Saturday, January 24, 2009

“A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”

On August 21, 1567, at the Château de Thorens in Savoy, a son was born to François de Boisy and Françoise de Sionnz, the first of their twelve children. He was named François, after his father, according to the custom of the times. François was destined by his father to be a lawyer, so that he might eventually take his father’s place as a senator from Savoy to the parliament in Paris. It was for this reason that he was sent to Padua to study law. After receiving his doctorate, he returned home and informed his parents that he wished to enter the priesthood. This did not please his father, who had arranged a marriage between his eldest son and the daughter of another Savoyard nobleman. Eventually, after much gentle persuasion on the part of François, his father consented.

After completing theological studies, François was ordained, and eventually chosen as Provost of the Diocese of Geneva, at the time the home of Jean Chauvin, whom we know as John Calvin, the founder of the Protestant sect that bears his name. His simple, clear explanations of Catholic doctrine, and his gentle manner, won over many converts to the Catholic Church. He even used sign language to bring the good news to the deaf, which is why he is known as the patron of the hard of hearing.

In 1602, François, at the age of 35, was chosen to become the Bishop of Geneva. He travelled throughout the Duchy of Savoy, preaching, hearing confessions, and catechizing children. His gentle manner was a great asset in winning souls. He practiced what he preached: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”

Two years later, in 1604, François took one of the most important decisions in his life, a step toward holiness and mystical union with God. In Dijon, he noticed a woman listening closely to his sermon. He introduced himself to her, and learned that her name was Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot, the widow of the Baron de Chantal. Jeanne wanted him to become her spiritual director, but, typically, François asked her to wait. “I needed to know what God himself wanted”, he wrote later. “I had to be sure that everything should be done as though it was his hand that did it.” Jeanne was on the path to mystical union with God and, in becoming her director, François was compelled to follow the same path, and become a mystic himself. Bishop François wrote a series of spiritual exercises which he called “Introduction à la vie dévote” (Introduction To The Devout Life) to guide the thirty-six year old widow Chantal in her path to holiness.

Three years later, François and Jeanne agreed to found a new religious order for women. These sisters were to practice the virtues exemplified in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth: humility, piety and charity. They became known as the Sisters of the Visitation. At first, they engaged in works of mercy for the poor and sick. Later, they established schools for girls and young women. Many years after both François de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal had gone to their eternal rewards, the Visitation Nuns in France and throughout Europe became a cloistered order. There was only one exception: the Visitation Academy in Frederick, Maryland, USA.

François (Francis, in English) de Sales died on December 28, 1622 at Lyon, France of natural causes. He was beatified in 1662 and canonized in 1665 by Pope Alexander VII. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Blessed Pius IX in 1877, and patron of writers and journalists by Pope Pius XI in 1923.

Francis de Sales wrote: I am not telling you to be devout, but to desire to be devout. God is well pleased with our desire to serve him.

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