Francis de Sales: A Saint for Our Times

Today, Tuesday 24 January 2023, is the feast of the French Saint St Francis de Sales. Born in the castle of Sales, on 21 August 1567 and died at Lyon on December 28, 1622, he set an example of holiness that is attainable.

For the occasion of the fourth centenary from his death last year, Pope Francis wrote a beautiful apostolic letter about him named Totus amoris est (Everything Pertains to Love). When one gets to read it thoroughly one starts getting learning huge life lessons from this down-to-earth saint. A great characteristic which lies at the heart of Francis de Sales’ journey of holiness is that of having a thirst for God. As an extraordinary director of souls, he was wise enough to empower his directees to undertake their journey of holiness according to the nature of their vocation.

In the office of readings for today’s liturgical memorial, taken from his work, The Introduction to the Devout Life, St Francis de Sales brings this point so much poignantly.

When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.

I say that devotion must be practised in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbour. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganised and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfils all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.

Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its colour, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.

It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.

Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.

 In his letter Totium amoris est Pope Francis beautifully paraphrased what St Francis de Sales wrote in his famous The Introduction to the Devout life by saying that in every situation in life, … the greatest love is to be found. It is precisely because of this that Pope John Paul II called him Doctor of Divine Love, since, more than the amount of literature he left us on the subject, he himself was an outstanding witness to that love.

Pope Francis brought St Francis de Sales into our midst by presenting his flexibility and his far-sighted vision to us. This great 17th-century holy bishop managed to realize that perceived clearly that the times were changing. Even if he never have imagined that those changes represented so great an opportunity for the preaching of the Gospel however, the Word of God that he had loved from his youth now opened up before him new and unexpected horizons in a rapidly changing world.

We too today are challenged, like St Francis de Sales was, to venture outside our comfort zone. As Pope Francis put it, we are challenged to be a Church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness, even as we live in this world, share people’s lives and journey with them in attentive listening and acceptance.  That is what Francis de Sales did when he discerned the events of his times with the help of God’s grace. Today he bids us set aside undue concern for ourselves, for our structures and for what society thinks about us, and consider instead the real spiritual needs and expectations of our people.

Today we need to learn from the decisive decisions he made so that we help our world and society by offering it the wisdom of the Gospel. St Francis teaches us to seek God in both the heart and the history. Thanks to his saintly and wise example we are encouraged to espouse a faith that is not a passive and emotionless abandonment to a doctrine stripped of the flesh and history, but it is first and foremost an attitude of the heart, the result of the contemplation of the life of Jesus. St Francis learned that at the school of the Incarnation, he had learned to interpret history and to approach life with confidence and trust.

Secondly, St Francis de Sales teaches us that love is tested by discernment. As Pope Francis pointed out, St Francis de Sales had come to realize that desire is at the root of all true spiritual life, but also the cause of its debasement. Therefore he cautiously recognized the importance of constantly testing desire through the exercise of discernment. In that way he could detect the ultimate criterion for this assessment in love, by asking himself in every situation in life where the greatest love is to be found.

Thirdly, St Francis de Sales teaches us that real theology is deeply embedded in prayer and community. For Pope Francis the saint’s reflection concerning the spiritual life is of outstanding theological importance,” since it embraces two “essential dimensions of any genuine theology.” The first one is prayer, for which the Pope says: Theologians emerge from the crucible of prayer. The second aspect concerns the ability to think in the Church and with the Church. Hence, authentic Christian theologians are those who are immersed in the life of the community.

Fourthly, St Francis de Sales introduced the new style of optimism. He wisely renounced all harshness and respected completely the dignity and gifts of a devout soul, whatever its frailties. As he was approaching his death St Francis de Sales had this marvelous vision of life: The world is becoming so delicate that, in a little while, no one will dare any longer to touch it except with velvet gloves, or tend its wounds except with perfumed bandages; yet what does it matter, if only men and women are healed and finally saved? Charity, our queen, does everything for her children. It is because of this refined vision of Gospel living that, as Pope Francis comments, the saint’s realization was that that the world was changing and the mark of a completely evangelical sense of the need to respond to those changes.

Fifthly, St Francis de Sales teaches us dialogue. In fact he came to realize increasingly, along with the need for theological discussion, the effectiveness of personal relationships and charity. With the Calvinists he was a skillful controversialist whereas with the people he tried to invent myriads of ways, including the famous affiches,” short pamphlets posted everywhere and even slipped under the doors of houses, to share the saving message of the Gospel.  That is why he was chosen as the patron saint of journalists.

Finally, St Francis de Sales helps us discover the joy of loving. For Pope Francis this means that those who think they are rising to God, yet fail to love their neighbour, are deceiving both themselves and others. On the contrary, Christian life means discovering the joy of loving as well as the source of this love that attracts the heart is the life of Jesus Christ” Who gave His life for us. The Holy Father points to us the great wisdom God gave to St Francis de Sales by telling us that for the latter, while the Christian life is never without ecstasy, ecstasy is inauthentic apart from a truly Christian life. Indeed, life without ecstasy risks being reduced to blind obedience, a Gospel bereft of joy. On the other hand, ecstasy without life easily falls prey to the illusions and deceptions of the Evil one. The great polarities of the Christian life cannot be resolved and eliminated. If anything, each preserves the authenticity of the other. Truth, then, does not exist without justice, pleasure without responsibility, spontaneity without law, and vice versa.

O God, who for the salvation of souls willed that the Bishop Saint Francis de Sales become all things to all, graciously grant that, following his example, we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.