As we near the feast day of our school’s patron saint, we thought it would be fitting to have him share with us more about his extraordinary life. Fortunately, he graciously agreed to speak with our director of community outreach, Mary Kay Ramirez.
Mary Kay: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I think a good place to start would be the beginning!
St. Francis: I’m humbled to share a little of my story. I was born on the 21st of August in 1567 in southeastern France. My father was François de Sales, Lord of Boisy. My mother, Françoise de Sionnaz, was a noblewoman and the only child of a prominent magistrate. I was baptized Francis Bonaventure, after Franciscan saints St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure.
Mary Kay: Your parents must have been so proud when you told them you wanted to become a priest.
St. Francis: (laughs) Not exactly. Because I was born into an aristocratic family and was the eldest of six sons—thirteen children in all—my father wanted me to pursue a career in law and eventually replace him as senator. He sent me to study law at the University of Padua. Although I felt called to priesthood from a young age, I kept it from my entire family and secretly studied theology in addition to law. To please my father, I also took lessons in riding, dancing, and fencing.
Mary Kay: So when and how did you tell them about your vocation to the priesthood?
St. Francis: After university, my father secured various positions for me, including an appointment as senator. He even selected a wife for me. But one day while I was horseback riding, my sword and scabbard fell to the ground, forming the sign of the cross. To me, it was a sign from God about the path I was destined to take, and I finally shared with my parents my intention of embracing the ecclesiastical life. My father was fiercely opposed. Fortunately, the Bishop of Geneva intervened and obtained for me the position of provost of the Diocese of Geneva, the highest office in the diocese. I was ordained in 1593.
Mary Kay: You are often described as a gifted sermonizer. How were you received by the community?
St. Francis: Not well! I was ordained during the height of the Protestant Reformation, and the area I served had become almost completely Calvinist. My efforts to evangelize were at times a complete failure.
Mary Kay: Yet it’s estimated that you converted anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 souls back to Catholicism during the Reformation. How did you do that?
St. Francis: Living near Switzerland, I felt called to convert back the thousands of Swiss Catholics who had left the Church to follow John Calvin. I spent three years on that mission, often in the cold without food or a place to sleep. I encountered incredible hostility, resistance, and even death threats. Since people wouldn’t open their doors for me, I began writing pamphlets about true Catholic doctrine and sliding them under doors.
Mary Kay: What was the next step in your religious life?
St. Francis: I was appointed coadjutor bishop of Geneva in 1599, and became bishop in 1602. A couple of years later I noticed a woman, Jane Frances de Chantal—now a fellow saint—who was listening intently to one of my sermons. I later became her spiritual advisor, and together we formed a new religious order, the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin.
Mary Kay: Why did you focus so much of your efforts on reaching out to laypeople?
St. Francis: At that time, people thought that only those in religious life could achieve real holiness, so only priests, monks, and nuns received instruction on how to live holy lives. It was also thought that holiness could only be achieved by those who withdrew from active participation in the world. I believed that all people should be allowed to know how to become holier, even those who were very active in occupations, so I spent hours answering letters and preaching to laypeople who were living real lives in the real world. Those experiences inspired me to write Introduction to the Devout Life in 1608, to guide all people on the path to holiness.
Mary Kay: Why is January 24th your Feast Day?
St. Francis: That was the day I was buried in Annecy in 1624.
Mary Kay: Of what groups are you a patron saint?
St. Francis: Because of all of the leaflets and books I wrote, which are often looked at as the first Catholic tracts, I am the patron saint of Catholic writers, the Catholic press, and journalists. I once catechized a deaf man so he could take Communion, so I am also the patron saint of the deaf.
Mary Kay: What is the worst sin someone can commit?
St. Francis: Judging someone or gossiping about them. When you hear ill of anyone, refute the accusation if you can in justice do so; if not, apologize for the accused on account of his intentions and thus gently check the conversation, and if you can, mention something else favorable to the accused.
Mary Kay: What advice you would give to an ordinary person about living a life of holiness?
St. Francis: Retire at various times into the solitude of your own heart and pray, even while engaged in discussions or transactions with others and talk to God. Also, show your devotion by your action. To be an angel in prayer and a beast in one’s relations with people is to go lame on both legs.
We hope that this interview has taught you a few things about our patron saint’s life and legacy. On his feast day, we encourage you to reflect upon his universal call to holiness, and to strive on that day and every day to “be who you are and be that well.