When Saint Francis de Sales was born in 1567 in Thorens-Glières, France, his father had his life planned out for him. This life would be one of nobility, with a career in law that would culminate with his appointment as a magistrate. Francis’ earthly father planned a prosperous and prestigious future for him, but it turned out that his heavenly Father had other plans.
The saint’s early life began with academic training close to home at a school for sons of noblemen, specializing in composition. He then studied philosophy, rhetoric, and theology at a Jesuit-run college in Paris. After obtaining his baccalaureate degree in 1584, Francis continued to study theology in Paris as he grew in his own practice of the Faith. He earned two more masters’ degrees, followed by a doctorate in law in Padua, Italy, in 1591. During his doctoral defense, his oratory skills and intellectual prowess left all forty-eight professors amazed.
Because he was of noble origin, Francis was accompanied during most of his studies by a servant and a priest-tutor. In addition to his academic pursuits, he also received “gentlemanly formation,” including lessons in dancing, fencing, and boxing. He excelled in horsemanship, especially jumping and dressage.
As Francis was receiving his education, the doctrine of Calvinism was taking root throughout Europe, causing many Catholics to break away from the Faith. This would touch Francis’ life in many ways, both professionally and personally. As various Calvinist doctrines were debated publicly, especially in Paris during his time of study there, briefly he became convinced of predestination, a primary tenet of Calvinism.
In 1586, a period of depression and spiritual darkness struck Francis, growing out of an experience in which he became convinced that he was predestined for eternal damnation. This consumed him for nearly two months, leaving him emotionally and physically exhausted. While visiting a famous chapel in Paris, dedicated to Mary under the title of Our Lady of Good Deliverance, Francis completely abandoned himself to the will of God, promising to love and serve God no matter what was in store for him. His eyes were drawn to an inscription of the Memorare, a prayer to Our Lady composed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, on the chapel’s wall. He felt immediate peace and tranquility as a result of his newfound trust and confidence in God through Mary’s intercession, and he vowed to recite this prayer every day of his life from then on.
During this spiritual trial, Francis felt an intensified call to the priesthood. The call seems to have been there from an early age, but he kept it secret, especially from his father. His father wanted for his son what he considered to be the best, so in obedience to him, Francis spent a short time practicing law after earning his degree. His father purchased an estate for Francis, assembled a law library for his use, and arranged an engagement to the daughter of a prominent judge. Francis gave it all up, however, to pursue the priesthood. Supported by his mother and given approval, albeit with great reluctance, by his father, Francis was ordained a priest in 1593. (Sadly, by the time his father died in 1600, the two had never fully reconciled.)
Francis’ ordination came about quickly when he was nominated (without his knowledge) by a priest-cousin to be provost of Geneva, a position second to the bishop. He rose to prominence quickly within the local Church of Geneva, although Catholic leadership was exiled to eastern France because of the Calvinist occupation of the city.
Through his preaching and teaching, Francis manifested great evangelical skills for overcoming the divide between Catholics and Calvinists. He accomplished this mostly through tireless efforts of preaching and the publication of various tractates in which he put forward the teachings of the Church in simple, understandable language. More than two-thirds of the population of Chablais, the region in which Francis labored for about four years, returned to the Church, and a revival of Catholic practices thrived thanks to his leadership. It is believed that a deceased Protestant child came back from the dead long enough for the saint to perform the baby’s baptism. And Pope Clement VIII even asked Francis to seek out Calvinist leader Theodore Beza, then in his early eighties, and persuade him to come back to the Church.
None of Francis’ missionary work among the Calvinists came without great personal cost to him, however. On several occasions, he came close to martyrdom. Forced to live in a garrison, his health deteriorated. Once, he even had to spend a night in a tree in order to avoid being attacked by wolves. Interestingly, even while he preached the truth of the Catholic faith, old theological doubts tempted him again, especially regarding the primary Calvinist tenets on predestination, grace, free will, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. To make matters worse, his father cut off all material assistance to him in hopes that he would abandon his mission. Yet, through it all, Francis persevered, forced to depend solely on the providence of God, something in which he rejoiced greatly.
The Protestant Reformation, which was gaining much traction throughout Europe, was just as divisive politically as it was religiously. Church and state were very much intertwined, and Francis found himself capable of shrewd negotiations with political entities for the good of the Church, even forging alliances between the pope and French king Henry IV. Henry, who had returned to Catholicism but had been poorly committed to it, was quite fond of the saint, calling him “a rare bird, indeed . . . devout, learned, and a gentleman. A very rare combination.”
Francis eventually was named coadjutor to the bishop of his exiled Geneva see, succeeding him in 1602. As the diocesan bishop, he was responsible for implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent, saying, “The first duty of the bishop is to teach.” Much of his tenure as bishop was spent doing just that, especially as he fulfilled the task set out by Trent to visit all the parishes and ecclesial institutions in his diocese.
Francis forged a strong bond with his people and left a major mark through his teaching, preaching, and example. During this time, he also developed a deep, loving, spiritual friendship with a widow named Jane Frances de Chantal. Together the two founded a new women’s religious community, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, which was less strict than many orders of the time and open to older women and widows who wanted to live a life dedicated to development of the interior life, particularly humility and gentleness. Francis served as Jane’s spiritual director for many years, and their correspondence remains among the most treasured in that genre of spiritual writing.
Francis is remembered as a uniquely gifted spiritual director, and his writings were unique because of his strong belief that anyone could serve God in any vocation. This was a striking departure from the common thinking of the day, which held that entrance to a religious community or the clerical state was really the only path to holiness. But Francis insisted that everyone is called to holiness, and this was the major theme of his Introduction to the Devout Life, a collection of letters between himself and a cousin’s wife, whom he served as spiritual director. Considered too lax at the time, the work is now noted for its spiritual rigor. It was an immediate best-seller and remains one of the most loved spiritual books of all time.
Francis’ last years were spent dealing with increasing health problems, but his attention shifted also to continued writing and work with the Visitation nuns. In addition, he was called upon numerous times to perform careful ecclesiastical and political negotiations. A variety of arduous and taxing journeys in his last years took a toll on him. He suffered a stroke, and while he lay on his deathbed, a nun begged for some last advice. Given paper and pen, he wrote three times, “Humility.” Francis died on December 28, 1622, in Lyon, France. He was canonized in 1665, named a Doctor of the Church by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1877, and formally named patron of writers in 1923.
Francis’ advocacy for the apostolate of the laity and recognition of the universal call to holiness made him a man ahead of his time. Marking the fourth centenary of the saint’s birth, Pope Paul VI wrote on his enduring relevance: “No one of the recent Doctors of the Church more than St. Francis de Sales anticipated the deliberations and decisions of the Second Vatican Council with such a keen and progressive insight. He renders his contribution by the example of his life, by the wealth of his true and sound doctrine, by the fact that he has opened and strengthened the spiritual ways of Christian perfection for all states and conditions in life. We propose that these three things be imitated, embraced, and followed.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael. This biography was first printed in Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, part of Our Sunday Visitor’s Noll Classics series.