Meet the patron saint of journalists
The patron saint of journalists and the Catholic press is St Francis de Sales, whose feast day is today, January 24. This is why he is one of the four patrons of The Southern Cross’ Associates Campaign. GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER looks at the life of a saint who has a message for us even today.
At the beginning and end of every Southern Cross board meeting, one will hear the invocation: “St Francis de Sales, pray for us.” This particular St Francis is the patron saint of journalists, even though he lived at a time when the profession of journalism was still to be invented in the ways we know it today.
François de Sales, as his teenage mother knew him, was born in 1567, the first of 15 children of a noble family in south-eastern France. The room of his birth was named the St Francis Room, after a big painting on its wall depicting the saint of Assisi preaching to the birds. Named François Bonaventura, after the two great Franciscan saints, he was educated by the Jesuits. Later, as the son of a lord, he entered the prestigious University of Paris with a personal servant in tow, as well as a personal tutor, a priest.
François was tall and well-built, handsome with blue-grey eyes, and he had good, if reserved, manners as well as promising prospects. He was outstanding husband material. Instead, as a 20-year-old he dedicated his life to the Blessed Virgin, pledging chastity.
To please his father he continued his studies, reading law and theology at the venerable University of Padua in Italy. Guided by his Jesuit spiritual adviser, however, he decided to become a priest. But first he went home: as a lawyer.
In the interim, Francis’ father had his son’s future all figured out. He had secured a senator’s post for his son, and a wealthy heiress to marry. Life was going to be good.
For 18 months Francis lived the life his father had prepared for him — except Francis was still intent on becoming a priest. When informed of this, Francis’ father put up a formidable opposition. It took the mediation of the bishop of Geneva, Mgr Claude de Granier, to open the clerical path to Francis, contingent on the young man getting a prestigious Church position.
Francis didn’t seek prestige, though. Not long after his ordination, he volunteered to be sent to the region of Chablais to work as an evangeliser in an almost completely Calvinist area, one in which the suppression of the Catholic Church had been lifted only recently and where hostility to Rome remained fierce.
Against the wishes of his father — there was a pattern emerging — Francis and his cousin, Canon Louis de Sales, set off in September 1594 to return the Catholic faith to hostile territory.
They were not warmly welcomed, except by the few remaining Catholics who were too scared to declare their allegiance openly. Twice Francis miraculously escaped assassination attempts and had to be guarded by soldiers of the duchy of Savoy.
Another time a mob set upon Francis, beating him. But this, as well as the pamphlets he distributed, only attracted greater attention to his missionary work, and he was able to record some successes. By 1599, the region’s capital, Thonon-les-Bains, was again predominantly Catholic.
But the dangers were presented not just by irate Calvinists. One winter’s day Francis was crossing a forest when he was set upon by a pack of wolves. For safety he climbed up on a tree and remained there for the night. By morning he was discovered by local peasants who took him in and nursed the hypothermic priest back to health, thereby saving his life. These peasants were Calvinists, a fact which impressed Francis as evidence that there were also good people on the other side. The story goes that he converted them to Catholicism.
But it wasn’t all angry mobs, devious assassins, hungry wolves and kind peasants. Francis’ nobility gave him access to the high rollers in the world of Church and politics, and so he secured alliances with Pope Clement VIII and King Henry IV of France, the dissolute king who later invited Francis to preach a Lenten retreat.
In 1599 Francis became coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Geneva; and upon de Granier’s death three years later, its archbishop. Like his predecessor, he resided in the safer town of Annecy.
As a bishop he collaborated closely with the Franciscans, who bestowed upon him the highest order a non-Franciscan can receive: an official associate of the Order.
Francis built a reputation as a preacher in the era of the Counter-Reformation, operating in a fiercely Protestant region. But his method of preaching was neither polemic nor of the fire-and-brimstone variety. It was gentle and persuasive.
“He who preaches with love,” he would say, “preaches effectively.” In this he provided an echo of St Francis of Assisi, and set a template for a future Francis, our current Holy Father.
He put that motto into action in the famous book he addressed — unusually for the time — to the laity, Introduction to the Devout Life. His book was fairly revolutionary. In its introduction he wrote: “It is an error, or rather a heresy, to say devotion is incompatible with the life of a soldier, a tradesman, a prince, or a married woman.” Pointedly he added: “It has happened that many have lost perfection in the desert who had preserved it in the world. “
Among the people whom Francis influenced was Fr Vincent de Paul, who was greatly inspired by de Sales’ books, especially An Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. The two met once in Paris.
Francis wrote prolifically in his time, and his mystical writings were received enthusiastically. He also was involved in founding religious congregations, most notably the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary with another future saint, Jane Frances de Chantal.
Francis de Sales died suddenly, following a stroke, on December 28, 1622, at the age of only 56. His influence, however, lived on. When St John Bosco founded his order in Turin in 1859, he named it the Society of St Francis de Sales; hence their common name, the Salesians. Likewise, the Salesian Sisters were named after him, as was another order active in South Africa, the Oblates of St Francis de Sales.
St Francis de Sales was beatified in 1661 by Pope Alexander VII and canonised by the same pope four years later. His feast day is on January 24, the date of his burial at Annecy. Pope Pius IX declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1877.
As one who evangelised through his writings, St Francis de Sales was named the first patron saint of journalists and the Catholic press in 1923 by Pope Pius XI. And that is why his name is invoked at every board meeting of The Southern Cross (and sometimes even in internal e-mail correspondence), and why he is one of the patrons of The Southern Cross’ Associates Campaign. On his feast day, a Mass is said for the intentions of the contributors to the Associates Campaign, and the repose of the souls of those who have passed away.