The Protestant Reformation was raging across Europe. Whole villages, entire provinces had fallen to heresies. Mortal lives lost, families torn apart, destruction on both physical and spiritual levels. It was a war for souls, and God sends a warrior of the most unlikely sort.
St. Francis de Sales was the firstborn son of wealthy French nobility. He was handsome and well-educated, skilled in fencing, riding, and dancing- the sort of pleasant example of aristocracy that was welcome in all the right houses. He was being groomed to become a magistrate, and his lessons were taking well.
Then, one night when de Sales was eighteen, he attended a theological discussion about predestination. The concept shook the youth to his very soul, filling him with such dread and revulsion that for the next two years his despair made him physically ill, at times so badly he was actually bedridden. Finally, with the last bit of his strength and will, he dragged himself to an ancient Parisian parish, and prayed the Memorare in front of a picture of Our Lady of Good Deliverance. From that moment on, he never again despaired of God’s love for all people, nor His good plans for His children, and de Sales pledged himself to God with a vow of chastity.
People around de Sales began to ask him if he considered a vocation to the priesthood. The local bishop asked him personally, and all the while, de Sales remained quiet on the subject. He wanted God’s will to be unquestionably clear before he embarked on a journey to the priesthood, and waited for an undeniable sign.
The sign came one day while de Sales was out riding. An accomplished rider, he nevertheless found himself thrown from his horse three times. Even more remarkable was the fact that each time he fell, his scabbard and sword landed on the ground in the shape of a cross. Taking this as the clear sign of God’s will that he was waiting for, de Sales received Holy Orders, and began his life as a priest.
Initially, things did not go well. Parishioners felt Father de Sales was mocking them in his homilies, and several people reported to the bishop that this noble-turned-priest was controlling and self-centered. In the face of such failure, de Sales came up with an unthinkable Plan B- he would attempt a mission trip of sorts to Switzerland, where he would attempt to convert the 60,000 people who had fallen sway to Calvinism. With nothing but his faith and his cousin to keep him company, de Sales was asking to go into a hotbed of predestination- the very theological concept that had terrified him so profoundly.
The bishop agreed, though there was no money to help support de Sales, nor would his own father bankroll the mission. Undaunted, de Sales journeyed to Switzerland, where he was met with slammed doors and assassination attempts, with frostbite and ravenous wolves. When there was no hayloft to sleep in, de Sales slept in a tree, tying himself to it so he wouldn’t fall during the night to be consumed by the beasts. One night, the temperatures fell so severely that when he awake, the gentle priest discovered he had actually been frozen to the limb and had to be cut away.
For three years things continued like this. Three years, and not a single convert. The sort of situation that would incite some to violence, others to throw in the towel. Francis de Sales did neither. Instead, he took to the pen. Writing down his sermons, he would slip them under the doors of the hostile villagers, trusting God to work on their hearts one sheet at a time.
Slowly, relations thawed. The children of the village were allowed to play with de Sales, and the parents, seeing how tenderly the priest interacted with the little ones, took hesitant steps towards conversing with the priest. By the time de Sales left Switzerland, his gentleness and patience had helped 40,000 people return to the Sacraments.
In these days of noise and instant gratification and violence masquerading as ideological fervor, we need the intercession of St. Francis de Sales all the more. We need his example of patience and gentleness and total belief in God’s perfect love. His advice to “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” is the perfect tonic to the current Information Age, and his warning that “to be an angel in prayer and a beast in one’s relations with people is to go lame on both legs” is a sober warning in an image-driven culture.
The patron saint of not only journalists, but also this website, St. Francis de Sales taught that “not only should you be devout and love the devout life, but you should be making that life beautiful to behold.”
St. Francis de Sales, help us to make our lives beautiful for God. Pray for us.