Francis Bonaventure was born on August 21st, 1567, at the castle of Sales in Savoy. As the eldest son of a prominent nobleman, he was destined, for a career in the world and a seat in the senate of Savoy. Outwardly charming, he possessed a firmness of purpose leading him gradually towards the priesthood, in spite of all the pressures of his parents and background.
When sent to Paris to complete his education, he came in contact with post-Tridentine humanism which enlisted the classical learning of the Renaissance in the service of the Christian mind and spirit. This insight was to form and inspire his life. Francis grasped and applied that humanism more easily and naturally than any: as he said, those who would be religious should avoid ostentation but wear clothes that fitted them.
He struggled with doubts and temptation until one day in prayer before a statue of Mary he took a vow of chastity; the temptation fell away from him ‘like the scales of leprosy.’ He also at about this time, received an interior message “Leave all and follow Me.” From 1586 to 1591 he attended the University of Padua to study law and obtained a Doctor’s degree. But his vocation was now clear, though only to himself; he maintained a quiet, firm dignity against the inevitable clash with his father and was ordained priest on May 13th, 1593.
He soon was called by Claude Granier, bishop of Geneva, to the difficult task of winning back from Calvinism the people of the Chablais district. In a time and place ravaged by endless and bitter religious wars Francis brought a spirit of mission which was charitable and persuasive. While engaged in this work, he was sent to Paris in 1602 to negotiate about the condition of Catholics in the reconverted territories. There he came in contact with the great figures of the religious and mystical revival taking place at the time: Henri de Joyeuse, Berulle, and Mme Acarie (Bd Mary of the Incarnation). In July on the death of Granier he became bishop of Geneva and returned to Annecy. Constantly journeying and preaching, without pomp or fuss he gradually drew the entire diocese into the habit of his holiness. He exerted himself particularly in the sacrament of penance, carrying his knowledge of the soul to both prince and peasant.
In the midst of his constant pastoral work he found time to write the book which has made him best known to succeeding ages, the Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), a work which sprang immediately from his care for souls, and which was based on the problem of how to live a Christian life in the world.
Francis’s great work showed how ordinary life can be sanctified – every type of ordinary life, but especially that of busy, well-to-do people. No problem is too small for him, dress, entertainments, flirtations, the daily interchange of husband and wife, but he deals with them all so as to guide his reader to the final end: the love of God and the imitation of Christ. He showed how there is no real struggle between nature and grace, flesh and spirit, no violent tension between a Christian life and the ordinary sphere of social duties.
This was not sentimentality, but an approach to perfection and a total harmony of the human person with the framework of Christian virtues. He was uniquely suited by his life’s circumstances to develop this teaching which combined the openness and graciousness of the Renaissance with the rural wisdom of Savoy, the Truths of traditional Catholicism with a new understanding of the human condition.
Father in heaven, You prompted St.Francis de Sales to become all things to all men for the salvation of men. May his example inspire us to dedicated love in the service of our brothers. Amen