St. Francis De Sales is the patron saint for writers. Much of his lasting legacy is recorded in Introduction to the Devout Life which is a compilation of various letters he wrote to guide others on the path towards greater holiness. “Because of his qualities of affability, meekness and constant charity, St. Francis De Sales has been called the ‘gentleman saint’” (Rengers 613). In addition to being a respected bishop at a young age, people of every social class found St. Francis De Sales to be pleasant company. He was able to maintain this same stable countenance through adversity as well as prosperity. The writings of St. Francis De Sales, especially Introduction to the Devout Life, offer timeless guidance and inspiration so we too can learn to emulate this same balanced nature with whole-hearted devotion to God through service to others.
Coming from an upper-class family, St. Francis De Sales had the opportunity to follow a different path in life with a lucrative career as a lawyer and politician. As the oldest son of a wealthy man, he was very well-educated. Much of the Saint’s disciplined childhood was likely part of the purgative stage. The Saint is quoted to have said, “In Paris I studied many things to please my father, and theology to please myself” (Rengers 615). St. Francis De Sales chose a different path in life that was contrary to his father’s aspirations. This is a sign of St. Francis De Sales having a deeply entrenched passage through the purgative stage as he chose God above money.
Every Catholic Saint has a special love and devotion to Mary the Blessed Mother. St. Francis De Sales was no different. During his young adulthood, St. Francis De Sales suffered a spiritual crisis where he feared that he was predestined for Hell. Predestination was a concept of the prevailing Calvinistic teachings that surrounded him in the area of France in which he lived. His following prayer indicates the Saint’s complete devotion to God and his willingness to surrender to God’s will whatever that maybe. “Whatever happens, Lord, may I at least love You in this life if I cannot love You in eternity, since no one may praise You in Hell. May I at least make use of every moment of my short life on earth to love You” (Rengers 630). Such a prayer indicates the Saint’s genuine hope-filled desire to enter into full union with God. Just after offering this prayer to God, the Saint found a prayer card with the Memorare so he prayed the Memorare and his doubts vanished. Months passed and once again he suffered this terrible fear of being predestined to Hell. In gratitude to the Virgin Mary for delivering him from this perpetual torment, he promised to pray the Rosary daily (Rengers 630).
As soon as St. Francis De Sales was ordained, he became the Bishop of Geneva which was a stronghold for fierce Calvinistic heresy. The struggles that the Saint had as a young man were related to Calvinistic theology and now he ironically found himself surrounded by this exact antagonistic spiritual culture. By God’s grace he not only survived living amongst the Calvinists but successfully converted a great many of the Calvinists to Catholicism. “A truly devout life enhances, does not detract from, one’s life. Real devotion never inconveniences others” (De Sales). St. Francis De Sales certainly believed that God attracted people to Himself by using love like honey instead of inflicting fearful demands, or shame. Bringing the presence of this gentle love to others is how St. Francis De Sales was able to melt the hearts of the Calvinists enough for them to embrace Catholicism.
Another significant trait of St. Francis De Sales is how he demonstrated pure, unselfish love and affection for women, especially St. Jane Francis de Chantal. “The relationship between these two Saints proves beyond doubt that a full flowering affection between a man and woman is compatible with a life of perfect chastity and truest love of God” (Rengers 621). It is interesting to note that St. Francis De Sales did not cloister himself away from women but rather spoke against such behavior in other clergy. “He said that a prelate who separated himself from half his flock was only half a shepherd” (Rengers 621). Some people accused St. Francis De Sales of being surrounded by women all the time (Rengers 622). His response to them was that Jesus was accused of the same thing by the Pharisees. Other wanted to know why women were so attracted to him. His response was “Don’t they talk enough for us both? And nothing is more pleasing to great talkers than a patient listener” (Rengers 622). One can only imagine how St. Francis De Sales was perceived by other clergy. No doubt his honest and forthright nature paired with his popularity and the affectionate devotion of women, was not approved of by everyone, especially his peers.
The following essay will touch on the role of women in relationship to men from the perspective of St. Francis De Sales. Much confusion exists in our world today regarding gender stereotypes and the role of women in the Church. St. Francis De Sales is an excellent spiritual master to address these issues because he was so loved by women.
Key Teachings with Modern Day Applications for Ephesians 5:25
A timeless success of St. Francis De Sales has been his writings particularly Introduction to a Devout Life which is still being edited, translated, and published today. In his Introduction, St. Francis teaches about the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. He begins by teaching about two stages of purification, one being purification from mortal sin, the other from the affections to sin. He offers several meditations to help a person cooperate with God’s grace to achieve this purification. The rest of the Introduction addresses the illuminative and unitive ways.
St. Francis puts forth a great deal of effort to communicate how to live in peace with oneself and with others. It is clear that St. Francis did not believe that holiness came from living isolated, cloistered lives. He honored family life, married life, and community living by addressing and defining what holiness looks like for lay working-class people. What is most amazing about St. Francis De Sales is how he spoke to the heart, not just to the will. The key teaching addressed in this essay will be from the third part of the Introduction where St. Francis De Sales expounds on Ephesians 5:25. This is very applicable to the Catholic world today when it comes to women working outside the home especially in professional ministry roles.
Husbands, preserve a tender, constant, heartfelt love for your wives. The woman was taken from the first man on the side nearest his heart so that she might be heartily and tenderly loved by him. Your wives’ frailty and infirmity, whether of body or mind, should never make you disdainful of them. God has created them such as they are. Hence since they are dependent on you, you will receive greater honor and respect and you will be companions to them while still remaining their heads and superiors. Wives, love the husbands God has given you with a love that is tender and heartfelt and yet filled with respect and reverence. God created man as the more vigorous and dominant sex. He has willed that woman should depend on man, since she is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and that she should be made of a rib taken from beneath his arm to show that she must be under her husband’s hand and guidance. All Holy Scripture explicitly enjoins such submission, but the Scriptures make it an agreeable submission for they not only prescribe that you should adapt yourselves to it with love but also command husbands to exercise it over you with great charity, tenderness, and mildness. “Husbands, in like manner, dwell with your wives considerately, paying honor to the woman as to the weaker vessel,” says St. Peter. While I exhort you to advance more and more in the mutual love you owe to one another, take care that it does not degrade into jealousy of any kind. It often happens that just as the worm is bred in the ripest, tenderest apple, so also jealousy grows in the most ardent and compelling love of man and wife. It spoils and corrupts the very substance of such love for little by little it breeds quarrels, dissension, and divorce. In fact, jealousy never gets in where friendship is based on true virtue in both persons, and its presence is therefore an infallible mark that love is in some degree gross and sensual and that its object presents only imperfect, inconstant, and untrustworthy virtue. It is foolish boast on the part of friendship to try to exalt itself by jealousy, for jealousy is a sign of friendship’s height and bulk but not of its goodness, purity, and perfection. Perfection of friendship presupposes sure trust in the virtue of those we love, while jealousy presupposes doubt of it.
If you married men wish your wives to be faithful to you, teach them by your example. “How can you expect purity in your wives when you yourselves live in impurity? How can you demand of them what you don’t give them?” asks St. Gregory of Nazianzen. Do you want them to be chaste? Then conduct yourselves chastely toward them and, as St. Paul says, let “everyone of you learn how to possess his vessel in holiness.” On the contrary, if you teach them evil ways it is no wonder that you suffer disgrace by their fall. (De Sales 208-209)
Breaking apart this teaching from St. Francis De Sales offers insight into natural law and the reasoning behind the unwillingness of the Catholic hierarchy to ordain women to the priesthood. Much controversy exists within the Catholic Church today regarding women’s equality. The argument made by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis states that Pope John Paul II, even as the Pope, does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood. “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (OS 4). Likewise, Pope John Paul II did not have the authority to take away a woman’s “frailty” as observed above by St. Francis De Sales.
Physically, the average man has always been inherently stronger than the average woman. Psychologically, men in general tend to be more content functioning independently and are less in need of a sense of community and approval than women. Thus, men often speak more directly and give less thought as to whether they are well-liked or well-received in social settings than women who tend to suffer psychologically with a greater sense of self-doubt. According to Kay and Shipman in their article The Confidence Gap from the magazine The Atlantic, “In study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and over-prepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.” These are natural innate tendencies that do not necessarily apply to all women or all men, but have been the norm throughout centuries and across cultures.
St. Francis De Sales observed these tendencies during his lifetime and addressed them as “frailty and infirmity of body or mind.” However, today a lack of confidence and perfectionistic tendencies may not necessarily be a frailty of mind any more than a false sense of over-confidence, but when considering the strength needed to fight worldly battles either at war, or in political battles, men win due to their overarching confidence and strength of body and mind. It is significant to note that St. Francis De Sales suffered throughout his life with poor circulation and near death experiences as a youth (Rengers 632). However, what St. Francis De Sales may have lacked in regards to strength of body, he made up for in strength of mind and character.
Neither St. Francis De Sales nor Pope John Paul II were inferring that women were not intellectually or physically capable of doing the same work as a man. The real question is, “What brings a woman’s soul the greatest contentment?” The Catholic response has been that a woman finds greatest contentment in bringing forth new life and participating in God’s work as His co-creator. According to Sr. Mary Paul Friemel in her article God the Father and Mary, Co-creator in the Light of the Theology of the Body published in the e-zine Mother of all Peoples, women experience joy as they share in the mystery of creation.
According to the Bible, the conception and birth of a new human being are accompanied by the following words of the woman: “I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). This exclamation of Eve, the “mother of all the living” is repeated every time a new human being comes into the world. It expresses the woman’s joy and awareness that she is sharing in the great mystery of eternal generation. (Friemel)
If a woman’s true focus is on being creative and being of service to others, then there is no limit to the good women can accomplish on earth. Publishing papers and books, creating pieces of art, giving life to children, teaching and advocating for others, caring for those who are wounded and suffering are all meaningful and rewarding vocations for women which are affirmed by the Catholic Church as holy work for women. Taking full responsibility for leading a Catholic Church could perhaps be done more effectively by certain women than by current parish priests, no doubt. Many women do serve as pastoral associates and do have great responsibilities for leading parish communities. However, consecrating the Host is a sacred ritual reserved, by God, for men only just as giving birth to a child is reserved, by God, for only women. The path for women to become saints is not through priestly ordination but rather through loving well. Pope John Paul II calls attention to this in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Moreover, it is to the holiness of the faithful that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered. For this reason, the Declaration Inter Insigniores recalls: “the only better gift, which can and must be desired, is love (cf. 1 Cor 12 and 13). The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.” (OS 4)
St. Francis De Sales addresses jealousy as a vice that can cause quarrels, dissension, division and divorce. If a woman envies the power given by God to man, this can result in divorce. If a man uses his power abusively over a woman, this too can end in divorce. If either the man or woman envies the innate talents and gifts given by God to the other, the worm of quarrels and dissension has room to thrive. Yet, St. Francis offers us hope by stating, “jealousy never gets in where friendship is based on true virtue in both persons.” Perfect love desires only the best for each other. Therefore, a man who holds any authority over any woman will want her to flourish and grow into her full potential. A woman who experiences this kind of chaste and unselfish love from a man will shed her self-doubt and grow in confidence under his care for her. From my perspective, it is sinful independent pride on the part of a woman to claim that she does not need a man to bring forth new life into the world.
Personal Theological Reflection for Ephesians 5:25
My own personal experience factors into this controversy. One parish priest refused to empower me to work in ministry and attempted to repeatedly dominate me as a sexual object instead of treating me as valuable gift to him and the parish community. He suffered disgrace after I reported the sexual harassment I endured under his authority. In contrast to this past experience, my current parish priest acts as a gentleman in my presence. He has carefully and cautiously empowered me to serve others as a bible study leader, a Eucharistic Minister to the hospital patients, and now he is advocating for my ecclesiastical endorsement. I feel safe to submit to his authority and depend on him to help me because he has acted lovingly and respectfully towards me.
Some women in the Catholic community have experienced men in positions of authority over them acting in ways that are not loving. This provokes some women to try to overthrow the authority of men. Other women, who have suffered abuse at the hands of men, will have nothing to do with any man. Some overly submissive women who have suffered abuse will continue to return to the abusive environment over and over again because they are traumatically bonded to the abuse. These women will often twist scriptural teachings on suffering to justify allowing themselves to be abused while teaching others to do the same. All of the above choices display an unwillingness and inability on behalf of the woman to take responsibility for making life-giving choices.
A healthy dynamic between a man and a woman involves the man living out his masculine strength with a firm, gentle love that empowers the woman he loves to bring goodness into the world. Women were not created by God to be held hostage by a selfish man, thus relegated to serving him as if he were their own child. The purpose to a woman’s life is not to meet the unending desires of any man, but rather to give new life to the world with the support of a mature man. This is what St. Francis De Sales is referring to in the last paragraph cited above by stating, “If you married men wish your wives to be faithful to you, teach them by your example.” St. Francis De Sales teaches bishops, priests, and married men by his example.
The Example Set by St. Francis De Sales
St. Francis De Sales not only taught the lay community through his gift of wisdom, he embodied what he preached. A more in-depth study of St. Francis De Sales offers the world today an example of how any man is called to holiness, but especially clergy. One of the greatest and most sinful aspects of the Catholic Church today is privileged clericalism. Privileged clericalism creeps in slowly over time and gradually a Catholic deacon does not see anything wrong with stealing a twenty-dollar bill out of the collection basket to pay himself for a good homily. Privileged clericalism slowly convinces a Catholic priest that St. Ignatius meant that using women for sexual pleasure in the confessional during absolution is really a form of God’s consolation for his lifelong vow of celibacy. Privileged clericalism also affects Catholic women. For example, the long-time faithful female director of religious education gradually realizes over her years of service that she knows just as much as the priest does. So, she decides to join an excommunicated group of women outside the true Catholic faith to become ordained as a Catholic priest herself. What would St. Francis De Sales have to say about this? We can learn from his example.
St. Francis De Sales was given the opportunity to become a bishop of a more important see through the political support of King Henry IV. St. Francis De Sales’ response to King Henry IV became one of his most well-known quotes. “Sire, I have married a poor wife and I cannot desert her for a richer” (Rengers 619). St. Francis De Sales repeatedly defined himself to those in influential positions of authority over him in a way that honored God and portrayed his detachment from worldly things. He did not accept the opportunity to gain wealth or prestige. In regards to discerning true consolations from false consolations, St. Francis De Sales guides us to look at the fruit.
With regard to the affections and passions of the soul, dearest Philothea, the general teaching is that we must know them by their fruits. Our hearts are trees, affections and passions are branches, and works or actions are fruits. A heart with good affections is good and those affections and passions are good which produce in us good effects and holy actions. If these delights, tender feelings, and consolations make us more humble, patient, adaptable, charitable, and sympathetic towards our neighbor, more fervent in mortifying our desires and evil inclinations, more faithful to our exercises, more cooperative and submissive to those we are bound to obey, more sincere in our lives, then, Philothea, they certainly come from God. If they are sweet only to ourselves and make us selfish, harsh, quarrelsome, impatient, obstinate, haughty, presumptuous, and severe to our neighbors while we think that we are little saints and resent being subject to direction or correction, then beyond doubt such consolations are false and pernicious. A good tree does not bear anything but good fruit. (De Sales 247)
Clearly using another person for one’s own pleasure is not a form of God’s consolation. St. Francis De Sales honored the lay women of his day and supported them in bringing the light of Christ to the world. He was not intimidated by seeing them bear good fruit. Many of his letters were addressed to the lay community. One can sense how important it was to St. Francis De Sales to live a life of integrity. He clearly communicates in the excerpt above what bad fruit looks like; haughty, impatient, quarrelsome, and proud. He intimately knew how he felt whenever he was not experiencing true consolation and he was able to effectively teach this to others in a simple way that could be easily understood even by those without any formal education.
St. Francis De Sales envisioned a church that was welcoming and inclusive of all people. He saw dignity in each person as a beloved child of God who was called to live Jesus, meaning we are to embody the person of Christ in all that we do. Everyone, both men and women are to become truly Christ-like. It is in reflecting the image of Christ to the world that we become saints, not through power, clericalism, or ordination. Hundreds of years later, the inspired teachings of St. Francis De Sales continue to guide us toward that ultimate destination.
As I have walked with St. Francis De Sales through this course about spiritual direction, I have found his wisdom to offer me healing from abusive pseudo-Catholic teachings I learned from past Catholic spiritual directors and priests. Reflecting on St. Francis De Sales being known as a gentleman helped me to clarify what all celibate Catholic bishops and priests should aspire to become in their journey toward holiness.
St. Francis De Sales addresses the difference between holiness and scrupulous perfectionism. The Oblates of St. Francis De Sales state, “We are called to a ‘liberty of spirit’ – something which includes obedience but excludes ‘constraint, scruples and anxiety’” (Oblates Salesian Spirituality). Throughout this course, I have gradually experienced being set free from toxic shame. I contribute this to the action and gentle guidance of St. Francis De Sales. Another change I have experienced through this course is greater trust and freedom from fear in relationship to my current parish priest. One of the most commonly published quotes attributed to St. Francis De Sales was recorded by Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus in The Spirit of Saint Francis De Sales, “Those who love to be feared fear to be loved, and they themselves are more afraid than anyone, for whereas other men fear only them, they fear everyone.” Reflecting on this quote brought me greater clarification to the scriptural passages about love and fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18).
Camus, Jean-Pierre. The Spirit of Saint Francis de Sales. Create Space: May 2014. Ebook.
De Sales, Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life Translated and Edited by John K. Ryan. New
York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.
Friemel, Mary Paul. “God the Father and Mary, Co-creator in the Light of the Theology of
the Body.” Mother of all Peoples, Oct. 2007. Web. http://www.motherofallpeoples.com/2007/10/god-the-father-and-mary-co-creator-in-the-light-of-theology-of-the-body/
Kay, Katty and Claire Shipman. “The Confidence Gap.” The Atlantic, May 2014. Web.
Oblates Salesian Spirituality. Web. http://www.oblates.us/our-charism/salesian-spirituality/
Rengers, Christopher & Dr. Matthew E. Bunson. The 35 Doctors of the Church Revised Edition.
Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2014. Print.