Francis de Sales had a wonderful approach to holiness. He believed in the uniqueness of every person and recognized the variety of ways people can become holy. He also believed firmly in respect and dialogue, especially with someone who doesn’t think like you or is from another religious tradition.
Some years ago, I visited a church in Geneva, Switzerland, center of Calvinism in the 16th century, where Francis was the Catholic bishop. A statue in that church (above) pictures him holding a book and a pen in his hand – not a sword.
Geneva was a city of swords then, real and verbal; religious differences led to conflict and even bloodshed. Francis believed instead in peaceable dialogue.
Dialogue did not mean for him abandoning your own beliefs or being silent about them. It meant examining and measuring your own beliefs more deeply while listening carefully and respectfully to the beliefs of others to find the truth.
Francis de Sales prepared the Catholic Church for the approach to ecumenism it would take in the 20th century at the Second Vatican Council. He would certainly support the ecumenical movement today.
The spiritual writings of Saint Francis de Sales have become classics. Here’s something from “An Introduction to a Devout Life” that reveals the way he thought and taught.
“When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.
“I say that devotion must be practised in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.
“Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbour. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganised and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfils all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.
“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.”
The opening prayer in today’s liturgy asks God to give us too Francis’ gentle approach to life:
O God, who for the salvation of souls willed that the bishop St. Francis de Sales become all things to all, graciously grant that, following his example we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A good prayer and a good saint for our contentious times.