Entrepreneur of the Spirit: St. Francis de Sales

Spirituality for Everyday and Founder

This Entrepreneur of the Spirit responded to the critical condition of the Church during the Protestant Reformation effectively and prayerfully, both as a spiritual director and compassionate bishop.

Early life

St. Francis, “the Gentleman Saint” from a wealthy family and privileged education, was not himself protected from the dangerous theology of the Reformation. In 1584, at the age of 17, he was convinced he was predestined for Hell and fell into a spiritual crisis. After 3 years of suffering and deprivation, he managed to drag himself to a church, where he was inspired to consecrate himself to Mary. Our Lady showed him that God saw good in him and wanted good for him. She reminded Francis that God is love.

Development

He resisted the political career his family set before him and became a priest. He was quickly appointed provost of the cathedral in his hometown of Savoy. It was here that he first established himself as a courageous and compassionate evangelist, particularly in his refutation of Huguenots, or French Calvinists, who sought to kill him. When they prevented him from speaking, he wrote and distributed pamphlets about town. 

By these means alone he was largely responsible for converting tens of thousands to the Catholic faith.

Priest for all people

He played an important role in all of France. King Henry IV received him and was impressed that he was a gentleman, academic, and religious. He also formed relationships with Pope Clement VIII and Cardinal Berulle, who desired Francis’ help with introducing St. Teresa of Avila’s order, the Carmelites, to France. In 1602, he was appointed bishop of Geneva, and the diocese garnered a reputation for being organized, thoroughly educated, and zealous in evangelization. 

The people were well-supported by their talented preacher and loving director. He wanted to lead them in true, thorough devotion with charity, which he defined as the gift of grace that’s the strength to do good. He wrote:

“It is the business of charity to make us observe all God’s commandments generally and without exception; it is the part of devotion to make us observe them more fully and quickly. You must possess charity to be devout and show a cheerfulness and readiness in performing charitable actions.”

Spirituality for Everyday

Prior to St. Francis De Sales, there was not really a spirituality for the layperson in the Catholic faith per se. Holiness was often equated with monasteries, religious life, and priesthood. St. Francis De Sales was largely responsible for changing this, influencing Catholic spirituality for centuries to come. Through his spiritual texts, such as Introduction to the Devout Life and homilies, he offered practical guidance and insights on how to live a holy life for the worker and those with families. For example, taking 20-30 minutes a day for quiet prayer, offering your work responsibilities and little sufferings in the day to God, and affirming that you can be a saint as a parent or a blue-collar worker. In these ways, he was innovative and entrepreneurial in how to apply spirituality in the midst of rapidly changing situations and culture.

Entrepreneur and Founder

While he opened many churches and inspired several orders, Francis didn’t meet only with success. Two examples of seeming failure are communities he founded a decade before his death: the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary for women and an Oratory of St. Philip Neri for men. The second failed entirely and the former was heavily restricted from his original vision. 

His desire to see more active congregations of women (who were required by canon law at the time to be cloistered) eventually found expression in one of St. Francis De Sales spiritual children, St. Vincent DePaul. De Paul, largely inspired by St. Francis De Sales, started the Daughters of Charity, one of the first active congregations of women religious.  For centuries afterward, many communities and schools were named for him and/or derived their spirituality from him. 

Maxims

To complete this reflection on a spirited entrepreneur, let’s consider some of his words that transformed the world around him.

“More flies are caught with honey, than a barrel of vinegar.”

As an extremely effective evangelist, St. Francis understood that love would draw people to the Church. He offered respite from the fear and harshness preached by Reformers. He didn’t need to sugar-coat the Faith but allowed its goodness to shine forth in its own power and transform hearts.

“If you speak, speak of God. If you are silent, speak of God.”

St. Francis was not discouraged when his attempts to evangelize and build the Church did not go according to plan. He knew that in the case of a willing soul God works all things for good. The Gospel was, and is, to be preached by charity and not words alone.

“Rest is reserved for Heaven; on earth we must always struggle between hope and fear.”

St. Francis did not depend on earthly consolations, lived ascetically, and until his last breath worked to make the Kingdom known and God loved on earth. This life inspires fear, and we don’t always experience the grace of perfect hope, but we can pursue it until we’ve finished our race.

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