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Patron Saint

The Life of St. Francis de Sales

The tumultuous years in France after the Protestant Reformation formed the background for Francis de Sales. He was born on August 21, 1567, into a family of nobility of what was then the Kingdom of Savoy, which bordered France, Italy and Switzerland. He received his schooling under the Jesuits at the College of Clermont in Paris and the University of Padua where he earned a Doctorate in both Civil and Church Law. To the great disappointment of his father, Francis gave up a most promising civil career in favour of the priesthood. After his ordination, he was sent as a young missionary to the Chablais district of Savoy for four years. There he became famous for his pamphlets in defense of the faith. These writings were collected into a book now known as The Catholic Controversy. By the end of his missionary apostolate, Francis had persuaded about 72,000 Calvinists to return to the Catholic Church.

Francis was ordained a bishop of Geneva in 1602, but resided in Annecy (now a part of modern day France) since Geneva was under Calvinist control and therefore closed to him. His diocese became famous throughout Europe for its efficient organisation, zealous clergy and well-instructed laity — a monumental achievement in those days. Francis’ fame as a spiritual director and writer grew. He was persuaded by others to collect, organise and expand on his many letters addressing spiritual subjects, and to publish them in 1609 under the title of the Introduction to the Devout Life. This became his most famous work and remains a spiritual classic found in bookstores throughout the world. But Francis’ special project was the writing of A Treatise of the Love of God, over which he prayed and laboured many years. His desire to write a companion to the Treatise, "On the Love of Neighbour" was not realised.

Francis de Sales died on December 28, 1622, at the age of fifty-five.

In addition to the works mentioned above, his published letters, sermons and conferences comprise approximately 30 volumes. The enduring value and popularity of his writings led the Church to bestow on him the title Patron Saint of Catholic Writers. The Church also conferred upon him another title, that of Patron Saint of the Deaf, in recognition of Francis’ work and devotion with deaf people, including his creation of a sign language.

Francis collaborated with St. Jane Frances de Chantal in founding the religious order of the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, known for the simplicity of its rule and traditions and for its special openness to widows. It was through the persistence of one of these sisters some 250 years later, Mother Marie de Sales Chappuis, that Louis Brisson, a priest of Troyes in France, founded the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales — a community of priests and brothers dedicated to living and spreading the spirit and teachings of Francis. Fr. Brisson also founded a community of sisters with the same name. The spirit and reputation of Francis and the influence of his writings spread rapidly after his death.

The church formally declared him to be a Saint in 1655 and in 1867 gave him the rare title of Doctor of the Church — a title conferred on fewer than 35 other saints in the history of the Church, all of whom are renowned for their writings.

Francis de Sales’ feast day is observed by the Church on January 24th. Unlike many of the saints — whose lives full of marvelous occurrences seem to be beyond the reach of ordinary Christians — the life of de Sales presents nothing sensational. His ideals of moderation and charity, of gentleness and humility, of cheerfulness and abandonment to God’s will are expressed with a common sense spirituality that is gentle and respectful of others - this lifestyle earned Francis the appellation of ‘Gentleman Saint.’

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth, Pope Paul VI wrote an Apostolic Letter in 1967 in which he extolled the relevance of Francis de Sales to our modern age. He stated, “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 of life. We propose that these three things be imitated, embraced and followed.”