A handsome intelligent young man with blue-grey eyes, educated in dancing, fencing and riding became known as “The Gentleman Saint” and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church.
This was St. Francis de Sales!
He was born in a noble family from the Kingdom of Savoy, near Geneva, Switzerland, on the 21st August 1567. His father was Francois de Sales de Boisy. His mother Francoise de Sionnaz was the daughter of a prominent magistrate. Francis came from a large family of 13 children, 5 of them having died in childbirth.
He was educated in the Colleges of La Roche and Annecy, then in a Jesuit College in Paris and finally he was sent to Padua where he obtained a doctorate in Civil and Canon Law. His father had already planned the future of Francis, his firstborn male, seeing him as a successful magistrate and a senator, married to a wealthy noble young woman as his bride.
He was 19 years old and still following his academic path when he experienced a spiritual crisis that was so devastating that it affected his health. When he came out of the ‘dark tunnel’ convinced that ‘God is Love’, he consecrated himself to Our Lady and dedicated his life to God.
He decided to become a priest.
His father opposed his decision fiercely. He was appeased only when Francis was promised the position of Provost (the head) of the Cathedral of Geneva, considered the highest office in the diocese and under the direct patronage of the Pope. Francis was ordained priest when he was 26 years old after signing his title and right of succession in the family, to his brother. The following year, he volunteered to go to Le Chablais, which had become a stronghold of the Calvinists. This was a group of Christians who, following John Calvin, the French Reformer, branched out from the Protestants who had challenged certain beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. At first the people of Chablais did not dare go to hear him preach, so Francis started writing leaflets explaining the Catholic Faith. He distributed these leaflets among inhabitants, leaving them in doorways and other public places, even after being threatened and attacked! As a result , a great number of the inhabitants returned to the Catholic Faith.
He was 31 years old when on his return from Rome where he had been commissioned to attend business of the diocese, he was appointed coadjutor Bishop, that is Assistant Bishop of Geneva and when the Bishop died, three years later, he was appointed Bishop in his stead. As Geneva was still under the Calvinist control, the city was closed to him and he had to establish his residence outside Geneva. As a bishop, besides the administration of his diocese, he continued with pastoral work, even catechizing children and formulating a sign language to communicate with the deaf. He continued with his preaching and his writings, mainly addressed to lay people proclaiming that whatever position one holds in life, everyone can become a saint. He never expected preferential treatment because he was a bishop. He travelled around his diocese on horseback. He approached the poor and humble people of his diocese with the same dedication and attention as he did with Popes, Princes and Kings.
Together with another saint, Jane Francis de Chantal, he founded the Sisters of the Visitation, a religious order for women, who dedicated their lives to works of mercy for the sick and the poor.
Eventually his untiring efforts to evangelize took a toll on his health. He suffered a terrible stroke that left him unable to speak. When on his deathbed, he was asked if he had any words of wisdom he wanted to leave, he asked for pen and paper and wrote “Humility, humility, humility.”
He died when he was 56 years old. Because of his determination to persevere in ‘publishing’ the truths of the Catholic Faith, he continues to be remembered as the patron saint of journalists.