St. Francis of Sales, Bishop
The angelical Bishop Francis of Sales has a right to a distinguished position near the Crib of Jesus, on account of the sweetness of his virtues, the childlike simplicity of his heart, and the humility and tenderness of his love. He comes with the lustre of his glorious conquests upon him–seventy-two thousand heretics converted to the Church by the ardour of his charity; an Order of holy servants of God, which he founded; and countless thousands of souls trained to piety by his prudent and persuasive words and writings.
God gave him to His Church at the very time that heresy was holding her out to the world as a wornout system, that had no influence over men’s minds. He raised up this true minister of the Gospel in the very country where the harsh doctrines of Calvin were most in vogue, that the ardent charity of Francis might counteract the sad influence of that heresy. If you want heretics to be convinced of their errors, said the learned Cardinal Du Perron, you may send them to me; but if you want them to be converted, send them to the Bishop of Geneva.
Francis of Sales was sent, then, as a living image of Jesus, opening his arms and calling sinners to repentance, the victims of heresy to truth, the just to perfection, and all men to confidence and love. The Holy Spirit had rested on him with all his divine power and sweetness. A few days back, we were meditating on the Baptism of Jesus, and how the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the shape of a dove. There is an incident in the life of Francis, which reminds us of this great Mystery. He was singing Mass on Whit Sunday, at Annecy. A dove, which had been let into the Cathedral, after flying for a long time round the building, at length came into the sanctuary, and rested on the Saint’s head. The people could not but be impressed with this circumstance, which they looked on as an appropriate symbol of Francis’ loving spirit; just as the globe of fire, which appeared above the head of St. Martin, when he was offering up the Holy Sacrifice, was interpreted as a sign of his apostolic zeal.
The same thing happened to our Saint, on another occasion. It was the Feast of our Lady’s Nativity, and Francis was officiating at Vespers, in the Collegiate Church, at Annecy. He was seated on a Throne, the carving of which represented the Tree of Jesse, which the Prophet Isaias tells us produced the virginal Branch, whence sprang the divine Flower, on which there rested the Spirit of love. They were singing the Psalms of the Feast, when a Dove flew into the Church, through an aperture in one of the windows of the Choir, on the epistle side of the Altar. It flew about for some moments, and then lighted first on the Bishop’s shoulder, then on his knee, where it was caught by one of the assistants. When the Vespers were over, the Saint mounted the pulpit, and ingeniously turned the incident that had occurred into an illustration which he hoped would distract the people from himself–he spoke to them of Mary, who, being full of the grace of the Holy Spirit, is called the Dove that is all fair, in whom there is no blemish (1 Cant. vi. 8; iv. 7.).
If we were asked, which of the Disciples of our Lord was the model on which this admirable Prelate formed his character, we should mention, without any hesitation, the Beloved Disciple, John. Francis of Sales is, like him, the Apostle of charity; and the simplicity of the great Evangelist caressing an innocent bird, is reflected with perfection in the heart of the Bishop of Geneva. A mere look from John, a single word of his, used to draw men to the love of Jesus; and the contemporaries of Francis were wont to say: If the Bishop of Geneva is so amiable, what, O Lord, must not thou be!
A circumstance in our Saint’s last illness again suggests to us the relation between himself and the Beloved Disciple. It was on the 27th of December, the Feast of St. John, that Francis, after celebrating Mass, and giving Communion to his dear Daughters of the Visitation, felt the first approach of the sickness which was to cause his death. As soon as it was known, the consternation was general–but the Saint has already his whole conversation in heaven, and on the following day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, his soul took its flight to its Creator, and the candour and simplicity of his spirit made him a worthy companion of those dear little ones of Bethlehem.
But on neither of these two days could the Church place his Feast, as they were already devoted to the memory of St. John and the Holy Innocents; but she has ordered it to be kept during the forty days consecrated to the Birth of our Lord, and this 29th of January is the day fixed for it.
St. Francis, then, the ardent lover of our new-born King, is to aid us, like all these other Christmas Saints, to know the charms of the Divine Babe. In his admirable Letters, we find him expressing, with all the freedom of friendly correspondence, the sweetness which used to fill his heart during this holy Season. Let us read a few passages from these confidential papers–they will teach us how to love our Jesus.
Towards the end of the Advent of 1619, he wrote to a Religious of the Visitation, instructing her how to prepare for Christmas. “My very dear Daughter, our sweet Infant Jesus is soon to be born in our remembrance, at the coming Feasts; and since He is born on purpose that He may visit us in the name of His Eternal Father, and is to be visited in His Crib by the Shepherds and the Kings, I look on Him as both the Father and the Child of our Lady of the Visitation.
“Come, then, load Him with your caresses; join all our Sisters in giving Him a warm welcome of hospitality; sing to Him the sweetest carols you can find; and above all, adore Him very earnestly and very sweetly, and, with Him, adore His poverty, His humility, His obedience, and His meekness, as did His most holy Mother and St. Joseph. Take one of His divine tears, which is the dew of heaven, and put it on your heart, that so you may never admit any other sadness there, than the sadness which will gladden this sweet Infant. And when you recommend your own soul to Him, recommend mine also, for you know its devotedness to yours.
“I beg of you to remember me affectionately to the dear Sisters, whom I look upon as simple shepherdesses keeping watch over their flocks, that is, their affections, and who, being warned by the Angel, are going to pay their homage to the Divine Babe, and offer him, as an earnest of their eternal loyalty, the fairest of their lambs, which is their love, unreserved and undivided.”
On Christmas Eve, filled by anticipation with the joy of the sacred Night which is to give the world its Redeemer, Francis writes to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, and thus invites her to profit by the visit of the Divine Infant.
“May the sweet Infant of Bethlehem ever be your happiness and your love, my very dear Mother. Oh! the loveliness of this Little Child! I imagine I see Solomon on his ivory throne, all beautifully gilded and carved, which, as the Scripture tells us, had no equal in all the kingdoms of the earth, neither was there any king that could be compared, for glory and magnificence, with the king that sat upon it. And yet, I would a hundred times rather see the dear Jesus in his Crib, than all the kings of the world on their thrones.
“But, when I see him on the lap or in the arms of His Blessed Mother, He seems to me to be more magnificent on this Throne, not only than Solomon ever was on his of ivory, but than He himself on any throne that the heavens could provide him with; for though the heavens surpass Mary in outward grandeur, yet she surpasses them in invisible perfections. Oh! may the great St. Joseph give us some of the consolation that filled his soul; may the Blessed Mother lend us something of her own love, and the Infant Jesus mercifully pour into our hearts of the infinite abundance of His merits!
“I beseech you to keep close to this Divine Babe, and rest near Him as lovingly as you can–He will love you in return, even should your heart feel no tenderness or devotion. What sense had the poor ox and the ass?–and yet He refuses not to let them breathe warmly upon Him. And think you He will refuse the aspirations of our poor hearts, which, though just at present they feel no devotion, yet are sincerely and loyally His, and are ever offering themselves to be the faithful servants of His own divine self, and of His Holy Mother, and of His dear protector Joseph!”
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.