The life of Saint Francis de Sales
The years 1567 thru 1622 were not great years for the Catholics in Switzerland. They
were not especially good years for a bishop of the Catholic Church, in particular the Bishop of
The future St. Francis de Sales was born in a chateau on the shores of Lake Geneva on
August 21, 1567. His family was part of the House of Savoie, a family of Nobles in Europe at
the time. He was baptised the next day in the Parish church of Thorens, and given the name
Frances was born prematurely, leaving him frail, delicate, and physically challenged as a
young child. But, he was never spiritually challenged. His mother kept his education in her own
hands, aided by tutor, Abbe Deage, a local priest who was very learned. As Francis grew older,
the priest became his permanent tutor, traveling with him everywhere. He became a voracious
reader and devoured every book he could get his hands on .
In 1575, at only eight years old, he prepared for his First Holy Communion and
Confirmation. He received both Sacraments on the same day, December 17, 1577 at the
tender age of ten in the local church in Annecy where he lived.
In 1581, at age fourteen Francis was sent to the University of Paris. His father’s agenda
called for Francis to enter the College de Navarre, as it was frequented by the sons of the noble
families of Savoie. The courses there would be perfect for the life that his father envisioned for
him. But Francis, who had kept his feeling about what he wanted to do with his life, to himself,
feared the influence this school would have on his commitment to the Lord, and preferred to be
allowed to go to the College de Clermont. It was under Jesuit direction and renowned for piety
and learning. He was able to persuade his father. Francis and his tutor, Abbe Deage, took up
residence in a hotel near the college and began his schooling.
Those six years in Paris proved to be very important for his formation. He
became a man of the Renaissance, obtaining a bachelor of arts degree. But he also studied
Theology and Scripture. Spiritually, his life had become centered on meditation, devotion to the
Eucharist and Our Lady. He made a vow perpetual chastity and placed himself under the
special protection of Our Lady.
When Francis reached the age of eightteen, he was besieged by and
unbelievable temptation to despair. His whole life to this point had revolved around his
relationship with God. Suddenly he found himself a victim of a dreaded apprehension that he
had lost God. He feared God’s grace was no longer flowing through him, and that he would
spend his eternity condemned to hell, hating God, the torture of the accursed.
This condition got so bad that it began to affect him physically. He tried to offer it
up for the poor souls in Purgatory, to which he had a great devotion. But it didn’t help. He
cried, “Lord, if I am ever to see Thee in Heaven, this at least, grant me that I may never curse or
blaspheme Thy Holy Name. If I may not love Thee in the other world, for in Hell none praise
Thee, let me at least, every instance of my brief existence here, love Thee as much as I can.
In the midst of this torture, while praying the Memorare to Our Lady for help, all
anxiety suddenly left him. He could feel the Mantle of Mary cover him. From this experience he
learned a number of important lessons. The first was to reach out to Mary immediatley when he
was in trouble. Another important point was to try to understand and deal tenderly with the
spiritual difficulties and temptations of others.
When he returned home in 1588, after six years studying in Paris, his father
wanted him to become involved in the service of the state as member of the House of Savoie.
His father sent him to Padua to study Law at the University of Padua. In addition to taking
courses in secular law, Francis was able to study more Theology. He was twenty four when he
received his final degree and became a doctor of law at Padua. While he accomplished what
his father had sent him to Padua for, the degree in civil law, he also, on his own accord,
received a degree in Canon Law.
Before going home to Annecy, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, returning by way
of Venice and Loreto in Italy. While there he visited the holiest shrine to Our Lady in the world,
The Holy House of Loreto. As he approached the great Basilica that housed the Holy House,
his heart beat so violently that he thought it would surely burst. He rushed to the little house
inside the Basilica and just stayed there, praying and reflecting on the image of Our Lady which
had come with the house when the Angels brought it from the Holy Land to Italy. He could not
tear himself away from that little house which had been made into a chapel, He stayed there all
day. He went into ecstasy for the first time in his life there. He cried during the time he was with
her. We don’t know what exactly transpired. He never wrote about it. His companion, Abbe
Deage, witnessed his ecstasy. He wanted to stay in the Church the entire evening. Finally, fie
saw the huge main door close and heard the grinding of the keys against the metal door. It was
closed. He was alone with Our Lady.
Upon arriving home, he was experiencing a certain amount of pressure from his father.
At this point, Francis had not told his father about what he believed to be his true calling. His
father still fully expected him to go into a suitable business. He had procure Francis a highly
esteemed position in the government, a senatorial seat through the Duke of Savoy. Francis
declined the position. His father was greatly troubled by his son’s refusal.
His first real opportunity to serve in Mother Church came when the acting provost
of the chapter of Geneva died. It was suggested by his cousin, Louis de Sales, that Francis
would be a good fit for the post. The Pope made the appointment and Francis reluctantly and in
shock accepted the honor. He prayed that somehow this might turn his father’s anger to love
and he would allow his son to have the life he really wanted. After some persuasion and lots of
prayers, his father gave his blessing.
Francis immediately began wearing clerical garb, and six months afterwards, on
December 18, 1593, he was ordained a priest. He began working with the poor and homeless,
the sick and the addicted. He spent much time in the confessional, bringing back those who
had left the Church. He did a great deal of preaching. At the beginning he confined himself to
Annecy, but as he developed more confidence and was more accepted, he began going to
areas outside of Annecy. He was preparing to evangelize in the dangerous areas around Lake
Geneva. This area, called the Chablais, which had been ruled by the house of Savoie, had
been invaded sixty years before by militant Protestants for Berne who took over the western
part of it as well as some provinces on the north shore of the lake. Catholic worship was
outlawed, and churches were burned or destroyed when not appropriated for Protestant use.
Religious orders were suppressed and priests were exiled. It was still a Calvinist stronghold.
As long as the Calvinists held a grip on the area, neither the Church nor the Duke of Savoy had
a chance to bring the people back to the faith. The Duke asked the Bishop send in missionaries
in an attempt to convert at least some who had turned to Calvinism.
The Bishop called a meeting of his chapter to explain the situation. Francis stood
up to volunteer for the job. He spoke very directly and gently, “My Lord, if you think I’m capable
of undertaking this mission, tell me to go. I am ready to obey and should be happy to be
chosen.” He was unanimously chosen, and for good reason. No one else wanted the job!
There were no other volunteers other than his cousin Louis. On September 14,
1594, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, they set forth to win back the Chablais for
Jesus. They traveled from Annecy to the border of the Chablais region at which point they sent
there horses back. They wanted to be like the apostles, following Jesus’ mandate to them,
“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road...Wherever you enter a
town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them ‘The
Kingdom of God has come near to you’”. They chose to go on foot from that point. However,
Louis only lasted for four months before he headed back to Annecy.
Francis had such an urgency to reach many more people than he could
physically do, especially since his cousin had left him. So in an effort to find new ways to reach
the hearts of the people, he began writing what we would call today, little tracts, expaining the
teaching of the Church as opposed to the errors of Calvinism. These “little tracts” composed
under such stress an difficulty, were later to become the basis for his first and most popular
book, Controversies. This book was one of the reasons he was made Doctor of the Church.
The originals of these pamphlets are still preserved in the archives in the Visitation convent in
Annecy. Although Francis de Sales was brilliant, he wrote and spoke very simply so that he
could be understood by the simplest of minds.
Through St. Francis untiring work, the Catholic Faith was reestablished in the
province , and he was given the title Apostle of the Chablais.
The Lord touched the heart of the Bishop of Geneva to consider Francis as his
successor. Have had great success against Calvinism in the area of Lake Geneva, it was the
right time to bring him before the Pope. He would be able to reach more people in a position of
pastor and authority as Bishop. He also realized it was a dangerous position. He would not be
able to go to Geneva. He would have to remain in Annecy until the situation with the Calvinists,
who were in complete control of the area, was better.
He was confirmed as co-adjutor of Geneva, with the understanding that upon the
death of the bishop, he would take that position. Francis returned to take up his work with fresh
zeal and energy. However, he couldn’t pass Loreto without a visit to his Mother Mary. So, in
April, 1599, Francis returned to Loreto to have some serious conversation with Our Lady. The
following morning he was able to celebrate Mass at the Holy House.
Pope Clement VIII gave Francis a very exciting proposition. He commisssioned
him to dialouge with Theodore Beza, who was the succesor to John Calvin. This would be a
great challenge to Francis. He knew it would take a tremendous amount of grace to be
instrumental in the conversion of the Calvinist leader. Beza was a brilliant man, who took the
edicts of Calvin and enforced them even more strongly than Calvin himself. He justified
everything the Calvinists did. Francis was able to have four meetings with Beza in Geneva.
They were lengthy discussions and Francis became very high on Beza’s list of respected
people. Francis felt he would be able to bring Beza over the top with a fifth meeting. However,
Beza died before they had the opportunity.
In the next few years Francis traveled to many places at the request of the
Bishop to represent the Diocese of Geneva. He had to hurriedly leave Paris in the autumn of
that year because the Bishop was sick and dying. After the passing of the Bishop he took the
reigns and committed himself with renewed vigor to the task that he had accepted from the
Pope three years before. Francis became very famous, not only in Annecy and Geneva, but in
all of Europe. His preaching to members of the nobility was responsible for the conversion of
In 1622 he preached the Christmas day Masses. He suffered a paralytic seizure
and slipped into a coma. He did regain consciousness for a short time. After receiving the Last
Sacraments, he laid murmuring words from the Holy Bible, expressing his humble and serene
trust in God’s mercy. He was heard to say, “WIth expectation, I have waited for the Lord, and
he heard my prayers, and brought me out of the pit of misery and filth of mire.”
Francis de Sales died at 56 years old on December 28, 1622, at eight o’clock in
the evening. He body was returned to Annecy where the funeral Mass took place in the Church
of the Visitation. His body remains at eh gospel side of the altar to this day. His heart however,
was originally placed in a leaden case and enshrined in the Church of the Visitation in Lyon,
France. After his beatification, it was changed to a silver case and now is in a golden case in
the same shrine. The Beatification of St. Francis de Sales in 1662 was the first solemn
beatification to take place in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1665 he was canonized; his feast
was fixed for January 29th, the anniversary of the bringing of his body to the Visitation in
Annecy, He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877 and Pope Pius XI named him the
Patron Saint of Journalists.
In his wonderful treatise on the love of God he wrote, “The measure of love is to
love without measure.”