A time of apostasy, dejection, quarrelling and dwindling religious vocations. There is plenty that we, in 2020, have in common with the 16th-century Church as it responded to the Protestant Reformation. Yet one particular Counter-Reformation saint shows us the fruits of another, quite different response.
Born into a noble family four years after the Council of Trent, St Francis de Sales could look forward to a life of comfort. But while he was still an adolescent, he realised that many around him were suffering the greatest poverty – and one he could not ignore: separation from God. To remedy this, St Francis exchanged comfort for works of mercy. From spiritual counsel to feeding the hungry and, most famously, combating Calvinism, his efforts were arduous. During four years of mission in Chablais, prior to becoming Bishop of Geneva, he is said to have converted 70,000 Calvinists to the Catholic Church (some 50 a day).
How, besides grace, was this possible?
While the Counter-Reformation was bearing little fruit and churches were pillaged in anger, St Francis decided that the key to releasing souls from error, thereby binding them back to God, was charity. His response to Calvinist gloom and Catholic despondency wasn’t vain arguments or gloomy warnings. Instead, he appealed to his flock with truth, love and the notion that a holy life was a sweet and cheerful one. In St Francis’s words, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”
His Introduction to the Devout Life is one of Christianity’s most influential books of spiritual direction. Even the founder of the Methodists, John Wesley, is said to have carried a copy. CS Lewis referred to the “dewy freshness” permeating it. Addressed in poetic and witty language to a fictional character, Philothea (“Lover of God”), it calls us to true devotion, through which the fragrant perfection of charity is attained. As honey sweetens all it touches without damaging its source, he writes, so does devotion beautify everything we do without damaging our state of life.
Through this approach, Francis earned the reputation of a “gentleman saint”. A friend once commented: “If you want someone to argue with heretics, send them to me; if you want to convert them … send them to the Bishop of Geneva.” If every soul matters, including our own, in a world impoverished of God we cannot afford mediocre devotion or to prefer winning arguments to winning souls.
St Francis’s audacity in conversion, which even saw him develop a sign language to bring a deaf man to God, shocked many of his contemporaries. Piety is today similarly shocking. Yet how might the world look if we all had the audacity to pursue a devout life?