Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor

Francis de Sales was born at Thorens, in the Duchy of Savoy on 21 August, 1567, the eldest of six brothers from aristocratic parents. He went to the colleges of La Roche and Annecy, and then for five years at the College of Clermont, Paris, under the care of the Jesuits. While studying theology, he developed serious scruples about the much discussed Calvinist issue of predestination from which he was freed while praying to Our Lady.  As a result, he made a vow of chastity and consecrated himself to Our Lady. His father selected one of the noblest heiresses of Savoy to be his future wife, but Francis declared his intention of embracing the ecclesiastical life. The Bishop of Geneva obtained for Francis the position of Provost of the Chapter of Geneva, a post in the patronage of the pope. It was the highest office in the diocese and Francis was ordained priest in 1593.

At Annecy, the seat of the bishopric of Geneva, the new provost devoted himself to preaching, hearing confessions, and the other work of his ministry. He was instrumental in bringing many people back to the Church from Calvinism, which had its centre in Geneva. The bishop, Claude de Granier, then chose an unwilling Francis as his coadjutor and sent him to Rome in 1599.  Pope Clement VIII ratified the choice.  On the death of de Granier, Francis was consecrated Bishop of Geneva in 1602, where he proved himself an extraordinary zealous and pastoral bishop. His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. He had an intense love for the poor, and himself lived a life of extreme simplicity in order to provide more for those in need.

Together with St Jane Frances de Chantal, in 1607 he founded the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, for young girls and widows who felt they did not have the strength or inclination for the greater austerities of the older orders. Here, he came into contact with all the distinguished ecclesiastics of the day, and in particular with St Vincent de Paul.

In 1622, he had to go with the Court of Savoy into France. At Lyons, he insisted on occupying a small, poorly furnished room in a house belonging to the gardener of the Visitation Convent. There, on 27 December, he experienced some form of stroke.  His last words were: “God’s will be done! Jesus, my God and my all!”  He died on 28 December, in the fifty-sixth year of his age.

During the French Revolution his heart was brought by Visitation nuns from Lyons to Venice, where it is venerated today. He was beatified in 1661, and canonised by Pope Alexander VII in 1665.  He was proclaimed Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1877. Among his many writings, his Introduction to the Devout Life became a classic of spiritual direction and is still read.

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