still the words God gives us in print and online.
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St. Francis de Sales’ Childhood
Francis was born in Switzerland in 1567. He was the oldest of twelve children born to his parents, Francis and Frances. Intelligent and gentle, he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a priest. However, his family wanted him to follow a career in law or politics. Obedient to their wishes, he entered the University of Paris and then received his doctorate of law at the University of Padua.
He also studied theology and practice mental prayer, but he didn’t mention this to his family. The theological debate of that time on predestination tempted him to despair. Then one day, as he knelt before an image of Our Lady, he was miraculously freed from his despair. He then made a vow of chastity and consecrated himself to the Virgin Mary.
One day while out riding, Francis received a sign from God. He fell off his horse three times. Each time he fell, his sword came out of its scabbard and they fell together in the shape of a cross. Francis realized God wanted him to pursue the priesthood.
Despite opposition from his father, who’d gone so far as to choose a wealthy wife for his son, Francis was ordained a priest in 1593. His father consented to this because Francis had been appointed Provost of Geneva, a prestigious position within the Church.
Geneva was, at that time, in the middle of the Protestant Reformation. Father Francis lived close to many Calvinists and decided he should do something to bring them back to the Church. For three years, he worked as a missionary, courageously preaching and even going door-to-door to talk to people. Many people refused to open their doors to him or chased him away with rocks.
So Francis came up with a way to get through their doors: “If my opponents will not lend me their ears, then I must win over their eyes to read what I write.” He wrote small tracts about the truths of the Catholic faith and slipped them under doors. He also befriended the children, who were happy to be his couriers and spread the leaflets through the parish. Slowly, with prayer and gentle dialogue, Francis began to convert his community.
Spiritual Direction & Friendship
In 1602, he was appointed the Bishop of Geneva. As bishop, he started catechism classes for his flock, both young and old. He visited his 450 parishes and gave prudent regulations for the clergy. He lived very simply and had a deep love for the poor. He also felt one of his most important tasks was to provide spiritual direction to his flock. He often did this via letter:
I have more than fifty letters to answer. If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So, I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same and so I shall go on until I have finished.
Bishop Francis frequently met with other political and religious leaders of that time, including King Henry IV of France, Pope Clement VIII and St. Vincent de Paul. He worked tirelessly for reconciliation in a post-Reformation age.
In 1604, Father Francis met Jane Frances de Chantal, a widow and dedicated Catholic. She asked him to take over her spiritual direction and a strong spiritual friendship was born. Jane was a mystic and as Francis directed her, he found himself also becoming a mystic. As a result of working with Jane, he founded the Order of Visitation in 1610.
So many have come to me that I might serve them, leaving me no time to think of myself. However, I assure you that I do feel deep-down-within-me, God be praised. For the truth is that this kind of work is infinitely profitable to me.
Universal Call to Holiness
Many people felt during this time that holiness was reserved for those God had called to the religious life. However, Francis insisted that every Christian was called to a life of holiness and sanctity, no matter what their vocation was. He laid the groundwork for the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the universal call to holiness. He recognized that marriage and family life is in itself a call to holiness.
In 1608, he wrote The Introduction to the Devout Life for lay people. It was a series of letters, like those he wrote regularly to offer spiritual direction, and was instantly a success. In 1616, he published Treatise on the Love of God. He compared the love of God to romantic love, and said the key to this love was prayer. His last book, Spiritual Discussions, was edited and published after his death by his close friend, Jane de Chantal.
These three works were culled from the experience of his pastoral activities and are totally directed towards the active life. They constitute a threefold psychological and spiritual journey presented to the Christian within the pressures of life and faith: the ‘Christian life’ is life, movement, and the growth of the person who must deal with the affairs of the present. ~ Don Bosco West
Legacy of St. Francis de Sales
Francis de Sales died in 1622. He was beautified only forty years later, and canonized in 1665. His life and works deeply influenced St. John Bosco. In 1877, he was declared a Doctor of the Church for his writings.
His example is especially needed today. We need to remember that while being writers and journalists, we are also educators. And while we may be “deaf” at times and may not fully understand or comprehend situations in this world as they occur, we need to “confess” that we may not always be open to that which is around—and within—us, we need to be reminded that we have an audience to reach out to, to those of our own faith, to those of other faiths and even, especially, to those of no faith. ~ Joseph McAuley
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