Saint 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.’’