400th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis de Sales, the powerful sweetness

Can gentleness be a remedy for worry, brutality, anger around us and within us? Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose 400th death anniversary will be celebrated on December 28, was convinced of this. Preacher, spiritual guide, reforming bishop, theologian and man of the pen, he had made this virtue the cornerstone of his spiritual life and his pastoral action.

Rather than defining gentleness, François de Sales used metaphors to make it perceptible. In L’Introduction to the Devout Lifehe speaks of it as “Flower of Charity”, which testifies to the full development of love. He also compares it to the oil of holy chrism, with which the Christian is marked at baptism.

“By speaking of softness like a flower, like a balm, François de Sales shows that it has something to do with delicacy, perfume, but also the body, the touch…”, emphasizes Robert Scholtus, priest of the diocese of Metz and former superior of the Carmelite seminary in Paris (1).

“God’s way of being”

“For Francis de Sales, gentleness or gentleness – another very frequent term in his writings – is the way of being of God, who governs with gentleness, emphasizes Hélène Michon, professor of literature at the University of Tours, specialist in the 17th century. God draws to himself through gentleness, he presses but does not oppress. This respect for human freedom is essential in the theology of Francis de Sales and in his insistence on gentleness. »

Images and pious speeches have been able to make the gentleness lean towards a suspicious sentimentality, but the Salesian gentleness presents itself, on the contrary, as a strength. It is the strength of those who know how to overcome their own violence, manage not to let themselves be overwhelmed by passions, especially anger. “François de Sales spoke of it from experience, because he had a rather angry temperament”recalls Hélène Michon.

In L’Introduction to the Devout LifeFrançois invites us to control anger, a dangerous reaction even when it is right, “because being received, it is difficult to get it out”, he writes. He is thus fully in line with his century, in search of a mastery of passions. “His insistence on gentleness gives depth to the ideal of civility recommended to the gentlemen of his time, emphasizes Hélène Michon. François de Sales does not seek superficial, social mastery, but to touch the heart, in depth. »

Gentleness towards others, gentleness towards oneself

For all that, Salesian gentleness has nothing to do with softness. It does not lead to backing down in the face of adversity, nor to losing concern for the truth. “We must indeed (really) resist evil and repress the vices of those we have in charge, constantly and valiantly, but gently and peacefully”, writes François de Sales. In a context marked by the consequences of the Wars of Religion, while Protestants and Catholics alike were animated by a spirit of hateful struggle, the Bishop of Annecy endeavored to counter the Reformation by taking into account his share of truth and by reforming the morals of the Catholic Church. “What is obtained by force (coercion) is almost as if it does not exist”he argues in a letter to Pope Paul V in 1606.

But the great originality of Salesian spirituality is perhaps to encourage the believer to practice gentleness towards himself. In a 17th century where moralists were to warn against the illusions of self-love, François de Sales lifted the veil on religious pride, which manifested itself in “sour and sorrowful, vexatious and angry displeasure” that the believer feels towards his imperfections. He criticizes “those who are angry at having been angry, are grieved at having been grieved and are angry at having been annoyed”.

“François de Sales fights against voluntarist, ascetic spiritualities which always consist in doing violence to themselves.He exercisesand advocates alternative medicine and a pedagogy of “gentle effort”, emphasizes Robert Scholtus. “This idea of ​​a gentle struggle, of a spiritual fight that takes place little by little, over time, without jolts, is really something that is unique to him”, adds Hélène Michon. More than four centuries after being announced, this pedagogy of gentleness remains inspiring. “She is an excellent counterpoison in the moment we are going through when bitterness, anger, nervousness are so significant”notes Robert Scholtus.

A life of preaching and apostolate

August 21, 1567. Birth of François, in Sales, near Thorens (Haute-Savoie).

1593. Priestly ordination.

1602. Bishop of the diocese of Annecy-Geneva.

1604. Meeting with Jeanne de Chantal.

1607. Foundation of the Florimontane Academy, societies of scholars and scholars.

1610. Foundation of the Visitation Sainte-Marie.

1609.publication ofIntroduction to the Devout Life from which he will take up the text in each new edition, until the final text of 1619.

1616. Treaty of the love of God.

December 28, 1622. Died in Lyons.

1661. Beatification.

1665. Canonization.

1877. Declared Doctor of the Church.

400th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis de Sales, the powerful sweetness