A patron saint for writers

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

Feast day: Jan. 24

Lots of saints were prolific writers, but St. Francis de Sales was not just prolific, he was persuasive. The little leaflets he published on the truths of the Catholic faith - written in clear, polished prose - brought thousands of Calvinists back to the church. And for nearly 400 years his Introduction to the Devout Life has been a beloved "how to" book on giving up sinful habits and growing closer to God.

Francis' vocation was to the priesthood; he hadn't planned on becoming a writer, but circumstances forced him to take up the pen. He was born in the Savoy, a region that covered parts of southeastern France and Switzerland. Although the de Sales were staunch Catholics, a large percentage of the population of Savoy had become followers of the radical Protestant reformer, John Calvin. In 1533, Calvin and his followers overran the Geneva Diocese, drove out the bishop, expelled from the city the priests, monks and nuns, desecrated every Catholic church and chapel and outlawed all practice of the Catholic religion.

Francis was about to enter the seminary when Claude de Granier, the exiled bishop of Geneva, visited the de Sales chateau. Francis was impressed by the bishop's holiness; the bishop was impressed by Francis' holiness and learning. De Granier never forgot the young seminarian, and shortly after Francis' ordination, Pope Clement VIII, acting on the advice of Bishop de Granier, named Francis provost of Geneva, an office second only to the bishop in the diocese. The pope and the bishop asked Francis to reconvert 60,000 Calvinists to the Catholic faith and make the Geneva Diocese Catholic again.

Francis and his cousin Louis de Sales, also a priest, began by traveling through Savoy preaching to and debating with the Calvinists. Since it was impossible to visit every hamlet and farm in this mountainous region, Francis wrote a series of leaflets explaining and defending the essentials of Catholic doctrine and had them distributed in every corner of the diocese.

Success came slowly. In his first year, Francis won 200 converts. In 1597, after four years of constant labor, Francis had revived Catholicism to the point where he could initiate the 40 Hours devotion in the diocese. By paying public homage to the Blessed Sacrament, Francis would underscore the Catholic faith's belief in the Real Presence, a doctrine the Calvinists rejected.

In 1602, Bishop de Granier died, and the pope appointed Francis bishop of Geneva. Although two-thirds of Francis' diocese had returned to the Catholic Church, the city of Geneva refused even to let him set foot inside the city limits, let alone inside the cathedral. It was a crushing disappointment to Francis, but his work kept him from dwelling on it. Since he had no seminary, he taught theology courses himself and examined personally each new candidate for the priesthood. He gave catechism classes to children. And he wrote on everything from how to teach religion to how to bring religious orders back to their original zeal.

Francis' most enduring legacy as a writer is his Introduction to the Devout Life. He wrote it, he said, "for those who live in towns, in families, and at court (and are) obliged to lead outwardly at least an ordinary life." The aim of this practical, psychologically astute manual was to help ordinary Christians give up careless habits and old attachments to sin and bring them step-by-step to a deeper love of God. Francis' down-to-earth advice and casual, easygoing style helped make the book a best-seller. The publisher made a fortune. But Francis, to the horror of every writer ever since, would not accept any of the royalties.

Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life (Quirk, 2012) and St. Peter's Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found … Then Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016