Salesian Holiness

St Francis de Sales

“We are all Salesians” said Bremond, a great historian of spirituality: so much of modern and contemporary Catholicism is imbued with the spirit of St Francis de Sales.

Saint Francis de Sales was born in the Castle de Sales (in the French Haute-Savoie) on 21 August 1567. He studied philosophy and theology in Paris and gained his jurisprudence degree in civil and canon law in Padua. He was ordained priest on 18 December 1593 and offered his services to the Bishop of Geneva to bring Calvinists in the Chablais back to the Catholic Faith. He was appointed Bishop of Geneva on 8 December 1602, though resident in Annecy, from where he preached extensively and implemented the reforms of the Council of Trent. A noble, sharp-witted spirit and learned humanist, he was an outstanding spiritual director. He opened up the way to the spiritual life to every level of society (the Introduction to the Devout Life), explaining how it lay essentially in the love of God (the Treatise on the Love of God). He had grasped the importance of the press and as a man of action established an academy at Thonon which brought the best minds together to explore knowledge and to promote the professional formation of the young. Together with St Jane de Chantal he founded and directed the Order of the Visitation. He died in Lyon on 28 December 1622; his body was brought to Annecy on 24 January 1623, the date on which today’s liturgical celebration has been established.

He was beatified on 1661, and canonised by Alexander VII in 1665. Pius IX proclaimed him Doctor of the Church on 7 July 1877 and he was appointed patron of journalists and Catholic writers on 26 January 1923 by Pius XI. Don Bosco was inspired by the apostolate of St Francis de Sales, his loving kindness, his humanism and chose him as the Patron Saint of the Salesian Society.

Some passages from his major works can help us to understand him.

In the Introduction to the Devout Life he wrote, ironically: “the world runs down true devotion, painting devout people with gloomy, melancholy aspect, and affirming that religion makes them dismal and unpleasant. But even as Joshua and Caleb protested that not only was the Promised Land a fair and pleasant country, but that the Israelites would take an easy and peaceful possession thereof, so the Holy Spirit tells us through His Saints, and our Lord has told us with His Own Lips, that a devout life is very sweet, very happy and very loveable”.

His many Letters, which show us the innermost heart of this saint, deal with friendship in a wonderful way, precisely because he sees its source in God.

The Treatise on the Love of God shows us a heart that is, first of all, fully in love with God, or rather conquered in its every fibre by the Lord's benevolence, and which is passionate about the Mother of God. “...the Virgin's sacred flames, since they could neither perish, diminish nor remain in the same state, never ceased to take incredible increase, even as far as heaven the place of their origin: so true it is that this Mother is the Mother of fair love, that is, as the most amiable, so the most loving, and as the most loving, so the most beloved Mother of this only Son; who again is the most amiable, most loving, and most beloved Son of this only Mother”.

“St Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his familiar style, with words which at times have a poetic touch, he reminds us that human beings have planted in their innermost depths the longing for God and that in him alone can they find true joy and the most complete fulfilment” (Benedict XVI).