January 24 is the Memorial of St. Francis de Sales. It is a special feast in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee because St. Francis de Sales is the patron of our seminary. Over the years, Saint Francis de Sales Seminary has played a huge role in ministerial formation for our archdiocese, the other dioceses of Wisconsin and beyond. I have a particular devotion to St. Francis de Sales because I worked for 12 years as the spiritual director of the seminary and for five years as the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Lake Geneva.

Francis was born in Thorens, Savoy, on Aug. 21, 1567, the son of Francis Boisy and his wife Frances de Sionnaz. A gifted boy, he began school in La Roche (a short distance from Thorens) at age 7, and, after two years, went to Annecy to further his education. During this time, he received his First Communion and Confirmation. He left Annecy in 1582 to study at the University of Paris in the Jesuit college of Clermont. There, he followed the humanist curriculum and was instructed in the literary and communicative arts and philosophy. He also took training in horsemanship, fencing and dancing. Beyond his curriculum, he found time to study theology, the Latin and Greek classics, and Scripture.

Francis underwent a spiritual crisis in Paris between 1586 and 1587, the source of which was the idea of predestination, a topic hotly debated in both Catholic and Protestant circles. For Francis, predestination was more than just a theological idea; rather, it presented itself as a personal dilemma. He wondered if he would be separated forever from the love of God. This was particularly painful for Francis, who from childhood enjoyed a sense of loving and being loved by God. He went through a period of despair, in which he could neither sleep nor eat, and he became ill. This spiritual crisis came to a head when he arrived at the realization of the radical human dependency on God, and felt the need to abandon himself fully and unconditionally to God’s mercy. In order to do this, he had to accept the notion that damnation was a possibility. However, by discarding the anxious preoccupation with protecting himself from damnation, he was able to perceive the gift of God’s grace, a gift freely given. With this insight, he was able to rejoice in the present, knowing that he was free to love fully.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Paris, Francis returned to Savoy in 1588. His father wanted him to pursue a career in the service of the state, and decided that he should study law in Padua. After having a chance to reacquaint himself with his family, he left for Padua in mid-November 1588. The University of Padua was the center of Italian humanistic thought. Francis diligently took up his law studies, which he found tedious. During this time, he placed himself under the spiritual direction of a Jesuit priest.

Francis began to give theological expression to the predestination issue, which had caused him so much struggle. He rejected the idea of predestination and adopted a position affirming that the will of God was to save all humankind. He saw Christ not as the one who condemns, but rather the one who saves. He based this understanding on the Gospels, as well as on his experience of the unconditional love of God – a love that creates, sustains and desires to redeem all humanity. Francis sensed that the human will had the freedom to accept or reject this divine love.

After receiving a doctorate in both civil and canon law in 1591, Francis returned to Savoy. His father suggested that he consider entering into marriage, but Francis expressed his desire to become a priest. With the help of his mother’s persuasion, Francis received his father’s blessing. Though he had never attended seminary, because of his private study of theology and his experience of spiritual direction, he was considered ready for ordination. He accepted the post of provost of the Church of St. Peter in Geneva. This was a position more elevated than Francis would have wished, but it was a way of overcoming paternal opposition to being ordained – it was a position of importance that was agreeable to his father’s ambitions.

Francis functioned as assistant to the Bishop of Geneva, Claude de Granier. Because Geneva was a Calvanist stronghold, a theocracy that would not allow for religious pluralism, it was necessary for the bishop to exercise his functions from Annecy, about 50 miles to the south. All Catholics had been banned from Geneva in 1568. The bishop wished to win back Geneva, not by force, but by the power of love. He viewed clerical reform as crucial to build credibility and the power of witness within the Church.

In 1593, the Chablais, a region south of Geneva, experienced a change in political control, which prompted Duke Charles of Savoy to ask Bishop de Granier to send missionaries into the region. Francis volunteered and spent four difficult years in the Chablais preaching, writing and witnessing to the faith.

In 1597, the Duke of Savoy suggested to Bishop de Granier that he make Francis his coadjutor. Pope Clement VIII confirmed the choice in March 1599, but the consecration was delayed. Meanwhile, de Granier died, and Francis was consecrated Bishop of Geneva on Dec. 8, 1602. As bishop, Francis set about the work of reforming the clergy, emphasizing that they must be theologically educated and morally sound in order to function well as shepherds of their flocks. Priests were to be resident in their posts, preaching the Gospel. Monasteries were to adhere to their rule and reform decadent practices. Francis himself preached, administered Sacraments, gave instruction and wrote books for the instruction and inspiration of the Christian community. He encouraged all men and women to become authentic Christians. One of the ways he proposed going about this was through spiritual direction.

Francis became spiritual director to Jane Frances Fremyot, Baroness of Chantal, a young widow and mother, whom he had met while preaching a Lenten course in Dijon. They co-founded the Visitation of Holy Mary in Annecy in Savoy in 1610. This was a congregation for women called to religious commitment, yet who were not sufficiently young, strong or free from family ties to enter into the austerity of reformed women’s communities. Jane de Chantal became the first superior of the Visitation. Daily prayer and works of charity were among the marks of the community. Later, the moderate rule of the community underwent change. Francis, acceding to the wish of the Bishop of Lyons, Denis Simon de Marquermont, adopted the cloister model for the community and discontinued the aspect of external works of charity.

On Dec. 27, 1622, Francis died of a cerebral hemorrhage while in Lyons. He was buried in the Visitation in Annecy. The process for his canonization began in 1627. Pope Alexander VII beatified him on Jan. 8, 1662, and canonized him on April 19, 1665.

Francis was a prolific writer of letters, treatises and books. Two of his works are considered spiritual masterpieces: Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. The spirituality of St. Francis de Sales certainly belongs to the Gospel tradition. It is a spirituality of the heart, reflecting the innate presence of the divine in every human being. It involves exercises to help people grow in “spiritual agility” to do God’s will and to do it frequently and promptly. It is a spirituality for people of all professions and states of life, offering a process of formation to help people live their faith in the present moment. A famous phrase of St. Francis de Sales is “Live Jesus!” At the heart of his spirituality is allowing Jesus to live in our hearts and guide all our thoughts and actions in our day-to-day lives.