Saint Francis de Sales, aristocrat, swordsman, lawyer, author, priest, bishop, loving evangelist, Doctor of the Church and inspiration to millions–his life and message remain particularly relevant in today’s world where discord and violence run rampant, often in the name of religion.
Beahn’s novel considers the life of Francis from the point of view of his cousin, Louis. When the cousins studied in Paris, despite the attitude of his father, who waged war against Calvinists, Francis befriended many Calvinists, seeking to persuade them to return to the ancient faith. Francis realized “that the mind will not accept what the will rejects.”
Francis upset his father’s plans for his worldly success by answering his vocation to the priesthood. After ordination, with permission of their bishop and a supportive proclamation from Duke Charles, Fathers Francis and Louis traveled to the town of Thonon where they sought to first win the hearts of the Calvinist residents by avoiding public preaching which might have disturbed them. In response, many cordially responded to the “papist priests.”
Francis sent each of the Magistrates an Epistle to the Gentlemen of Thonon elegantly outlining the content of his evangelical message, but much time passed without a response. Harsh conditions and lack of progress prompted Louis to return home, but despite his loneliness, and personal danger Francis trusted that change took place on God’s schedule and by His means. Francis believed that for him to desert his reluctant flock would have spiritually damaged the citizens of Thonon.
When his father learned of his circumstances he sent an armed servant to protect Francis. His name might have well been Felix Culpa, because his presence prompted an attack in which Francis captured one of the assailants. Soon all three attackers were arrested. In the controversy that followed one of the Magistrates, Pierre Poncet offered to prosecute the assailants. His concern for Francis changed his heart enough to listen to his arguments, prompting Poncet’s return to the ancient faith. Soon the majority of the town also opened their hearts and minds.
Although the local bishop and even the pope rejoiced, Duke Charles took offense because Francis succeeded by suffering for his flock, whereas the Duke failed in his effort to convert these same Calvinists by means of force. When Francis needed assistance in his ministry, the diocesan clergy wouldn’t come into the area without military back-up. When Jesuits and Franciscans volunteered and effectively ministered to the converting populace, then the former pastors returned accusing Francis and his colleagues of stealing their parishes. In the years to come, the Duke stood in the way of Francis, the young, enthusiastic priest and potential successor to the aging bishop. Despite or maybe because of all of this adversity, Francis continued to grow and set an example to all priests and bishops.
In 2013, Pope Francis I* called for “shepherds who smell of their sheep” and has asked Papal Nuncios to find candidates to serve as bishops who are “close to the people, fathers and brothers.” They should be “gentle, patient and merciful; animated by inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life.” They should “not have the psychology of ‘Princes.” Certainly Saint Frances de Sales exemplified these pastoral characteristics as both a priest and bishop. May he intercede for those blessed with a calling to each level of Holy Orders.
John E. Beahn’s novel based on the life of Saint Francis de Sales provides a readable story, rich in details, that honors this great saint. I recommend it to all who love the Catholic Church and all who desire to draw it closer to their hearts.
Beahn, John E. A Man of Good Zeal: A Novel Based on the Life of Saint Francis de Sales. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2013.
*Vatican Radio, June 21, 2013
(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)