St Francis of Sales
Few saints in the calendar match the incomparable kindness and simplicity, the patience and sympathy, and the clear and eloquent reasoning of Bishop Francis of Sales of Geneva. As he was wont to say, “You will catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.”
Francis was born into an aristocratic Catholic family in Savoy, a region between France and Switzerland in the 16th century, when the religious differences in Europe had hardened into mutual suspicion and hatred. Francis, though trained in law, gave up a distinguished career and opted to become a priest, much against the wishes of his parents. He was determined to win back to the old faith the Calvinist believers of his region, and over several years with his cousin Louis, also a priest, had the joy of bringing back to the Church thousands of Calvinists. What impressed his peers was the simplicity and friendliness of his style, and the power of his preaching and his writing. Therefore, though just 32 years old, Francis was made bishop of Geneva.
His life as bishop was noted for his pastoral zeal: he preached wherever he went, heard confessions of the ordinary folk, reformed religious communities, instructed the young and old, and held annual meetings for his clergy. Side by side, he carried on a voluminous correspondence, finding time to write those masterpieces of the spiritual life which are treasured even today: An Introduction to the Devout Life, for ordinary people; and a Treatise on the Love of God and Spiritual Conferences, meant for the sisters of the Visitation Order, which he founded in 1610 with St Jane Frances de Chantal. His spirituality has influenced several groups in the Church even today, notably the Salesians.
Francis of Sales was canonized within fifty years of his death in 1622. Subsequently he was declared ‘doctor of the Church’, and ‘patron of Catholic writers’. We can do no better than recall two of his sayings on the art of preaching: “In order to speak well, we need only to love well.” And, “The more you say, the less people will remember.”
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