The Protestant Reformation was raging across Europe. Whole villages, entire provinces had fallen to heresies. Mortal lives lost, families torn apart, destruction on both physical and spiritual levels. It was a war for souls, and God sends a warrior of the most unlikely sort.
St. Francis de Sales was the firstborn son of wealthy French nobility. He was handsome and well-educated, skilled in fencing, riding, and dancing- the sort of pleasant example of aristocracy that was welcome in all the right houses. He was being groomed to become a magistrate, and his lessons were taking well.
Then, one night when de Sales was eighteen, he attended a theological discussion about predestination. The concept shook the youth to his very soul, filling him with such dread and revulsion that for the next two years his despair made him physically ill, at times so badly he was actually bedridden. Finally, with the last bit of his strength and will, he dragged himself to an ancient Parisian parish, and prayed the Memorare in front of a picture of Our Lady of Good Deliverance. From that moment on, he never again despaired of God’s love for all people, nor His good plans for His children, and de Sales pledged himself to God with a vow of chastity.
People around de Sales began to ask him if he considered a vocation to the priesthood. The local bishop asked him personally, and all the while, de Sales remained quiet on the subject. He wanted God’s will to be unquestionably clear before he embarked on a journey to the priesthood, and waited for an undeniable sign.
The sign came one day while de Sales was out riding. An accomplished rider, he nevertheless found himself thrown from his horse three times. Even more remarkable was the fact that each time he fell, his scabbard and sword landed on the ground in the shape of a cross. Taking this as the clear sign of God’s will that he was waiting for, de Sales received Holy Orders, and began his life as a priest.
Initially, things did not go well. Parishioners felt Father de Sales was mocking them in his homilies, and several people reported to the bishop that this noble-turned-priest was controlling and self-centered. In the face of such failure, de Sales came up with an unthinkable Plan B- he would attempt a mission trip of sorts to Switzerland, where he would attempt to convert the 60,000 people who had fallen sway to Calvinism. With nothing but his faith and his cousin to keep him company, de Sales was asking to go into a hotbed of predestination- the very theological concept that had terrified him so profoundly.
The bishop agreed, though there was no money to help support de Sales, nor would his own father bankroll the mission. Undaunted, de Sales journeyed to Switzerland, where he was met with slammed doors and assassination attempts, with frostbite and ravenous wolves. When there was no hayloft to sleep in, de Sales slept in a tree, tying himself to it so he wouldn’t fall during the night to be consumed by the beasts. One night, the temperatures fell so severely that when he awake, the gentle priest discovered he had actually been frozen to the limb and had to be cut away.
For three years things continued like this. Three years, and not a single convert. The sort of situation that would incite some to violence, others to throw in the towel. Francis de Sales did neither. Instead, he took to the pen. Writing down his sermons, he would slip them under the doors of the hostile villagers, trusting God to work on their hearts one sheet at a time.
Slowly, relations thawed. The children of the village were allowed to play with de Sales, and the parents, seeing how tenderly the priest interacted with the little ones, took hesitant steps towards conversing with the priest. By the time de Sales left Switzerland, his gentleness and patience had helped 40,000 people return to the Sacraments.
In these days of noise and instant gratification and violence masquerading as ideological fervor, we need the intercession of St. Francis de Sales all the more. We need his example of patience and gentleness and total belief in God’s perfect love. His advice to “retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others and talk to God” is the perfect tonic to the current Information Age, and his warning that “to be an angel in prayer and a beast in one’s relations with people is to go lame on both legs” is a sober warning in an image-driven culture.
The patron saint of not only journalists, but also this website, St. Francis de Sales taught that “not only should you be devout and love the devout life, but you should be making that life beautiful to behold.”
St. Francis de Sales, help us to make our lives beautiful for God. Pray for us.
MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS
FOR THE 49th WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY
Communicating the Family:
A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love
The family is a subject of profound reflection by the Church and of a process involving two Synods: the recent extraordinary assembly and the ordinary assembly scheduled for next October. So I thought it appropriate that the theme for the next World Communications Day should have the family as its point of reference. After all, it is in the context of the family that we first learn how to communicate. Focusing on this context can help to make our communication more authentic and humane, while helping us to view the family in a new perspective.
We can draw inspiration from the Gospel passage which relates the visit of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56). “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.” (vv. 41-42)
This episode first shows us how communication is a dialogue intertwined with the language of the body. The first response to Mary’s greeting is given by the child, who leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. Joy at meeting others, which is something we learn even before being born, is, in one sense, the archetype and symbol of every other form of communication. The womb which hosts us is the first “school” of communication, a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world within a protected environment, with the reassuring sound of the mother’s heartbeat. This encounter between two persons, so intimately related while still distinct from each other, an encounter so full of promise, is our first experience of communication. It is an experience which we all share, since each of us was born of a mother.
Even after we have come into the world, in some sense we are still in a “womb”, which is the family. A womb made up of various interrelated persons: the family is “where we learn to live with others despite our differences” (Evangelii Gaudium, 66). Notwithstanding the differences of gender and age between them, family members accept one another because there is a bond between them. The wider the range of these relationships and the greater the differences of age, the richer will be our living environment. It is this bond which is at the root of language, which in turn strengthens the bond. We do not create our language; we can use it because we have received it. It is in the family that we learn to speak our “mother tongue”, the language of those who have gone before us. (cf. 2 Macc 7:25,27). In the family we realize that others have preceded us, they made it possible for us to exist and in our turn to generate life and to do something good and beautiful. We can give because we have received. This virtuous circle is at the heart of the family’s ability to communicate among its members and with others. More generally, it is the model for all communication.
The experience of this relationship which “precedes” us enables the family to become the setting in which the most basic form of communication, which is prayer, is handed down. When parents put their newborn children to sleep, they frequently entrust them to God, asking that he watch over them. When the children are a little older, parents help them to recite some simple prayers, thinking with affection of other people, such as grandparents, relatives, the sick and suffering, and all those in need of God’s help. It was in our families that the majority of us learned the religious dimension of communication, which in the case of Christianity is permeated with love, the love that God bestows upon us and which we then offer to others.
In the family, we learn to embrace and support one another, to discern the meaning of facial expressions and moments of silence, to laugh and cry together with people who did not choose one other yet are so important to each other. This greatly helps us to understand the meaning of communication as recognizing and creating closeness. When we lessen distances by growing closer and accepting one another, we experience gratitude and joy. Mary’s greeting and the stirring of her child are a blessing for Elizabeth; they are followed by the beautiful canticle of the Magnificat, in which Mary praises God’s loving plan for her and for her people. A “yes” spoken with faith can have effects that go well beyond ourselves and our place in the world. To “visit” is to open doors, not remaining closed in our little world, but rather going out to others. So too the family comes alive as it reaches beyond itself; families who do so communicate their message of life and communion, giving comfort and hope to more fragile families, and thus build up the Church herself, which is the family of families.
More than anywhere else, the family is where we daily experience our own limits and those of others, the problems great and small entailed in living peacefully with others. A perfect family does not exist. We should not be fearful of imperfections, weakness or even conflict, but rather learn how to deal with them constructively. The family, where we keep loving one another despite our limits and sins, thus becomes a school of forgiveness. Forgiveness is itself a process of communication. When contrition is expressed and accepted, it becomes possible to restore and rebuild the communication which broke down. A child who has learned in the family to listen to others, to speak respectfully and to express his or her view without negating that of others, will be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in society.
When it comes to the challenges of communication, families who have children with one or more disabilities have much to teach us. A motor, sensory or mental limitation can be a reason for closing in on ourselves, but it can also become, thanks to the love of parents, siblings, and friends, an incentive to openness, sharing and ready communication with all. It can also help schools, parishes and associations to become more welcoming and inclusive of everyone.
In a world where people often curse, use foul language, speak badly of others, sow discord and poison our human environment by gossip, the family can teach us to understand communication as a blessing. In situations apparently dominated by hatred and violence, where families are separated by stone walls or the no less impenetrable walls of prejudice and resentment, where there seem to be good reasons for saying “enough is enough”, it is only by blessing rather than cursing, by visiting rather than repelling, and by accepting rather than fighting, that we can break the spiral of evil, show that goodness is always possible, and educate our children to fellowship.
Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that “silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist.” (BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 2012 World Communications Day). The media can help communication when they enable people to share their stories, to stay in contact with distant friends, to thank others or to seek their forgiveness, and to open the door to new encounters. By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, these “new possibilities”, we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it. Here too, parents are the primary educators, but they cannot be left to their own devices. The Christian community is called to help them in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good.
The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. Information is important, but it is not enough. All too often things get simplified, different positions and viewpoints are pitted against one another, and people are invited to take sides, rather than to see things as a whole.
The family, in conclusion, is not a subject of debate or a terrain for ideological skirmishes. Rather, it is an environment in which we learn to communicate in an experience of closeness, a setting where communication takes place, a “communicating community”. The family is a community which provides help, which celebrates life and is fruitful. Once we realize this, we will once more be able to see how the family continues to be a rich human resource, as opposed to a problem or an institution in crisis. At times the media can tend to present the family as a kind of abstract model which has to be accepted or rejected, defended or attacked, rather than as a living reality. Or else a grounds for ideological clashes rather than as a setting where we can all learn what it means to communicate in a love received and returned. Relating our experiences means realizing that our lives are bound together as a single reality, that our voices are many, and that each is unique.
Families should be seen as a resource rather than as a problem for society. Families at their best actively communicate by their witness the beauty and the richness of the relationship between man and woman, and between parents and children. We are not fighting to defend the past. Rather, with patience and trust, we are working to build a better future for the world in which we live.
From the Vatican, 23 January 2015
Vigil of the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
“God is God of the human heart” (The Treatise on the Love of God, I, XV). These apparently simple words give us an impression of the spirituality of a great teacher of whom I would like to speak to you today: St Francis de Sales, a Bishop and Doctor of the Church.
Born in 1567, in a French border region, he was the son of the Lord of Boisy, an ancient and noble family of Savoy. His life straddled two centuries, the 16th and 17th, and he summed up in himself the best of the teachings and cultural achievements of the century drawing to a close, reconciling the heritage of humanism striving for the Absolute that is proper to mystical currents.
He received a very careful education; he undertook higher studies in Paris, where he dedicated himself to theology, and at the University of Padua, where he studied jurisprudence, complying with his father’s wishes and graduating brilliantly with degrees in utroque iure, in canon law and in civil law.
In his harmonious youth, reflection on the thought of St Augustine and of St Thomas Aquinas led to a deep crisis. This prompted him to question his own eternal salvation and the predestination of God concerning himself; he suffered as a true spiritual drama the principal theological issues of his time. He prayed intensely but was so fiercely tormented by doubt that for a few weeks he could barely eat or sleep.
At the climax of his trial, he went to the Dominicans’ church in Paris, opened his heart and prayed in these words: “Whatever happens, Lord, you who hold all things in your hand and whose ways are justice and truth; whatever you have ordained for me… you who are ever a just judge and a merciful Father, I will love you Lord…. I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy and will always repeat your praise…. O Lord Jesus you will always be my hope and my salvation in the land of the living” (I Proc. Canon., Vol. I, art. 4).
The 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating love of God: loving him without asking anything in return and trusting in divine love; no longer asking what will God do with me: I simply love him, independently of all that he gives me or does not give me. Thus I find peace and the question of predestination — which was being discussed at that time — was resolved, because he no longer sought what he might receive from God; he simply loved God and abandoned himself to his goodness. And this was to be the secret of his life which would shine out in his main work: the The Treatise on the Love of God.
Overcoming his father’s resistance, Francis followed the Lord’s call and was ordained a priest on 18 December 1593. In 1602, he became Bishop of Geneva, in a period in which the city was the stronghold of Calvinism so that his episcopal see was transferred, “in exile” to Annecy.
As the Pastor of a poor and tormented diocese in a mountainous area whose harshness was as well known as its beauty, he wrote: “I found [God] sweet and gentle among our loftiest rugged mountains, where many simple souls love him and worship him in all truth and sincerity; and mountain goats and chamois leap here and there between the fearful frozen peaks to proclaim his praise” (Letter to Mother de Chantal, October 1606, in Oeuvres, éd. Mackey, t. XIII, p. 223).
Nevertheless the influence of his life and his teaching on Europe in that period and in the following centuries is immense. He was an apostle, preacher, writer, man of action and of prayer dedicated to implanting the ideals of the Council of Trent; he was involved in controversial issues dialogue with the Protestants, experiencing increasingly, over and above the necessary theological confrontation, the effectiveness of personal relationship and of charity; he was charged with diplomatic missions in Europe and with social duties of mediation and reconciliation.
Yet above all St Francis de Sales was a director: from his encounter with a young woman, Madame de Charmoisy, he was to draw the inspiration to write one of the most widely read books of the modern age, The Introduction to a Devout Life.
A new religious family was to come into being from his profound spiritual communion with an exceptional figure, St Jane Frances de Chantal: The Foundation of the Visitation, as the Saint wished, was characterized by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility, in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well: “I want my Daughters”, he wrote, not to have any other ideal than that of glorifying [Our Lord] with their humility” (Letter to Bishop de Marquemond, June 1615). He died in 1622, at the age of 55, after a life marked by the hardness of the times and by his apostolic effort.
The life of St Francis de Sales was a relatively short life but was lived with great intensity. The figure of this Saint radiates an impression of rare fullness, demonstrated in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the riches of his affection and the “sweetness” of his teachings, which had an important influence on the Christian conscience.
He embodied the different meanings of the word “humanity” which this term can assume today, as it could in the past: culture and courtesy, freedom and tenderness, nobility and solidarity. His appearance reflected something of the majesty of the landscape in which he lived and preserved its simplicity and naturalness. Moreover the words of the past and the images he used resonate unexpectedly in the ears of men and women today, as a native and familiar language.
To Philotea, the ideal person to whom he dedicated his Introduction to a Devout Life (1607), Francis de Sales addressed an invitation that might well have seemed revolutionary at the time. It is the invitation to belong completely to God, while living to the full her presence in the world and the tasks proper to her state. “My intention is to teach those who are living in towns, in the conjugal state, at court” (Preface to The Introduction to a Devout Life). The Document with which Pope Leo xiii, more than two centuries later, was to proclaim him a Doctor of the Church, would insist on this expansion of the call to perfection, to holiness.
It says: “[true piety] shone its light everywhere and gained entrance to the thrones of kings, the tents of generals, the courts of judges, custom houses, workshops, and even the huts of herdsmen” (cf. Brief, Dives in Misericordia, 16 November 1877).
Thus came into being the appeal to lay people and the care for the consecration of temporal things and for the sanctification of daily life on which the Second Vatican Council and the spirituality of our time were to insist.
The ideal of a reconciled humanity was expressed in the harmony between prayer and action in the world, between the search for perfection and the secular condition, with the help of God’s grace that permeates the human being and, without destroying him, purifies him, raising him to divine heights. To Theotimus, the spiritually mature Christian adult to whom a few years later he addressed his Treatise on the Love of God, St Francis de Sales offered a more complex lesson.
At the beginning it presents a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: human “reason”, indeed “our soul in so far as it is reasonable”, is seen there as harmonious architecture, a temple, divided into various courts around a centre, which, together with the great mystics he calls the “extremity and summit of our soul, this highest point of our spirit”.
This is the point where reason, having ascended all its steps, “closes its eyes” and knowledge becomes one with love (cf. Book I, chapter XII). The fact that love in its theological and divine dimension, may be the raison d’être of all things, on an ascending ladder that does not seem to experience breaks or abysses, St Francis de Sales summed up in a famous sentence: “man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of man; love, that of the spirit; and charity, that of love” (ibid., Book X, chap. 1).
In an intensely flourishing season of mysticism The Treatise on the Love of God was a true and proper summa and at the same time a fascinating literary work. St Francis’ description of the journey towards God starts from recognition of the “natural inclination” (ibid., Book 1, chapter XVI), planted in man’s heart — although he is a sinner — to love God above all things.
According to the model of Sacred Scripture, St Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man, developing a whole series of images and interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, husband and friend, who has the characteristics of mother and of wet-nurse and is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, namely, true freedom for: “love has neither convicts nor slaves, but brings all things under its obedience with a force so delightful, that as nothing is so strong as love nothing also is so sweet as its strength” (ibid., Book 1, chapter VI).
In our Saint’s Treatise we find a profound meditation on the human will and the description of its flowing, passing and dying in order to live (cf. ibid. Book IX, chapter XIII) in complete surrender not only to God’s will but also to what pleases him, to his “bon plaisir”, his good pleasure (cf. ibid., Book IX, chapter I).
As well as by raptures of contemplative ecstasy, union with God is crowned by that reappearance of charitable action that is attentive to all the needs of others and which he calls “the ecstasy of action and life” (ibid., Book VII, chapter VI).
In reading his book on the love of God and especially his many letters of spiritual direction and friendship one clearly perceives that St Francis was well acquainted with the human heart. He wrote to St Jane de Chantal: “… this is the rule of our obedience, which I write for you in capital letters: do all through love, nothing through constraint; love obedience more than you fear disobedience. I leave you the spirit of freedom, not that which excludes obedience, which is the freedom of the world, but that liberty that excludes violence, anxiety and scruples” (Letter of 14 October 1604).
It is not for nothing that we rediscover traces precisely of this teacher at the origin of many contemporary paths of pedagogy and spirituality; without him neither St John Bosco nor the heroic “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux would have have come into being.
Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks freedom, even with violence and unrest, the timeliness of this great teacher of spirituality and peace who gave his followers the “spirit of freedom”, the true spirit.
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.