St. Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, was one of the greatest evangelists and most powerful confessors during the Counter-Reformation. His writings on Catholic spirituality still inspire the faithful today and his words still resonate across the centuries. Yet there was a time when Francis was entirely incapacitated by doubt and fear.
When Francis de Sales was a young man at college in Paris, he began to hear discussions and debates on predestination and the nature of salvation. This was during the late 16th century when Calvinism was devouring large parts of Western Christendom. Young Francis was swayed by some of the harsher interpretations of predestination and began to doubt his salvation. Convinced he was one of the damned, Francis began to feel terrible anguish. He fell into a deep depression and was even bedridden for a time.
But Francis did not despair completely. He made his way to the Church of St. Etienne-des-Grè and found there the statue of the Black Madonna of Paris, “Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance;” Our Lady of Good Deliverance. Here he prayed the Memorare prayer and truly was delivered from his crippling doubt. In place of this doubt, Francis was filled with the simple assurance that “God is Love.”
These words of love gave Francis freedom. Not a false freedom to remain in sin or pursue whatever fleeting fancy he felt but true freedom to be transformed by God into a whole and powerful servant. St. Francis de Sales then consecrated himself to the Virgin Mary, joined the priesthood, and was later installed as Bishop of Geneva, a part of Europe overrun by Protestants at that time.
Francis became well known as an evangelist, a confessor, and even a mystic but everything he did was marked by the simple assurance, “God is love.” For St. Francis de Sales, these words never became trite but always called him to courage, the inevitable result of true love. As St. John the Apostle wrote, “Perfect love drives out fear.” Fear crippled St. Francis as a youth but perfect love drove that his fear out and drove Francis into godliness and greatness.
It was this confidence in perfect love that allowed St. Francis de Sales to be truly honest with himself and make a courageous self-examination. Francis wrote, “Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them — every day begin the task anew.” But what does courage have to do with considering imperfections? Well, Francis, as an exemplary confessor, would have known that fear often keeps us from being truly honest about our faults. In his famous work, Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis encouraged his reader to “go on bravely in the spirit of humility to make your general confession;—but I entreat you, be not troubled by any sort of fearfulness. The scorpion who stings us is venomous, but when his oil has been distilled, it is the best remedy for his bite;—even so sin is shameful when we commit it, but when reduced to repentance and confession, it becomes salutary and honourable.”
This was the hope Francis was certain of. And this hope can lead us to be truly honest with ourselves. Sometimes, we’re embarrassed of our sins. Sometimes, we don’t want to do the work required to fix our mistakes. But often our hesitance is actually rooted in a fear that we are unlovable. We know we are sinners and are afraid others wouldn’t love us if they knew the extent of our depravity. And, despite the scriptural assurances that God does love us passionately even through our sin, we worry that maybe this isn’t true.
Our fear of being unlovable is also at the root of many of our sins as well. When we don’t truly believe God loves us, we resort to things like gossip to try to make ourselves feel better. Or we seek affection from others in hurtful ways. We act proud and flaunt our achievements. All of these sins are products of fear and doubt.
Francis, freed from doubt, was able to not only examine himself with courage but also to pursue virtue, to pursue the love that had freed him. He was also able to preach this love and to evangelize in even the most hostile places. But what made St. Francis such an effective messenger was not merely his intelligence or skill as an orator. Instead it was, again, his courage and hope in the love of God.
Oftentimes, when we become contentious or angry during a discussion, we may seem confident but are actually doubtful. Despite an outward swagger, we harbor a fear that we may be wrong. Our bluster isn’t built on bedrock and we lash out with insults to keep our argument from falling down. But, when we are truly confident in our views, we can listen and respond kindly without defensiveness. St. Francis de Sales, ever confident that “God is love” could engage with hostile enemies charitably and with grace. His assurance from God couldn’t be shaken by his Protestant interlocutors so he was able to listen and, in turn, help them hear.
Scripture tells us repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” Fear leads us away from hope and into sin. St. Francis de Sales experienced this fear and the despair it brings. But he followed Mary out of that doubt and into a life of courage and love.
Editor’s note: You can read some of St. Francis’ writings here on Catholic Exchange.