Benedict XVI - General Audiences
On St. Francis de Sales
"A Teacher Who Gave to His Disciples the 'Spirit of Liberty'"
H.H. Benedict XVI
March 2, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
"Dieu est le Dieu du coeur humain" [God is the God of the human heart]
("Treatise on the Love of God," I, XV): In these seemingly simple words
we see the essence of a great teacher's spirituality, St. Francis de
Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church, of whom I would like to speak to
Born in 1567, in a French border region, he was the son of the Lord of
Boisy, from an ancient and noble family of Savoy. Living across the span
of two centuries, the 16th and 17th, he brought together the best of the
teachings and cultural conquests of the century that was ending, joining
a heritage of humanism with mysticism's longing for the absolute. His
formation was quite complete: He did his higher studies in Paris,
dedicating himself to theology as well, and at the University of Padua,
he studied jurisprudence as his father wished, finishing brilliantly
with a degree in utroque iure, canon law and civil law.
During his tranquil youth, while reflecting on the thought of St.
Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, he had a profound crisis that drove
him to question his eternal salvation and God's predestination in his
respect, thus suffering as a true spiritual drama what were the
principal theological questions of his time.
He prayed intensely, but doubt tormented him so strongly that for some
weeks he could scarcely eat or sleep. At the height of this trial, he
went to the church of the Dominicans in Paris, opened his heart and
prayed thus: "No matter what happens, Lord, you who have everything in
hand, and whose ways are justice and truth, whatever you have
established in my regard ... you who are always a just judge and
merciful Father, I will love you, Lord [...] I will love you here, O my
God, and I will always hope in your mercy, and I will always repeat your
praise ... O Lord Jesus, you will always be my hope and my salvation in
the land of the living" (I Proc. Canon., vol I, art 4).
The 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating
reality of the love of God: to love him without asking anything in
return and to trust in his divine love; not to ask any longer what God
will do with me: I will simply love him, regardless of what he does or
does not give me. Thus he found peace, and the question of
predestination -- which was being discussed at that time -- was
resolved, because he no longer sought what he could have from God; he
simply loved him, abandoned himself to his goodness. And this would be
the secret of his life, which would shine in his principal work,
"Treatise on the Love of God."
Overcoming his father's resistance, Francis followed the Lord's call and
on Dec. 18, 1593, was ordained a priest. In 1602 he became bishop of
Geneva, at a time when the city was the stronghold of Calvinism, so much
so that the episcopal see was "in exile" in Annecy. As pastor of a poor
and tormented diocese, in a mountainous landscape in which he knew well
both its harshness and beauty, he wrote: "I found [God] full of
sweetness and gentleness among our highest and roughest mountains, where
many simple souls loved and adored him in all truth and sincerity; and
deer and chamois ran here and there among the frightening frost to
proclaim his praises" (Letter to the Mother of Chantal, October 1606, in
Oeuvres, Mackey publishers, T. XIII, o. 223).
And yet the influence of his life and of his teaching on the Europe of
that time and of the following centuries was immense. He was an apostle,
preacher, writer, man of action and prayer; committed to carrying out
the ideals of the Council of Trent; involved in controversy and dialogue
with Protestants, experiencing more and more more the efficacy of
personal relationships and of charity, beyond a necessary theological
confrontation. He was charged with diplomatic missions at the European
level, and with social tasks of mediation and reconciliation.
However, above all, St. Francis de Sales was a guide of souls: from his
meeting with a young woman, Mrs. de Charmoisy, he got the idea to write
one of the most well-read books in the modern age, "Introduction to the
Devout Life." From his profound spiritual communion with an exceptional
personality, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a new religious family was
born, the Order of the Visitation, characterized -- as the saint wished
-- by total consecration to God lived in simplicity and humility, in
doing ordinary things extraordinarily well: "... I want my Daughters --
he wrote -- to have no ideal other than that of glorifying [Our Lord]
with their humility" (Letter to Monsignor de Marquemond, June 1615). He
died in 1622, at 55 years of age, after an existence marked by the
harshness of the times and apostolic toil.
St. Francis' life was relatively brief, but lived with great intensity.
An impression of rare fulfillment emanates from this saint, demonstrated
in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the richness
of his affections, and in the "gentleness" of his teachings, which have
had great influence on the Christian conscience. He embodied several
meanings of the word "humanity," which, today as yesterday, can denote
culture and courtesy, liberty and tenderness, nobility and solidarity.
His appearance had something of the majesty of the landscape in which he
lived, also preserving simplicity and naturalness. The old words and the
images with which he expressed himself surprisingly sound like a native
and familiar language to people's ear even today.
To Philotea, the fictional recipient of his "Introduction to the Devout
Life" (1607), Francis de Sales addressed an invitation that might have
seemed at the time revolutionary. It is the invitation to belong
completely to God, living his presence in the world and the tasks of
one's state in fullness. "My intention is to instruct those who live in
the city, in the conjugal state, in the courts [...]" (Preface to
"Introduction to the Devout Life"). The document with which Pope Leo
XIII, more than two centuries later, would proclaim him doctor of the
Church insisted on this extension of the call to perfection, to
sanctity. He wrote there: "[true piety] has penetrated to the throne of
the king, in the tents of army heads, in the praetorium of judges, in
offices, in shops and even in shepherds' huts [...]" (Brief "Dives in
misericordia," Nov. 16, 1877).
Thus was born the appeal to the laity, that care to consecrate temporal
things and sanctify the every day, on which the Second Vatican Council
and the spirituality of our time insist.
He spoke of the ideal of a reconciled humanity, harmony between action
in the world and prayer, between the secular state and the pursuit of
perfection, with the help of God's grace, which permeates the human and,
without destroying it, purifies it, raising it to the divine heights. To
Theotimus, the adult, spiritually mature Christian to whom he would
address a few years later his "Treatise on the Love of God" (1616), St.
Francis de Sales gives a more complex lesson. It supposes at the
beginning a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: man's
"reason," in fact the "reasonable soul," was seen as a harmonious
structure, a temple articulated in more spaces around a center, which,
together with the great mystics, he called the "summit," the "point" of
the spirit, or the depths of the soul. It is the point in which reason,
having passed through all its degrees, "closes its eyes" and knowledge
becomes altogether one with love (cf. Book I, Chapter XII). The fact
that love, in its theological, divine dimension is the reason for being
of all things, in an ascending ladder that does not seem to know
fractures or abysses, St. Francis de Sales resumed in a famous phrase:
"Man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is man's perfection;
love is the perfection of the spirit, and charity is the perfection of
love" (ibid., Book X, Chapter I).
In an epoch of intense mystical flowering, the "Treatise on the Love of
God" was a true and proper summa, as well as a fascinating literary
work. His description of the itinerary toward God starts from the
recognition of the "natural inclination" (ibid., Book I, Chapter XVI)
inscribed in man's heart to love God above all things, despite being a
sinner. Following the model of sacred Scripture, St. Francis de Sales
speaks of the union between God and man by developing a whole series of
images of interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord,
spouse and friend; he has maternal and nursing characteristics. He is
the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God
draws man to himself with bonds of love, that is of true liberty:
"because love does not force or have slaves, but reduces everything
under its obedience with such a delicious force that, if nothing is as
strong as love, nothing is as lovable as his force" (Book I, Chapter
VI). We find in our saint's "Treatise" a profound meditation on the
human will and the description of its flowing, passing, dying, to live
(cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter XIII) in complete abandonment not only to
the will of God, but to what pleases him, to his "bon plaisir," to his
approval (cf. Ibid., Book IX, Chapter I). At the summit of union with
God, in addition to the raptures of contemplative ecstasies, is placed
the reappearance of concrete charity, which is attentive to all the
needs of others and which he calls "ecstasies of life and works" (Ibid.,
Book VII, chapter VI).
Reading the book on the love of God and even more so the many letters of
direction and of spiritual friendship, one perceives what an expert St.
Francis de Sales was on the human heart. To St. Jane of Chantal, he
wrote: "[...] Here is the general rule of our obedience, written in
capital letters: DO ALL THROUGH LOVE, NOTHING THROUGH CONSTRAINT; LOVE
OBEDIENCE MORE THAN YOU FEAR DISOBEDIENCE. I want you to have the spirit
of liberty, not the kind that excludes obedience -- this is freedom of
the flesh -- but the liberty that excludes constraint, anxiety and
scruples" (Letter of Oct. 14, 1604). Not for nothing, at the origin of
many paths of pedagogy and spirituality of our time we rediscover the
stamp of this teacher, without whom there would be no St. John Bosco or
the heroic "little way" of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks liberty,
even with violence and disturbance, the timelines of this great teacher
of spirituality and peace should not be missed, a teacher who gave to
his disciples the "spirit of liberty," the true one, as the culmination
of his fascinating and complete teaching on the reality of love. St.
Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his
accessible style, with words that at times have the touch of poetry, he
reminds that man bears inscribed in his deepest self nostalgia for God
and that only in him is found his true joy and most complete
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today deals with Saint Francis de Sales, an outstanding
Bishop and master of the spiritual life in the period following the
Council of Trent. After a powerful experience of God's liberating love
in his youth, Saint Francis became a priest and then Bishop of Geneva,
at that time a stronghold of Calvinism. His fine education, his personal
gifts of charity, serenity and openness to dialogue, together with his
brilliance as a spiritual guide, made Francis a leading figure of his
age. His spiritual writings include the celebrated Introduction to the
Devout Life, which insists that all Christians are called to perfection
in their proper state of life, foreshadowing the insistence of the
Second Vatican Council on the universal call to holiness. His Treatise
on the Love of God develops this teaching, stressing that we find
ourselves and our true freedom in the love of God. The Christian
humanism of Saint Francis de Sales has lost none of its relevance today.
May this great Saint and Doctor of the Church guide us in the pursuit of
holiness and help us to find our fulfillment in the joy and freedom born
of the love of God.
I am happy to greet the pilgrims from Saint Mary's University College,
Twickenham; I vividly recall their warm welcome during my recent
Apostolic Visit to England. I also greet the group from Saint Norbert's
Catholic School in Denmark. To the choirs I express my gratitude for
their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking visitors
present at today's Audience, especially those from Ireland, Finland,
Singapore and the United States, I cordially invoke God's abundant
Copyright 2011 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[He concluded in Italian:]
I greet, finally, young people, sick and newlyweds. Dear young people,
prepare yourselves to face the important stages of life with spiritual
commitment, building your projects on the solid basis of fidelity to
God. Dear sick, always be aware that you contribute in a mysterious way
to the building of the Kingdom of God, offering your sufferings to the
heavenly Father in union with those of Christ. And you, dear newlyweds,
be able to build your family daily by listening to God, in faithful
reciprocal love and in hospitality to the neediest.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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