Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, as well as commemorating the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. St. Francis was born at the Chateau de Sales in Savoy in 1567. Though tonsured as a cleric at an early age his father’s intention was that his son should pursue a secular career. He attended the University of Paris and later became a doctor of law at Padua. Contrary to his father’s wishes he intended to devote his life to the service of God. The death of the Provost of the chapter of Geneva led to the suggestion that Francis should take up this post as a way of overcoming his father’s opposition. This was now achieved and Francis was later ordained priest in 1593. At that time the religious condition of the people of Chablais was in a bad state and it was suggested that a mission be founded to reclaim them. St. Francis offered himself for this work. This was accepted and in 1594 the mission began. His father strongly opposed his son engaging in what seemed such a hopeless task. At first it seemed that his father’s fears were well grounded. The mission struggled to make progress and St. Francis’ life was often placed in danger. He tried to overcome the opposition to the mission by writing short tracts which were widely distributed. These sowed the seeds for the growth of the mission and gradually the opposition he was facing was overcome. The bishop of Geneva was so impressed that he appointed Francis as his coadjutor. When he died St. Francis was appointed as his successor in 1602. St. Francis achieved much as bishop through his humility and gentleness. In contrast to so many he managed to be firm and principled in his actions, but without dealing uncharitably with people. He found a like minded soul in St. Jean Frances Fremiot de Chantal, and with her founded the Order of the Visitation. His most famous book was the “Introduction to the Devout Life”, which has ever since be recognised as a spiritual classic. He died in 1622.
A notable saying of St. Francis was that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. In other words more can be achieved in converting people through kindness and gentleness than through anger and aggression. A great mistake that many people make is that they misinterpret gentleness as being synonymous with weakness. In fact, it is mercy and gentleness that is the true source of spiritual strength. Violence and aggression only lead in the long term to more conflict. Wounds and grievances can, if provoked through aggression and violence, fester and become worse over time. It may be possible to achieve a great deal superficially in the short term through bullying an opponent into submission, but it is unlikely to achieve the desired result in the long term.
But, we might say, this is all very well in theory, but in terms of practical politics, a show of force is necessary to ensure that our opponents take us seriously. If we show gentleness in our dealings with others they will simply walk over us. It is essential to have clear principles in matters of theology, and compromise and pragmatism is surely the way of the politician rather than the true spiritual leader. It is certainly true that gentleness without having clear principles is likely to lead others not to take us seriously. The secret of the Christian life is to speak the truth in love. This involves combining having clear principles and speaking the truth, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear, with the exercise of charity in dealing with others. It was this that St. Francis achieved.
St. Francis lived at a time of bitter religious controversy and violent conflict. It was the age of Reformation and Counter Reformation. France was riven by Wars of Religion that had pitted Catholic and Protestant against one another. The conflict had only been resolved when the French Protestant leader Henri of Navarre converted to Catholicism, while granting toleration in the Edict of Nantes to the Huguenots (French Protestants). But Henri of Navarre’s famous axiom that he had converted because “Paris is worth a Mass” is the supreme example of political calculation and compromise, and did nothing to address the real issues which continued to fester beneath the surface.
In Geneva at the time when Francis became provost of the chapter it seemed that Calvinism had wholly triumphed and the divisions that had been engendered were too bitter to be healed. His father understandably viewed St. Francis’ mission as a waste of time and energy. But St. Francis had found a more excellent way. John Calvin had admitted that he had been feared rather than loved, and many on the Catholic side sought to fight fire with fire in response leading to a stalemate. By contrast, St. Francis’ preaching focused on the need to develop the fruits of the Spirit through living a devout and holy life. He eschewed controversy and polemic and instead sought to speak the truth in love. He persevered in the face of opposition and by his refusal to fight fire with fire he gradually won over a region that had seemed a lost cause as far as evangelism was concerned.
There is much to learn from this example today. Like St. Francis de Sales we live in an age of religious conflict. There is violent polemic by those who see themselves as progressive against so called traditionalists. Many self styled traditionalists have been similarly aggressive in response. It is easy to fall into the temptation of fighting fire with fire, but this is in the long term a mistake. If we respond to anger and aggression with even greater aggression we will come over as negative and embittered. We might make some short term gains, but at the cost of divisions becoming more entrenched in the long term. It is better to focus on what we love rather than what we hate. If people see that we are motivated by love rather than anger and hatred they are more likely to take us seriously. This is the point of St. Francis’ axiom that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Instead of focusing on attacking the failings of Protestants he concentrated on commending the virtues of Catholicism. Likewise in our own day, instead of focusing on attacking the failings of those who see themselves as progressive it is better to concentrate on commending the virtues of the tradition. Others will then clearly see that, even if they continue to disagree with us, we are motivated by love rather than by hatred.
It is above all in the life of the Saviour that we see the kindness and severity of God, firmness in upholding the truth, but also charity towards others. In so doing he took evil upon himself and somehow subsumed it into good. Throughout the ages there have been those whom we call saints, who by the grace of God have been able to speak the truth in love. St. Francis de Sales was one such who was a chosen vessel of God’s grace and light to the world in his own generation. Let us pray that we too may be enabled by divine grace to do likewise and show something of that most excellent gift of charity, the divine charity that suffereth long and is kind, in our own time and place.