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.
“All nations will come to climb the mountain of the Lord,” the Prophet Isaiah says in our Advent readings. Joining Portuguese merchants, Saint Francis Xavier went to far-off Asia, not for exotic spices and goods, but to call new followers to Jesus Christ.
For 10 years, Francis Xavier labored in India, Japan and southeast Asia to bring the gospel to the native peoples of these lands. In a letter to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, he explains that he’s so busy teaching and baptizing he has hardly a minute to himself. “Send help,” he says.
“Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’”
He’s driven by missionary zeal. Today, unfortunately, we’re becoming more like those university people in Paris– concerned about ourselves and ready to let the rest of the world go by.
The statue of Saint Francis Xavier above is in the beautiful church of the Sacred Heart in Springfield, MA, where Father Theodore Foley went as a boy. Was it put there after a Novena of Grace preached by some Jesuit missionaries, I wonder? How many people, like Theodore Foley, heard the story of the fiery missionary and saw themselves called to be missionaries ?
The Prophet Isaiah’s call to the nations is not confined to his time. God’s mission to the nations is for our time too.
Fr. Theodore Foley, whom I knew and lived with in community, may take his place among the saints someday. He died October 9, 1974. Here’s a summary of his life.
He was born in 1913 in Springfield, Massachusetts into a devout Catholic family. He went to Catholic schools and experienced a vibrant Catholic life in Sacred Heart parish in the north end of Springfield.
As a young boy of 14 he was attracted to the missionary spirit and spirituality of the Passionist community. Entering the Passionists, he was ordained a priest in 1940 and became one of its best spiritual guides and teachers of theology.
In 1958 Father Theodore went to Rome to be a general consultor for the worldwide Passionist community. In 1964 he became its superior general. He led his community through the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s when social unrest, political confrontations, assassinations, anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations began shaking the western world and the Catholic Church.
As traditional values came into question and church membership (including membership in his own community) began to decline, he was a rock of hope to those shaken by the times.
A participant in the Second Vatican Council, Father Theodore took up its challenge and worked tirelessly to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world. Seeking new opportunities to do God’s will, he traveled to Asia and Africa to extend the missionary outreach of his community. He also promoted the study of the Passion of Jesus as a remedy for a world in danger of forgetting God.
For him a perilous time like ours was not a reason to do nothing. It’s a time for “God’s purification in our lives and we have to accept it and do our best for the future of the congregation and our church.”
While furthering new ventures in Africa, he contracted a deadly virus which on his return to Rome caused his death on October 9, 1974.
A gentle man, faithful to prayer and unfailingly kind to others, Father Theodore believed that God is always at work in our world, even in bad times. The mystery of the passion of Jesus, which he kept constantly before his eyes, nourished in him a steady hope that God leads us on, no matter how dark life seems to be.
A hope like his is a hope to pray for today. Father Theodore is a candidate for canonization, and here’s a prayer that his cause succeeds:
Prayer for the Beatification of Fr. Theodore Foley, CP
Lord Jesus Christ,
You called Theodore Foley to follow you to Calvary’s heights as a Passionist priest and through your Immaculate and Sorrowful Mother taught him to fulfill your Father’s will by loving God and neighbor.
Let his life inspire us to a life of deeper virtue.
We humbly ask you to glorify your servant Father Theodore according to the designs of your holy will and through his intercession, grant the request I now present to you. (here mention your request). Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Passionists, are a small and relatively new community in the Roman Catholic Church, but we have a good number of canonized saints and members proposed for canonization. Beginning with our founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who died in 1774, each generation of Passionists has produced men and women recognized for their holiness.
We’re hoping Father Theodore Foley who died in 1974 may join the ranks of Passionist saints such as Paul of the Cross, Vincent Strambi, Gabriel Possenti, Dominic Barberi, Gemma Galgani, Charles Houben, Isidore DeLoor and Eugene Bossilkov.
Saints are God’s answer to the poison of their times, and it’s important to see them as they oppose it. Saints are firm believers and examples of heroic virtue. They’re signs of God’s power in a sinful world and God marks them out as saints through miracles performed through their intercession.
For example, St. Paul of the Cross was an antidote to the forgetfulness of the passion of Jesus which followed the Enlightenment, a 17th century movement that denied or minimized the role of faith and religion in human life. We’re still feeling the effects of the Enlightenment today.
St. Vincent Strambi opposed the Enlightenment as it was expressed in the political schemes of Napolean Bonaparte, who tried to subordinate religion to his own dreams of European domination. Vincent was a brave Italian bishop who resisted the emperor and suffered for it. Like him, the Bulgarian Bishop Eugene Bossilkov suffered and died under an oppressive Communist government in Bulgaria in the 20th century.
Gabriel Possenti resisted the lure of the Enlightenment in the 19th century. As a young man, he chose religious life rather than the inflated promises of success that tempted so many of his contemporaries.
Saints like Gemma, Isidore de Loor, Charles Houben seem to be people who fit St. Paul’s description of those called by God. They were not wise by human standards, they don’t have a lot of human power, they’re not of noble birth. They’re “the weak of the world God chooses to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1, 23-28)
Our Passionist saints tend to be ordinary people, of no special note, easily unnoticed and misunderstood, subject to the sufferings, disappointments and failures that come in life. God chooses them to be signs that he does not abandon his people and, in fact, can do great things through them. Charles Houben was a healer. Gemma bore the signs of Jesus’ passion in her body.
It takes awhile to know saints like these. That may be because we often don’t understand our own times and the poison afflicting it.
Charles Borromeo was born into a rich powerful northern Italian family in 1538. His uncle was Pope Pius IV. Nepotism was customary at the papal court in those days, so having the pope as your uncle was a sure way to get ahead. As a shy studious young man of 23, with a speech impediment, Charles was called to Rome and made a deacon, then cardinal, becoming the pope’s trusted advisor and Secretary of State.
His brother died unexpectedly In the winter of 1562 and Charles, grieving, made a retreat, following the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. His father and mother also died and as their remaining heir Charles was urged by his family, including the pope, to marry and have children. Instead he chose to become a priest.
The Council of Trent was concluding its work for church reform and Charles often represented the pope, looking after papal interests. He embraced the council’s call for reform, he left Rome and became bishop of Milan.
As bishop of that key city, Charles Borromeo became one of the most important figures in the renewal of the Catholic church shaken by the Protestant Reformation. In an era of absentee bishops, he stayed in his diocese, bringing about reform. He helped draft the Catechism of the Council of Trent. He founded a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for catechizing his people. He started a printing press to make the Word of God known to his people. He created seminaries for training priests.
He wasn’t afraid to deal with the inertia in his church or to confront the challenge to his authority from secular rulers or diocesan groups. In 1569 a friar from one religious community irked by his call for reform fired a shot that grazed his vestments while he was celebrating Mass. He was a man of meetings, a hard worker, constantly calling people together in diocesan synods and groups.
Probably what endeared him most to his people was that when a plague gripped Milan in 1571 Borromeo stayed in the city while most authorities fled. He mobilized people to minister to the sick and dying and set up hospitals for their care.
He was only 46 when he died, worn out trying to bring the gospel to his people; he showed other bishops and dioceses how to renew the church. Some historians say he lacked an appreciation of the role of the laity in the ministry of the church, but most see saints like Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri and Francis de Sales as more important for the Catholic renewal after the Reformation than the popes and general councils of the time.
We hope and pray for church leaders and saints like them today.
Father Theodore Foley, a holy superior general of my community, the Passionists, was reading the life of Charles Borromeo, when he died in 1974. He was inspired by his selfless leadership.
Today is the feastday of St. Gabriel Possenti, the young Italian Passionist who died in 1862 and was canonized in 1920. I’m interested in his connection with Fr. Theodore Foley (1913-1974), an American Passionist whose cause for canonization was recently introduced in Rome. As a young boy of 14, Theodore read about St. Gabriel and decided to become a Passionist; other young men joined the community in the early 1920s and 30s also influenced by the young Italian saint.
What was St. Gabriel’s appeal ?
Born into a prominent family at Assisi in Italy in 1838, Gabriel Possenti was a lively, intelligent young man given all the advantages his father, an official in the papal government, could give him. Then, surprisingly, he left the bright, social world he loved so much to enter the Passionists at 18. He died in 1862 and was canonized in 1920. He was 24 years old.
Gabriel was first honored by people in the mountainous region of the Abruzzi in east central Italy and from there devotion to him spread through Italy and other parts of the world. His rise to sainthood as World War 1 ended, coincided with a decade in America known as “The Roaring Twenties.”
The 1920s gave birth to a new consumer society, spawned by the country’s giant new industries and mass media, which chased after material goods of all kind. Young people especially, intoxicated by dreams of pleasure and success, rebelled against traditional institutions and morality. The 1920s was a “green light to an orgiastic future,” the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.”
Catholic religious leaders in the 1920s, anxious about the young, saw Gabriel Possenti an answer to the rebellious ethos of the age. He had flirted with a lifestyle like the “Roaring Twenties.” As a youth, glamorous parties, entertainments and dreams of success absorbed him. Then, hearing God’s call, he turned away and embraced a life without glamour or style.
In his preface to Saint Gabriel, Passionist, a popular biography by Fr. Camillus, CP published in 1926, the powerful archbishop of Boston ,William Cardinal O’Connell, denounced the “flood of putrid literature which, for the past ten years of more, has deluged the bookshelves and libraries of our great cities, fueling disappointment and emptiness in a false romanticism.” He urged young Catholics to reject this falseness and live in the real world, like St. Gabriel:
“To live a normal life dedicated to God’s glory, that is the lesson we need most in these days of spectacular posing and movie heroes. And that normal life, lived only for God, quite simply, quite undramatically, but very seriously, each little task done with a happy supernaturalism,-that such a life means sainthood, surely St. Gabriel teaches us; and it is a lesson well worth learning by all of us.”
Young Theodore Foley took Gabriel’s path. He followed the saint into the undramatic life of the Passionists.
Gabriel Possenti’s decision to enter the Passionists has always been something of a mystery, even to his biographers. Did he choose religious life because he got tired of the fast track of his day? And why didn’t he enter a religious community better known to him, like the Jesuits, who could use his considerable talents as a teacher or a scholar? Why the Passionists?
Gabriel–and Theodore Foley after him– was attracted to the Passionists because of the mystery of the Passion of Christ. It was at the heart of God’s call.
The Passionists were founded in Italy a little more than a century before Gabriel’s death by St. Paul of the Cross, who was convinced that the world was “falling into a forgetfulness of the Passion of Jesus” and needed to be reminded of that mystery again. Paul chose the Tuscan Maremma, then the poorest part of Italy, as the place to preach this mystery, and there he established his first religious houses for those who followed him. He chose the Tuscan Maremma, not to turn his back on the world of his day, but because he found the mystery of the Passion more easily forgotten there.
When Gabriel became a Passionist, the community like others of the time, was recovering from the suppression of religious communities by Napoleon at the beginning of the century. In one sense, it had come back from the dead . The congregation was now alive with new missionary enthusiasm. Not only were its preachers in demand in Italy, but it had begun new ventures in England (1842) and America (1852).
Paul of the Cross, the founder, was beatified in 1853. Ten years earlier, the cause of St. Vincent Strambi, a Passionist bishop, was introduced. Dominic Barbari, the founder of the congregation in England, would receive John Henry Newman into the church in 1865; the English nobleman, Ignatius Spencer, who became a Passionist in 1847, began a campaign through Europe in the cause of ecumenism. New communities of Passionist women were being formed.
Respected for their zeal and austerity, the Passionists were a growing Catholic community, and their growth in the western world continued up to the years when Theodore Foley became their superior general and then saw its sharp decline.
Success was not what drew Gabriel–and Theodore Foley after him–to the Passionists. Their charism–the mystery of the Passion of Christ– was at the heart of God’s call.
As a boy growing up, Gabriel Possenti understood this mystery, even as he danced away the evening with his school friends. Twice he fell seriously ill and, aware that he might die, promised in prayer to serve God as a religious and take life more seriously. Both times he got better and forgot his promises. Then, in the spring of 1856, the city of Spoleto where he lived at the time was hit by an epidemic of cholera, which took many lives in the city. Few families escaped the scourge. Gabriel’s oldest sister died in the plague.
Overwhelmed by the tragedy, the people of Spoleto gathered for a solemn procession through the city streets carrying the ancient image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who stood by the Cross. They prayed that she intercede for them and stop the plague, and they also prayed that she stand by them as they bore the heavy suffering.
It was a transforming experience for Gabriel. Mysteriously, the young man felt drawn into the presence of the Sorrowing Woman whose image was carried in procession. Passing the familiar mansions where he partied many nights and the theater and opera that entertained him so often, he realized they had no wisdom to offer now. He took his place at Mary’s side. At her urging, he resolved to enter the Passionists.
Can we speculate, then, how the life of the Italian St. Gabriel drew the young American Theodore Foley to the Passionists? What similarity was there between them? What grace led him on?
Brought up in a good family and a strong religious environment , Theodore Foley still felt “dangers and temptations” around him. No, he didn’t experience the social life that tempted Gabriel Possenti a century before. But he did experience the new mass media then sweeping the country. By 1922 movies, and to a lesser extent the radio, became powerful influences in people’s lives, and Hollywood’s heroes preached a new gospel of fun and success. Through the new media, the “Roaring Twenties” came to Springfield as it did to other prosperous parts of America when Theodore Foley was growing up. Did it bring the “the dangers and temptations” he feared?
Theodore Foley must have sensed the selfishness, the carelessness about others, the failure to appreciate suffering and weakness and sin in this new gospel. It promised life without the mystery of the Cross, but that was not real life at all. Only 14, he entered the Passionists.