Francis de Sales was born on 21st August 1567 at Thorens near Annecy in France. His birth took place prematurely in the seventh month with great danger to the life of the mother and the boy. He was the eldest of the thirteen children in the family. Before his birth his mother consecrated him to the Lord in the presence of the Holy Shroud.
His father, Francois de Boisy and mother, Fraciose de Sionnas led exemplary Christian life and provided a healthy human atmosphere for the growth of their children. Francois de Boisy was a man of resolute judgment, firm in his decisions, good to his subjects and a declared enemy of heresy. Fraciose de Sionnas was a woman of deep piety, generous, noble minded, modest and amiable with every person and a real mother.
The exact date of his baptism is disputed. Yet, it was probable that he was given emergency baptism privately. But the ritual solemnities took place on August 28, 1567. The very early youth of Francis was spent in a village called Brens, which was a place of exquisite beauty. Between the ages of three and five he received his first Christian formation from his mother and Francoise Duret was his first teacher.
From 1573 to 1575 Francis was educated at La Roche, a short distance from Thorens. He had his further education in Annecy between 1575 and 1578. During this period he received his Holy Communion and Confirmation on the same day by Bishop Giustiniani in the advent of 1575. From his earliest years he was attentive and calm, not fond of games and often thoughtful. He began to show astonishing curiosity about the mysteries of faith. He laid down time for daily prayers, reading pious books and visiting churches. Holy Eucharist became the centre of his life. Meanwhile his vocation to priesthood was taking shape. He received tonsure on September 20, 1578 from Galsois de Regard, Bishop of Bagnorea.
Francis de Sales had his college studies in Paris from 1582. He did four years of classical studies in the Jesuit college of Clermont. There, intellectually Francis became a man of Renaissance, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in arts. In obedience to his father’s wish he acquired skills expected of the nobility from an academy. He began his studies in philosophy in October 1585. During these years he found intellectual pleasure in exploring the subjects of dogma, Positive Theology, Moral Theology, Holy Scripture, Patrology, Debating and Polemics.
At the age of seventeen Francis de Sales had to fight a great crisis, which lasted for six weeks from December 1586 to January 1587. It was a temptation to despair due to the influence of Lutheran and pre-Jansenistic pessimism on the contemporary way of thinking. He thought that he was predestined to hell by God’s infallible judgment. At this juncture he turned his devotion towards Mary, recited the Memorare, prostrated in front of her statue and made a heroic act of abandonment. The crisis left him immediately.
His father wished him to follow a career in the service of the state. So after his return from Annecy in 1588, he was sent to the university of Padua for the study of law. Here also he found time to study some theology. He was a keen observer of life, things and people. In Milan he visited the tomb of Saint Charles and this confirmed his desire to be among the saints. Placing himself under the spiritual direction of Anthony Possevin, a Jesuit, he drew up a rule for his interior and exterior life, renewed his promise of virginity, and recited the Divine Office. In September 5, 1591 he received his doctorate in both civil and Canon Law.
Francis de Sales, hot-tempered by nature, worked at tempering it very early in life and acquired gentleness after a persistent effort for twenty years.
On his return from Padua, his father’s plan was to make him a senator and suggested that he enter into marriage with a wealthy and beautiful woman called FrancioseSuchet. He had made up his mind to become a priest. He asked his father permission to become a priest. As a means for overcoming parental opposition, Louis de Sales, a cousin and a priest, obtained through Claude de Granier, the Bishop of Geneva, an apostolic bull conferring on Francis the Provostship of the Church of St. Peter in Geneva. The permission was finally given after serious objections. He was ordained Deacon on 21st September 1593 and was ordained priest in the same year on 18th December.
Francis de Sales undertook a hard and difficult mission to work among the Calvinists in the district of Chablais, one of the eight states of Savoy, on 14th September 1594 together with his cousin Louis de Sales. Overcoming privations and oppositions of every sort including attempt on his life, through prayer, penance, preaching, writing, public debate with the Calvinist ministers and perseverance he brought back the whole district to the Catholic Faith. In Chablais he had introduced an innovative method of presenting in a simple and direct manner some doctrine of faith, and criticizing the teaching of the reformers in leaflets and of distributing them to the people for two years. These leaflets have survived incompletely in a work known as Controversies. He was instrumental in establishing a college under the Jesuit management, a group of secular priest following the Oratarian rule and a hostel at Thonon
Francis de Sales was the Duke’s choice, the Bishop’s choice, and the Peoples’ choice for the Bishopric of Geneva. In March 1599 Pope Clement VIII confirmed the choice. Following the death of Claude de Granier, he was consecrated Bishop of Geneva at Thorens on 8th December 1602. He was a good shepherd. He cared both for the rich and the poor, yet with a special preference for the poor. He bore within himself the spirit of Christian humanism. He took initiatives for the formation of the clergy and for the spiritual formation of the youth. A confraternity of the lay people was established for the purpose of teaching Christian Doctrine. During his lifetime he preached more that 4,000 sermons. He was a preacher of power and charm, one who spoke both as a father and a teacher. He also served as a spiritual director to a number of people.
The most known books of Francis de Sales are: Introduction to the Devout life and A Treatise on the Love of God. Both are hailed as spiritual classics. He founded the Visitation Order together with St. Jane de Chantal on 6th June 1610. This Order is to accept as members the poor, the weak in health, the handicapped who are able to follow the demands of community life, the widows whom normally the other religious orders do not admit. They would practice the virtues exemplified in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth that consist of humility, piety and mutual charity. They would also engage, to a limited degree, in works of mercy for the poor and sick. But later, acceding to the wish of the Bishop of Lyons, he discontinued the external works of charity and adopted the cloistered way of life for his nuns.
He passed away at the age of fifty-five of cerebral hemorrhage at Lyons on 28th December, 1622. On 28th December, 1661 he was beatified by Alexander VII and was canonized on 19th April 1665 by the same Pope. St. Francis de Sales was declared Doctor of the Church on 16th November 1877 by Pope Pius IX. Pius XI proclaimed him the heavenly patron of all writers on January 26, 1923.
St. Francis de Sales is the Apostle of Chablais, the Gentleman saint, a Doctor of the Church and the Patron of Writers. Various religious congregations have been founded under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales. And he is the heavenly patron of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales also known as Fransalians.
Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on SFS
Whoever attentively reviews the life of St. Francis will discover that, from his earliest years, he was a model of sanctity. He was not a gloomy, austere saint but was most amiable and friendly with all, so much so that it can be said of him most truthfully, “her conversation (wisdom) hath no bitterness, nor her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness.” (Wisdom, viii, 16) Endowed with every virtue, he excelled in meekness of heart, a virtue so peculiar to himself that it might be considered his most characteristic trait. His meekness, however, differed altogether from that artificial gentility which consists in the mere possession of polished manners and in the display of a purely conventional affability. It differed, too, both from the apathy which cannot be moved by any force and from the timidity which does not dare to become indignant, even when indignation is required of one. This virtue, which grew in the heart of St. Francis as a delightful effect of his love of God and was nourished by the spirit of compassion and tenderness, so tempered with sweetness the natural gravity of his demeanor and softened both his voice and manners that he won the affectionate regard of everyone whom he encountered.
St. Francis de Sales: Doctor of Love
“He was not a gloomy, austere saint but most amiable and friendly with all. Endowed with every virtue, he excelled in meekness of heart, a virtue so peculiar to himself that it might be considered his most characteristic trait. His meekness, however, differed altogether from that artificial gentility which consists in the mere possession of polished manners and in the display of a purely conventional affability. …
This virtue, which grew in the heart of St. Francis as a delightful effect of his love towards God and was nourished by the spirit of compassion and tenderness, so tempered with sweetness, the natural gravity of his demeanour which softened both his voice and manners that he won the affectionate regard of everyone whom he encouraged.
“Making the crooked paths straight and the rough ways plain, Francis has shown that the way to devotion was so accessible for all Christians, that thereafter piety shed its light in every place, in the palaces of kings, in the tents of warriors, in the courts of law, in the homes of business and manufacture, and even the humble hamlets of shepherds.
St. Francis de Sales was proclaimed Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX on 07 July, 1877. His work on Spiritual Direction led to the publication of the great classic Introduction to the Devout life, and the other great, but later work A Treatise on the Love of God. Fundamental to these works is the doctrine that the spiritual life is not just for the religious and the clergy, but for everyone. It is for this reason that he is seen as the first great writer since the Early Fathers to be concerned with the spirituality of the laity. He considered it a heresy to say that a lay person could not attain sanctity and holiness of life through the grace of God. It is for these reasons that St. Francis de Sales may be considered also the patron of Lay Spirituality and the Lay Apostolate.
The Gentleman Saint
Unlike many of the saints – whose lives full of marvellous occurrences seem to be beyond the reach of ordinary Christians – the life of de Sales presents nothing sensational. His ideals of moderation and charity, of gentleness and humility, of cheerfulness and abandonment to God’s will are expressed with a common sense spirituality that is gentle and respectful of others – this lifestyle earned Francis the appellation of ‘Gentleman Saint.’ Furthermore, his ecumenical sensitivity and his personal gentleness together with his common sense rejection of extremes of the spiritual life of the lay people contributed to his being credited with this title.
Apostle of Chablais
Francis was sent to work among the Calvinists in the district of Chablais on 14th September, 1594, together with his cousin Canon Louis de Sales.
Overcoming privations and oppositions of every sort including attempt on his life, through prayer, penance, preaching, writing and perseverance he brought back the whole district to the Catholic faith.
St. Francis de Sales wrote two books: The Introduction to the Devout Life and A Treatise on the Love of God. Both are spiritual classics. Through Introduction to the Devout Life St. Francis de Sales taught that ALL ARE CALLED TO HOLINESS. Devotion is to be practised differently by the nobleman, the workman, the servant, the prince, the widow, the young girl, the wife. Even more than this, the practice of devotion has to be adapted to the strength, the life-situation and duties of each individual.