By Jonathan Lynch
Returning now to our good friends, the Doctors of the Church, I would like to introduce you to a man named Francis de Sales, whose feast day is the 24th of this month. Francis was the eldest of six sons born to Francis and Frances de Sales. Talk about recycling names, right? Anyway, his family was well-to-do. Really well-to-do. His father was the lord of three communes in France, and his mother was the only child of a prominent magistrate and a noblewoman. And boy, oh boy, did Francis’ dad have some plans for him! By the time that Francis was sixteen, he had already finished studies at the Colleges of La Roche and Annecy and had gone on to the Jesuit College of Clermont in Paris to study rhetoric and humanities. (You will likely not find such majors in any college that you choose to go to, but the approximate modern equivalents would be public speaking and liberal arts.)
Now it turns out that when you go to college, you might get taught some things that are not true. Nowadays, there’s a very high chance. When Francis was at college, the falsehood that he encountered was that of double predestination. Essentially, double predestination teaches that before God created the world, he had already decided whom he was going to save and whom he was going to send to hell. Those who were predestined for heaven could act as they pleased, and those predestined to hell couldn’t do a single thing about it. For two years, Francis wrestled with despair, believing that he was among those predestined for hell. This crisis was for him so strong that it was even manifested in bodily illness to the point of being bedridden. At that age, Francis had not yet learned to detect the voice of the devil, who loves to point out the realities of our faults and sins in such a twisted way as to convince us that we are unworthy of the relationship of love that God longs to have with us.
In the end, it was Mary, the Mother of the Word Incarnate, who crushed the head of the devil once again. In desperation, Francis went to the Church of Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, in Paris, where he knelt before the famous statue of Our Lady of Good Deliverance. And there, before her, he prayed the Memorare, the prayer of trust and pleading to our Blessed Mother. And she heard his prayer. Even as he called out to her for aid, the power of Satan’s lies and fear were banished away forever, and Francis then and there made a vow of celibacy and consecrated himself, as so many great saints have done, to the protection and service of the Mother of God. Armed with this new strength, he finished his studies and went on to earn a master’s and doctoral degree in law and theology. And with this accomplished, he returned to his home, where his father had everything lined up for him: a great job as a lawyer; a prominent position as a senator; and a promising, wealthy heiress for him to marry.
It was then that Francis explained that he really wasn’t interested in all those things. His sights were set higher. But after all the work that the elder Francis had put into his son, he could not believe, understand, or allow such a renunciation all for the sake of becoming a priest. However, an agreement was reached when the Archbishop of Geneva intervened and offered the young Francis an appointment as Provost of Geneva – a high position within the diocese, second only to that of the bishop. His father at last relented, and so after signing over his rights as heir to his next brother, Francis was ordained in 1593 at the age of 26.
For the next nine years, Francis worked tirelessly, administering the Sacraments and preaching. And when it came to preaching, he had his work cut out for him. The province of Chablais had become almost entirely Calvinist, the same strain of Protestantism that had introduced the false doctrine of double predestination to Francis all those years ago. And the people did not make it easy for him. In Thonon, the capital of Chablais, a pact was made among its citizens not to even give him a hearing. At last, Francis resorted to printing out pamphlets of Catholic doctrine to slip in under people’s doors so that they could be nourished with the truth, even if they were too frightened or stubborn to come out and hear him preach. Several times, he escaped assassination by his enemies among the Calvinists. But the truth will never be conquered, and at last, Francis’ gentle manner and orthodox preaching began to have an effect. Many of those who had defected to the “reformed” religion returned to the true Church, and Francis refuted every preacher sent from the Calvinist headquarters in Geneva to stop his work. In 1599, he was made assistant bishop for the diocese, and upon the death of Claude de Granier (the same man who had opened the door to the priesthood for him) Francis was consecrated as bishop in his place. His diocese was soon known throughout Europe as a model diocese. And he was more than just a great administrator. Even as bishop, Francis made time to preach, to hear confessions, and to travel throughout the mountains of his diocese to visit his churches and to nourish them spiritually. During this time, he also wrote numerous works for the catechesis of his people. In December of 1622, while traveling with the Duke of Savoy on his Christmas tour of the province, he suffered a stroke and died the next day on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
And even after his death, one of his greatest legacies continues to live in his spiritual writings. Remember how I’d said he wrote books for the instruction of his people? Well, there are two that I’d particularly like to recommend to you. They are The Introduction to the Devout Life, and Finding God’s Will for You. The first is unique because it is a practical guide for growing in sanctity, written for the laity and not for consecrated religious. Most books which treat seriously upon the spiritual life, such as Thomas á Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mount Carmel were written primarily for those living in monasteries and convents. (Despite this, they are still solid and inspirational reading, so don’t discount them on account of their target audience.) The second book is, like its name suggests, an amazing guide on discerning God’s will for your life, which I myself found to be quite powerful in strengthening my peace and trust in God when I can’t see the road ahead.
I’ll share with you a couple great quotes that you might find in those books, or else, in his other writings:
“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.”
Even though it is easy to get caught up in the business of our everyday lives, it is very important not to forget that it is our relationship with God that makes everything we do worthwhile. And if that relationship is real, then we will turn to him often throughout the day instead of relegating him to a convenient closet from which we can take him out and dust him off for an hour on Sundays. Jesus desires to be our constant companion, but he leaves it up to us whether we will choose to abide in His presence or not.
“Make friends with the angels, who though invisible are always with you. Often invoke them, constantly praise them, and make good use of their help and assistance in all your temporal and spiritual affairs.”
Every last one of us has a guardian angel, a pure spirit whom God has appointed as our guardian and companion. How often do you talk to the guy? I know I don’t do so nearly enough. It’s easy to forget the things you can’t see. But that does not in the least diminish their importance.
“The acts of daily forbearance, the headache, or toothache, or heavy cold; the tiresome peculiarities of husband or wife, the broken glass… All of these sufferings, small as they are, if accepted lovingly, are most pleasing to God’s Goodness.”
It is the little things that, in the end, will make saints or sinners of us. Every great or large act, either good or evil, is based upon hundreds and hundreds of smaller acts. It is plain enough to see that an ordinary guy won’t wake up in the morning, smell the coffee, and decide to rob a bank or steal a couple thousand bucks from his boss. The people who do such things descend to such a level slowly by building a foundation of smaller acts of theft and dishonesty. The same principle holds for any other sin and for good works, too. We find this concept in the Gospel, where the king returns and settles accounts with his stewards: “Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matt. 25:21)
So what are some of the main lessons that we can learn from St. Francis de Sales? For one, never doubt your lovability in the eyes of God. As Francis realized, God is Love (1 John 4:8). And no matter what lies the fast-speaking, smooth-talking salesman from hell tries to sell you about your unworthiness, realize that Jesus suffered and died for love of you – you personally – so that you could have the chance to be with Him forever in heaven. If that doesn’t say something about your value, I don’t know what does.
Secondly, consecration to Mary. This is a prominent theme in the lives of many saints, because no one will love or protect you like your mom, especially when that mom is perfect, sinless, immaculate, and so powerful that even the demons tremble and flee from her in fear. If Marian Consecration is something that you feel a call to embrace, or would like to learn more about, then I would encourage you to read 33 Days to Morning Glory by Fr. Michael Gaitley or Preparation for Total Consecration by St. Louis de Montfort.
Lastly, never think that holiness is a special badge reserved only for priests and religious. St. Francis de Sales went so far as to call such a mentality “an error, even heresy.”
YOU were created to experience God’s Love in time and in eternity. YOU can be holy and lead others to Christ. YOU can become a saint with the grace of God. That is the message that St. Francis de Sales teaches us. And don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
‘Till next time, may Christ be with you all, and may His Mother shield you beneath her mantle.
All for Thee, Sweet Jesus,
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
For the glory of God
And the salvation of souls.