1902 Encyclopedia > St Francis of Sales

St Francis of Sales
Bishop of Geneva and Catholic devotional writer

ST FRANCIS OF SALES (1567-1622), bishop of Geneva, and a well-known devotional writer of the Roman Catholic Church, was born at the Chateau de Sales, near Anneey in Savoy, in 1567. His father, known as M. de Boisy, was a Savoyard, seigneur, soldier, and diplomatist; his mother was also of a noble family and an heiress, the title de Boisy being derived from one of her hereditary possessions. Francis was their eldest son, born six years after marriage, and the child of many prayers. He received his education first at Annecy, then at the Jesuit College de Clermont in Faris, and for some time it seemed uncertain whether he should devote himself to law or the church. He studied jurisprudence, after leaving Paris, at Padua, became an ad-vocate of the senate of Savoy, and seemed likely to gratify his father's cherished ambition for his future career. But all the while Francis'sown inclinations were strongly towards the church. He had received the tonsure as early as 1578, while still a boy at Annecy, very much against his father's wishes, and the spirit shown in this early manifestation of pious self-devotion never forsook him. Notwithstanding all his father's remonstrances, he resolved to enter an ecclesi-astical life; and, the office of provost or dean of Geneva becoming vacant, the dignity of this office, which was offered to him, was used as a temptation to secure the father's consent. At length M. de Boisy gave way. Francis received holy orders (1593), and entered upon his duties as dean and preacher. He possessed great gifts as a preacher, and his fame soon spread through Savoy. His sermons were marked by great simplicity and persuasiveness. "The only real point of preaching,' he said, "is the over-throw of sin and the increase of righteousness;" and the principle of this saying guided him in all his sermons. He preached constantly, and in the simplest and most touching and popular words he could find. His father failed to ap-preciate his style of preaching, as he had failed to under-stand his self-denial. " I never refused to preach," Francis tells us, " on the principle of ' give to them that ask you.' My dear father used to hear the bells ringing, and asked who preached. 'Who but your son,' was often the answer. One day he took me aside and said, ' Provost, you preach too often ; even on week days the bells go, and it is always the same story, the provost, the provost! It used not to be so in my day. Sermons were much rarer. But then, to be sure, God knows those were something like sermons— full of learning, well got up, more Latin and Greek in one than you stick into a dozen.'" Francis, however, knew his own mind, and was not moved. " My test of the worth of a preaeher," he said, " is when his congregation go away saying not ' what a beautiful sermon,' but ' I will do some-thing.' " A man may set forth his own learning and elo-quence in a fine sermon, but the true sign of success is when his words induce people to leave off bad habits. And as he preached often, he preached briefly. " The more you say, the less people remember; the fewer your words, the greater their profit," was his motto. " When a sermon is too long, the end makes one forget the middle, and the middle the beginning."

Francis was plainly a man of some originality both of mind and character, and destined to become a power in the church to which he had so passionately devoted himself. Accordingly he soon became marked out for arduous work. Savoy was at this time greatly invaded by Calvinistic " heresies." The neighbourhood of Geneva—a focus for the dissemination of Protestantism—and the political and military complications arising out of the hostile relations of the duke of Savoy and the king of France, all tended to the progress of Calvinism. Chablais had been invaded, and Protestant ministers long established at Thonon and other towns. For nearly sixty years in fact this region had been Protestant, and the people by express stipulation enjoyed the exercise of the Beformed religion. A mission-ary of apostolic fervour and courage was required to recover the lapsed district to the Catholic faith, and all eyes were turned to the young provost of Geneva as the only man fitted to grapple with the exigencies of the position. His father as usual was the obstacle. He entreated his son not to expose himself to the dangers of such a mission, but Francis felt the call within him, and calmly replied, " I cannot refuse to obey, ' Wist ye not that I must be about my father's business?' " The result was that he gave himself for four years (1594-1598) to laborious and self-denying work in the district, often, it is said by his flattering biographers, preaching and administering the offices of his church at the peril or his life. His persuasive eloquence and the apostolic simplicity of his life were at first un-successful. The inhabitants of Chablais remained hardened in Frotestantism. But more violent measures, some of them reflecting little honour on Francis, at length succeeded in reclaiming the district to the Catholic faith. His success in this work led the pope to believe that he might gain over Calvin's celebrated successor, Theodore Beza; and lengthened conferences were held between the Protestant teacher and the Boman Catholic missionary, but without result. In 1598 Francis was appointed coadjutor bishop of Geneva, and became the official com-panion, as he had long been the warm friend of Claude de Gamier, the aged bishop who had fostered his talents and largely shaped his career. Some years after this, in 1602, he spent some time in France and especially in Faris, where his preaching attracted great crowds, and his influence was felt from the court of Henry IV. to the poor sisters at Port Boyal. Before St Cyran became the spiritual leader of Angélique Arnaud and others of the devoted band which gathered around him, Francis had given a definite direction to her thoughts and aspirations. It is not the name of Angélique Arnaud, however, but that of another celebrated pietist, who was destined to be associated with Francis de Sales. Shortly after his succession to the bishopric by the death of his aged friend, he met at Dijon Madame de Chantai, a character of rare enthusiasm and devotion, whose spirit had been greatly chastened by the loss of her husband and child. She put herself under his direction, cut off her beautiful hair, and clothed herself as a religieuse. Her good works were incessant, and she became known as the "Sainte de Monthélon." At length Francis prepared a mission for her. Submitting her saintly obedience to various tests, he intimated his decision that she was destined to establish an order for the relief of the sick and the poor, the only rules for which were to be "charity and the love of Jesus Christ." The order was not fully established till 1610, but gradually acquired great influence. The relation of the saint to Madame de Chantai and other devout ladies has been much canvassed. There was a good deal of spiritual coquetry in it, and some of his letters to them contain doubtful sentiments ; but there is no reason to doubt the purity of his character, and that his main object was to promote what he considered to be the interests of religion. He liked to be "surrounded by women," but chiefly that he might influence them for the good of the church. In 1608 Francis published his best known and most valuable work, the Introduction à la Vie Dévote, the circulation of which was immense. He became famous through all the Catholic world. Henry IV. sought to tempt him by a French bishopric; but he remained true to the country of his birth, and the com-paratively quiet and unambitious life he was able to con-tinue there. Loving, as all men of his temperament and religious attractiveness more or less do, to impress the force of his mind and character upon others, he yet seems to have been honestly free from vulgar ambition. He was a true priest, and found ample gratification in the diffusion of the spiritual charm and potency which radiated from his character and writings. His apparent simplicity was one of the most powerful elements of the wide influence which he exerted. Both as a preacher and as a writer a certain overweening "sweetness" may be said to be his marked characteristic,—a sweetness at times not without duplicity, and a taint of cold-blooded fanaticism. Possessing singular graces of character, he was yet above all things an ecclesi-astic, and had few scruples in serving the interests of his order and church. Superior to the coarser aspirations and the more commonplace ambitions of his time, he was yet often a subtle politician in the guise of a saint ; and if his animating aim was to rule hearts rather than possess for himself a great position, the means by which he sought to do so were in many cases more adroit than magnanimous. He died in the end of 1622, and was canonized in 1665.

In addition to the Introduction à la vie dévote already mentioned, which has been translated into all languages, St Francis de Sales published other works, especially a Traité de VAmour de Dieu. His complete works were published in 17 vols, in 1835. There are elaborate lives of St Francis in French by the Abbé Marsollier and Loyau d'Amboise. There is also an interesting but rather highly coloured life of the saint (Lear's Christian Biographies, 1877) by the writer of the lives of Bossuet and Fénclon, who has likewise translated his Spiritual Letters. (J. T.)

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