The Good News Man

Saint Francis de Sales

Feast Day: 24th January

The written word has the power to influence how we think … in a newspaper, a magazine, a book or even a website! No one appreciated this better than Francis de Sales. Although he died a few years before the first newspapers appeared, he knew how to use his writing skills to promote the Catholic faith, and for this he has been declared the patron saint of writers and journalists.

Francis came from a noble family and was born in 1567 in Savoy. Educated at home until the age of 14, he went to the University of Paris having already set his heart on the religious life. His father wanted him to have a successful career in the legal profession. Francis later graduated in law from Padua University and then confided in his mother and his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales, that he wished to be a priest. Canon Louis helped him to win his father’s approval, and in 1593, at the age of 26, he was ordained. His first post was as Provost of Geneva.

Around this time, the Duke of Savoy became concerned about the growth of Calvinism in his dukedom. Many Catholics had lapsed, or adopted this new religion, and the Duke asked for volunteers to act as missionaries. Francis and his cousin Louis offered their services. They travelled on foot to the Chablais region, on the south shore of Lake Geneva, and preached every day in the villages and in the countryside. It was an extremely dangerous venture and they found themselves under constant attack, both from human opponents and from wolves. One day, Francis started to repair an oratory of Our Lady which had been vandalized by the Calvinists and he was attacked by a hostile crowd, insulted and beaten. His anxious father wrote to him frequently, begging him to give up the mission.

Francis was always trying to find new ways to read people’s hearts. He began to write little pamphlets explaining the Church’s teaching. Written under difficult conditions, they were laboriously copied by hand and then distributed. Gradually, through patient perseverance, his work began to have an effect. Many Calvinists were converted and lapsed Catholics returned to the Church. Eventually the Pope, Clement VIII, heard about Francis and summoned him to Rome to test him on his knowledge of theology. Francis impressed everyone with his breadth of learning.

At the age of 35 Francis was ordained Bishop of Geneva. He immediately orgainsed the teaching of Catechism throughout his diocese. He even gave instructions himself, and children loved him. He was generous, unselfish and kind, and chose to live a very simple life. From his own instruction notes he wrote “The Introduction to the Devout Life” for lay people, and then had it published in book form.

Two years later Francis met Jane Frances de Chantal in Dijon. They became friends, and in 1610 he encouraged her to establish the Congregation of the Visitation for women.

Francis’ health was already failing when he was called to a meeting in Avignon with the Duke of Savoy and King Louis XIII to discuss administrative matters relating to the French part of his diocese. On the return journey he was greatly in demand for preaching and ministering to the people, and although he was ill he could not refuse any request. On reaching Lyons, he stayed for a month in a gardener’s cottage attached to the Visitation Convent. It was there he died on 27 October 1622, at the age of 55.

Have you ever thought how influential a letter or an e-mail can be? When you see the teaching of the Church being attacked you could write a letter to the paper, a TV programme, your MP or even 10 Downing Street. Sometimes persistence might pay off. You never know the amount of good your letter can achieve. Just see the success members of Amnesty International have in the letters they write requesting the release of prisoners. It may take half an hour of your time in defence of Catholicism but you will know that you are doing God's work.

May St. Francis de Sales help us all to promote the written word for spreading God’s good news among people who know little about the Christian message.