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Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

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St. Francis de Sales, Saint Mary Oratory, Rockford, IL. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)

A stained-glass window of St. Francis de Sales, Saint Mary Oratory, Rockford, IL.

(Photo © Scott P. Richert)

Introduction to the Life of Saint Francis de Sales:

St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva and a doctor of the Church, is renowned for the clarity of his teaching and preaching. Intellectually and spiritually tormented in his youth by debates over predestination, Saint Francis, upon arriving at a proper understanding of the question, was better able to treat with charity the Calvinists of Geneva, many of whom he brought back to the Catholic Church. He remains today a model of (in the words of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which as taken Saint Francis as one of its three chief patron saints) "living the truth in charity."

Quick Facts:

  • Feast Day: January 24
  • Type of Feast: Memorial
  • Readings: Hebrews 7:25—8:6; Psalm 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 17; Mark 3:7-12 (full text here)
  • Dates: August 21, 1567 (Thorens, Duchy of Savoy, France)- December 28, 1622 (Lyons, France)
  • Symbols: Sacred Heart of Jesus
  • Patron of: Catholic press, confessors, deaf people, educators, journalists, writers, Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, Salesians of Don Bosco, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, Sisters of St. Joseph
  • Beatification: January 8, 1661, by Pope Alexander VII
  • Canonization: April 8, 1665, by Pope Alexander VII; proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX on November 16, 1877

The Life of Saint Francis de Sales:

Francis de Sales was born on August 21, 1567, to a noble family in the Duchy of Savoy, in modern-day France. His father wished him to become a magistrate judge, and Francis received an appropriate education in rhetoric, law, and the humanities. At the Collège de Clermont in Paris, where Francis studied under the Jesuits, he began to study theology as well. It was while at Clermont that Francis was exposed to debates over predestination and became convinced that he was damned. In the midst of despair, he prayed before a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Etienne-des-Grès in Paris, and came to know the boundless love of God. Freed from his doubts, about his own fate, Francis resolved to dedicate himself to Christ and to help others who had been led astray by Calvinist misunderstandings of predestination.

While Francis continued his education in law and theology at the University of Padua, Italy, his father remained steadfast in his hope for a secular career for his son. He finally relented and allowed Francis to receive holy orders when the bishop of Geneva wished to appoint Francis provost of the chapter (governing body) of the Cathedral of Geneva in 1593. Six years later, the same bishop chose Saint Francis as his coadjutor, which meant that Francis would succeed him as bishop of Geneva, and he did so in 1602.

By this point, Saint Francis was already well known for his preaching and his evangelization, having converted many prominent Calvinists. But Saint Francis was not satisfied simply with winning souls back to the Church; he wanted to ensure that Catholics were not led astray as he had almost been. As bishop, he began programs of catechesis, for adults as well as children, and reformed the clergy and religious congregations under his control. He continued to preach constantly and to hear confessions, as well as to write great works of apologetics, especially his Treatise on the Love of God, and of spiritual direction, including An Introduction to the Devout Life, which the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, in its entry on St. Francis de Sales, calls "a masterpiece of psychology, practical morality, and common sense" aimed at the development of piety in the layman. Four centuries later, An Introduction to the Devout Life remains one of the most popular works of spiritual direction.

Greatly beloved by his flock and sought out by Catholics throughout France, Saint Francis lived an austere life and dedicated himself to the poor. While bearing the immense responsibilities of a bishop, he preached daily, especially in his final years, and offered spiritual direction by correspondence to lay Catholics, rich and poor, noble and common.

Traveling to Lyons, France, with the court of the duke of Savoy in 1622, he suffered a stroke on December 27 and died the next day, declaring, "God's will be done!" His body was returned to Annecy, the French town south of Geneva where the bishopric of Geneva had been moved after the Calvinist occupation of the city, but the people of Lyons convinced the Church to allow his heart to remain in the city where he had died. On January 24, 1623, Saint Francis was buried in Annecy at the convent of the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, which he had cofounded with St. Jane Frances de Chantal. His tomb remains a place of pilgrimage today.

St. Francis de Sales' reputation for sanctity was so great that he was beatified by Pope Alexander VII less than 40 years after his death, and canonized in 1665. The clarity of Saint Francis's spiritual writing convinced Pope Pius IX to add him to the list of the doctors of the Church in 1877.

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