I Was Wrong About Francis (But It's Not What You Think)

St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of the press, because he properly understood the real point of the media: “for the instruction of Christians and ... the welfare of souls.”

(photo: Register Files)

Recently I began a detailed study on the life and ministry of our very own Francis and came across some very interesting finds. The reason I’m studying to come up with some little known details, quotes, stories, and writings from people who had lived and corresponded with him, in order to write a chapter in a book set to come out in October 2017. What I found totally turned my understanding of Francis upside down.

No, I’m not referring to Pope Francis. I’m referring to Saint Francis de Sales! You might know he was the Bishop of Geneva, but did you know that he never resided in his own diocese? Instead, he live in Annecy because the residents of Geneva would have surely killed him. He felt that he could more if he were alive than if he were dead. But he wasn’t afraid of dying, even if a martyr.

Once, he was advised that hundreds of Huguenot soldiers were protecting the gates to the city of Gex, where he needed to pass through in order to answer a rapid summons to the King of France. The guards were looking specifically for any priests, missionaries, or anyone not persuaded by local politics and religious sentiments. Francis was warned that he would be caught even if disguised. But Francis was not frightened, and when he arrived at the gate, his party of eight companions and priests knew it was over.

The guard yelled out, “Who goes there?”

Francis replied, “The Bishop of the Diocese and his suite!”

All waited for their certain capture when the guard said, “The Diocese? Never heard of that place. Pass.”

And it was written into the city register that “today, the Bishop of the Diocese passed into the city.”

True story.

That’s just one of several that I had no idea about St. Francis de Sales. He was without doubt one of the most courageous persons of his time, and I knew this to some detail, but I started this study with some expectations that were proven to be very wrong. I was, in a word, wrong about Francis entirely.

I expected to read of several conversion stories. I did, to an extent.

I anticipated to read of his magnificent gifts in apologetics. I did, somewhat.

I awaited details of his tactics, his studies, and his unending zeal to convert Calvinists. The books treated that fairly.

So I read a few of the classic and modern biographies, and then turned to his extant works. I thought that I would find brilliant treatises about salvation, predestination, Catholicity, and other apologetic topics. I thought he published numerous books, since they seem to be so voluminous. The truth is, they’re not. I thought he would have written these is some unimaginable duration, representative of his prolific reputation. Truth is, he didn’t. He only ever set out to publish one, single, lonely book. That was The Standard of the Cross, and he didn’t write it very quickly. It took him five years because he was busy managing his diocese, writing letters to the faithful, and traveling to tend to his flock. His most popular works, Introduction to the Devout Life which St. Vincent de Paul called the most perfect book ever written, and Treatise on the Love of God had nothing to do with apologetics and he never meant them for publication. In both instances, his letters of correspondence were found, assembled for publication, and presented to him in complete astonishment.

De Sales is known universally for his success in converting tens of thousands of Calvinists. Not just common folk: he converted dukes and other royalty and nobility, and was personally tasked by the King of France to appear frequently in court to answer questions on the faith. (I’m pretty sure, by the way, that this was the very first performance of Catholic Answers Live.) While there’s no uncertainty that he is one of the best apologists of all time, that’s actually not the way any of his peers remember him.

In his encyclical dedicated to the third centenary of Francis de Sales, Pius XI mentions him firstly as “one who was remarkable not only for the sublime holiness of life which he achieved but also for the wisdom with which he directed souls in the ways of sanctity” (Rerum Omnium Perturbationem, 4). This perfectly captures my findings of Francis de Sales. He was an apologist, yes, but he was a director of souls first. If converting heretics had anything to do with his ministry, it was first of all in the interest of directing souls, not winning converts.

As mentioned, all his books, save one, were never meant to be books at all. These great works of our faith actually began in simple letter correspondence. It is said that he returned every letter he ever received. It did not matter to de Sales if it was the pope, his mother, a poor lay person, or a sovereign rule; he never yielded in answering questions and guiding people to holiness. His correspondence with an older lady who unexpectedly picked him out of a crowd, became “La Vie Devote” or Introduction to the Devout Life. His other correspondence with a recent widow and mother of four is a story told throughout the world, known as the letters of Jane Frances de Chantal, which through the direction of Francis de Sales, enabled her to become a canonized saint. He was a friend and a director first, then an apologist. Pius XI acknowledges this: “he seemed to have been sent especially by God to contend against the heresies begotten by the Reformation” (5).

And, yet, as an author, I’m still astonished about how wrong I was about Francis. He was prolific, so he must have written thousands of his “tracts” to the Calvinists, right? No! He writes in a journal, “When I preached in La Chablais, I only used the works of the Bible and Robert Bellarmine.”

Here’s where I discovered the sheer brilliance of France de Sales: he didn’t reinvent the apologetics wheel. He was certainly a learned man, but he felt no need to come up with novelties in arguments or claim fame by producing refutations similar to those of his peers. He realize that what works, really works, and there was only the need to produce these refutations of faith in an edible form. Making these pithy tracts essentially made his content go viral. He used the material of those already successful, endorsed, conferred, and published scholars, in order to promote the common cause: the Counter-Reformation.

This is why Francis is not the patron saint of apologists, theologians, missionaries, converts, or scholars. He is the patron saint of the press, because he properly understood the real point of the media: “to employ [the media] insofar as it is necessary or useful for the instruction of Christians and all its efforts for the welfare of souls” (Decree on the Media of Social Communications, Inter Mirifica, 3).

And that’s why I was wrong about Francis. 

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