Nothing was expected of St. Francis de Sales when he was born on August 21, 1567. He was born prematurely, and as a child he was regarded as delicate and sickly. Yet, somehow, he survived and grew to adulthood. Contemporaries described him as a sturdy man, a pleasant man, a religious man. He was all of these—and more. He was a priest and he was a bishop but he was renowned above all for one thing: his gentleness. Living in an age of violent political and religious upheaval, he went about his work with a serene countenance and that he did to the day of his death at age 55 on December 28, 1622. His really was a “devout life” and through his words—written as well as spoken—he provided an introduction to God that has made him beloved down through the years.
It was through his pen that his life in God came forth and he was happy to share his meditations to whomever wanted them or whoever was willing to be open to his message. In a time when the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, he preached to those who wandered away. He was oftentimes rebuffed, but that did not deter him. He did not condemn; he merely wanted to persuade, so he simply wrote to the separated brethren in pamphlet form and put them under their doors, hoping that in the quiet of their homes, their hearts might come unlocked. So Francis de Sales was a missionary in word as well as spirit. His letters of religious instruction to a noblewoman on how to be religious in a secular world became a spiritual classic: Introduction to a Devout Life. It is not very often that you read of a saint advising a woman that it was perfectly permissible to dress well and wear makeup! And yet, that is what he advised. As much as he loved the things of Heaven, he did not despise the things of Earth, though he did not let them deter him from what was important. He was always counseling, teaching, praying. He said: “Go to prayer in faith. Remain there in hope. Go out only in love.” And: “Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, not even if your whole world seems upset. If you find that you have wandered away from the shelter of God, lead your heart back to Him quietly and simply.”
His most famous admonition was to “be at peace.” In the world he lived in, he knew how violent things could get. In the world he lived in, he knew that peace was a much-sought of commodity, a “rare pearl,” as it were; and that laypeople as much as vowed religious were in great need of it. So, St. Francis de Sales admonished the people of his day and of ours, to be at peace. He said:
Be at Peace,
Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;
rather look to them with full hope as they arise.
God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them.
He has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in his arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;
the same everlasting Father who cares for you today
will take care of you then and everyday.
He will either shield you from suffering, or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination.
St. Francis de Sales is the patron of the Catholic press, confessors, deaf people, educators, writers and journalists. It is fitting that he is the patron of the Catholic press. His example is especially needed today. We need to remember that while being writers and journalists, we are also educators. And while we may be “deaf” at times and may not fully understand or comprehend situations in this world as they occur, we need to "confess" that we may not always be open to that which is around—and within—us, we need to be reminded that we have an audience to reach out to, to those of our own faith, to those of other faiths and even, especially, to those of no faith. Writers have a journey to embark on, alongside those who read or watch or listen to the results of their work. The Catholic journalist has the vocation to reach out to others in the way that St. Francis de Sales did, in his own time and in his own (often violent) world. He wrote with patience, fortitude, forbearance and understanding—and his example bids us to do the same. His Feast Day is January 24th; but that does not mean his lessons are meant for just one day; for those in Catholic journalism, it is for every day. And that what was celebrated at a reception at America House in mid-town Manhattan recently on a winter's evening. A fortunate gathering of those involved in Catholic journalism came together to honor this gentle saint who, while writing his way to Heaven, did not neglect his brethren here on Earth. And like him, we ought to "be at peace" while we go about reporting the "Good News."