Today is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, a French 15-16th century Doctor of the Church, who wrote extensively about spiritual direction and formation. Word on Fire blog contributor Jared Zimmerer takes a closer look at the saint, and how his message is as pertinent as ever as we aim to fulfill the mission of the New Evangelization.
St. Francis De Sales, Doctor of the Church and spiritual master, was a man who deeply understood the Church’s mission to evangelize. His masterpiece, Introduction to the Devout Life, had an influence on me as a reader, a writer and a Catholic. In his many other works, such as the Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis imbued philosophical contemplation with theological sophistication. At times his accessible prose will give way to intensely poetic language such as this: “The same humility which conceals graces with a view to their preservation is ready to bring them forth at the bidding of Charity, with a view to their increase and perfection; therein reminding me of that tree in the Isles of Tylos, which closes its beautiful carnation blossoms at night, only opening them to the rising sun, so that the natives say they go to sleep.” (Introduction to the Devout Life Part 3, Ch. 5) De Sales opens his reader’s soul to deeper reflections of an array of subjects, each relating to a different aspect of humanity as transformed by Christ.
Fifty years before De Sales was born, Jean Calvin introduced his vision for the reform of the Church, a vision that rejected many of the principles that had directed the faithful since the apostolic period and severed many of the baptized from communion with the Catholic faith. The divisions of the Protestant reformation ensured that St. Francis would spend his life in an atmosphere of cultural upheaval, which led to state-sponsored strategies that would use coercion as a means of controlling the religious aspirations and practices of people. Christendom gave way to versions of Christianity where oftentimes politically enforced decisions determined what one could believe. Appointed Bishop of Geneva, which had for many years been controlled by a Calvinist theocratic regime, De Sales could see that in order for the Catholic faith make the case for its way of life, it would have to counter hostility and violence through acts of compassion and charity, and it would be through these practices of love that the doctrinal claims of Catholicism would be revealed as the truth. The ardor that St. Francis demonstrated came from his relationship with Christ in the Church, a relationship that manifested itself in practical actions of love and mercy.
Using the talents he was blessed with and harnessing a powerful depth of holiness, De Sales’ methods made use of the tools of his age. He wrote the Introduction to the Devout Life specifically for lay people, rather unusual for his time but sorely needed during the reformation period. (In 1923, Pope Pius XI proclaimed St. Francis to be a patron of writers and journalists, because he made extensive use of the “new media” of his time — pamphlets and books). He even developed a sign language in order to teach a deaf man about God, which led to his identification as the patron saint of the deaf. De Sales’ literary efforts led people back to the dialog of truth; however it was his love and charity that brought his people back into relationship with Christ in his Church.
His expressions of piety steered away from the strict segregation evangelism of his time and drove it toward an invitation that holiness is for everyone. This Salesian spirituality, which was infused in the founding of oratories and convents, had profound effects on great saints such as St. John Bosco. What De Sales embodied was the fulfillment of the needs of his people in ways that they can comprehend and practice. De Sales was a man of his time, an evangelist for the 16th and 17th centuries, yet his ardor, methods and expressions anticipates the Church’s contemporary evangelization mission. He understood that the a strategy of coercing people to believe through an exercise of state power, while having an immediate effect, did not produce a long term benefit or engender genuine conversion. Recognizing the limits of many of the assumptions about how to evangelize were not working, he adapted innovative and diverse ways to lead the people to a more reflective and richer appreciation of the Catholic Faith, a missionary sprit that we need in our day. As a model for today’s evangelist, De Sales satisfies every aspect of John Paul II’s coined term — the new evangelization.
This New Evangelization insists that advancing the mission of the Church is the responsibility of all the faithful, not just the ordained clergy and vowed religious. De Sales knew that in order for the laity to evangelize each other, they needed their own sense of purpose in Christ, thus the writing of his Introduction. In De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, he gives advice on a variety of topics that enable the laity to understand that their state in life can be a means by which Christ accomplishes their sanctification. The lay state is not outside the Church — it is within the Church and it is through the efforts of the laity to live their lives authentically for Christ, that the Body of Christ is strengthened for mission. And for an “iron warrior” like myself, he even gives counsel in favor of the modern notion of body-building: “And as a general rule, it is better to preserve more bodily strength than is absolutely necessary, than to damage it more than is necessary. Bodily strength can always be lowered if needful, but we cannot restore it at will.” (Introduction Part 3, Ch. 23)
St. Francis De Sales was a renaissance and reconnaissance man of his time — a master of evangelical strategy. In an age in which the Body of Christ had been divided, he insisted that it was in the unity of the Catholic Faith that a civilization of love and life could be built, and the foundation for this new culture would be set in the lives of the laity. His witness indicates that what is now called the New Evangelization is already in motion, and our own efforts, imbued with the spirit St. Francis De Sales, can be a positive force for the renewal of the Church and the transformation of the culture.
“It is this holy passion which causes so many books of piety to be written, so many churches, altars, pious houses to be erected, and in a word which makes many of God's servants watch, labour, and die amid the flames of zeal which consume and spend them.” – St. Francis De Sales, Treatise on The Love of God Book 5, Ch. 9
Jared Zimmerer is an author and father of 4 from Denton, Texas, whose apostolate, "Strength for the Kingdom," teaches about the inherent connection between spiritual and physical fitness.
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