In an apostolic letter published on December 28, 2022, Pope Francis highlights the figure of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva from 1602 to 1622, whose spirituality nourished “Europe of the time and of the following centuries”. . From this theologian who preached a lot on devotion and ecstasy, the Pope wants to make a model for today.
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“On the occasion of the fourth centenary of his death, I wondered about the legacy of Saint Francis de Sales for our time, and I found his flexibility and his capacity for vision illuminating,” writes Pope Francis in a ten-page letter.
Describing the influence of Francis de Sales on Europe as “tremendous”, Pope Francis echoes the words of Benedict XVI on the subject of the man who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1877: “He is a apostle, a preacher, a man of action and prayer; committed to the realization of the ideals of the Council of Trent; participating in controversy and dialogue with Protestants, increasingly experiencing, beyond the necessary theological confrontation, the importance of personal relationship and charity; in charge of diplomatic missions at European level, and of social functions of mediation and reconciliation. »
A non-self-referential Church, free from all worldliness but able to inhabit the world
For Pope Francis, the “holy bishop of Annecy” [il fut évêque de Genève avec résidence à Annecy] had “the clear perception of a change of era”. Thus, from the experience of this former missionary in the Calvinist Chablais who knew how to think of a world in “rapid transition”, the Pope draws a lesson for the world of today.
“A non-self-referential Church, free from all worldliness but able to inhabit the world, to share the lives of people, to walk together, to listen and to welcome. This is what Francis de Sales accomplished by deciphering his era, with the help of grace”, insists the Pope.
Relationship to God, devotion and ecstasy
To help Christians to “live in change with evangelical wisdom”, the Pope takes up in his letter three fundamental axes of the thought of Francis de Sales.
The first consists of re-reading the “happy relationship between God and human beings”, the key theme of his famous Treatise on God’s Love (1616). For the founder of the Order of the Visitation with Jeanne de Chantal, it is a question of realizing that God does not impose anything on his creature in a despotic or arbitrary way but teaches him to walk “as a father or a mother does with his child”.
“Man is like this: made by God to fly and deploy all his potentialities in the call to love, he risks becoming unable to take off when he falls to the ground and does not agree to reopen his wings at the breath of the Spirit”, paraphrases the Pope.
The second element of the work of Saint Francis de Sales highlighted by the Pope is his reflection on devotion. “The description of false devotion by Francis de Sales is tasty and always current and it is not difficult for us to find our way there, not without an effective touch of healthy humor”, notes the Pope, reporting a number of examples. “The other very willingly draws alms from his purse to give it to the poor, but he cannot draw the gentleness of his heart to forgive his enemies”, he quotes thus.
For the Saint of Savoy, “the true and living devotion […] presupposes the love of God, so it is nothing other than a true love of God”. Moreover, the Pope notes, the theologian never separates “charity and devotion” which are for him like flame and fire.
With Francis de Sales, devotion therefore has “nothing abstract”, insists Pope Francis who sees in it “a lifestyle, a way of being in the concrete of daily existence”. From then on, “it belongs to all and is for all”, he warns, taking up the words of Paul VI pronounced on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the birth of Francis de Sales: “Holiness is not the prerogative of either class; but the pressing invitation is addressed to all Christians. »
Finally, Pope Francis emphasizes that the Bishop of Annecy considered Christian life as “the ecstasy of work and life”. But he immediately warns: this ecstasy should not be confused with “an easy flight” and “even less with a sad and gray obedience”, pointing the finger at this “danger” which threatens Christian life and castigating Christians with the air of ” Lent without Easter”.
Good ecstasy (…) “implies a real exit from oneself”
Quoting widely from Francis de Sales, the Pope describes ecstasy as “a life that has rediscovered the sources of joy, against all aridity, against the temptation to withdraw into oneself”.
He emphasizes, moreover, that when the interior life “closes in on one’s own interests, there is no longer room for others, the poor no longer enter, one no longer listens to the voice of God, one no longer no longer enjoys the sweet joy of his love, the enthusiasm to do good no longer throbs”.
As with true devotion, the Pope finally writes that the great criterion for discerning good ecstasy is whether it “implies a true coming out of oneself.” In other words, “he who claims to rise to God, but does not live charity towards his neighbor, deceives himself and deceives others.