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
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
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
Lost and Found Again (Image Books, 2014).