Pope Francis dedicated an apostolic letter to Saint Francis de Sales on Wednesday December 28, the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bishop of Geneva. An opportunity to dive into his spiritual heritage, to move forward on the path of gentleness and trusting abandonment to God, as Father Joël Guibert explains to us.
Interview by Adélaïde Patrignani – Vatican City
“All is to love, for love and out of love in the Holy Church”: in the form of a sentence, these words of Saint Francis de Sales bring us to the heart of his spirituality. Pope Francis also takes them up as the title of his apostolic letter Totus amoris is, twenty-page document dedicated to the Savoyard saint, bishop of Geneva and founder of the Order of the Visitation. We find there the major milestones of his life (1567-1622), between the 16e the 17the century. The Holy Father also explores the salient features of his spirituality, made of gentleness and devotion, presented as a benchmark for our time.
Father Joël Guibert, priest of the diocese of Nantes is a preacher of retreats and author of the book The secret of serenity: trust in God with Saint Francis de Sales (Artège editions). He returns to the characteristics of Salesian spirituality.
He has a grace, a gift of touching souls through preaching and writing, especially with his “hits”, his bestsellers that he wrote, he touches souls, and the editions have been made at many many copies. He really has the art of saying deep things with a simplicity that makes the little one understand. Another feature, it seems to me, is the doctrine of pure love – which has nothing to do with quietism, a heresy, which has been condemned by the Church. Saint Francis de Sales, like all saints, but it is a particular trait in him, is absolutely convinced that Providence is at the heart of the smallest details of our life, and he simply tells us to develop this spirituality. An event is happening: I want to see God’s will in this event. So of course, it is not a question of falling into fatalism and refusing the fight against injustice, but he asks us to join this will, and this is a source of great pacification.
So you are telling us that there is no need to go looking for meditation techniques, because everything is in François de Sales?
I am struck how much today, as soon as we speak of meditation, it is indeed the Far East that comes, transcendental meditation, whatever you want… while there is inside the Catholic Church treasures around meditation and which is a source of great peace. The big difference with Far Eastern mysticism is to create a void, while we create a void “so that the full may be filled”. And this filling is done by a person, that is to say the very person of Christ, of the Holy Trinity.
Saint Francis de Sales is also known for his gentleness. How is this a virtue that we must rediscover today?
You can clearly see that today we are in a world of violence such as we have rarely seen. And the violence is not just the war in Ukraine. The problems of the war go through my own heart first, before accusing anyone. Peace in the world, I build it by the deep peace that I will cultivate in my own personal life. And this personal peace is not psychological peace, it is letting Jesus – whom Scripture calls the Prince of Peace – radiate within us. Peace is not a psychological technique. Deep peace is the very name of God. It is in fact a question of letting God be God: I believe that one could sum up all the spiritual doctrine of François de Sales through this.
How not to confuse gentleness or patience with a kind of softness or sentimentality?
Our friend François de Sales grew up with a peace that radiated. But be careful, it’s an extremely violent temper inside, I mean a fiery temper. I give a very strong example. I think he was walking with one of his friends or his own brother. He gets insulted for free, and in front of everyone, by a slightly disturbed person, shall we say, in any case mean. And then he leaves the situation and his brother says to him: finally, how do you manage to welcome this deep peace, this kindness, this gentleness? And François de Sales takes the hand of his interlocutor, puts it on his heart to make him understand that his heart is beating at 100 per hour, that kindness is not sentimentality, that it is a conquest. And so, with François de Sales, we are absolutely not in a Camembert that abandons itself! It’s really a conquest, sweetness. Because spontaneously, each one of us, the one who speaks to you like the others, we have a kind of violence inside us. And curiously, I believe it was Mr. Freud who said that, passivity reveals itself to be intensely active, that is to say that to acquire gentleness, we will have to summon extremely active virtues within us. It’s not about letting go.
It makes one think of Thérèse of Lisieux because she also has words which are those of a register of arms, and of combat.
Exactly. That’s why she really liked to play the character of Joan of Arc in the theater. In the beginning of her life, she says that it will be necessary to conquer holiness at the point of the sword and in the end, she progressed in abandonment. Your question invites us to always marry paradoxes in the Christian life. The life of Thérèse of Lisieux, which is in fact Saint Francis de Sales after the hour, always breathes with two lungs: abandonment which would rather come under the pole of gentleness, and at the same time sacrifice, that is to say something extremely manly and active. And until you have those two things, you have an unbalanced spiritual life. Today, it seems to me that we give a share. Important in the education of the people of God in abandonment, and we forget the strength of spiritual combat. Thérèse of Lisieux, François de Sales, all the saints who are saints because they had this balance, constantly combine this paradox. Things that we oppose, they unite them.
What is also striking in the life of Saint Francis de Sales is all the correspondence he maintained, the varied friendships and above all with very different states of life. What is your view on this, on being interested in everyone and valuing each state of life?
There is a Pope [Paul VI, ndlr] who said that Francis de Sales had somewhere the message of Vatican II before its time. In particular by his best-seller which is called Introduction to the Devout Life, he said: “But what? Are we presented with the Gospel and holiness as if it were only to be done and lived if we were locked up in a monastery? No, it is to be lived in all states of life. The soldier in his garrison is also invited to live holiness”. And there you recognize the pearl of pearls in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, that is to say the universal call to holiness. We can say that Francis de Sales democratized holiness in all strata of the people of God.
Are there any saints who inspired Saint Francis de Sales?
Yes, there are saints who often come back to his pen. Among the Fathers of the Church, a very large part given to Saint Augustine, who is not simply a theologian, he is really someone who had an experience with God. Then, with regard to the great spiritual traditions, he often speaks of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the tradition of Carmel. He is enormously trained by Saint John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. And above all we must not forget this saint whom we present as a somewhat dry theologian who is Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is very inspired by Saint Thomas Aquinas who is not just a theologian, but a very great saint.
And today, if we want to discover Saint Francis de Sales, where to start?
I would highly recommend Introduction to the Devout Life; The Treatise on True Devotionwhich is, if you will, Introduction to the Devout Life in much more developed with considerations on the mystic. And then I would recommend reading the oral interviews of François de Sales with the first Sisters of the Visitation at the Galerie d’Annecy. They were doing the shorthand, so it’s pretty true to what he was saying. And there you have a very good basis for entering into the writings and the spirit of Saint Francis de Sales.
What can Saint Francis de Sales bring to the Church of France today and more broadly to the universal Church?
You know that the Church of France has suffered some small difficulties and in particular the figure of the priest… that’s global, but also the figure of the bishop with the scandals that have taken place recently. I think that Francis de Sales has something to say about the reform that we must live inside the Church for the episcopate and the priesthood of priests. He is an extraordinary figure and the reform of the Church will not come through reforms, it will come through saints. We must therefore pray for the bishops to become saints, for the priests to become saints, for the laity to become saints. That’s the only important thing in the Church. After that, the rest is marketing or organization. We are not in a business, we are in the Church of God.
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Saint Francis de Sales, a pacifier of souls to be rediscovered – Vatican News
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