Whenever the opportunity avails itself and I find a young man holding open a door for me, or anyone else, I try to compliment them by saying that they are a “gentleman and a scholar.” Most often I imagine the compliment falls on deaf ears, but I’d like to think that it has stuck with one or two, planting a seed that their helpful gesture is both noticed and appreciated. It says a lot about them.
Model of Meekness
As luck would have it, Saint Francis de Sales, the French saint whose feast we celebrate today, was both of these things—not to mention patron of those who are hearing impaired. Pope Francis has called him “the model of meekness” and published an apostolic letter about him at the end of last year, on the 400th anniversary of the death of this Doctor of the Church.
Of the many Saints who bear the name Francis, de Sales is often found camouflaged in the wings. His life’s work had tremendously far-reaching ripple effects, but it was done with very little fanfare—thus ‘the model of meekness.’
Call to religious life
Being born into a noble family, Francis was expected to take up the life of a gentleman. Educated and poised to do so, he was trained in fencing and horseback riding. One day while riding, he fell from his horse on three different occasions and each time his sword and scabbard landed in the shape of a cross. Francis took this as a sign that the inner prompting he had been feeling toward Holy Orders needed to be heeded. Though his new direction did not please his family, he was ordained in 1593.
Patron of Writers and Journalists
Early on, after his ordination to the priesthood, Francis was assigned to Geneva, which had become primarily Calvinist. Taking this assignment was dangerous and he was met with a great deal of contempt. He preached publicly against Calvinism and eventually found handing out pamphlets on the Truth of the Catholic Church to be most effective. It is estimated that his writing was connected to some 70,000 Calvinist conversions to Catholicism, thus his role as the patron of writers and journalists.
He used his gift of writing with spiritual directees and as he penned his most famous books: An Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God, each a spiritual classic. His influence on his contemporary, Vincent de Paul, in both of these works was profound.
Among his many directees was a widow named Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. Together they started a women’s religious community, the order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, in Annecy in 1610. A widow herself, Chantal found it difficult to join many of the more austere orders. The Visitation order was set apart in several ways, primarily in that they were not strictly cloistered, and unlike other orders, they accepted members who were sick and aged. At the time, it was ground-breaking for women to be taking part in active ministry, and this was met with criticism. Francis supported the ministerial role of the women and wrote The Treatise on the Love of God for their community.
Universal Call to Holiness
Francis held and instructed that all Christians, no matter their state in life, were called to holiness. His book Instruction to the Devout Life was written for lay people who wished to live lives of holiness, a notion that at the time was met with skepticism by many clergy. In this way, he served as a bridge between early Church fathers and the Second Vatican Council, which recognized and emphasized the universal call to holiness, not reserved for a select few.
This “model of meekness” responded to God’s promptings as a French nobleman, a priest, bishop, spiritual director, and advocate for lay people. In so doing, he made religious life accessible to women for whom it had formerly been out of reach. He had tremendous influence on Saints Jane de Chantal and Vincent de Paul, who each went on to start religious orders and become saints themselves. His published works invited people from every walk of life to endeavor for holiness, and in so doing, his thousands of yeses to the Lord, he was named a Doctor of the church.
It begs the question—where might our yeses to the Lord lead us?