I just had the pleasure of reading The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales by Jean-Pierre Camus. Whether this Camus is a distant relation of the more famous Albert Camus, I know not. His style of biography is reminiscent of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Like Boswell, Camus was a constant companion of St. Francis and recorded his habits with great exactitude. Their friendship began around the time St. Francis, as Bishop of Geneva, consecrated him Bishop of Belley. Camus’ remarkable frankness and memory make this a particularly interesting character sketch of the saint.
For those unfamiliar with the history of St. Francis de Sales, he served in the diocese of Geneva at the beginning of the Counter-Reformation. In particular, he was a missionary to Chablis and had to deal with the Calvinist heresy there. Calvinists held the majority in the place, and proprietors would often refuse even to give St. Francis a place to sleep. With the incredible patience which was his chief virtue, he preached the Faith through public speaking and spreading pamphlets–many of which we have to this day. Occasionally, while he said Mass, the attendants would get up and leave during the middle of it, and St. Francis would continue the Mass in an empty Church. His patience and perseverance made him eventually beloved of the people, and Chablis became a mostly Catholic area by the end of his life.
St. Francis describes his method of religious debate as patiently listening to his religious opponents without either showing contempt or superiority and then relating the truth of the Catholic faith without contentiousness. Here are his own words on the subject, which is one of my favorite passages in the work:
“All the external proofs which can be brought to bear upon our opponents are weak, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in their souls, teaching them to recognize the ways of God. All that has to be done is to propose to them simply the truths of our Faith. To propose these truths is to compel men to accept them, unless, indeed, they resist the Holy Spirit, either through dullness of understanding, or through uncircumcision of the heart. The attaching over much importance to the light of natural reason is a quenching of the Spirit of God. Faith is not an acquired, but an infused virtue; it must be treated with accordingly, and in instructing heretics we must beware of taking to ourselves any part of the glory which belongs to God alone.
“One of the greatest misfortunes of heretics is that their ministers in their discourses travesty our Faith, representing it as something quite different from what it really is. For example, they pretend that we have no regard for Holy Scripture; that we worship the Pope as God; that we regard the Saints as divinities; that we hold the Blessed Virgin as being more than Jesus Christ; that we pay divine worship to images and pictures; that we believe souls in Purgatory to be suffering the selfsame agony and despair as those in Hell; that we deprive the laity of participation in the Blood of Jesus Christ; that we adore bread in the Eucharist; that we despise the merits of Jesus Christ, attributing our salvation solely to the merit of our good works; that auricular confession is mental torture; and so on, endeavoring by calumnies of this sort to discredit our religion and to render the very thought of it odious to those who are so thoroughly misinformed as to its nature. When, on the contrary, they are made acquainted with our real belief on any of these points, the scales fall from their eyes, and they see that the fascination and cajolery of their preachers has hidden from them the truth as to God’s goodness and the beauty of God’s truth, and has put darkness before them in the place of light.
“It is true that at first they may shrug their shoulders, and laugh us to scorn; but when they have left us, and, being alone, reflect a little on what we have told them, you will see them flutter back like decoyed birds, saying to us, ‘We should like to hear you speak again about those things which you brought before us the other day.’ Then they fall, some on the right hand, others on the left, and Truth, victorious on all sides, brings them by different paths to know it as it really is.”
I don’t know of a more perfect method of preaching the truths of the faith than this, and so I felt compelled to quote it in full. At any rate, I encourage my dear readers to pick up this work. St. Francis de Sales is a great personality among the saints and this work does a marvelous job of sketching his personality–and it’s available for free! Some passages are edifying, some dry, some humorous (like when Camus drilled holes in the walls of St. Francis’ room so that he could observe him therein), but all are brimming with the Spirit of Christ. I hope that many modern pastors have been influenced by the model offered by St. Francis de Sales.