SFDS HISTORY MYSTERIES: 1923 Tercentenary
A century ago, on January 26, 1923, Pope Pius XI – who had recently succeeded Pope Benedict XV — issued an encyclical commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the death of St. Francis de Sales and naming him patron of all writers.
The commemorative year, which ran from December 28, 1922, to December 28, 1923, was an interesting timespan. Europeans were coping with the aftermath of the Influenza Pandemic and the devastation of World War I in an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty. In October 1922, just two months before the Tercentenary began, Mussolini and his Fascist party marched on Rome and assumed power over all of Italy (including the Vatican, which was not yet a separate state). In November 1923, a month before the tercentenary ended, Hitler staged his unsuccessful “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich, Germany; a brief stay in jail afterwards was spent writing Mein Kampf and planning the future campaign that would ultimately lead to World War II.
In his 1923 encyclical, Pope Pius XI reflected on “the disorders with which the world today struggles,” and proposed that the life of Francis de Sales exemplified values that needed to be restored, in line with “the spirit of Christ which once upon a time we followed.” The saint was known for having navigated the perils of the Protestant Reformation with graciousness and integrity: “Whoever attentively reviews the life of St. Francis will discover that…he was not a gloomy, austere saint but was most amiable and friendly with all…” and his “kindness of heart never varied, no matter who the persons were with whom he had to deal, the hour of the day, the trying circumstances he had to meet. Not even heretics, who often proved themselves very offensive, ever found him a bit less affable or less accessible…” His gentleness won over many people, even as he spoke out “with evangelical frankness” against “the vices of the people” and unmasked “the hypocrisy which tried to simulate virtue and piety.”
In an era inflamed by poisonous propaganda, Pope Pius XI then offered St. Francis de Sales as a counter model especially for Catholic journalists and writers, noting that “He, by his example, teaches them in no uncertain manner precisely how they should write.” His principles work well for all writers: They should learn their subjects thoroughly. “They should never compromise where the truth is involved, nor, because of fear of possibly offending an opponent, minimize or dissimulate it. They should…try to express their thoughts clearly and in beautiful language so that their readers will the more readily come to love the truth. When it is necessary to enter into controversy, they should be prepared to refute error and to overcome the wiles of the wicked, but always in a way that will demonstrate clearly that they are animated by the highest principles and moved only by Christian charity.” The Pope then emphasized that Francis de Sales’ every work reflected the “sweetness of the love which filled his heart.”
Pope Pius XI went on to proclaim: “Since St. Francis, up to this time, has not been named the Patron of Writers in any solemn and public document of this Apostolic See, We take this happy occasion, after mature deliberation and in full knowledge, by Our Apostolic authority…to declare by this encyclical… St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva and Doctor of the Church, to be the Heavenly Patron of all Writers.” He instructed that a “triduum or novena” with sermons highlighting the saint’s teachings, be held in every parish of every diocese during the year, and his example should be studied and heeded.
Far away from the turmoil, on this side of the ocean, the saint’s model of behavior and new designation may not have seemed urgently compelling. Our pastor, recently-consecrated Bishop Crane, had a scrapbook filled with clippings from his many engagements across the region during the year – especially his triumphal visit to his hometown in Ashland, PA – but the Tercentenary of our patron St. Francis de Sales is not mentioned!
Now, a century later, Vatican News reports that, “On the 400th anniversary of the death of the Saint Francis de Sales,” Pope Francis hasissued a new Apostolic Letter “entitled ‘Totum amoris est’ (‘Everything Pertains to Love’), in which he recalls how the Doctor of the Church was able to help people seek God in charity, joy and freedom in an era of great changes.” Let’s pay better attention this time!