Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop, Doctor of the Church

Author: Lives of Saints


Feast: January 29

Francis de Sales was born at the Chateau de Sales in Swiss Savoy on August 21, 1567, and at his baptism in the parish church of Thorens was named Francis Bonaventura, for two greatly loved Franciscan saints. The room in which he was born was known as the "St. Francis room," from an old painting on the wall showing the friar of Assisi preaching to the birds; and it was this lover of all living creatures whom Francis de Sales was to choose as his patron in later years. His father, the Seigneur de Nouvelles, was an aristocrat who had served his country well in war and peace. On his marriage to the only child of Melchior de Sionnaz, who brought as her dowry the Signory of Boisy, he took the name of Boisy. When Francis was born, the eldest of thirteen children, his mother was only fifteen. The boy was frail at birth, but with devoted care he grew to vigorous maturity.

Young as she was, Francis' mother kept his early education largely in her own hands; after a few years she was aided by the excellent Abbe Deage, who acted as the boy's tutor and companion. Francis was obedient, truthful, and habitually generous to those less fortunate than himself. He was responsive in matters of religion, and seems to have loved books and knowledge. At the age of eight he was sent to the nearby college of Annecy, and there, in the church of St. Dominic (now called St. Maurice), he made his First Communion and received Confirmation. A year later he was permitted to take the tonsure, for he was set even then on consecrating himself to the Church, and this was regarded as the first step. His father, a worldly man, who planned a brilliant career for his son in public life, attached little importance to the ceremony. In his fourteenth year Francis went to the University of Paris, accompanied by the Abbe Deage. The University, with its fifty-four colleges, was still the most famous center of learning in Europe. Monsieur de Boisy had selected for his son the College of Navarre, for it was frequented by the sons of the noble families of Savoy, but Francis resolved to go to the College of Clermont which was under Jesuit direction, and renowned for both piety and scholarship.

At the College of Clermont Francis soon excelled in rhetoric and philosophy, and other subjects arousing his most fervent enthusiasm were theology and the Scriptures. To please his father, he took lessons in riding, dancing, and fencing, but cared for none of these gentlemanly accomplishments. During this time his heart became more and more fixed on giving himself to God, and he took a vow of perpetual chastity, placing himself under the special protection of the Blessed Virgin. He was, nevertheless, not free from trials. The love of God had always meant more to him than anything else, and now he became prey to the fear that he had lost God's favor. This obsession haunted him day and night. It was a heroic act of pure love that finally brought him deliverance. "O Lord," he cried, "if I am never to see Thee in Heaven, this at least grant me, that I may never curse or blaspheme Thy holy name. If I may not love Thee in the other world-for in Hell none praise Thee-let me at least every instant of my brief existence here love Thee as much as I can." Directly afterwards, as he knelt in the church, all fear and despair suddenly left him and he was filled with peace. This experience of his youth taught him to deal understandingly with the spiritual crises of those who, at a later period, looked to him for guidance.

After six years in Paris he was called home by his father, who sent him to the University of Padua to study jurisprudence. He was at Padua for four years, and there, as at Paris, he won a name for scholarship and virtuous conduct. At twenty-four he was given the degree of Doctor of Law. A pilgrimage to Loreto and a short stay at Rome followed, then he returned to his father's chateau. For some eighteen months, he led, at least outwardly, the life of a conventional young nobleman. That his son and heir should now settle down and marry was Boisy's desire, and this autocratic father had already chosen for him a charming bride. Francis, by his distant though courteous manner to the young lady, soon made it plain that in this matter, as in many others, he could not carry out his father's wishes. Not long afterwards he again annoyed his father by declining the honor offered him by the prince of Savoy of a seat in the senate, an unusual compliment to one so young.

The Catholic bishop of Geneva, Claude de Granier, was living at Annecy, his own diocese now being in Calvinist hands. The bishop, impressed by Francis' character, is reported to have made this prophetic utterance to those about him: "This young man will be a great personage some day! He will become a pillar of the Church and my successor in this see." So far Francis had confided only to his mother and a few friends his desire for a life in the Church; an explanation to his father now became inevitable. Monsieur de Boisy had been much chagrined by his son's refusal to marry and also by his rejection of the senatorship, but he was not prepared for this new disappointment. He withheld his consent. The unexpected death just then of the provost of the chapter of cathedral canons made Francis' cousin, Canon Louis de Sales, hope that Francis might be appointed to this honorable post, in which case his father might yield. The post was offered, Francis accepted it, and thus he finally obtained his father's permission to enter the priesthood. The young man was already so well prepared by his purity of life and by his theological studies that there was no need for the usual delay. On the very day his father gave his consent, Francis put on ecclesiastical dress and three weeks later took minor orders. Six months afterwards, on December 18, 1593, at the age of twenty-six, he was ordained priest by the bishop of Geneva in the parish church of Thorens.

Before offering the Holy Sacrifice, Francis went into a short retreat, during which he made several important resolutions. One of these was to use every moment of the day as a preparation for the morrow's Mass, so that if he were asked, "What are you doing at this moment?" he could always truly answer, "Preparing to celebrate Mass." On the feast of St. Thomas, December 21, in the cathedral of Annecy, he consecrated the Host for the first time, his parents being among those who received Communion at his hands. A few days later he was installed provost of the chapter of Geneva. He took up his duties with an ardor that never abated. He ministered lovingly to the poor and in the confessional devoted himself to the needs of the humblest with special care. His style of preaching was so simple that it charmed his hearers; scholar though he was, he refrained from filling his sermons with Greek and Latin quotations and theological subtleties, in the prevailing fashion.

Before long he was called on to undertake a far more difficult task. The Chablais, a section of Savoy on the south shore of Lake Geneva, had been invaded about sixty years earlier by militant Protestants from Berne, who took over the western part of it as well as the Pays de Vaud and the Pays de Gex, on the north shore of the lake. Catholic worship was outlawed, and churches were burned or razed when not appropriated for Protestant use. Religious orders were suppressed and priests expelled. Thirty years later the duke of Savoy, by giving up his claim to Vaud, had got back the Chablais and Gex, but on condition that the Catholic religion remain forbidden. In 1589 the Protestants of Berne again invaded the Chablais only to be repulsed, and by the Treaty of Nyon had agreed to allow the reestablishment of Catholic worship in the province and to restrict Protestant teaching to three towns, of which Thonon, the capital, was not to be one. But they soon broke their agreement and made a fresh attempt to conquer both the Chablais and Gex.

As soon as hostilities ceased, the duke appealed to the bishop of Geneva to send Catholic missionaries into the district. The pious ecclesiastic who undertook this mission was a timid soul who eventually withdrew in fear of personal violence and in despair of ever achieving success. The bishop now summoned his canons and put the situation before them, disguising none of the difficulties. When the bishop had concluded, Francis stood up to offer himself, saying simply, "Monseigneur, if you think I am capable, tell me to go. I am ready, and should rejoice to be chosen." To his delight, the bishop accepted Francis at once. Monsieur de Boisy tried to stop his son, but nothing could shake Francis' resolution. He departed without his father's blessing.

Traveling on foot with little money, Francis, accompanied by his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales, set out in September of 1594 to win the Chablais back to its ancient faith. The Chateau des Allinges, six or seven miles from Thonon, was a Catholic stronghold where the governor of the province was stationed with a garrison of soldiers, and to this fortress the two cousins were to return each night for the sake of safety. At Thonon, the Catholic population of the city had been reduced to about twenty persons, who were too intimidated to declare themselves openly. Francis sought them out one by one for private interviews and inspired them with renewed courage. He and his cousin gradually extended their efforts to the villages of the surrounding countryside.

The long walk night and morning to and from Allinges was a heavy tax on their strength and during the winter it exposed them to real dangers. Once Francis was set upon by wolves and only escaped by spending the night in a tree. When daylight came he was discovered by some peasants in such an exhausted condition that had they not helped him to reach their hut and revived him with food and warmth, he would have died. These good people were Calvinists. With his thanks Francis spoke words of enlightenment and charity and his rescuers were later restored to the faith. Twice in January, 1595, he was waylaid by Protestant fanatics who had sworn to take his life. On both occasions he was saved, seemingly, by a miracle.

Although at first the missionaries had little reward for their labors, they did not lose heart. Francis continually sought new ways to reach the minds of the people. He began to write brief leaflets, setting forth the leading dogmas of the Church as opposed to the tenets of Calvinism. These little papers, on which he worked in spare moments, were copied and recopied by hand and widely distributed. Later they were collected and printed in a volume called <Controversies>. Copies of these leaflets in the original written form are still preserved in the convent at Annecy.

To this work Francis added the spiritual direction of the soldiers quartered in the Chateau des Allinges, who, though nominally Catholic, were ignorant and dissolute. He instructed them and persuaded many to reform their lives. In the summer of 1595 he climbed the mountain of Voiron to restore an oratory to the Blessed Virgin which had been destroyed by the Bernese. On the way he was attacked by a hostile crowd, who beat him and drove him back. Soon after this his sermons at Thonon were drawing larger congregations. The little tracts or leaflets, scattered abroad, proved quietly effective, and in time there was a stream of lapsed Catholics asking for reconciliation with their Church.

Francis now went to live openly at Thonon. Oblivious of calumny and danger, he preached in the market place and held public disputations with leading Calvinist ministers of the district. Later on he was commissioned by Pope Clement VIII to debate with Theodore Beza, a distinguished Calvinist scholar. Francis was not able to bring Beza back into the Church, but many Protestants were convinced that Francis had the truth on his side. When, after three or four years, Bishop de Granier came to visit the mission, the results of Francis' untiring zeal were plain to see. Catholic faith and worship had been reestablished in the province, and by 1598 the whole district was once more predominantly Catholic.

Francis was very tender in his reception of sinners and apostates who had returned to the faith. He would greet them with the warmth of a father, saying, "Come, my dear children, come, let me put my arms around you. Ah, let me hide you in the bottom of my heart! God and I will help you, all I ask of you is not to despair; I will take on myself the rest of the burden." His affectionate care of them extended even to their bodily wants, and his purse was open to them as well as his heart. When told that his generosity would only encourage sinners, he replied: "Has not our Blessed Lord shed His blood for them, and shall I refuse them my tears? These wolves will be changed into lambs; a day will come when, cleansed of their sins, they will be more precious in the sight of God than we are. If Saul had been cast off, we should never have had St. Paul."

The bishop had long been considering Francis as a coadjutor and successor, but Francis declined the honor, thinking himself unworthy. In the end he yielded. No sooner was his decision made than he fell dangerously ill with a fever. When he had regained his strength, he started for Rome, accompanied by the Abbe de Chisse, who was to handle diocesan matters and arrange for the coadjutorship. At Rome Cardinal de Medici presented Francis to Pope Clement VIII. Having heard much praise of the young provost, the Pope suggested that he be examined in his presence. On the appointed day there was an assemblage of learned theologians, including the Church historian Baronius, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo. They put to Francis thirty-five questions on points of theology. He answered all of them simply and modestly, yet in a way that demonstrated his profound understanding. The Pope declared himself completely satisfied, and embraced and congratulated the candidate. Francis' appointment as coadjutor for the diocese of Geneva was confirmed, and he returned to take up his local work with fresh energy. The following year, his father, aged seventy-nine, died at the Chateau de Sales, comforted during his last hours by his eldest son.

Early in 1602 Bishop de Granier sent Francis to Paris to negotiate with King Henry IV[1] on behalf of the French section of the diocese of Geneva. During his stay he was invited to preach a course of sermons in the Chapel Royal, which soon proved too small to hold the crowds that came to listen to his uncompromising words of truth. He was in high favor with King Henry, who said of him, "Monseigneur de Geneve has every virtue and not a fault." The King offered many inducements to Francis to remain in France, and renewed his persuasions when Francis was again in Paris some years later. But the young bishop would not forsake "my poor bride," as he called his mountain diocese.

On the death of Bishop de Granier in the autumn of 1602, he succeeded to the see of Geneva and took up residence at Annecy, living in a style appropriate to the office but with a household conducted on lines of strict economy. His personal life was one of evangelical poverty. He fulfilled his episcopal duties with devotion and along with the administrative work continued to preach and serve in the confessional. He instituted the teaching of the Catechism throughout his diocese, and at Annecy gave the instruction himself with such fervor that years after his death the "Bishop's Catechisms" were still remembered. Children loved him and followed him about, eager for his blessing.

Through an immense correspondence he brought encouragement and guidance to innumerable persons. For sixteen years a sharer in his work was Jeanne Francoise Fremyot (St. Jane Frances de Chantal), with whom he became acquainted in 1604, while he was preaching at Dijon. The baroness of Chantal was only twenty-four when, after the death of her husband, she decided to enter the religious life. One result of her meeting with Francis was the foundation, in 1610, of the Order of the Visitation, to meet the needs of widows and lonely women in poor health, "strong souls with weak bodies," who were deterred from joining other orders because of their physical condition. Some of St. Francis' best thought is to be found in the letters he wrote to this great woman, who was herself canonized in 1767. What is perhaps his most famous book, the <Introduction to the Devout Life>, grew out of a series of casual letters written to another woman, a cousin by marriage, Madame de Chamoisy, who had placed herself under his guidance. This little collection of short practical lessons on true piety and everyday living was published in 1608. It was soon translated into many languages, and has continued to find readers.

In 1610 came the heavy sorrow of Madame de Boisy's death. Francis was to survive his mother by twelve years—probably the most laborious of his life. His young brother, Jean-Francois de Sales, was consecrated bishop in 1621 and appointed coadjutor in the diocese of Geneva. His help was welcome to Francis, whose health was failing under the ever-increasing duties. The following year the duke of Savoy, traveling in state to meet King Louis XIII in Languedoc, invited the good bishop of Geneva to join him. Anxious to obtain from Louis certain religious privileges for the French part of his diocese, Francis accepted, although the journey promised to be chilly and uncomfortable. Before leaving Annecy he set his affairs in order, as if he had no expectation of returning. On his arrival at Avignon, he avoided the pomp and entertainments of the brilliant court gathered there, and tried to lead his customary austere life. But the famous bishop was much sought after; people wanted to see him and to hear him preach.

He was worn out, therefore, when he stopped at Lyons on his return. The convent of the Visitation provided him with a cottage on their grounds, where he stayed for a month. He spared himself no labor, giving the nuns instruction and advice, and continuing his preaching and ministrations through Christmas. On December 27 he had a paralytic seizure. He recovered speech and consciousness, and after receiving the Last Sacraments, he murmured words of Scripture, expressing all confidence in God's mercy. On December 28, while those kneeling about his bed recited the litany for the dying, he breathed his last. He was fifty-six, and in the twentieth year of his episcopacy. In his <Treatise on the Love of God>, Francis had written, "The measure of love is to love without measure," a precept which he had consistently taught and lived.

His body was embalmed and brought, all save the heart, to Annecy. It remained in a tomb near the high altar in the church of the first convent of the Visitation until the French Revolution, when it was removed for fear of desecration. Since then it has been restored to the church of the reconstructed convent at Annecy. Francis was beatified by Alexander VII in 1661,[2] canonized by him in 1665, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, in 1877. His heart was preserved in the church of the Visitation at Lyons, in a golden shrine given by Louis XIII.

<Introduction to a Devout Life>

Author's Preface

. . . <Almost all who have hitherto treated of devotion have had> in view the instruction of persons wholly retired from the world, or have taught a kind of devotion leading to this absolute retirement; whereas my intention is to instruct such as live in towns, in families, or at court, and who by their condition are obliged to lead, as to the exterior, a life in society; who frequently, under imaginary pretense of impossibility, will not so much as think of undertaking a devout life, believing that as no beast dares taste , the seed of the herb <Palma Christi>, so no man ought to aspire to the palm of Christian piety as long as he lives in the bustle of temporal affairs. Now to such I shall prove that as the mother pearl lives in the sea without receiving a drop of salt water, and as towards the Chelidonian islands springs of fresh water may be found in the midst of the sea, and as the firefly passes through flames without burning its wings, so a vigorous and resolute soul may live in the world without being infected by any of its humors, may discover sweet springs of piety amidst its salt waters, and fly amongst the flames of earthly concupiscences without burning the wings of the holy desires of a devout life....

Chapter I

. . . There are some virtues of such general utility as not only to require an exercise of themselves apart but also to communicate their qualities to the practice of other virtues. Occasions are seldom presented for the exercise of fortitude, magnanimity, and magnificence, but meekness, temperance, modesty, and humility are virtues wherewith all the actions of our life should be tempered. It is true there are other virtues more agreeable, but the use of these is more necessary. Sugar is more agreeable than salt but the use of salt is more necessary and general. Therefore we must constantly have a good store of these general virtues in readiness, since we stand in need of them almost continually....

Among the virtues unconnected with our particular duty we must prefer the excellent to the glittering and showy. Comets appear greater than stars and apparently occupy a greater space, whereas in reality they can neither in magnitude nor quality be compared to the stars; for as they only seem great because they are nearer and appear in a grosser manner than the stars, so there are certain virtues, which, on account of their proximity become more noticeable, or, to use the expression, more material, that are highly esteemed and always preferred by the vulgar. Hence it is that so many prefer corporal alms before spiritual, the hair-shirt, fasting, going barefoot, using the discipline, and other such corporal mortifications before meekness, mildness, modesty, and other mortifications of the heart. Choose then, Philothea,[3] the best virtues, not the most esteemed; the most noble, not the most apparent; those that are actually the best, not those that are the most ostensible or shining....

Chapter II

. . . There are certain things which many esteem as virtues which in reality are not; I mean ecstasies or raptures, insensibilities,[4] impassibilities, deific unions, elevations, transformations, and similar perfections, treated of in certain books, which promise to elevate the soul to a contemplation purely intellectual, to an essential application of the spirit, and a supernatural life. But observe well, Philothea, these perfections are not virtues but rather the recompense of virtues, or small specimens of the happiness of the life to come, which God sometimes presents to men to make them enraptured with the whole piece which is only to be found in heaven.

But we must not aspire to these favors, since they are by no means necessary to the serving and loving of God which should be our only pretension, neither are they such as can be obtained by labor and industry, since they are rather experiences than actions, which we may indeed receive, but cannot produce in ourselves. . . . Let us leave these super-eminent favors to elevated souls; we merit not so high a rank in the service of God; we shall be too happy to serve Him in his kitchen or to be his domestics in much lower station. If he should hereafter think proper to admit us into his cabinet or privy council, it will be through the excess of his bountiful goodness. Yea, Philothea, the King of Glory does not recompense his servants according to the dignity of the offices they hold, but according to the measure of the love and humility with which they exercise them. Saul, seeking the asses of his father, found the kingdom of Israel.[5]

Chapter IX

One of the best exercises of meekness we can perform is that the object of which is within ourselves, in never fretting at our own imperfections; for though reason requires that we should be sorry when we commit any fault, yet we must refrain from that bitter, gloomy, spiteful, and passionate displeasure for which many are greatly to blame who, being overcome by anger, are angry for having been angry and vexed to see themselves vexed; for by this means they keep their heart perpetually steeped in passion, and though it seems as if the second anger destroyed the first, it serves nevertheless to open a passage for fresh anger on the first occasion that shall present itself. Besides, this anger and vexation against ourselves tend to pride and flow from no other source than self-love, which is troubled and disquieted to see itself imperfect. We must be displeased at our faults but in a peaceable, settled, and firm manner; for as a judge punishes malefactors much more justly when he is guided in his decisions by reason and proceeds with the spirit of tranquillity than when he acts with violence and passion . . . so we correct ourselves much better by a calm and steady repentance than by one that is harsh, turbulent, and passionate; for repentance exercised with violence proceeds not according to the quality of our faults but according to our inclinations....

If, for example, I had formed a strong resolution not to yield to the sin of vanity, and yet had fallen into it, I would not reprove my heart after this manner: 'Art thou not wretched and abominable that after so many resolutions hast suffered thyself to be thus carried away by vanity? Die with shame; lift up no more thine eyes to heaven, blind, impudent traitor as thou art, a rebel to thy God!' but I would correct it thus, rationally saying, by way of compassion: 'Alas, my poor heart, behold we are fallen into the pit we had so firmly resolved to avoid. Well, let us rise again and quit it forever; let us call on the mercy of God and hope that it will assist us to be more constant for the time to come; and let us enter again the path of humility. Let us be encouraged, let us from this day be more on our guard. God will help us; we shall do better.' . . .

However, if anyone should find his heart not sufficiently moved with this mild manner of reprehension, he may use one more sharp and severe to excite it to deeper confusion provided that he afterward closes up all grief and anger with a sweet and consoling confidence in God....

Raise up your heart then again whenever it falls, but fairly and softly, humbling yourself before God through the knowledge of your own misery but without being surprised at your fall, for it is no wonder that weakness should be weak or misery wretched; detest, nevertheless, with all your power the offense God has received through you and return to the way of virtue, which you had forsaken, with great courage and confidence in his mercy.

Chapter X

. . . Undertake then all your affairs with a calm and peaceable mind, and endeavor to despatch them in order, one after another-for if you make an effort to do them all at once or in disorder, your spirit will be so overcharged and depressed that it will probably sink under the burden without effecting anything.

In all your affairs rely wholly on divine Providence, through which alone you must look for success; labor, nevertheless, quietly on your part to cooperate with its designs, and then you may be assured, if you trust as you ought in God; the success which shall come to you shall be always that which is the most profitable for you, whether it appear good or bad according to your private judgment. Imitate little children who, as they with one hand hold fast by their father, and with the other gather strawberries or blackberries along the hedges; so you, gathering and handling the goods of this world with one hand, must with the other always hold fast the hand of your heavenly Father, turning yourself towards him from time to time to see if your actions or occupations be pleasing to him; but above all things take heed that you never leave his protecting hand nor think to gather more, for should he forsake you, you will not be able to go a step further without falling to the ground.

My meaning is, Philothea, that amidst those ordinary affairs and occupations that require not so earnest an attention, you should look more on God than on them; and when they are of such importance as to require your whole attention, that then also you should look from time to time towards God, like mariners, who, to arrive at the port to which they are bound, look more up towards heaven than down on the sea on which they sail. Thus will God work with you, in you, and for you, and your labor will be followed by consolation.

(<Introduction to the Devout Life>, New York, n.d.)


1 Henry IV, King of Navarre, after ten years of struggle and conflict, had asserted his sovereignty over all France. He had been educated as a Protestant, but later, as he faced the problem of re-uniting his war-torn country establishing himself firmly on the throne, he professed conversion to Catholicism.

2 For a letter from St. Vincent de Paul to Pope Alexander recommending the canonization of Francis de Sales, see below Saint Vincent de Paul, p. 425.

3 In preparing for publication this series of letters, originally written for the instruction of Madame de Chamoisy, Francis substituted for her name the Greek Philothea, "lover of God."

4 St. Francis lists here certain mystic states to which previous saints had attained

5 I Kings ix, 3-20.

Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop, Doctor of the Church. Celebration of Feast Day is January 29.

Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.