by Amanda Judah
While there are many notable saints to celebrate in the month of January, it is especially fitting for The Torch to honor St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalism, as well as of the deaf. His feast day is celebrated on January 24, with prayers such as “Be at Peace,” which highlights the saint’s attitude toward trusting in God’s providence. In keeping with his patronage, the pope often releases his annual message for World Communications Day on this date.
He was born in 1567 to a family of nobility in the Duchy of Savoy, modern day France. Francis grew up with devout parents, who provided a strong religious foundation. At age 11, Francis startled his family by asking permission to receive the rite of tonsure. While this technically meant that he was enrolled in religious life, he remained a layman without any specific pastoral duties. On the other hand, as the firstborn son, his father primed him for a life of nobility. As he reported, in 1583 he studied law “to please my father”, but studied theology “to please myself” at both the College of Clermont and the University of Padua. Beyond academic subjects, he also became a skilled fencer and horse rider.
Although his father expected him to become a lawyer, St. Francis’ personal religious convictions called him to the priesthood. Two specific incidents led him to this path. First, he attended a lecture about predestination in 1564 that lead to a deep personal crisis and contemplation. Second, he was reportedly riding a horse when his swords fell and made the sign of the Christian cross. While breaking from his family’s wishes was difficult, Francis addressed his father with characteristic gentleness. In fact, Frances is often described as “the Gentleman Saint,” even though he apparently had a quick temper. He was quoted as saying, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”
After being ordained in 1593, he was appointed as the provost of the cathedral in Geneva. This process occurred incredibly quickly: since he had such a strong theological background, he took minor orders three weeks after his father gave his consent. This appointment started a lifelong effort to convert the Swiss, many of whom were strongly influenced by Calvinism. Conditions were extremely difficult: he spent the first three years without a single convert.
Eventually, his persistence earned him between 40,000 and 70,000 converts to the Catholic faith. Francis was extremely zealous about conversions, believing it should be enforced by any means except physical punishment. St. Francis’ primary mode of evangelization was through authoring and distributing pamphlets to the Swiss public. As far as historical records go, this is the first recorded instance of written religious tracts being used as a form of communication. St. Francis would copy his sermons on leaflets and slip them under villagers’ doors. In addition, he is credited with developing a form of sign language in a successful attempt to convert a deaf person.
Later in life, he authored several works that introduced the basic tenets of Catholicism to laypeople, such as Introduction to the Divine Life, a remarkable feat considering that theological literature aimed specifically at lay people was considered a novel idea at the time. Additionally, St. Francis was involved in establishing the order of the Visitation of Holy Mary with St. Jane Frances de Chantal. The order was designed to provide an option for religious life for those women who were not able to adhere to the strict regimen that the more established orders for women at the time. St. Francis de Sales passed away 1622 after being required to travel with Duke Charles Emanuel I of Savoy during the latter’s Christmas tour of his domain. During the tour, St. Francis suffered a stroke in a monastery near Lyon, from which he died on December 1622. He was beatified in 1661 and canonized in 1665, both under Pope Alexander VII following numerous reports of miracles and major sites of veneration in Lyon and the Monastery of the Visitation at Annecy, where he was buried alongside St. Jane. St. Francis was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1877.