The French prelate St. Francis of Sales (1567-1622) taught that spiritual perfection is possible for those leading a secular life.
The oldest of 13 children, Francis Boisy was born on Aug. 21, 1567, in the Sales castle in Thorens, Savoy, in eastern France. His wealthy father sent him to the best schools and prepared him for the life of a leisured gentleman. But when Francis was 11, he secretly decided to become a priest. At the Jesuit college of Clermont in Paris, he learned the Renaissance appreciation of art and literature, and at the University of Padua in Italy he studied law. In 1593, 2 years after he received his doctorate degree, he was ordained a priest.
The Roman Catholic Counter Reformation was vigorously under way at the time. Francis volunteered to travel with several other priests through the villages of Savoy to counteract Calvinism and win the people back to allegiance to Rome. For 4 years Francis used all his skills as a speaker and a writer in this cause. He was intelligent, personable, and sincere. The people with whom he came in contact were impressed by his deep spirituality, and gradually a large number of them accepted the Roman Catholic faith he preached.
In 1602 Pope Clement VIII consecrated the 35-year-old Francis bishop of Geneva, a city which until recently had been part of Savoy but which was now strongly Calvinist and developing ties with the Swiss Confederation. The young bishop worked energetically to organize and educate the relatively few Roman Catholics left in the city. He made sure his priests received a sound training, and he established an organization to teach Catholic doctrine in the parishes of his diocese. Francis himself traveled to all of the churches, met with as many people as he could, and inspired them with his own energy and competence.
Francis' constant concern with a sound spirituality based on prayer led him to teach that union with God was not only possible but desirable for people living a life of business and family. His short book Introduction to the Devout Life gained widespread and lasting popularity, and his longer work, Treatise on the Love of God, is still considered a masterpiece of mystical theology.
In collaboration with a close friend, Jeanne Françoise de Chantal, he founded the Order of the Visitation of Our Lady (1610) for women. Francis preached more than 200 sermons a year for 20 years. He died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at Lyons on Dec. 28, 1622. His writings— spiritual treatises, letters, tracts against the Calvinists—were collected after his death and published in 26 volumes. He was named the patron saint of writers.
St. Francis of Sales's Introduction to the Devout Life is available in an English translation by Michael Day (1956). Of the many biographies, Maurice Henry-Coüannier, Saint Francis de Sales and His Friends (trans. 1964), is a particularly interesting personal study. Of contemporary biographies, most interesting is Michael de la Bedoyere, François de Sales (1960).