Month: January 2021

Letters Under the Door

annemasse tek editSaint Francis de Sales is famous for delivering pamphlets under people’s doors in the 1590s – an early form of journalism — but the writings themselves are rarely referenced. Do we know anything about them?

Charles Auguste de Sales, nephew of the Saint (and later, a Bishop) wrote that in 1658, when he returned to his chateau of La Thuille after an absence of fourteen years, he discovered a manuscript “contained with other papers in a plain deal box which for greater security during those disturbed times had been cemented into the thick wall of an archive-chamber.” The manuscript was written “in the hand of the venerable servant of God and our predecessor, Francis de Sales, in which are treated many points of theology which are in controversy between Catholic doctors and the heretics…

These appear to have been the famous under-door-delivered writings of St. Francis de Sales – the reason he would later be declared “Patron Saint of Journalists!” The translator’s preface to the 1899 edition of the collected pieces, compiled as The Catholic Controversy, notes “The original was written on fugitive separate sheets, which were copied and distributed week by week, sometimes being placarded in the streets and squares. The Saint did not consider them of sufficient importance to be mentioned in the list of his works contained in the Preface to the Love of God, but they were carefully written, and he preserved a copy more or less complete which bears marks of being revised by him later.”  

What was in the pamphlets? Saint Francis de Sales wrote the first one to explain his plan for evangelization: since protestants who lived near Thonon in the French Chablais were afraid to come and listen to him, he would put his words in writing for them. This would allow more people to access his information in the quiet of their own homes. It would also give people something they could take to their church minister, if they wished, to get his opinion. “Writing can be better handled; it gives more leisure for consideration than the voice does; it can be pondered more profoundly.” And “it will be seen that…I write in everybody’s sight, and under the censorship of superiors, being assured that, while people will find herein plenty of ignorance, they will not find, God helping, any irreligion or any opposition to the doctrines of the Roman Church.

Over the course of many installments, de Sales outlined important differences between Calvinist protestants and Catholics on ideas of faith and free will. John Calvin had written that “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” His followers believed that everyone was drawn towards evil, but some were pre-selected by God to be saved in spite of themselves. The identities of those created for the “Secret Church” of the Saved, known only to God, would only be revealed on Judgement Day. Catholics, on the other hand, believed humans had free will to choose good or evil, and their individual actions and choices would determine their place in the afterlife. Earthly success was no measure of special favor. De Sales even acknowledged that “there are many…in the Militant Church whose end will be perdition...” (who will go to Hell) because of their poor choices. These include many “bishops and prelates who, after having been lawfully placed in this office and dignity, have fallen from their first grace and have died heretics...” The rule of faith was in the Bible, which all agreed was Holy Writ, but de Sales observed that its words were interpreted differently by different people: “heresy is in the understanding, not in the Scripture, and the fault is in the meaning, not in the words.” He noted that protestant leaders reconfigured the Bible to leave out portions that didn’t suit them: “Calvin finds that the Apocalypse is to be received, Luther denies it; the same with the Epistle of S. James…Either the one or the other is ill formed…” The “true” church, according to de Sales, is inclusive.

His arguments convinced many. Cardinal Zacchetti, in introducing the cause of Beatification, noted that de Sales “recalled so great a multitude of wandering souls to the Church that he happily raised up and restored first Thonon and then the other parishes.” Today, other works of St, Francis de Sales, such as the Introduction to the Devout Life, are much better known, but his long-ago writings to people in Thonon provide an interesting early example of information dissemination, while offering perspective on some deep roots of differences among those groups that share the name of “Christians.’’



Particles of Truth


A widely-circulated online bio of our patron saint Francis de Sales as a “patient man” — picked up over the past few years by organizations and churches around the world — offers a tale that differs surprisingly from the accounts of his life that seem to have inspired it. This muddiness of facts is especially troubling for the Patron Saint of Journalists!

Many of the picturesque details of the saint’s early life in the anonymous online bio seem to have been drawn from  a 1909 book St. Francis de Sales: A Biography of the Gentle Saint by Louise Stacpoole-Kenny, but the online information has been oddly summarized and re-interpreted out of  context.

As an example, one paragraph in the online version addresses why it took so long for Francis to enter the priesthood, suggesting he needed to experience other things first, and “was wise to wait, for he wasn’t a natural pastor. His biggest concern on being ordained was that he had to have his lovely curly gold hair cut off. And his preaching left the listeners thinking he was making fun of him. Others reported to the bishop that this noble-turned- priest was conceited and controlling.”

The Stacpoole-Kenny book does state that when, in 1578, Francis “took the tonsure” – the monastic haircut that marked his interest in Holy Orders — “indeed, it cost him bitter pangs to part with his beautiful golden curls…” The online re-telling of the incident omits the important information that this was an event of his childhood: Stacpoole-Kenny notes that “in actual years Francis was only just eleven” when he chose to undertake this sign of spiritual commitment, just before he left home for school, with many years of study and career choice still ahead! And his father still hoped he would become a lawyer and assume his family’s noble title.

The comment about Francis’ poor public speaking is equally odd, since Francis is generally known for his eloquence. An early account by the Abbe de Marsollier does mention that Francis experienced stage fright before giving his first sermon, when he saw that “a numerous crowd were eagerly awaiting him,” but he gathered himself together and “electrified his audience by the strength and fervour of his language and the grace and clearness of his ideas. Many shed tears…” It was his father — having finally, reluctantly, accepted his son’s career choice – who claimed to be unimpressed with his son’s preaching, feeling that “his style was far too simple and unaffected…”

The online article is accurate in observing that Francis’ patience carried him through hard times, as he tried to convert protestants back to Catholicism on the French-Swiss border. On this, Stacpoole-Kenny reports in less dramatic prose that his chosen technique was to “take things quietly, to progress slowly but steadily….” and “it was by means of the most gentle persuasion that he endeavoured to convert the gloomy and stubborn Calvinists. The pamphlets which he wrote during his mission and caused to be distributed among the people breathe a spirit of sweetness and gentleness, at the same time clearly and decidedly expounding the truths of the Catholic Religion. The heretics, though they would not come to listen to his sermons, read these documents through curiosity; but many found them so convincing that they desired to learn more of a doctrine that appealed, not only to their reason, but to their hearts.” The success of this pamphlet campaign was what caused de Sales to later be named “Patron Saint of Journalists.

Was the online article deliberately misleading? Details were selected and events were exaggerated and re-framed to build a dramatic story, possibly intended to energize a particular audience at a particular time. It is a colourful tale, but at the same time, it does a disservice to the real saint, who wrote: “Let us be as precise and balanced as possible in our words” and “When you speak of your neighbour, look upon your tongue as a sharp razor in the surgeon’s hand, about to cut nerves and tendons; it should be used so carefully, as to insure that no particle more or less than the truth be said.” Truth matters.