Born in 1567 in Thorens, France, of a noble family, Francis de Sales was the oldest of thirteen children. Francis was first sent to Paris for his studies, and then to the University of Padua, to fulfill his fatherŐs wish that he become a lawyer. Unknown to his father, Francis took a Doctorate in Theology as well as in Law and gradually grew in his desire for the priesthood. When his father eventually yielded, Francis, in 1593, entered the seminary. Immediately upon receiving Holy Orders, Francis was appointed provost, second in rank to the bishop. A short time later, much to the surprise of everyone, Francis decided to lead an expedition to convert the 60,000 Calvinists in the Chablais region of neighboring Switzerland back to Catholicism. Unfortunately, Francis' expedition consisted only of himself and his cousin. His father had refused to give any aid for this crazy plan and the diocese was too poor. For three years, Francis trudged through the countryside, had doors slammed in his face and rocks thrown at him. In the bitter winters, his feet froze so badly they bled as he tramped through the snow. He slept in hay lofts if he could. Once he had to sleep in a tree to avoid wolves. He tied himself to a branch to keep from falling out and was so frozen the next morning he had to be cut down. After three years, his cousin left him alone; Francis had still not made one convert. Francis' unusual patience kept him working, even though no one would even listen to him, no one would open their door. So Francis found a way. He wrote out his sermons, copied them by hand, and slipped them under the doors. This is the first record we have of religious tracts being used to communicate with people. Still undaunted, since the parents wouldn't come to him, Francis went to the children. Eventually, when the parents saw how kind he was as he played with the children, they began to talk to him. By the time, Francis left Chablais in 1599 to become coadjutor of Geneva, he is said to have brought 40,000 people back to Catholicism.
Three years later Francis was made bishop of Geneva. He instituted catechetical instructions for the faithful, made prudent regulations for the guidance of his clergy, visited all his parishes scattered through the rugged mountains, and reformed the religious communities. His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. Although naturally hot tempered and easily aroused to anger, by means of constant watchfulness over himself and of violence to his own will, Francis became a living likeness of the God of Peace and Meekness.
It was in 1604 in Dijon that Francis saw a widow listening closely to his sermon -- a woman he had seen already in a dream. Jane Frances de Chantal wanted him to take over her spiritual direction, but, not surprisingly, Francis wanted to wait. "I had to know fully what God himself wanted. I had to be sure that everything in this should be done as though His hand had done it." Jane was on a path to mystical union with God and, in directing her, Francis was compelled to become a mystic himself. Together they founded the Institute of the Visitation, for those who, being called to the religious life, had not sufficient strength for the corporal austerities of the great orders. Francis wished especially to apply the spiritual method dear to him: to reach God chiefly through interior mortification and to endeavor to do in every action only the Divine Will with the greatest possible love.
Francis believed the first duty of a bishop was the spiritual direction of all the faithful. His work on spiritual direction led to the publication of the great classics Introduction to the Devout Life, and The Treatise on the Love of God. Fundamental to these works is the doctrine that the spiritual life is not just for the religious and the clergy, but for everyone. For this reason, Francis is not only the patron of writers and journalists, but also the patron of lay spirituality and the lay apostolate. His ecumenical sensitivity and his personal gentleness together with his common sense rejection of extremes of the spiritual life have led to him being described as The Gentleman Saint. Francis died in Lyons on December 28, 1622, after giving a nun his last word of advice: "Humility." He was declared a Saint in 1675 and Doctor of the Church in 1877.
Adapted from various lives of Saint Francis de Sales.