Particles of Truth

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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.

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