Francis de Sales

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Francis de Sales

Francis de Sales
Birth August 21, 1567
Death December 27, 1622
Birthplace Thorens in the Duchy of Savoy
Beatified 1161
Canonized 1665
Memorial {{{calendar}}}

Life and work

Vincent de Paul came into contact with Francis de Sales in Paris in 1618 or 1619. Though Francis de Sales lived only another four years, his own spirituality and virtue, as well as his writings, especially An Introduction to the Devout Life, and Treatise on the Love of God, were to have a profound influence on Vincent.

Francis de Sales was born at Thorens in the Duchy of Savoy on August 21, 1567. He died at Lyons on December 28, 1622. His father was François de Sales de Boisy, and his mother was Françoise de Sionnaz, both belonging to old Savoyard aristocratic families. The eldest of six brothers, Francis was destined for the magistracy and carried out his early studies in rhetoric, literature and theology in Paris under the Jesuits, In 1588 he went to Padua to study law, and received a doctorate. Now that he was a lawyer, his father chose for him a suitable Savoyard heiress to be his wife, but Francis decided on the Church. Appointed Provost of the Chapter of Geneva, a high post in the diocese of Geneva (based at Anneçy), he was ordained a priest in 1593.

For the next few years, Francis became well known for his preaching, his conversion of Calvinists, his learning, kindness and holiness. in 1599, he was appointed coadjutor Bishop of Geneva, and in 1602, the Bishop of the diocese. His first step was to institute catechetical instructions for the faithful, both young and old. He made prudent regulations for the guidance of his clergy. He carefully visited the parishes scattered through the rugged mountains of his diocese. He reformed the religious communities. His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. He had an intense love for the poor, and his food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He completely dispensed with superfluities and lived with the greatest economy, in order to be able to provide more abundantly for the wants of the needy. He heard confessions, gave advice, and preached incessantly. He wrote innumerable letters (mainly letters of direction) and found time to publish numerous works.

Together with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, he founded in 1607 the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, for young girls and widows who, feeling themselves called to the religious life, had not sufficient strength, or lacked inclination, for the corporal austerities of the great orders.

His zeal extended beyond the limits of his own diocese. He delivered the Lent and Advent discourses which are still famous - those at Dijon (1604), where he first met the Baroness de Chantal; at Chambéry (1606); at Grenoble (1616, 1617, 1618), where he converted the Maréchal de Lesdiguières. During his last stay in Paris (November, 1618, to September, 1619) he had to go into the pulpit each day to satisfy the pious wishes of those who thronged to hear him. "Never", said they, "have such holy, such apostolic sermons been preached." He came into contact here with all the distinguished ecclesiastics of the day, and in particular with St. Vincent de Paul.

In 1622 he had to accompany the Court of Savoy into France. At Lyons he insisted on occupying a small, poorly furnished room in a house belonging to the gardener of the Visitation Convent. There, on December 27, he was seized with apoplexy and died the following day. St. Francis de Sales was beatified in 1661. Vincent de Paul gave detailed testimony of Francis' life and virtue in the beatification cause. Francis de Sales was canonized by Alexander VII in 1665; he was proclaimed Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX, in 1877.

Besides the Institute of the Visitation, which Francis de Sales founded, the nineteenth century saw associations of the secular clergy and laymen, and several religious congregations, formed under his patronage. Among them were the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, of Anneçy; the Salesians, founded at Turin by the Don Bosco specially devoted to the Christian and technical education of the children of the poorer classes; and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, established at Troyes (France) by Father Brisson, who tried to realize in the religious and priestly life the spirit of Francis de Sales.


Following is a list of the principal written works of Francis de Sales:

  • Controversies - leaflets which Francis scattered among the inhabitants of Le Chablais in the beginning, when these people did not come to hear him preach. They form a complete proof of the Catholic Faith. In the first part, the author defends the authority of the Church, and in the second and third parts, the rules of faith, which were not observed by the heretical ministers. The primacy of St. Peter is amply vindicated.
  • Defence of the Standard of the Cross - a demonstration of the virtue of the True Cross; of the Crucifix; of the Sign of the Cross; an explanation of the Veneration of the Cross.
  • An Introduction to the Devout Life - a work intended to lead the soul living in the world into the paths of devotion, of true and solid piety. Every one should strive to become pious, and "it is an error, it is even a heresy", to hold that piety is incompatible with any state of life. In the first part the author helps the soul to free itself from all inclination to, or affection for, sin; in the second, he teaches it how to be united to God by prayer and the sacraments; in the third, he exercises it in the practice of virtue; in the fourth, he strengthens it against temptation; in the fifth, he teaches it how to form its resolutions and to persevere. The Introduction, which is a masterpiece of psychology, practical morality, and common sense, was translated into nearly every language even in the lifetime of the author, and it has since gone through innumerable editions.
  • Treatise on the Love of God - an authoritative work which reflects the mind and heart of Francis de Sales as a great genius and a great saint. It contains twelve books. The first four give us a history, or rather explain the theory, of Divine love, its birth in the soul, its growth, its perfection, and its decay and annihilation; the fifth book shows that this love is twofold - the love of complacency and the love of benevolence; the sixth and seventh treat of affective love, which is practised in prayer; the eight and ninth deal with effective love, that is, conformity to the will of God, and submission to His good pleasure. The last three resume what has preceded and teach how to apply practically the lessons taught therein.
  • Spiritual Conferences - familiar conversations on religious virtues addressed to the sisters of the Visitation and collected by them. We find in them that practical common sense, keenness of perception and delicacy of feeling which were characteristic of the kind-hearted and energetic Saint.
  • Sermons - These are divided into two classes: those composed previously to his consecration as a bishop, and which he himself wrote out in full; and the discourses he delivered when a bishop, of which, as a rule, only outlines and synopses have been preserved. Some of the latter, however, were taken down in extenso by his hearers. Pius IX, in his Bull proclaiming him Doctor of the Church calls the Saint "The Master and Restorer of Sacred Eloquence". He speaks simply, naturally, and from his heart.
  • Letters - mostly letters of direction, in which the minister of God effaces himself and teaches the soul to listen to God, the only true director. The advice given is suited to all the circumstances and necessities of life and to all persons of good will. While trying to efface his own personality in these letters, the saint makes himself known to the reader of them.
  • A large number of treatises or opuscula.


The writings of Francis de Sales set out an easy and safe way to journey towards Christian perfection. For Francis de Sales there were two major elements in the spiritual life - firstly, a struggle against our lower nature, and secondly, union of our wills with God. The characteristics of the two elements were penance and love, with love being the most important. If penance is to be practised, it should be done from a motive of love. Mortification of the senses should be practised, but mortification of the mind, the will and the heart is more important. The goal to aim for is a life of loving, simple, generous and constant fidelity to the will of God which is nothing else but our present duty. Holiness is obtainable by anyone whatever their status, condition or role in life. Holiness is brought about by love in action. Christ is the model who should be kept always before our eyes, and this is achieved by remembering the presence of God, frequent prayer, and right intention in our actions.

Salesian poverty

Though both his parents belonged to old aristocratic families, Francis de Sales was no stranger to poverty. His family experienced some serious financial difficulties during his early life, and the diocese of Geneva, having lost a large amount of property and income in the wars between France and Savoy, was certainly not materially wealthy. The diocese was also spiritually poor, and a number of parishes were without clergy. Francis looked at the mystery of poverty on five levels - the proper or material level, the metaphoric level, the mystical-allegorical (spiritual) level, the tropological level (what is to be done) and the anagogical level (the poverty of Christ, the poor of Yahweh in the Kingdom).

The most extreme type of poverty was separation from God. Francis de Sales had a regard for the frailness of the human condition, and believed that the difficulties of this life would be replaced by reward in the next. He was strong on encouragement and hope, on the goodness and mercy of God, on the unity of God and Man. He believed that God loved humanity. Discovering ourselves and our limitations is a reason to turn to God. The more wretched we feel ourselves to be, the more we should trust in the mercy and goodness of God. We could not receive God's mercy if we were not imperfect, and this creates a bond between man and God. This mercy and love of God is personified in Jesus Christ his Son. By poverty - detaching itself from material possessions - the heart is freed to respond to God's love. This freedom is the freedom of the bienaymés, the beloved ones. To serve the poor means to free them from the poverty that prevents them being able to respond to God's love.

Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul

Francis de Sales came to Paris in November 1618 and remained there for a year on Church and diplomatic (court) business. During that time, despite their vastly different social backgrounds, he and Vincent de Paul became close friends. Even after Francis' death four years later, Francis continued to be Vincent's mentor by way of his writings, in particular his Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. Both of these works remained part of Vincent's spiritual reading for himself, and as his recommendations to others.

Francis de Sales along with with Jane Frances de Chantal founded the Visitation of Holy Mary. From 1622 (before the death of de Sales) to shortly before 1660 when Vincent died, Vincent de Paul was ecclesiastical superior of the first monastery of the Visitation in the archdiocese of Paris. Later he would also become superior of the second, then the third in that diocese (Paris). Vincent de Paul was also spiritual director for Saint Jane Frances de Chantal(1572-1641, canonized 1767) for almost twenty years.

Francis' original purpose was to found a community of women who would be able to carry out visitation of the abandoned sick people and perform other works of mercy without the encumbrance of the cloister. Rome and the hierarchy circumvented this intention, and the Institute of the Visitation remained cloistered, though with a new form of spirituality. In setting up the Daughters of Charity with Louise de Marillac, Vincent was able to overcome the obstacles that defeated Francis de Sales and found a community of women who were not bound by the cloister.

A "Globe of Fire"

There was one extraordinary mystical experience that we know Vincent de Paul had in his lifetime, and it concerned Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal. It took place in 1641 on the day that Jane Frances de Chantal died. When Vincent received a letter telling him that Jane Frances was seriously ill, he had a vision of Frances de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal going to heaven.

Vincent had the same vision again as he celebrated Mass after hearing that Jane Frances had died. The vision on both occasions was that of a small globe of fire that rose from the ground and joined another bigger and more shining globe higher in the air. Then both globes melted into one, rose higher in the air, and entered and were lost in another globe which was infinitely greater and more luminous than the previous ones.

Vincent heard an interior voice telling him that the first globe was the soul of Jane Frances de Chantal, the second was that of Francis de Sales, and that they were both now in God. Vincent himself was cautious and practical about this vision, acknowledging that he was not given to seeing visions, and that this was the only one he ever experienced.

Salesian Influence on Vincent de Paul

Vincent's letters and conferences contain a great many quotations from the writings of Francis de Sales, and references to his ideas. Francis had opened up to Vincent the horizons of sanctity and the means to obtain it. By his own gentleness, Francis influenced Vincent in regard to overcoming his (Vincent's) own personal disposition of surliness and melancholy, and helped him with a wider vision and more organised effort with regard to the spiritual life and the apostolate. Vincent saw holiness and humanity in the life of Francis de Sales, and found in him a meeting with the living Christ.

An emphasis on prayer, and the practice of Repetition of Prayer that Vincent encouraged in the Congregation of the Mission resembled that of Francis in Introduction to the Devout Life. The thoughts and principles of Francis de Sales' Treatise on the Love of God were evident in Vincent's conferences to the Daughters of Charity and the members of the Congregation of the Mission at St Lazare. As had Francis de Sales, so did Vincent speak of speak of both effective love and affective love. Prayer was oriented to action, and, being a means to holiness, is accessible to all. Like Francis, Vincent distinguished between Meditation and Contemplation However, Vincent was more careful when it came to 'supereminent' prayer or ecstasy. When advising others on prayer, he tended to be more down to earth.

Francis de Sales heralded for Vincent the idea that holiness was for everyone, regardless of their state of life - and this is the message of the Introduction to the Devout Life. To obtain holiness, one did not have to follow the complex intellectual structures of Pierre de Bérulle - it was enough to follow the humble and gentle way preached by Francis de Sales - love in the actions of one's life. This was to become a fundamental principle of what we now refer to as 'The Way of Vincent de Paul'.

It is easy to see the influence of Francis de Sales on Vincent de Paul's approach to the poor. The language of Vincent in regard to the poor in many cases echoes that used in Francis de Sales' writings. To serve the poor means to free them to experience the love of God.

As Vincent de Paul drew from Pierre de Bérulle, André Duval, and also Benet of Canfield's work The Rule of Perfection, so also did he draw from Francis de Sales and his writings. Eclectic though Vincent was, all of these influences were integrated into his own life, work, and a personal spirituality of the Church.



Bady, René, François de Sales, (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1979)

Coste CM, Pierre, The Life and Works of St Vincent De Paul, Vol I, (New York: New City Press, 1987)

Dodin, André, François de Sales, Vincent de Paul: Les Deux Amis, (Paris: OEIL, 1984)

Pochat, Geneviève, François de Sales et la Pauvreté (Paris: Editions SOS, 1988)

Ravier SJ, André, Un Sage et Un Saint: François de Sales, (Paris: Nouvelle Cité, 1985)

Román CM, J-M, St Vincent de Paul, a Biography, (London: Melisende, 1999)


St Francis de Sales, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia