When the twenty-six-year-old priest set off for the province of Chablais – a region now divided between France and Switzerland – perhaps not even the most optimistic of men could have foreseen what would result from his activity.
More than sixty years of fierce Calvinist domination had practically banished the true religion from there, and the few Catholics who remained hardly dared to practise it in public. Fr. Francis de Sales was therefore prepared for a mission that was not only dangerous, but apparently humanly impossible – but not for God. Thirty years later, when he died, he had converted seventy-two thousand heretics to the bosom of the Church and left a spiritual legacy that still nourishes souls today.
Birth and early studies
On August 21, 1567, a boy was born in the Sales castle in Savoy, France. His mother, a lady of marked piety, while still carrying him in her womb, had begged God to preserve him from all the corruption of the world, for she would rather be deprived of the joy of being a mother than have a son who would become her enemy through sin. These pleas, as the future would show, were very well received by the Most High, and their results certainly exceeded her hopes. The infant was baptized the day after his birth and given the name Francis Bonaventure.
His parents, Francis, Count of Sales, and Frances of Sionnaz, both of illustrious lineage, took great care in his upbringing. The countess often took him to church and encouraged him to pray, to which he responded with grandeur of soul. In this way, the child’s admiration for sacred things and the heroic deeds of the saints grew day by day.
Teachers were hired to instruct him in the human sciences and letters, and the young man showed an impressive insight and profundity of spirit. His father, who had already set his sights on a promising career, decided to send him to school in the neighbouring town of La Roche when he was not yet six years old.
After two years, he was transferred to the school in Annecy. Around this time, he received his First Holy Communion and Confirmation. His desire to consecrate himself entirely to divine service increased as he grew in devotion and maturity, but his father had no ears for his son’s holy aspirations. A few years later, he decided that Francis should study in Paris.
A harrowing ordeal dispelled by the Blessed Virgin
The years he spent in the City of Light were decisive for his vocation. There he studied rhetoric, philosophy and theology, as well as Hebrew and Greek. In addition, in order to please his father, he learned to ride a horse, wield weapons and dance – indispensable skills at the time for a man of his class. However, Francis had little enthusiasm for these entertainments, finding much greater satisfaction in spiritual reading and sacred meditation.
It was also during this period that God chose to try his beloved son. “Around the age of eighteen, he was assailed by an agonizing temptation to despair. Love for God had always been the most important thing for him, but he had the impression that he had lost divine grace and that he was destined to eternally hate God along with the damned. This obsession haunted him day and night, and his health began to deteriorate.”1
One day, as he stood before a statue of Our Lady in the Church of St. Stephen of Grés, he found solace. With his eyes fixed on the Virgin, he begged her at least for the grace to love with all his strength the God he was destined to hate forever in hell. As soon as he finished his prayer, he felt an indescribable consolation that removed the darkness that had enveloped his soul.
A few years later, the young man finished his studies in Paris and, at his father’s behest, went to Padua to study law. After obtaining his degree, he was able to return home. The Count of Sales arranged a charming prospective bride for him, but she soon perceived that he was not willing to fulfil his father’s wishes. He was also offered a prestigious position in the senate of Chambéry, but turned it down. He was then twenty-four years old and, until then, had only revealed to his mother and the canon of Geneva Cathedral, his cousin Louis de Sales, his decision to consecrate himself entirely to God.
“We must break down the walls of Geneva”
Naturally, his refusal to marry and to serve in the senate displeased his father, but he did not suspect that his son longed for the priesthood. Around this time, a very important post had become vacant in the Diocese of Geneva and Louis de Sales thought of getting it for his cousin, which would help satisfy his father’s wishes. Without consulting any member of the family, he went to the Pope, explained the matter to him and strongly recommended Francis for the post, to which the Pontiff agreed.
The Count of Sales was amazed at the dignity to which the Vicar of Christ was elevating his son, but it was only after much patience and persistent argument that he was convinced.
Finally, on December 18, 1593, Francis was ordained a priest. Already in his first speech, he set out his goal: to win back for the Holy Church the region of Geneva, which had been under Calvinist influence for years. “We must break down the walls of Geneva through ardent prayer and carry out the assault through fraternal charity. Therefore, advance and take courage, my good brothers! Everything yields to charity! Love is as strong as death, and for those who love, nothing is difficult,” he proclaimed on the occasion.2
The young priest exercised his ministry with tireless zeal. He celebrated Mass with exemplary devotion, his sermons attracted people from all over the region and his unflagging kindness, despite his choleric temperament, was already beginning to convert the most hardened hearts.
Providence had, in short, found in him what was needed to entrust to him an arduous and glorious mission, to which Fr. Francis de Sales would dedicate himself with an ardour similar to that which animated the first Apostles.
On the road to Chablais
The first Calvinist preachers had arrived in Geneva in 1532. A few years later, the Mass had been banned, the bishop expelled and the reform officially adopted. The city became the centre of Calvinism and was called the “Protestant Rome”.
Gradually, the heretics’ work, combined with that of the Protestant armies, had drastic repercussions in the border province of Chablais, which belonged to the Duchy of Savoy, leading many to apostasy. At the time of Francis de Sales, there were not a hundred Catholics among the 30,000 souls who lived there.
In 1594 the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel, decided to re-establish the true religion there and asked Bishop Claude de Granier of Geneva, who resided in Annecy, to send missionaries for the enterprise.
The prelate gave an eloquent speech to his clergy, but the fear of death and difficulties intimidated everyone present. Only one volunteered for the task, Fr. Francis de Sales, who was then joined by his cousin Louis de Sales. Kneeling before the Bishop, he said: “If you believe that I can be useful in this mission, give me the order to go, for I am ready to obey, and I will consider myself blessed to have been chosen for it.”3
The two set off on September 14, 1594, the feast of the Holy Cross. When they reached the border of Chablais, Francis knelt down and, through tears, prayed to God to bless his work.
The beginning of the apostolate in Thonon
They decided to begin their apostolate in the capital Thonon, where there were only twenty Catholics left, afraid to publicly profess their faith for fear of the heretics. The priests encouraged them to remain faithful to the Catholic religion and not to be daunted by persecution.
The local magistrates, despite the governor’s letters of recommendation to receive the missionaries, refused to listen to them and treated them with characteristic Calvinistic harshness. They moreover began to look for a way to stir up the population against them.
Nevertheless, Francis de Sales did not give up. His invitations to public debates having been refused, he decided to pay private visits to the townspeople. Little by little, the politeness and kindness with which he treated the heretics began to bear fruit. Attracted by his good example, so different from that of the Huguenot ministers puffed up with pride and rancour, many people amended their lives.
A convert offered his home as a meeting place. Francis lectured there on the Catholic Faith, and the conversions increased daily. The Huguenot ministers, alarmed, decided to kill the missionary’s benefactor. A relative of his was tasked with the crime, and one day he took him for a walk in a remote part of the city. But his intention had been discovered by the victim, who told him: “My friend, I know what you are up to: you have come here to murder me. But do not be afraid, for if your religion leads you to kill friends and relatives, mine obliges me, like Jesus Christ, to forgive the cruellest of enemies.”4 Confounded by such kindness, the frustrated murderer asked for a private meeting with Fr. Francis and became a fervent Catholic.
These frequent conversions only increased the hatred of the heretics, who twice tried to end the holy missionary’s life. Providence, however, saved him on both occasions. His father, fearing he would lose him, urged the Bishop of Geneva to send him back to Annecy, but Francis did not accept this and continued to preach.
One of his sermons resulted in the conversion of more than six hundred people. Taking advantage of this, he called the Huguenot ministers to a public conference, an invitation accepted by only one of them. This individual was unable to resist the Catholic priest’s arguments and ended up publicly abjuring his errors. His former companions in the sect killed him for this “crime”.
Fr. Francis de Sales moved hearts not only through the power of words, but also through miracles. One young woman in Thonon, despite listening with delight to his sermons and recognizing that his arguments were irrefutable, said that she would not abandon Calvin’s heresy. But God had other designs.
Her baby, who had just been born to her, died without Baptism because she had decided to delay its administration based on her mistaken belief. With her soul immersed in anguish and distress for having deprived her child of this grace, she ran to Fr. Francis’ feet and begged him: “My dear father, bring back my son at least as long as it takes for him to receive Baptism, and I will become a Catholic!”5
Moved by the mother’s tears, he knelt down and asked God to have mercy. Returning home, she found the child alive and immediately took him to the church to be baptised. The prodigy brought his entire family and many of the city’s Calvinists to the Catholic Faith, for they had seen the truth of what had happened with their own eyes.
Patron Saint of journalists
Despite his achievements, many still refused to listen to him. To overcome this difficulty, he decided to write down the points of the Catholic Faith that he would deal with in the following Sunday’s sermon on separate sheets of paper, which were then copied by his faithful. These pamphlets were distributed from house to house. A controversial and daring initiative, certainly, but one that made the truth known to those who refused hear him.
It was from these pages, written in a veritable regime of war, that the work Controversies was later published. Its style and argumentation reveal the talent of the apologetic writer, explaining intricate points of doctrine in a clear and accessible way. For this reason, in 1923, Pope Pius XI proclaimed him patron of Catholic journalists and writers.
All his efforts bore abundant fruit. The ardent pastor converted seventy-two thousand heretics to the true religion. A few years after the mission began, Bishop Granier visited the region and was impressed by the fervour he saw there. Fr. Francis de Sales had succeeded in restoring the Faith in a region that had spent more than sixty years under the dominion of heresy.
The cross of the episcopate
In view of these successes and the aura of holiness that surrounded the new apostle, Bishop Granier proposed his name for Coadjutor Bishop of Geneva to Pope Clement VIII. At first, Francis was reluctant to accept, but recognizing that it was God’s will, he consented.
On the appointed day, he appeared in Rome for an examination prior to his episcopal consecration, which was attended by eminent theologians such as St. Robert Bellarmine and Cardinal Cesare Baronio. The Supreme Pontiff was amazed by the candidate’s wisdom and modesty.
Thus, in 1602 he was finally ordained bishop. In the autumn of the same year, when Bishop Granier died, he assumed the government of the diocese. Bishop Francis de Sales took up residence in Annecy, where he looked after the flock entrusted to him with a supernatural pastoral zeal.
A gift for guiding souls
It is said that, after his death, his desk was found heavily scratched on the underside, suggesting that, in order to control himself when debating with the Calvinists, this saintly man had dug his nails into the wood. The kindness and patience that attracted so many to the bosom of the Church, and which seemed to come simply from his nature, were in fact the fruit of a heroic virtue that completely stifled the reactions of his choleric temperament.
Furthermore, among the main works that he bequeathed to posterity, the Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise on the Love of God particularly reflect the interior of this man who knew how to give himself entirely for the good of others, and highlight his sublime art of guiding souls on the path to holiness.
The legacy of one of his spiritual daughters demonstrates this. Baroness Jeanne de Chantal, who had lost her husband at the age of twenty-eight, came under his direction in 1604, beginning a supernatural relationship from which abundant fruit would emerge. In 1610, under the auspices of the Bishop of Geneva, she founded the Congregation of the Visitation, which thirty-one years later already had eighty-three monasteries.
“The measure of loving God is to love Him without measure”
The breadth and magnitude of his work may prompt the reader to ask: how did he manage to achieve all this? The truth is that, for those who truly love God and are willing to carry out His will, the Lord crowns their meagre human efforts with grace and brings forth great works from them. According to the maxim of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, transcribed by the Bishop of Geneva in his works, “the measure of loving God is to love Him without measure.”6 This is the secret of his triumph.
St. Francis de Sales died at the age of fifty-six on December 28, 1622, in the city of Lyon, after pronouncing the sweet name of Jesus. He was canonized in 1665 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877. His feast is celebrated on January 29, the day his mortal remains were transferred to Annecy. ◊
1 BUTLER, Alban. Vida de los Santos. Ciudad de México: John W. Clute, 1965, v I, p.199.
2 RICHARDT, Aimé. Saint François de Sales et la Contre-Réforme. Paris: François-Xavier de Guibert, 2013, p.72.
3 BUTLER, op. cit., p.200.
4 ROHRBACHER, René François. Vidas dos Santos. São Paulo: Editora das Américas, 1959, v.II, p.262.
5 HAMON, M. Vie de Saint François de Sales. Paris: Victor Lecoffre, 1924, p.170.
6 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Tratado sobre el amor a Dios, c.VI, n.16. In: Obras Completas. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1993, v I, p.323.