‘Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.’
Born in France in 1567, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) received an outstanding education in preparation for the career path his father had chosen for him. A privileged life of nobility awaited Francis, with a career in the legal profession. It never came to pass, though, because God had better plans.
During the years when Francis pursued his education, Calvinism was on the rise in Europe, and many Catholics were leaving the Church. For a time, Francis was convinced of predestination, one of Calvinism’s central tenets. He quickly became consumed by a fear that he was predestined for eternal damnation. Several months of spiritual darkness ensued, and Francis was exhausted emotionally and physically. He credited Mary’s intercession with a conversion experience, in which he abandoned himself totally to God’s providence and pledged to love whatever God had in store for him.
During this time of spiritual testing, a calling to ordained priesthood grew stronger for him. Although he felt the call from an early age, he did not want to disappoint his father. After Francis revealed that he wanted to abandon the career and life that had been prepared for him, his father gave his reluctant approval, and Francis was ordained a priest in 1593. By the time his father died seven years later, the two had not fully reconciled.
As Europe was absorbed by the political and religious divisions that followed the Protestant Reformation, Francis worked to bring peace and truth to all he encountered. Through his preaching and teaching, he manifested great evangelical skills for overcoming the divide between Catholics and Calvinists. He accomplished this by the tireless efforts of preaching and publications of various treatises in which he proposed anew the teachings of the Church in a simple, understandable language.
His work came with great costs: Francis barely escaped martyrdom on several occasions. His living conditions were rough, his health deteriorated, his father cut off financial assistance in hopes he would give up his missionary work. And doubts entered his mind on account of his daily interactions with those who did not believe in what he did. Through it all, Francis persevered with heroic virtue. He depended solely on God’s providence, a cause of true joy for him.
As a diocesan bishop, Francis forged a strong bond with the flock entrusted to his care. He left a major mark through his teaching, preaching and example.
Remembered as a uniquely gifted spiritual director, many of Francis’ writings were distinctive because of his strong belief that anyone could serve God in any vocation and that anyone could pursue a holy life. This was novel in many ways, since common thinking of the day held that holiness was best pursued by clergy and religious. He taught that all are called to holiness no matter their state in life.
As an attentive shepherd, Francis understood the great divisions in the Church and society and knew they would only be healed by holy living. His teaching later was a foundation for the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the universal call to holiness.
St. Francis de Sales’ last years were spent dealing with increasing health problems. On his deathbed, having suffered a stroke, a nun attending to him begged for some last advice from the dying saint. Given paper and pen, he wrote thrice, “humility.” De Sales died on Dec. 28, 1622, in Lyon, France. He was canonized in 1665, named a Doctor of the Church by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1877, and was formally named patron of writers in 1923. His feast is Jan. 24.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana. This article is taken from the ‘Saints in Times of Crisis’ booklet from Our Sunday Visitor.