Francis was born on 21 August 1567 in the family castle of Sales, in Thorens in the duchy of upper Savoy. He was the firstborn child of Francis and Frances De Boisy. His father was forty-four, and his mother fifteen. There were twelve children born to the family, five of whom died soon after their birth. Francis was both intelligent and gentle. From a very early age, he desired to serve God. He knew for years he had a vocation to the priesthood, but kept it from his family. His father wanted him to enter a career in law and politics.
In 1580, Francis attended the University of Paris, and at 24-years-old, he received his doctorate in law at the University of Padua. He studied theology and practiced mental prayers, but kept quiet about his devotion. To please his father, he also studied fencing and riding. He was a gifted young man: of brilliant intellect, persevering, purposeful, serene, affable, irresistibly charming, and above all, consumed with the love of God.
God made his will clear to Francis one day while he was riding. Francis fell from his horse three times that day. Every time he fell, the sword came out of the scabbard, and every time it came out, the sword and scabbard came to rest on the ground in the shape of the Christian cross.
After much discussion and disagreement from his father, Francis was ordained to the priesthood and elected provost of the Diocese of Geneva, in 1593, by the Bishop of Geneva. During the time of the Protestant reformation, Francis lived close to Calvinist territory. He decided he should lead an expedition to bring the 60,000 Calvinists back to the Catholic Church.
For three years, he trudged through the countryside, had doors slammed in his face and rocks thrown at him. In the bitter winters, his feet froze so badly they bled as he tramped through the snow.
Francis’ unusual patience kept him working. No one would listen to him, no one would even open their door. So, Francis found a way to get under the door. He wrote out little pamphlets to explain true Catholic doctrine and slipped them under the doors. This is one of the first records we have of religious tracts being used to communicate the true Catholic faith to people who had fallen away from the Church. When the parents wouldn’t come to him, so Francis went to the children. When the parents saw how kind he was as he played with the children, they began to talk to him.
By the time Francis returned home, it is believed he brought 40,000 people to the Catholic Church.
He forged wonderful alliances with Pope Clement VIII and Henry IV of France, and in 1601 Francis joined Henry IV on a diplomatic mission. He was to give Lenten sermons at the Chapel Royal. Henry grew attached to Francis and saw him as a “rare bird” who was devout, knowledgeable and a gentleman.
Francis was ordained bishop on 8 December 1602 and became the good shepherd amongst his people. He was tireless in visiting his 450 parishes; he organised the further formation of his clergy, proclaiming that learning was the eighth sacrament for a priest. He concerned himself with the reform of monasteries, and the catechesis of the young. He spent hours in the confessional, dialogued with the Calvinists, preached the Advent and Lenten homilies in many cities in Savoy and France, undertook spiritual direction both viva voce and in correspondence, took part in theological discussions, and with his friend Senator Antonio Favre founded the Florimontane Academy; and in the midst of this multitude of activities he found time to publish in 1608 his Introduction to the devout Life (Philothea) and in 1616 his Treatise on the Love of God (Theotimus).
In 1604, Francis took one of the most important steps in his life — the step toward extraordinary holiness and mystical union with God. Francis saw a widow listening closely to his sermon—a woman he had seen already in a dream. The woman was the Baroness Jane Frémyot de Chantal, aged thirty-two, and a widow with four children. Between these two saintly people there developed a strong spiritual friendship. In 1607 Francis suggested to her an important project: the founding of new kind of Order of Contemplative Sisters that would include the care of girls and widows, and be permitted to leave the convent to visit the sick and the poor. The Order was founded on 6 June 1610; but in 1618 the very strict canonical rulings of the day were insisted on by the Primate of France, Denis Marquemont, and all aspects of the external apostolate were suppressed.
Francis was overworked and often ill because of his constant load of preaching, visiting, and instruction — even catechizing a deaf man so he could take first Communion. He believed the first duty of a bishop was spiritual direction and wrote to Jane, “So many have come to me that I might serve them, leaving me no time to think of myself. However, I assure you that I do feel deep-down- within-me, God be praised. For the truth is that this kind of work is infinitely profitable to me.” For him active work did not weaken his spiritual inner peace but strengthened it.
He gave spiritual direction to most people through letters, which attested to his remarkable patience. “I have more than fifty letters to answer. If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So, I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same and so I shall go on until I have finished.”
During this time, it was wrongly thought that achieving real holiness of life was a task reserved for only for the clergy and those in religious life, and not for lay men and women. In addition, that only contemplatives, people who withdraw from active participation in the world, could really achieve holiness. But Francis insisted that every Christian was called to holiness and sanctity, lived within their own state in life. In holding that belief, he reflected the teaching of Jesus and the early Church Fathers.
His most famous book, INTRODUCTION TO THE DEVOUT LIFE, was written for ordinary lay people in 1608, not just the clergy and religious. Written originally as letters, it became an instant success all over Europe — though some clergy rejected the notion that lay men and women could achieve holiness in the experience of their daily life. Some tore it up because Francis encouraged dancing and jokes!
For Francis, the love of God was like romantic love. He said, “The thoughts of those moved by natural human love are almost completely fastened on the beloved, their hearts are filled with passion for it, and their mouths full of its praises. When it is gone, they express their feelings in letters, and can’t pass by a tree without carving the name of their beloved in its bark. Thus, to those who love God can never stop thinking about him, longing for him, aspiring to him, and speaking about him. If they could, they would engrave the name of Jesus on the hearts of all humankind.”
The key to love of God was prayer.
“By turning your eyes on God in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with God. Begin all your prayers in the presence of God.”
For busy people living in the world, he advised, “Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart, even while outwardly engaged in discussions or transactions with others and talk to God.”
The test of prayer was a person’s actions.
“To be an angel in prayer and a beast in one’s relations with people is to go lame on both legs.”
He believed the worst sin was to judge someone or to gossip about them. Even if we say we do it out of love we’re still doing it to look better ourselves. We should be as gentle and forgiving with ourselves as we should be with others.
As he became older and more ill he said, “I have to drive myself but the more I try the slower I go.” He wanted to be a hermit but he was more in demand than ever. The Pope needed him, then a princess, then Louis XIII. “Now I really feel that I am only attached to the earth by one foot…”
In 1622 he was obliged to undertake another painful journey: to go to Avignon to the members of the royal family of France, and accompany them via Rodano to Lyons. He was a guest at the Bellecour convent of the Visitation Sisters at Lyons and there met the Reverend Mother Jane de Chantal for the last time. Francis died of a stroke on 28 December 1622.
St. Francis de Sales was beatified on January 8, 1661 and canonized on April 19, 1665 by Pope Alexander VII. He is often featured with the Heart of Jesus and a Crown of Thorns.
In 1923, Pope Pius XI named St. Francis de Sales the patron saint of Catholic writers and the Catholic press because of the tracts and books he wrote. He is also the patron saint of the deaf, journalists, adult education, and the Sisters of St. Joseph. His feast day is celebrated on January 24.