St. Francis de Sales

Doctor of the Church


Around the year 1520 the Chablais, part of the duchy of Savoy on the south shore of Lake Geneva, was invaded by militant Protestants from Berne, who took it and the Vaud and the Gex regions on the north shore of the lake. Catholic worship was outlawed, and churches were burned or razed when not appropriated for Protestant use. Religious orders were suppressed and priests expelled. Thirty years later the Duke of Savoy, by giving up his claim to Vaud, won back the Chablais and Gex, but on condition that the Catholic religion remain forbidden.

In 1589 the Protestants of Berne again invaded the Chablais. In 1594 the duke regained his territories and asked the Bishop of Geneva, exiled in Annecy, to send missionaries to reclaim lost souls. St. Francis de Sales, a young priest of 28 years and the new provost of the cathedral, volunteered for the dangerous mission and departed with only his cousin for company. He made his headquarters in the fortress of Allinges, six or seven miles from Thonon.

At Thonon the Catholic population of the city had been reduced to about twenty persons, who were too intimidated to declare themselves openly. Francis sought them out one by one to renew their courage. He gradually extended his efforts to the villages of the surrounding countryside.

Risking his life, he journeyed through the entire district, trying to preach. The bad will and fear of the powerful Calvinists in Geneva kept the souls far from him. St. Francis continually sought new ways to reach the minds of the people. He began to write leaflets, setting forth leading dogmas of the Church against the views of Calvinism. He addressed his leaflets to the gentlemen of Thonon.

Gentlemen, having prosecuted for some space of time the preaching of the Word of God in your town, without obtaining a hearing from your people save rarely, casually, and stealthily, wishing to leave nothing undone on my part, I have set myself to put into writing some principal reasons, chosen for the most part from the sermons and instructions which I have hitherto addressed to you by word of mouth, in defense of the faith of the Church. My best chance, then, would have been to be heard, in lack of which this writing will not be without good results.

Then he explains the advantages of his new method:

  1. It will carry to your houses what you will not receive at our house, at our meetings.
  2. It will satisfy those who, as a sole answer to the arguments I bring forward, say that they would like to see them laid before some minister, and who believe that the mere presence of the adversary would make them tremble, grow pale, and faint away, taking from them all strength; now they can be laid before them.
  3. Writing can be better handled; it gives more leisure for consideration than the voice does; it can be pondered more profoundly.It will be seen that I deny a thousand impieties which are attributed to Catholics; this is not in order to escape from the difficulty, as some have said, but to follow the holy intention of the Church; for I write in everybody’s sight, and under the censorship of superiors, being assured that, while people will find herein plenty of ignorance, they will not find, God helping, any irreligion or any opposition to the doctrines of the Roman Church.

These little papers, on which he worked in spare moments, were copied and recopied by hand and widely distributed. Later he had them printed. In the summer of 1595 he climbed the mountain of Voiron to restore an oratory to the Blessed Virgin which had been destroyed by the Bernese. Soon after this his sermons at Thonon began drawing larger congregations. The little tracts or leaflets, scattered abroad, proved quietly effective, and in time there was a stream of lapsed Catholics asking for reconciliation with the Church.

Then St. Francis went to live openly at Thonon. He preached in the market place and held public disputations with leading Calvinist ministers of the district. He confuted preachers sent by Geneva to oppose him; he converted several prominent Calvinists. He even went to Geneva for a public debate and later to interview Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. Beza seemed for a while shaken, but had not the courage to take the final steps.

When, after four years, Bishop Granier came to visit the mission, the results of St. Francis’s untiring zeal were plain to see. Catholic faith and worship were reestablished in the province, and by 1598, 15,000 souls, two-thirds of the whole district, had been converted. The Chablais apostolate had created the first Catholic newspaper in history!

In his encyclical of January 26 1923, Pius XI recognized the absolute respect for truth, the enlightening thought and the beauty of the language of these apologetic pamphlets. He then declared St. Francis de Sales a Doctor, the model and “heavenly patron of journalists and of Catholic writers.”

Source: (Regina Coeli Report : March – April 2014)