Are you a lapsed Catholic?

Pretend you were a lapsed Catholic when St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was alive. If you were, he would hunt you down like a shepherd in hot pursuit of a prized sheep.

Remember the words of Jesus, "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Lk 15:7).

Well, St. Francis de Sales truly believed that.

Francis was born to a wealthy family at the castle of Sales in Savoy. He was a brilliant student who had ambitious plans for his future. He was dreaming of becoming a successful businessman. However, in his heart there was a yearning he could not seem to quiet, so he was also struggling with the idea of becoming a priest.

Eventually God won, and Francis entered the seminary. As he deepened in faith, he realized that God had a special plan for him. After his ordination in 1593, his bishop sent him to Geneva with a specific mission in mind. It seems that Catholics there were leaving the church in droves.

Some were simply attracted by the world, but others were drawn to the powerful preaching of John Calvin. The Catholics who remained were listless and dwindling in number.

The bishop wanted Francis to go after the scattered sheep and do something to strengthen the faith of those who remained in the church. It was a formidable task. What could one priest do against such a strong tide?

Francis prayed mightily about it and then devised a plan to travel by foot from door to door, speaking about the faith to anyone who would listen. For months he met only jeers and ridicule, but he persevered.

As time went on, more and more people responded positively to his message. He would scare them with a little saying, "Because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved" (Mt 24:12-13).

Francis also learned to use the power of the pen to expand his outreach. He wrote a series of pamphlets about the faith. Because of his clarity and conviction, he touched hearts. Each pamphlet was designed to lead to the next, until they all added up to a complete explanation of the Catholic faith.

Francis was not only the writer; he was also the publisher and marketing director. He even performed the delivery service. He would slip the printed tracts under the doors in all the villages around him. Then he began preaching on street corners.

As his fame spread, the crowds grew larger. Within four years he achieved amazing results. The thousands that had left the church began returning. They not only came back; they began practicing their faith with a new fervor. The impact of his ministry became known throughout Europe.

In 1602 Francis was made the bishop of Geneva. His most famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life (1608), is still in circulation today. St. Francis died in 1622 and was canonized in 1665. He became a doctor of the Church in 1877, and in 1923 Pope Pius XI made him the patron saint of writers and journalists.

Those of you who are interested in evangelization would do well to follow his example. He understood that the most effective way to win back souls to God is to go directly to the target audience. Don't wait for them to come to you.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009