Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and Doctor of the Church

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Francis of Assisi; date unknown, artist unknown; Church of Sainte Marguerite, Le VĂ©sinet, Yvelines, France; photographed on 21 August 2012 by Reinhardhauke; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 1622.

Saint Francis de Sales, the light of his age, and the favorite saint of modern times, was born on the 21st of August, 1567, at the castle of Sales, in Savoy. His father was a nobleman of wealth and high rank, and his mother a lady of uncommon virtue. Francis was the eldest of a numerous family.

Under his mother’s tender care he grew up a beautiful boy, with a countenance of exquisite sweetness. She taught him to pray, to visit the poor, and to read the lives of the saints. Even at that early age he was the soul of Christian honor. It is said that in such horror did he hold a lie that he would suffer any punishment rather than be guilty of such a disgraceful offence.

Francis was first sent to the college of La Roche, and afterwards to that of Annecy. He was an early riser and a hard student. Among his young companions he was noted for superior manliness and kind, graceful deportment. At the age of eleven he obtained permission from his father to receive tonsure, having at that early period decided to enter the sacred ministry.

In 1580 he was sent to pursue his studies at Paris. He entered the college of the Jesuits, and for five years, under some of the most famous Fathers of that time, he stored his mind with the treasures of learning and literature. But in the pursuit of knowledge, Francis never lost sight of piety and virtue. He prayed much, visited the churches, practised many austerities, and never failed to carry about him his favorite book, “The Spiritual Combat.”

It was during his studious career in the gay capital of France that the young Saint was assailed by a terrible temptation. Suddenly a cloud of darkness overspread his soul. He grew melancholy. Something seemed to whisper that he was no longer in the state of grace, and that he would be lost for ever. A feeling of dread crept over him The evil one said: “In vain are all the good works of De Sales. He is already a child of perdition!”

Francis struggled manfully. He ceased not to pray, but the temptation still remained. He could neither eat nor sleep, and soon wasted away to a mere skeleton. But at length the great cross vanished as suddenly as it came. One day he entered the church of Saint Stephen and knelt down before an image of the Blessed Virgin. Near by, on a tablet, was inscribed the famous prayer of Saint Bernard, the “Memorare.” The noble and sorely-tried student repeated it with great emotion. He tearfully implored that it might please God to restore his peace of mind through the intercession of the Immaculate Mary. He then made a vow of perpetual chastity, and all at once he was surrounded by the brightness of celestial joy. He left the church with his mind in a state of sweet calmness. He had received that peace which the world cannot give, and to the last day of his life it never again deserted him.

The young nobleman was now eighteen years of age. His father recalled him from Paris and sent him to the University of Padua to study law. It was while here that he placed himself under the spiritual direction of the famous Jesuit, Father Possevinus. Francis completed his studies with brilliant distinction. The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon him with such unusual ceremony as to show that he was looked upon as the very brightest ornament of the university. This took place on 5 September 1591, when he was twenty-four years of age.

After a visit to Rome and the Holy House of Loretto, Francis returned to the family mansion. He was now a finished gentleman and one of the most learned jurists in Europe, and at his father’s urgent desire he allowed himself to be called to the bar. He was appointed advocate in the supreme court of Savoy. It was not his own choice. The highest honors of the state lay open before him, but he desired them not. He wisely wished, however, to overcome difficulties by degrees. He prayed for light and waited for some favorable opportunity.

It came. He gently and firmly made his decision known in relation to his entering the sacred ministry. His father was deeply grieved, but finally yielded with the best grace possible; and the kind-hearted old noble gave his blessing to that richly-gifted son who wished to live only for Heaven, and who was destined to confer an immortal renown on the house of De Sales.

Francis was raised to the dignity of the priesthood on the 18th of December, 1593. It was a day of joy in the city of Annecy. He was then twenty-six years of age. From the first he led a most active missionary life. The Bishop of Geneva sent him to preach in the neighboring towns and villages, and great was the success that attended his sermons. The word of God fell from his lips with inexpressible modesty and majesty.

His father thought that the young priest preached too often. “I had the best father in the world,” said the great Saint many years after to the Bishop of Bellay, “but he had passed a great part of his life at court and in military service, the maxims of which he knew better than theology. While I was provost I preached on every occasion in the cathedral as well as in the parish churches, and even in the humblest confraternities. I knew not how to refuse, so dear to me was that word of our Lord, ‘Give to everyone that asketh of thee.’

“My good father, hearing the bell ring for the sermon, asked who preached. They replied: ‘Who should it be but your son?’ One day he took me aside and said: ‘Provost, you preach too often. Even on working days I hear the bell ringing for the sermon, and they always say to me, It is the Provost, the Provost. It was not so in my time. Sermons were much more rare; but what sermons they were! God knows they were learned and well studied. The preachers spoke wonders. They quoted more Latin and Greek in one sermon than you do in ten. Everybody was delighted and edified. People ran to them in crowds, and you would have said they were going to gather manna. Nowadays you make this exercise so common that nobody regards it and no value is set on you.’

“Do you see,” continued the Saint, “this good father spoke as he understood, and with all freedom He spoke according to the maxims of the world, in which he had been brought up, but of another stamp altogether are the evangelical maxims. Jesus Christ, the mirror of perfection and the model of preachers, did not use all these circumspections any more than the Apostles who followed in His footsteps. Believe me. we can never preach enough.”

At this time Geneva was the head-centre of Calvinism This grim heresy had spread widely, and, among other neighboring districts, it had taken violent possession of the duchy of Chablais. After a time, however, Duke Charles of Savoy, a Catholic, recovered the territory. He desired to re-establish the ancient faith, and for that purpose wrote to the Bishop of Geneva.

But nobody wished to undertake the perilous mission to such a land of fanatics. All seemed terrified at the difficulties. Francis alone offered himself for the work, and he was soon joined by his first cousin, Louis de Sales.

The Saint and his companion, amid great opposition, set out on the 9th of September, 1594. They traveled on foot. Except two Breviaries, a Bible, and Bellarmine’s “Controversies,” no books were carried. On coming to the new field of toil and danger they beheld a beautiful land covered with ruins. The rude, destroying hand of the so-called Reformation had passed over church and castle and monastery.

The mission was opened at the town of Thonon. But seven Catholic families were found at that place. Fanaticism soon grew alarmed, and the ministers even clamored to have the missionaries publicly whipped. It was all up-hill work – slow, dreary, and dangerous. The Saint’s sermons were often attended by only three or four Calvinists. But day after day he continued to labor, with manly energy and angelic sweetness.

There was everything to contend against. The people were stupid, indifferent, and superstitious. The ministers tried to impress their blinded flocks with the idea that the priests were wizards. On one occasion a fanatic – afterwards converted – made three attempts to shoot the Saint, but failed.

In spite, however, of want, hunger, opposition from home, and various attempts at assassination, he continued his apostolic mission. After a time the Jesuits, Franciscans, and others came to his aid, and in a few years the religious conquest of this charming region was complete. The ancient faith was restored. It is computed that Francis de Sales thus brought seventy-two thousand souls into the Catholic Church.

“I think I can confute the Calvinists,” said the famous Cardinal Perron, “but to persuade and convert them you must bring them to the Coadjutor of Geneva.”

On the death of the good old bishop of Geneva, our Saint prepared for his consecration by a retreat of twenty days. He made a general confession. The ceremony took place in the presence of his mother and a vast concourse of distinguished people, on the 8th of December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1602.

Saint Francis now entered on that career which makes him such an illustrious figure in the history of the Church. His plan of life was simple. He never wore silks. He made his visits on foot. Everything in his household was plain but elegant. He kept for himself a little, dark, poorly-furnished apartment, which he playfully called the room of “Francis” – the others being the rooms of “the Bishop.”

Ceaseless was his watch over the flock committed to his charge. He took care to place only good priests in his parishes. He gave an inpulse to sound education, the study of catechism, and simplicity in preaching. He corrected abuses, reformed convents, and guided many in the path of virtue. He shone like a great light. In short, he was a Bishop of bishops.

The Saint was meek and kind to all, but his affection for the members of his own family was something truly beautiful. Never was this more touchingly shown than at the death of his youngest sister, Jane – a sweet girl who passed to a better world at the age of fifteen.

“You may think,” he writes to a friend, “how heartily I loved this little girl. I had begotten her for her Saviour, for I had baptized her with my own hand over fourteen years ago. She was the first creature on whom I exercised my priestly office. I was her spiritual father, and I promised myself much to make something good of her one day.”

The holy bishop was soon called to his mother’s deathbed. She was a lady whose pure, lofty character shone out to the last. In her trembling hands she held a crucifix, and kissed it even when her eyesight had gone. When Francis arrived at the couch of his dying parent, she knew him at once, although oppressed with blindness. She caressed him, saying: “This is my son and my father – this one.”

All her family knelt around. She breathed her soul to God. “The great prelate then had courage,” writes his brother, Charles A. de Sales, “after having given her his holy benediction, to close her lips and eyes, and to give her the last kiss of peace. After that his heart swelled very much; and he wept over that mother more than ever he had done since he became a churchman. But it was without spiritual bitterness, as he afterwards protested. He rendered her the funeral honors and duties, and her body was placed to rest in the tomb of Sales at the church of Thorens.”

Only another year passed away, and the Saint mourned the loss of his good old preceptor, the Abbe Deage, whose declining years he had soothed with truly filial tenderness. The first time he said Mass for the repose of the abbe’s soul, on reaching the “Our Father” he was so overcome by the recollection that it was the old priest who had first taught him to say the same prayer, that he was unable to proceed for some time.

With the aid of Saint Jane Francis de Chantal, a gifted lady whom he had long directed in the way of virtue, the holy Doctor founded the Order of Visitation Nuns in 1610. Eight years later it became a regular monastic body by virtue of a bull from Pope Paul V.

His famous “Introduction to a Devout Life” was published in 1608, and his great “Treatise on the Love of God” in 1616.

We have but space to glance at the apostolic labors in his last years. Popes and monarchs sought his advice. His light shone far beyond the limits of his own diocese. In 1618 he visited Paris, and all regarded him with admiration. It was here that he made the personal acquaintance of Saint Vincent de Paul, whom the holy Doctor was in the habit of styling “the worthiest priest he had ever known,” and under whose direction he placed the community of the Visitation, which he established in the capital of France.

Not long before his death the Saint made a journey to Avignon. While at Lyons an incident occurred that is worthy of recounting as an example of his kind and gentle manners. As he was boarding a vessel the boatman refused to receive him without his passport. His attendants grew angry, but the Bishop remarked: Let him alone. He knows his business as boatman, and fulfills it. We don’t know that of travelers.”

Exposed to a bitter cold wind – it was in November – he had to wait an hour for the passport, but he showed a calmness which diffused itself over his irritated followers. At last they got onboard. The Bishop went and sat near the boatman who had been tiresome, saying:” I wish to make friends with this good man, and to talk to him a little about our Lord.”

But the end was rapidly coming. The great Doctor suffered from weakness of the chest and violent pains in the head and stomach. Still, he never rested. He was an intrepid laborer. The energy of his soul rose superior to the decay of his body. In his last hours he was attended by some Jesuit Fathers under whom he had studied at Paris. “You find me in a condition,” he whispered to his Confessor, Father Possevinus, “in which I stand in need of nothing but the mercy of God. Obtain it for me by your prayers.” He sank gradually. All present knelt down. The prayers for the dying were recited, and as “All ye Holy Innocents pray for him” was repeated, the grand and innocent souls of the illustrious Saint Francis de Sales bade adieu to the scenes of this world. It was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, 28 December 1622.

Many are the anecdotes related of the sweetness, charity, simplicity, and wonderful judgment of this great Bishop.A young man was once brought to him for the purpose of receiving a severe reprimand; but the Saint spoke to him with his habitual kindness. Seeing the youth’s hardness, however, he shed tears, remarking that such a hard, unyielding heart would bring him to a bad end.

He was told that the young man had been cursed by his mother. “Oh! this is sad indeed,” he exclaimed. “If the poor woman is taken at her word, in vain will she afterwards curse her own curse. Unhappy mother of a still more wretched son!”

It was a true prophecy. Not long after the wayward youth perished in a duel, and his mother died of grief.

Some found fault with the Saint for having been too gentle in his reproof on this occasion. “What would you have me do?” he asked. “I did my best to arm myself with an anger free from sin. I took my heart in both my hands, and I had not the resolution to throw it at his head. But, indeed, I was afraid of letting that little drop of meekness – which has cost me the toil of twenty-two years to store up like dew in my heart – to run off in a quarter of an hour. The bees are several months in making a little honey which a man will swallow down at a mouthful.

“Besides,” he continued, “what is the use of speaking when we are not listened to? This young man was blind to remonstrances, for the light of his eyes – I mean his judgment – was not with him I should have done him no good, and myself, perhaps, much harm – like one who is drowned in his attempt to save another. Charity must be wise and prudent.” But it was seldom indeed that the heart of the sinner was proof against the gentleness of Francis de Sales.

“Disputes on religious matters,” says Bishop Camus, “were very disagreeable to him, especially at table and after dinner. These were not, he said bottle topics. I replied one day, taking up his expression, that if a bottle of that kind was occasionally broken it would give forth the lamp of truth, which is all fire and flame. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he answered, ‘fire and flames of anger and altercation, which yield only smoke and blackness, and very little light.’ ”

When in society, if the Saint heard any one throwing ridicule on another, his countenance immediately testified to his dislike of the conversation. He would introduce another topic to create a diversion, and, when he could not succeed by this method, he would rise and say:

“This is tampering too much on the good man. It passes all reasonable bounds. Who gives us the right to amuse ourselves in this way at the expense of others? Should we like to be treated thus, and have all our foibles dissected by the razor of the tongue? To bear with our neighbor and his imperfection is a great perfection, and it is a great imperfection to cut him up in this way by ridicule.”

One day a young lady, in his hearing, was amusing herself by quizzing another’s want of beauty, and was laughing at some natural blemishes with which she had been born. The great Doctor quietly observed that it was God who had made us, and not we ourselves; and that His works were perfect. But the lady was so foolish as to laugh still more at his saying that all God’s works were perfect. “Believe me,” he said, “her soul is most upright, beautiful, and well proportioned. Be satisfied that I know this for certain.” The fair quizzer grew silent.

He disliked complaining. “One day,” writes Bishop Camus, “I was complaining to our Saint of some grievous wrong that had been done me. The thing was so very manifest that he agreed to the truth of what I said. Finding myself so strongly supported, I felt triumphant, and grew very eloquent in dwelling upon the justice of my cause. The Saint, to put a stop to all this superfluous discourse, observed:

“‘It is true that they were in every way to blame for treating you in this manner. Such conduct was quite unworthy of them, particularly towards a man of your position. I see but one circumstance in the whole affair of your disadvantage.’

“‘What is that?’ I asked.

“‘That you have but to show your superior wisdom by holding your tongue,’ said the great Saint.

“This answer so struck me that I was silent at once, and had not a word to offer in reply.”

On a certain occasion a person, more talkative than discreet, expressed surprise that a distinguished lady of great piety, who was under the holy Bishop’s direction, had not even left off wearing ear-rings.

“I assure you,” he replied, “I not so much as know whether she has any ears; for she comes to confession with her head so completely covered up, or with a great scarf so thrown over it, that I do not know how she is dressed. Besides, I believe that the holy woman Rebecca who was quite as virtuous as she is, lost nothing of her holiness by wearing the ear-rings which Eliezer presented her on the part of Isaac.”

He disapproved of unwise austerities. He was once consulted on the introduction of bare feet into a religious house. “Why don’t they leave their shoes and stockings alone?” replied the great Saint. “It is the head that wants reforming not the feet!”

He was an ardent lover of simplicity, often saying that he “would at any time give a hundred serpents for one dove.” “He labored,” writes Bishop Camus, “not only to banish the pest of singularity from religious houses, but also to lead those persons who make a profession of devotion in the world to avoid it. He said that this defect rendered their piety not only offensive but ridiculous.

“He wished people to conform externally, as much as possible, to the mode of life of those who follow the same profession, without affecting to make themselves remarkable by any singularity. He pointed to the example of our Saviour, who in the days of His mortal life was pleased to make Himself in all things like his brethren, sin only excepted.

“The Saint was most careful to practise this lesson in his own person; and during the fourteen years that I was under his guidance, and studiously observed his behavior, and even his most trifling gestures as well as his words, I never perceived anything in him the least approaching to singularity.

“He often told me that our outward demeanor ought to resemble water, which, the better it is, the clearer, the purer from admixture, and the more devoid of taste it is. Nevertheless, although there was nothing of singularity in him, he appeared to me so singular in this very thing of having no singularity in him, that everything in him was in my eyes singular.”

Though Saint Francis was “meek and humble of heart,” it was not his habit to use expressions of humility in speaking of himself. He avoided such language. He regarded it as one of the gulfs in which that virtue is apt to suffer shipwreck. He so strictly adhered to this practice that nothing but stringent necessity ever led him to say good or evil of himself, even in the most indifferent matters.

He sometimes said that it was as difficult a feat to speak of one’s self as to walk along a tight-rope; and that a strong balance as well as a wonderful circumspection was requisite to avoid a fall. He did not like to hear people talking very humbly of themselves, unless their words proceeded from a thoroughly sincere inward feeling. He said that such words were the quintessence, the cream, the elixir of the most subtle pride. The truly humble man does not desire to appear humble, but to be humble.

“I have known,” says Bishop Camus, “great servants of God whom nothing could have induced to allow any one to take their portrait, believing that such an act would imply some sort of vanity or dangerous complaisance. Our Saint, who made himself all things to all men, made no difficulty about the matter. His reason was this: that as the law of charity obliges us to communicate to our neighbor the picture of our mind, imparting to him frankly and without grudging all that we have learned with respect to the science of salvation, we ought not to make any greater objection to give our friends the satisfaction they desire of having before their eyes, through the medium of painting, the picture of our outward man. If we see, not only without annoyance, but even with pleasure, our books, which are the portraits of our minds, why grudge them the features of our face, if the possession of them will contribute anything to their pleasure?

“These are his own words, writing on the subject to a friend: ‘Here, at any rate, is the portrait of this earthly man, so little am I able to refuse you anything you desire. I am told that it is the best likeness that was ever taken of me, but I think that matters very little. In imagine pertransit homo, sed etfrustra conturbatur. I had to borrow it in order to give it to you, for I have none of my own. Would that the likeness of my Creator did but shine forth in my mind – with what pleasure would you behold it!”

The following are some of the sayings of this gentle and deep-thinking Saint:

“Truth must always be charitable, for bitter zeal does harm instead of good.”

“A wise silence is better than a truth spoken without charity.”

“I know of no other perfection than loving God with all our hearts, and our neighbor as ourselves.

“As physicians discover the health or sickness of a man by looking at his tongue, so our words are true indications of the qualities of our souls.”

“In dress keep yourself always, as much as possible, on the side of plainness and modesty, which, without doubt, is the greatest ornament of beauty, and the best excuse for the want of it.”

His unsurpassed love of purity could not bear the least act or word that might tarnish its beauty. He called it “the beautiful and white virtue of a soul.” “See that lily,” he once said; “it is the symbol of purity. It preserves its whiteness and sweetness even amid briars and thorns; but touch it ever so little, and it will fade.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 13 November 2018. <>