Don Bosco

Dissemination of the name and works of Saint Francis of Sales from 1660 to 1800

Dissemination of the name and works of
Saint Francis of Sales from 1660 to 1800

Joseph Boenzi, sdb

We always try to have a pure
intention in seeking the glory of God in everything
- Francesco di Sales -

The first steps in making Saint Francis of Sales known

Wherever he went, St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Prince of Geneva, was always involved in numerous projects for the evangelization and spiritual growth of young and not young Christians in his diocese. After his sudden death on December 28, 1622, Mother Jeanne de Chantal understood that it was important to order everything he had left. First of all she had to do it to continue organizing the young Visitation order she had just founded twelve years before and of which she was the first Superior. Furthermore, Jeanne de Chantal knew the extraordinary nature of Francis de Sales and saw that there was still so much to learn from his teachings and from the example of his holy life. She sought the possibility of proposing her cause for beatification;

At the beginning of 1623 the Mother of Chantal took charge of collecting personal writings, notes, letters, homilies and works that Francesco di Salesi had begun. He classified them and kept them in a special archive in the Annecy Visitation monastery. He also involved his sisters in this preparatory work. A vital aspect of this project was to arrive at a biography of Francis de Sales. In fact the Mother of Chantal contributed to the publication of one of the first biographies of the Bishop of Geneva.

The first bibliography of Francis de Sales appeared 18 months after his death. It was the work of Jean Goulu (Dom Giovanni di San Francesco), superior general of the Feuillants, a reformed branch of the Cistercians, and a close collaborator of Francesco di Sales in the reform of religious and priestly life in Savoy.
The publication of Goulu first appeared in Paris in June 1924 with the title of La vie du bien-heureus Messire Froncois de Sales, Evesque et Prince de Geneve.Chantal's Mother speaks of her as her first biography. It followed a particular genre (called "life"), something halfway between the transcription and the biography. Like every "life", the life of Francis de Sales of Goulu was aimed more at devotion than at history. However it should be noted that in the life of Francis de Sales of Goulu absolutely no tales of legends appear, as often happened in works of the seventeenth century.

The same year (1624) a second life of Franceso di Sales was published in Lyon. This is a work by Louis de la Riviere, a friar of the Order of Minors. The father Louis de la Riviere in 1616 had preached the Lenten Spiritual Exercises in Annecy, an occasion in which he had had long conversations with Francesco di Sales which increased his admiration for him. When he learned of the death of Francesco the father de la Riviere returned to Annecy. Its purpose was to gather material on the sanctity of the holy Bishop. He spent a lot of time visiting people from all walks of life, ecclesiastics and laity who interviewed for a long time. He was not satisfied with writing conversations, but he gave himself to the study of every document that had happened to him to find and meticulously took note of everything he saw and listened to during his stay in the diocese. Father de la Riviere brought all the material with him to Lyon and after a year of careful work he publishedLa vie de L' et Francois de Sales (Lyon: Riguard, 1624). This is the first true biography of Francis de Sales.

While preparing the Life, the father de la Riviere began to collect copies of the writings of the prelate. Antoine Favre, a close and long-time friend of Francesco di sales, helped him identify numerous fragments of documents, especially those related to ascetics, which were later published in the appendix. Throughout the period I devoted to interviews and gathering material, Father de la Rieviere was in contact with the Madre de Chantal, with the two brothers of Francis, Jean-Froncois and Louis, as well as with some of his other collaborators.

Within three years this biography saw five reprints. The author revised and enriched the work in view of a new edition in 1631. The book was reprinted again in the nineteenth century in 1825 and 1827 and appears to have been well known in ecclesiastical circles. The language is typical of the eighteenth century, sometimes strange, but full of freshness, and one gets the impression that Louis de la Riviere managed to penetrate the mind and heart of Francis de Sales well and thus make his book an interesting resource .

In the following years two other biographies of Francesco di Sales appeared, spreading his fame in Savoy, in France and in Rome. The first was the work of Francis's nephew, Charles-Auguste de Sales, then a priest of the diocese of Geneva and then a bishop. Charle-Auguste was the postulator general of the cause of beatification of his uncle. When it became clear to him that the trial was now in Rome, he decided to interview all those who had known the bishop and to collect every document that had any connection with the life and ministry of his uncle. He collected letters, notes, homilies and even directives on the diocese. And then he set off to talk to everyone about his uncle. In this way Charles-Auguste produced a singular biography based on intimate memories and official documentation.

La Madre de Chantal carefully reviewed the final manuscript and stated that in her opinion the biography written by Charles-Auguste was the best of the time. Encouraged by the Mother, the young priest published a Latin edition of his work in 1634 and later another in French. For Charles-Auguste the Mother de Chantal and the members of the de Sales family were the oral resources on which he most relied. Scholars of later times will find themselves in difficulty struggling with the line of historical events, however Charles-Auguste presents his uncle to us as a person rich in intimacy and familiarity. Francesco di Sales introduces us as he was better known by those who knew him and loved him.

Three years later a volume appeared that will have an influence - it is the work of Nicolas Caussin, a Jesuit preacher. Caussin did not write a biography, but in the Traicte de la conduite spirituelle selon the expression of St. Froncois de Sales (Douay: Jean Serrurier, 1637) presented the figure of Francis de Sales as a model of reform and pastoral zeal. Caussin published several books in which he proves to be more concerned with presenting Francis de Sales as a model of pastor than writing his own biography. Il Traicte 'del la conditu spirituellehe reached a wide audience thanks to the reports his author had with the Jesuit world and the good reputation he enjoyed at the court of Louis XIII. So it was that the fame of Francis de Sales spread throughout France and his example came as a model for bishops and pastors engaged in implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent, and to bring the faithful to a deeper level of evangelical commitment to the beginnings of the modern era.

The last of the era to produce a Life of Francis of Sales was Jean-Pierre Camus, who, interestingly to note, considered himself a disciple of the bishop of Geneva. Camus was bishop of the nearby diocese of Belley and was in close contact with Francis, with whom he had intimate talks and used to consult when he had significant problems. Between 1639 and 1641 he published an expose in six volumes on the formal and informal teachings of the bishop entitled " L'Esprit du Bienheureux Froncois de Sales".The presentation of Francis de Sales of the Camus more than a biography is a moral profile of this man who, according to him, had a gigantic spiritual stature and that he considered a pastoral guide. Here is the shepherd of souls who heroically lives the Gospel. Camus invites readers to know and experience this spirit of Christian virtue.

Popularity of Francesco di Sales in Italy

It was Pier-Giacinto Gallizia who published the first life of Francis de Sales in 1720: Life of St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Prince of Geneva, and Founder of the Order of the Visitation. Gallizia was a priest of the archdiocese of Turin, chaplain of the Sisters of the Visitation. He knew that very few nuns knew French and therefore, rather than translating a biography of the holy founder of their order, he wrote one himself. His work presented the life and mission of Francis de Sales (books 1-4) and concluded with a chapter on the foundation of the Visitation (book 5) and a collection of maxims taken from the teachings of the saint (book 6). These characteristics made known the Life of St. Francis de Sales not only in Turin, but throughout Italy.

It was not long after the publication of Galicia that a group of devotees from Turin established themselves in the Association of Francis de Sales. In fact, many in Turin considered him one of their particular saints. The memory of his visit to the city, the effectiveness of his sermons, the example of his virtues and his dedication to the poor suggested that they choose St. Francis de Sales as the patron of the city and the archdiocese. Established in 1720 the Association had the purpose of invoking its protection and guidance in the way of virtue and for this reason the members recited daily special prayers and on December 28 they celebrated the anniversary of the transitusof the saint. They met regularly to deepen the knowledge, writings and teachings of the saint, and intended to read them systematically between meetings. The association had three groups to which 56 members belonged: 56 priests, 56 lay people and 56 lay people (and this because Francis was alive for 56 years). There is evidence that the Association of Saint Francis of Sales operated in Turin until at least the end of the nineteenth century.

In the eighteenth century other similar groups appeared - these were apostolic associations that were inspired by Francis de Sales especially when their churches were in difficulty. These associations overcame the Revolution and returned to flourish in the nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-century Catholicism and Francis de Sales

At the end of the eighteenth century, many, starting with the French, thought that the Church and the papacy were things of the past. Instead, it happened that the dawn of the twentieth century saw a renewed Catholic Church and the Pope's role more clearly defined and more strongly than ever. In this transformation Francesco di Sales covered a role that was anything but insignificant.

From the beginning of the Reformation, Francis de Sales was presented, together with Carlo Borromeo, as the model of a priesthood characterized by a new apostolic spirit. These two holy bishops were well known for their great efforts to carry out the reforms of the Council of Trent, but at the beginning of the decline of the Napoleonic Empire, in Europe the Church presented them as models of an intense apostolic life.

In the early years of the Reformation, in Italy, France and Belgium, many parish associations and religious communities were inspired by Francis de Sales. And when in a large part of Western Europe in the nineteenth century a period of serious contrasts began between the Church and the State, the gentle but strong wisdom of Francis became even more popular.

Towards the middle of the century an interesting Association was formed, of which Pius IX spoke as of the Propagation of the Faith in the Home. The founder and formulator of the project was Mons. Gaston de Segur who, by request of a large group of people strongly engaged in France and Italy, founded an association which he called the Work of Francis de Sales for Defense and Preservation of the Faith.The association was formed in 1857 and soon spread to most of the dioceses of France, Italy and Belgium. Although there was no centralized authority, the movement saw in Paris or better in Bishop De Segur a point of reference from which came inspiration and encouragement. For his part, De Segur proposed the apostle of the cario Francesco di Sales as the model to preserve faith and grow in it during the anticlerical uprisings of that period.

The mission of the association was the work (oevre) that truly made Francis de Sales famous: that is, to preserve and defend the Catholic faith especially in environments that had become hostile to the Church. There were many projects to carry out this mission, but all more than anything else emerged from local needs. Among the most eminent initiatives we must note the renewal of preaching, the spread of Catholic publications, the training of seminarians and laity, the economic burden of Catholic schools and the organization of Eucharistic Congresses at regional and national level. Within two decades of its foundation the work of Francis de Sales International had grown to the point of having nearly two million members.

A new wave of enthusiastic Salesians

Louis de Segur was in contact with many of the most influential ecclesiastical personalities of the time. He was well acquainted with the famous Notre Dame preacher Henri-Dominique Dominican Lacordaire, the apologist Theodore Ratisbonne, the preachers and authors Gustave de Revignan, Pierre Olivaint and Armand de Ponlevoy Jesuits. These ecclesiastics were to be counted among those who had consulted Archbishop De Segur on the new ways of presenting the Catholic doctrine to the anticlericals of the time. According to Archbishop Segur, if we wanted to try new ways to approach the now estranged contemporaries, there was no better model than that of Francis de Sales.
His attachment to Francis de Sales did not fail to attract other important figures from the Catholic world. Mons. De Segur made contact with the Visitation Sisters in France and Switzerland, starting with Mother Mary de Sales Chap Puis, superior of Troyes, and thanks to the latter, with Louis Brisson and Leonie Aviat, founders of the Oblates of St. . Frnacesco de Sales. He also became a friend of his father Henri Chaumont, who together with Mrs. Caroline Carre 'de Malberg, had founded the congregation of the Daughters of Francis de Sales. On several occasions, Msgr. De Segur met with Emmanuel d'Alzon (priest, educator and founder of the Assumptionist order), with Gaspard Mermillod (auxiliary bishop of Lausanne-Geneva), and with Jean-Marie Tissot (member of the Missionaries of Saint Francis of Sales and Apostolic Vicar of Visakhapatnam,

Knowledge in Turin

It was through these Salesian knowledge of his that Bishop de Segur came to know Don Bosco. Obviously we know Don Bosco's relations well with the world of Francis de Sales in Turin. Known exponents of the lay apostolate such as (Tancredi and Juliette Falletti of Barolo, Silvio Pellico) referred to the Salesian teaching in dealing with the most urgent religious and social problems. Furthermore, a long list of priests and religious strongly dedicated to the apostolate who shared the Salesian spirit must be added: Giuseppe Cafasso, Carlo Cavina, Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, Giuseppe Marello, Anna Michelotti, Lucia Noiret and Guido Conforti.

For Don Bosco the work, (the work) of Francis de Sales focused on catechesis and took shape in schools, laboratories, but above all in festive oratories. The work was carried out by committed priests and lay people and soon became known as a Salesian Co-Operation system .

Don Bosco said he took his motto Da mihi animas, cetera tolle, from Farancesco di Sales . These words make us clear the purpose and the very life that he had advocated in his Valdocco Oratory since the early days of his ministry. Don Bosco recognized in Francis de Sales an apostle priest whose kindness and pastoral charity were especially effective in serving God and saving souls.

The Da mihi animas of Francis de Sales became a prayer for Don Bosco that makes us know how Don Bosco consumed his entire existence. Don Bosco had learned this from Don Cafasso, his spiritual guide. In a Church that sought to lead many Christians who had been derailed back onto the right path, Francis de Sales represents the icon of the tireless pastor who retraces his steps in search of the lost sheep. The only concern of the apostle priest must be the salvation of souls, said Don Cafasso and added "Let us say with that great apostle of charity Saint Francis de Sales Give me souls, Lord{....} Let us strive to increase the number of the inhabitants of paradise and to prevent sin from making its way on earth. "

Don Bosco also learned it from his youth - boys like Domenico Savio who understood the meaning of that sentence. "I understand," he said, looking at the writing behind Don Bosco's desk, just the day he arrived at the Oratory. "Here there is no trade in money, but in souls. Now I understand and I hope that my soul also enters this trade, "


Wendy M. Wright speaks of the nineteenth century as the era of Salesian Pentecost. For those who sought to renew the Church in this troubled period, Francesco Salesio represented the icon of the apostle of faith and of the doctor of charity.

Also Don Bosco was one of the many admirers of the bishop of Geneva and although it is impossible to assert, as Pietro Stella says, that he identified himself with the saint, we observe that he chose him as a model for his priesthood and his pastoral work. Couldn't we still talk about a certain affinity between the two?

(Translation from the English of Loro Piana Achille, sdb)