The art essay

The Virgin with Child appearing to St Francis de Sales by Carlo Maratta (1625–1713)

Francis de Sales is known as “the gentleman saint,” for he was born in 1567 in a castle and into the nobility of the House of Savoy. He received the finest education and grooming that a man of his station could receive. The eldest of thirteen children, he experienced the added privileges associated with the right of primogeniture. His parents had great ambitions for him, hoping to see him pursue a political or military career. He was tall and handsome, intelligent and wise. He was educated in rhetoric and the study of the humanities, and for social graces he learned how to fence, dance, and ride horses. He was also assigned a priest tutor to aid him in his formal university classes. But Francis was by nature a very spiritual man, and while he conceded for a time to his parents’ desire to prepare him for a glorious career in the secular realm, he held an inner desire to serve and dedicate his life to God.

A spiritual crisis relieved by the Blessed Virgin Mary

In 1584, when Francis was seventeen and studying in Paris, he threw himself into a theological discourse about predestination. It had a huge impact on his life, dominating his conscience for two years, plaguing his soul, and causing him to be bedridden. The devil persuaded him that all the good things he had done in life were in vain. He was convinced that he was going to hell, and nothing could assuage his tormented conscience. Saint Alphonsus Liguori recounts that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary who pulled him through this crippling spiritual crisis. One day, in a visit to the Church of Saint-Étienne-des- Grès, Francis saw a plaque attached to the wall on which was inscribed the well-known prayer to our Lady known as the Memorare: Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was lef t unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear me and answer me. Amen. Francis knelt before the altar of Our Lady of Good Deliverance and recited the prayer. It had an immediate calming effect. Suddenly his depression turned into a state of gracefilled optimism. He consecrated himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and took a vow of chastity in appreciation for his deliverance. Carlo Maratta’s painting records that mystical bond that was established between Francis and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The artist was known for his repeated depictions of the Virgin in his paintings, to the point that he was nicknamed “Little Carlo of the Madonnas.” Francis wrote extensively of the Blessed Mother, and his sermons on her reveal that she was an essential element of his spirituality. Mary heard the Word of God and kept it, and Francis exhorted others to follow her example. For Francis, Mary became the exemplar of the Christian life. The radical change in his career was not easy for his family to accept. His embrace of the clerical state and his close association with two of the most humble branches of the Franciscan Order, the Capuchins and the Minims, gave his socially ambitious father cause for concern. This was assuaged, however, when Francis was appointed bishop of Geneva while still in his mid-thirties. And while Geneva was a stronghold of Protestantism and Francis often had to travel under armed guard, it was his administration there and his outreach to the Protestants that marked the genius of his character.

Using the media to serve the apostolate

For a long time the Protestant sects had used the print medium to spread their ideas throughout Europe. Francis decided to fight fire with fire, printing a number of pamphlets that addressed the religious controversies of the day. These he disseminated widely. The tone of his apologetics was charitable; he was known to say, “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.” Drawing from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church to explain Catholic doctrine carefully, his persuasiveness caused 72,000 Protestants to return to the ancient Faith. In an era of riotous emotions surrounding issues of belief, Francis recommended a calm reserve: “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” He also said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength”; and, “Our words are a faithful index to the state of our souls.” A true pastor to laypeople, he left us a spiritual classic in his Introduction to the Devout Life. Written for people of every station, from poor peasants to ladies of the court, it promoted charity over penance. In it he concentrated on the perfection of the heart of Mary, using her as the paradigm for loving God. Inner peace was the goal of his spiritual program; to grow in holiness he advised that one “do everything calmly and peacefully. Do as much as you can as well as you can. Strive to see God in all things without exception and consent to his will joyously. Do everything for God, uniting yourself to him in word and deed. Walk very simply with the cross of the Lord and be at peace with yourself.” These are words to live by for every age. Saint Francis de Sales was proclaimed a saint, a Doctor of the Church, and the patron of religious media.  


Father Michael Morris, o.p. († 2016)

Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, Calif.     


The Virgin with Child appearing to St Francis de Sales (1691), Carlo Maratta (1625–1713),

Pinacoteca Civica, Forli, Italy.