Saint Francis de Sales stands in stark contrast to the society and culture we face today. It is a world he would be familiar with if he lived today. In fact, he was distinguished from the world around him. It has been over 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a door, thus beginning what would lead to the Protestant Reformation and the split of Christianity. It was within this time, the turbulent hatred that spewed against the Catholics (although there were valid reasons to be opposed to much of what was happening within the Church) that St. Francis de Sales gently stood for the truth of the Church, defending the teachings and doctrine of the Church, yet gently debated religion with Protestants.
It was not from anger, defensiveness, entitlement, or hatred that he stood up to the Protestants. It was in gentleness, thus earning him the name The Gentle Saint. The Calvinists did not receive Francis too well so the saint took a gentle approach. He wrote pamphlets, which could be considered the first of its kind of gospel tracts (as Protestants would call them), that were later preserved in a book called The Catholic Controversy. It was through this small, gentle, meek, and humble approach that he eventually gained the ear of the Calvinists and would lead thousands of them to the Church.
Saint Francis de Sales even encourages and urges the devout to embrace a life of gentleness and meekness. The saint is often quoted as saying, “humility perfects us with respect to God and gentleness with regard to our neighbor.” It was in becoming a living example of what our Lord Jesus proclaims in Matthew 11:29 “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves” that this gentle saint was able to turn the hearts of thousands to God.
Our country needs a spiritual awakening. It does not need fighting and anger between religions, specifically between Christians, and neighbors. It does not need an entitlement mentality or “everyone and everything is acceptable if you want to do it” but it needs the gentleness and meekness of saints who are willing to stand for truth, but do it in love and gentleness.
One of my favorite examples of how to live your life according to this precious saint is his encounter with his enemies. It is often told that St. Francis was walking down the street one day of Anney and came upon one of his enemies who was trying to hurt Francis. Rather than throw hatred slurs, curses, or even turn away and ignore him as if he did not matter, Francis approached his enemy.
“I am told you wish me harm. I can promise you that even if you had put out one of my eyes, I would still look kindly upon you with the other,” St. Francis told the man. It was as if Saint Francis deeply understood love and forgiveness, just as Jesus did when, from the cross, he prayed for those responsible for killing him, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
For those who speak evil things about us, lie about us, and wish to put us down, Saint Francis understood this as he faced many enemies. Some of those enemies were not shy in letting the gentle saint know their feelings, but Francis turned it into a teaching moment. When Jean-Francois and Francis received a letter slandering them, Francis instructed Jean-Francois to respond in kindness, not hatred or anger. “These good people [wrote] a letter [which] they showed here and there secretly. It appears that they will do all they can to disparage the small favors that they see coming our way; but you must not worry, but answer only by doing good to those who slander you. It is a better way of annoying them than to fight back.”
It was in living his gentle and meek approach that this saint paved the way for us to know how we should live in the times we are facing today. We should strive to remember, meditate on, and live the words spoken by our Lord, “But I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust……so be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:44-45, 48).
Saint Francis de Sales pray for us, that we may be gentle saints among an angry and violent world.