St. Francis de Sales was born on August 21, 1567, to an ancient and noble family in the Duchy of Savoy. He received a very thorough education during childhood and, in his youth, studied theology in Paris, and then, both canon and civil law at the University of Padua. Francis experienced a severe trial during his late teens, which, in turn, would give birth to a profound lesson that would permeate his heart and overflow into the lives of others. He had read a certain commentary of the time period on the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas that led him to question his own eternal salvation. At the Dominicans’ church in Paris, the tormented young man finally opened his heart and uttered these words: “Whatever happens, Lord, you who hold all things in your hand and whose ways are justice and truth…you who are ever a just judge and a merciful Father, I will love you Lord… I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy and will always repeat your praise…” From this tumultuous encounter with his own humanity, with this bold and humble prayer, he discovered the deeper meaning of his solitude, that he was “a subject of the covenant” (cf. TOB 6:2). From there, he commenced a path of audacious trust of a child.
Francis continued in this way and eventually heard the call to the priesthood. He was ordained on December 18, 1593 and, 9 years later, was consecrated bishop and appointed Shepherd of the poor and anguished diocese of Geneva, which was the stronghold of Calvinism. Due to escalating tensions, his episcopal See was “exiled” about 25 miles south to Annecy. Despite these setbacks and the pervasive and bleak theology of the Calvinists, the young bishop believed in God’s goodness and recognized that true piety “shone its light everywhere and gained entrance to the thrones of kings, the tents of generals, the courts of judges, custom houses, workshops, and even the huts of herdsmen.” For this reason, he found ways to communicate the faith, effectively. He even invented a sign language to teach a deaf man about God, the God who is not a doctrine, but a communion of Persons in whose image and likeness we are made (cf. TOB 9:2). Benedict XVI stresses this emphasis on union, “St Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man, developing a whole series of images and interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, husband and friend, who has the characteristics of mother and of wet-nurse and is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, namely, true freedom for.” From the human realities of father/son, husband/wife, and friends, we not only discern an image of the invisible God–the Father, the Husband, the Friend and his intimate relation with us–but this relation of love gives birth to deeper freedom. St. John Paul II in Men and Women He Created Them –A Theology of the Body seconds this understanding and writes, “‘the whole law’…‘finds its fullness’ in the commandment of love, the dimension of the new ethos of the Gospel is nothing other than an appeal to human freedom, an appeal for its fullest realization and in some way for the fullest ‘use’ of the powers of the human spirit.” (TOB 53:1).
In addition to this profound understanding of life in God, the Bishop was also a masterful director of souls. Indeed, he was an optimal guide because he knew God and his ways so intimately. He therefore understood how to instruct the spiritual novice with patience, as well as, challenge and encourage those more advanced in the spiritual path. His Treatise on the Love of God explains that the journey towards God starts from recognition of the “natural inclination” planted in man’s heart to love God above all things. “At the beginning it presents a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: human ‘reason’…is seen there as harmonious architecture–a temple, divided into various courts, around a center–which…he calls the ‘extremity and summit of our soul, this highest point of our spirit.’ This is the point where reason, having ascended all its steps, ‘closes its eyes’ and knowledge becomes one with love.” The aim was not to stop at certain pious practices, but of union with the beloved, who is Love.
Similarly, his treatises were never simply the fruit of intellectual speculation. He drew from his own experiences in prayer, as well as, from his relationships. For example, from his encounter with a young woman, Madame de Charmoisy, he was to draw the inspiration to write one of the most widely read books of the modern age, The Introduction to a Devout Life. Another woman that revealed and deepened the holy priest’s knowledge of the heart was Jane de Chantal. In Lent of 1604, the young widow of 32 heard the likewise young bishop’s preaching and was moved to speak to him. Through an understanding received in prayer, Francis saw Jane as a gift entrusted to his care. This relationship developed into a deep friendship and was lived in sincerity, wholesome affection, and prudence and self-mastery, which looks to purity (cf. TOB 53:4-6) and includes both abstinence and keeping reverence (cf. TOB 54:3-4). This union that was fruitful in many ways. For example, a new religious family was to come into being: The Foundation of the Visitation. Henri Nouwen reflects on this Jesus-centered, affectionate friendship, “What is most obvious from this correspondent is that Jesus stands in the center of the lives of both Francis and Jane. The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ pervades every line of the letters they both wrote. They are two people whose friendship is solidly anchored in their common love of God. It is mediated friendship. There lies the secret of their freedom and their fruitfulness. Francis and Jane are not the lonely people who clung to each other in order to find a safe home in the midst of a fearful world. Both of them have found Jesus as the bridegroom of their souls. He is the fulfillment of all their desires. He himself makes their friendship possible.”
Theologian Wendy Wright, likewise, reflects on the richness of the man-woman spiritual friendship and the parallels between marriage and celibacy. “Marriage is a celebration of the relatedness and dependency of the person in relationship to God and to fellow persons [cf. Original Unity]. In marriage one does not belong to oneself but to the other. Celibacy on the other hand celebrates the essential solitude of the person [cf. Original Solitude]. … Just as marriage as a symbol proclaims the rightness of love in the God-created world, so celibacy proclaims the rightness of the death experienced in self-denial and self-emptying. … [I]n marriage the issue of solitary and individual development has perhaps been traditionally understressed while in the celibate world the value of human relationships and their cultivation has likewise traditionally been slighted. In Jeanne’s and François’ friendship one finds both [solitude and unity] triumphantly celebrated” (cf. TOB 81:3-4). In a word, we happily witness in the pure, and therefore, very real friendship of these two saints, not a skeptical view of the other, but a living sign of the spousal meaning of the body transformed in the gift and call of celibacy for the kingdom. (cf. TOB 81:5). As the Preface of Holy Virgins and Religious proclaims, “it is right to celebrate the wonders of your providence, by which you call human nature back to its original holiness and bring it to experience on this earth the gifts you promise in the new world to come.”
The example of this great priest and saint, who entered into Life on December 28, 1607, instills in our consecrated priestly hearts a renewed hope in the power of God’s love and the beauty of deep human relationships. Pope Benedict highlights that, “The figure of this Saint radiates an impression of rare fullness, demonstrated in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the riches of his affection and the ‘sweetness’ of his teachings, which had an important influence on the Christian conscience. He embodied the different meanings of the word ‘humanity’ which this term can assume today, as it could in the past: culture and courtesy, freedom and tenderness, nobility and solidarity.” In a word, “St Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his familiar style, with words which at times have a poetic touch, he reminds us that human beings have planted in their innermost depths the longing for God and that in him alone can they find true joy and the most complete fulfillment.”
Patronage: confessors, educators, Catholic press, writers, journalists, deaf people.
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Father Steven Costello was ordained a priest with the Legionaries of Christ on December 12, 2011. Recently, he was transferred to Ontario to be chaplain to the Regnum Christi members and aid in their apostolates in service to the Hamilton diocese. He is also a doctoral student at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute and is in the process of writing his doctoral dissertation on God’s compassion and the meaning of suffering. He has participated in the TOB I: Head & Heart Immersion Course and TOB & Art: The Way of Beauty.
 We draw on Benedict XVI, “St. Francis de Sales,” Audience (March 2, 2011), https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110302.html (accessed on Dec. 17, 2016).
-  I Proc. Canon., Vol. I, art. 4.
-  cf. Brief, Dives in Misericordia, 16 November 1877).
-  Our emphasis.
-  Book I, chapter XVI.
-  Book I, chapter XII.
-  From the Preface by Henri Nouwen, in Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), 3-4.
-  Wendy M. Wright, Bond of Perfection: The Art of Spiritual Friendship: Jeanne De Chantal and François De Sales, 2nd Ed. (Stella Niagara, NY: DeSales Resource Center, 2011), 206-207.