On the 400th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis de Sales, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter entitled ‘Totum Amoris Est’ (‘Everything Pertains to Love’), in which he recalls how the Doctor of the Church was capable of helping people seek God in charity, joy, and freedom in an era of great changes. Describing him as a fine interpreter of his time, and an “extraordinary director of souls”, the Holy Father highlights the great vocation of this French saint, Patron of journalists and communicators, and “exiled” Bishop of Geneva, who asked himself “in every situation in life where the greatest love is to be found”.
Indeed, it is not surprising, notes Pope Francis, that Pope Saint John Paul ii called him a “Doctor of Divine Love,” not only for having written “a weighty Treatise on that subject, but first and foremost because he was an outstanding witness to that love”. As he reflected on “the legacy of Saint Francis de Sales for our time”, the Pope said he found his “flexibility and his far-sighted vision” enlightening. In early 17th-century Paris, the saintly bishop “perceived clearly that the times were changing”. He might “never have imagined that those changes represented so great an opportunity for the preaching of the Gospel. The Word of God that he had loved from his youth now opened up before him new and unexpected horizons in a rapidly changing world”.
According to Saint Francis de Sales, the Pope explains, the experience of God “is intrinsic to the human heart”. This idea, underpinning his entire life, “centred on God”, is explained in his “Treatise on the Love of God”: “At the very thought of God, one immediately feels a certain delightful emotion of the heart, which testifies that God is God of the human heart”.
Saint Francis de Sales, the Pope notes, “had come to realize that desire is at the root of all true spiritual life, but also the cause of its debasement”. For this reason, he “recognized the importance of constantly testing desire through the exercise of discernment”. Indeed, his reflection on spiritual life is “of outstanding theological importance”, the Holy Father writes, for it embodies two “essential dimensions of any genuine theology”. The first one is spiritual life itself because “theologians emerge from the crucible of prayer”, whereas the second dimension regards “the ability to think in the Church and with the Church” as Christian theologians are called to carry out their work “immersed in the life of the community”. In his spiritual direction, the Pope explains, Saint Francis de Sales speaks in a new way, using a different method, a method “that renounced all harshness and respected completely the dignity and gifts of a devout soul, whatever its frailties”.
Towards the end of his life, this is how Francis saw his time: “The world is becoming so delicate that, in a little while, no one will dare any longer to touch it except with velvet gloves, or tend its wounds except with perfumed bandages; yet what does it matter, if only men and women are healed and finally saved? Charity, our queen, does everything for her children”. This, the Pope remarks “was no pious platitude or an expression of resignation in the face of defeat.” Rather, “it was a realization that the world was changing and the mark of a completely evangelical sense of the need to respond to those changes”. Thus, even when confronting Protestants, Saint Francis de Sales “came to realize increasingly, along with the need for theological discussion, the effectiveness of personal relationships and charity”. He was a “skilful” controversialist when discussing with Calvinists, but also a man of dialogue, an inventor of original pastoral practices, such as the famous “affiches”, short pamphlets posted everywhere and even slipped under the doors of houses. And this is the reason why he was chosen as the patron saint of journalists.
The second part of the Apostolic Letter addresses the legacy of Saint Francis de Sales for our times, such as some of the crucial decisions he made, such as the decision to “reinterpret and propose anew to each man and woman the beauty of our relationship with God”. Divine Providence draws our hearts to God’s love, he writes, without any imposition but “by invitations, enticements and holy inspirations”. This “persuasiveness”, the Pope notes, “respects our human freedom”. The second crucial choice Saint Francis made was to approach the issue of devotion. Here too, as in our own days, the dawning of a new age had raised a number of questions. At the beginning of the Introduction to the Devout Life, Saint Francis clarifies the meaning of devotion, noting that “unless you can distinguish true devotion, you can fall into error and waste your time running after some useless and superstitious devotion”, such as those who consecrate their lives to fasting and believe they are devout because they don’t eat or drink, “but will not scruple to drench their tongues in the blood of theirs neighbours through gossip and slander”. True devotion, on the other hand, Saint Francis de Sales said, is “none other than a genuine, and not generic, love of God”, a manifestation of charity, therefore far from being “something abstract”, Pope Francis clarifies. Indeed, “devotion is meant for everyone, in every situation, and each of us can practice it in accordance with our own vocation”, Pope Francis stresses.
In the last part of the letter, entitled “The Ecstasy of Life,” Pope Francis summarizes his thoughts on the life of Saint Francis de Sales by remarking that “those who think they are rising to God, yet fail to love their neighbour, are deceiving both themselves and others”. Instead, Christian life is discovering the joy of loving, and “the source of this love that attracts the heart is the life of Jesus Christ” who gave his life for us.
For the full text visit: https:// press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2022/12/ 28/221228b.html