The angelical Bishop Francis de 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 luster of his glorious conquests upon him—seventy-two thousand heretics converted to the Church by the ardor 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 the Church at the very time that heresy was holding Her out to the world as a worn-out 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 St. 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.
St. Francis de Sales was sent, then, as a living image of Jesus, opening his arms and calling sinners to repentance, and all men to confidence and love. The Holy Ghost 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 St. Francis which reminds us of this great Mystery. He was singing Mass on Pentecost 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 St. 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 St. 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 (or Rod), 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 this 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 Ghost, is called the Dove that is all fair, in whom there is no blemish (Cant. 6: 8).
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, St. John the Evangelist. St. Francis de 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 St. John, a single word of his, used to draw men to the love of Jesus; and the contemporaries of St. 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 St. Francis, after celebrating Mass and giving Holy 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 had 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 candor 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; so She has ordered it to be kept during the forty days consecrated to the Birth of Our Lord, and the 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, St. Francis wrote to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, and thus invited 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 with which the heavens could provide Him; 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 a portion 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 that 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 Sacred Night was over, and had brought Peace to men of good will. St. Francis again wrote to the same Saint, and thus betrays to her the joy he has received from the contemplation of the great Mystery:
"Oh! the sweetness of this night! The Church has been singing these words—honey has dropped from the heavens. I thought to myself, that the Angels had not only come down on our earth to sing their admirable Gloria in excelsis, but to gaze also on this sweet Babe, this Honey of Heaven resting on two beautiful Lilies, for sometimes He is in Mary's arms, and sometimes it is St. Joseph that caresses Him.
"What will you say of my having the ambition to think that our two Angel Guardians were of the grand choir of blessed Spirits that sang the sweet hymn on this night? I said to myself: Oh! happy we, if they would deign to sing once more their heavenly hymn, and our hearts could hear it! I besought it of them, that so there might be glory in the highest heavens, and peace to hearts of good will.
"Returning home from celebrating these sacred mysteries, I rest awhile in thus sending you my Merry Christmas! for I dare say that the poor shepherds took some little rest, after they had adored the Babe announced to them by the Angels. And as I thought of their sleep on that night, I said to myself: How sweetly must they not have slept, dreaming of the sacred melody wherewith the Angels told them the glad tidings, and of the dear Child and the Mother they had been to see!"
We will close our quotations by the following passage of another of his letters to St. Jane Frances de Chantal, in which he speaks of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, which the Divine Child of Mary received at His Circumcision:
"O my Jesus! fill our hearts with the sacred balm of Thy Holy Name, that so the sweetness of its fragrance may penetrate our senses, and perfume our every action. But that our hearts may be capable of receiving this sweetness, they must be circumcised: take, therefore, from them whatever could displease Thy divine sight. O glorious Name! named by the Heavenly Father from all eternity, be Thou forever written on our souls; that as Thou, Jesus, art our Savior, so may our souls be eternally saved. And Thou, O Holy Virgin! who wert the first among mortals to pronounce this saving Name, teach us to pronounce it as it behooves us, that so we may merit the Salvation which Thou didst bring into this world!
"My dear Daughter! it was but right that my first letter of this year should be to Jesus and Mary: my second is to you, to wish you a Happy New Year, and exhort you to give your whole heart to God. May we so spend this year, that it may secure to us the years of eternity! My first word on waking this morning was, Jesus! and I felt as though I would gladly pour out on the face of the whole earth the balm of this sweet Name.
"As long as balm is shut up in a well-sealed vase, no one knows its sweetness, save him who put it there: but as soon as the vase is opened, and a few drops are sprinkled around, all who are present say: 'What sweet balm!' Thus it was, my dear Daughter, with our Jesus. He contained within Himself the balm of salvation; but no one knew it until His divine Flesh was laid open by the fortunate wound of that cruel knife; and then people knew Him to be the Balm of the world's Salvation, and first Joseph and Mary, then the whole neighborhood began to cry out, Jesus! which means Savior."
Let us now turn to the Office of the Church for this Feast, and read the life of our Saint:
St. Francis was born of pious and noble parents, in the town of Sales, from which the family took their name. From his earliest years, he gave pledge of his future sanctity by the innocence and gravity of his conduct. Having been instructed in the liberal sciences during his youth, he was sent early to Paris, that he might study Philosophy and Theology; and in order that his education might be complete, he was sent to Padua, where he took, with much honor, the degree of doctor in both civil and canon law. He visited the sanctuary of Loreto, where he renewed the vow he had already taken in Paris of perpetual virginity, in which holy resolution he continued till death, in spite of all the temptations of the devil and all the allurements of the flesh.
He refused to accept an honorable position in the Senate of Savoy, and entered into the ecclesiastical state. He was ordained Priest, and was made Provost (senior dignitary of a cathedral) of the Diocese of Geneva, which charge he so laudably fulfilled that Granier, his Bishop, selected him for the arduous undertaking of laboring, by the preaching of God’s word, for the conversion of the Calvinists of Chablais and the neighboring country round about Geneva. This mission he undertook with much joy. He had to suffer the harshest treatment on the part of the heretics, who frequently sought to take his life, calumniated him, and laid all kinds of plots against him. But he showed heroic courage in the midst of all these dangers and persecutions, and by the divine assistance converted, as it is stated, 72,000 heretics to the Catholic Faith, among whom were many distinguished by the high position they held in the world and by their learning.
After the death of Bishop Granier, who had already made him his Coadjutor, he was made Bishop of Geneva. Then it was that his sanctity showed itself in every direction, by his zeal for ecclesiastical discipline, his love of peace, his charity to the poor, and every virtue. From a desire to give more honor to God, he founded a new Order of Nuns, which he called the Order of the Visitation, taking for their Rule that of St. Augustine, to which he added Constitutions of admirable wisdom, discretion, and sweetness. He enlightened the children of the Church by the works he wrote, which are full of a heavenly wisdom, and point out a safe and easy path to Christian perfection. In this fifty-fifth year, whilst returning from France to Annecy, he was taken with his last sickness, immediately after having celebrated Mass, on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. On the following day, his soul departed this life for Heaven, in the year of Our Lord 1622. His body was taken to Annecy, and was buried, with great demonstration of honor, in the Church of the Nuns of the Visitation. Immediately after his death miracles began to be wrought through his intercession, which being officially authenticated, he was canonized by Pope Alexander VII, and his Feast was appointed to be kept on the 29th day of January, and he was declared a Doctor of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX, after consultation with the Sacred Congregation of Rites.
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