Saint Francis de Sales, a saint for our time

Few have been more successful at proclaiming the Gospel, or of bringing straying Christians home again to Catholicism, than St. Francis de Sales. Few have been more patient, more willing to put in the time, build relationships, and actually do the work of fishing for souls. After all, as he said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”

By Chris Sparks

He helped bring many Calvinists in Geneva back to the Catholic faith.

He was renowned for his good temper, even as he struggled with a hot temper.

He was outstanding for his spiritual writings, for the wisdom of his counsel and the depth of his understanding of the Christian way of life.

He is the patron of teachers, journalists, authors – and the Catholic press.

He has a lot to teach us today.

Meet St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), bishop, Doctor of the Church and one of the saints most directly relevant to our lives and Christian witness in the present age.

After all, he saw the way the world was headed:

The world is becoming so delicate that, in a little while, no one will dare any longer to touch it except with velvet gloves, or tend its wounds except with perfumed bandages; yet what does it matter, if only men and women are healed and finally saved? Charity, our queen, does everything for her children.

Speak truth, speak Jesus
One of the great dangers for Catholics today is to give in to the temptation to “just speak the truth” without thought, without diplomacy or tact. After all, Jesus is truth, right? So to speak truth is to speak Jesus!

Well, no. Just as love without truth can be deadly sentimentalism, excusing all sin and evil in the name of affection, so too is truth without love a terrible fire, a sharp sword swung without care or discipline.

We are to season our words with salt, but too much salt can make food into poison. We are to be a light to the nations, but too much light blinds, especially when light first enters a dark room. In this post-Christian world, we need to know our neighbors and meet them where they are at with the truth and love given us through Christ and His Church if we are ever to help them. As St. Francis de Sales did so well, we need to give spiritual children milk before meat; we need to meet their needs, not demand they instantly be full-grown, fully matured Christians capable of heroic greatness.

In our Christian witness, bluntness is sometimes called for, but not always, and not often. Further, to be able to discern when to be blunt and when to be subtle, we ought to have a fair amount of experience and sanctity guiding us.

Blindness to truth
Speaking one’s mind bluntly usually gives greater satisfaction to the speaker than edification to the listener. I remember seeing Protestant street corner preachers at the papal visit in 2015, standing there with their Bibles in hand, spittle-flecked faces raging against the Holy Father, against Catholicism, against everything that they thought the papal visit was about. To their minds, they were “only speaking the truth.” They thought they were being good Christian witnesses for God and against evil, preaching the Gospel to a world badly in need of it. And yet I doubt any or many people were helped in any material way by them, their rage, or their frantic words.

I would say that besides their blindness to the truth of Catholicism, their first and greatest mistake was to overlook what God said of our efforts at evangelization. Jesus compared our work to fishing.

He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).

Now think about what goes into fishing, or fishing well. Only the amateur would take the fly rod to go whale fishing, or the harpoon to catch minnows. Only the novice would splash into a trout stream, or expect to find freshwater fish at sea.

Fishing requires more than simply going to the nearest body of water and demanding fish. Evangelization requires more of us than simply speaking the words of the Gospel at someone and then blaming them for not coming home to Christ.

Fishing for souls
Saint Francis de Sales shows us what the difference is. Few have been more successful at proclaiming the Gospel, or of bringing straying Christians home again to Catholicism. Few have been more patient, more willing to put in the time, build relationships, and actually do the work of fishing for souls.

After all, as he said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”

So as we celebrate his feast day on Jan. 24, let’s take some time to ask his intercession for us as we seek to live the Gospel and bear witness to Jesus in a world that’s forgotten him. Let’s ask him to pray for our neighbors as he prayed for the people of Geneva so that there may be a new dawn of faith today. And let’s commit ourselves to taking up and reading some of his works, like the Introduction to the Devout Life, or good works about him, like Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter Totum Amoris Est (Everything Pertains to Love).

Saint Francis de Sales, pray for us!
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JFPC

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