An 18th century paining of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Wikimedia Commons

A saint who cuts the vinegar out of journalism

  • January 19, 2023

Although St. Francis de Sales is counted among the great saints, the first I heard of him was in his role as patron saint of writers, journalists and the Catholic press. I remained with that meagre knowledge for years until I encountered then-Bishop Thomas Collins who was and is a great fan of St. Francis.

Through the future cardinal, I learned more of the substance of the saint. Francis was patron of writers and journalists not by sheer chance but because he used the written word to draw thousands of people to the Catholic faith. His pamphlets were spread surreptitiously in a region in France under the sway of the Calvinists.

Perhaps to contrast Catholicism with the severe faith of the Calvinists, Francis de Sales emphasized the love and mercy of God. That was a huge draw for Christians repelled by the notion that each soul is predestined at birth for Heaven or hell.

Rather than criticizing the Calvinists, he exemplified the respect each Christian should have for others. He is reputed to have said, “A spoonful of sugar draws more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.” Tthat was surely Francis’ style.

In 1602, at the age of 35, he was installed as bishop of Geneva. But because of the Calvinists’ political control of the city, he was forced to live in France. Nevertheless, the diocese enjoyed a remarkable Catholic renaissance while he was the shepherd. Francis was an effective preacher, not known for dramatics but for careful exposition of the virtuous life. Laity and clergy were drawn to deeper holiness through his influence.

St. Francis de Sales’ feast day is Jan. 24, more noteworthy this year because Dec. 28, 2022 was the 400th anniversary of his death.

His most famous book is An Introduction to the Devout Life, a spiritual classic published in 1609. The book was a leading representative of the attempt in that era to make the call to holiness universal, applicable to the laity as well as to monks. That expansion of Catholic spirituality received its strongest official endorsement from the Second Vatican Council. 

Although the Introduction was written with the metaphors and in the style of a much different era, its advice and counsels remain relevant today — perhaps even more relevant given the polarization in both Church and society. Francis restrained himself from fomenting controversy, opting instead to show the way to turn a tepid faith into a deep love of God and neighbour.

Francis had little regard for outward displays of faith such as extensive fasting, voluminous amounts of time spent in prayer or giving large amounts of money to the poor if those practices were accompanied by harsh criticism, lack of forgiveness and insulting behaviour. 

“All these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout,” he wrote. “To become devout, one’s heart must be transformed.”

He provides for a detailed meditation on ultimate things such as why God created us, the gifts God has given, sin, death and the reasons for us choosing to lead a life that will take us to Heaven. Later, he writes at length about how to grow in virtue. 

For example, Francis predicts that a person who becomes truly devout will be mocked and ridiculed. The world is an unjust judge, he writes, but that does not mean the devout person should respond in kind. Rather, a patient and gentle response to criticism brings “countless blessings.” We are challenged to grow morally and spiritually and to embrace our share in the sufferings which Christ endured. 

While Francis counsels us to avoid the path of sin which leads to hell, gloom is the furthest thing away from Salesian spirituality. 

More than ever, Francis de Sales should be an example for journalists and others. His life shows people are won over to a cause more through patient charity than through the stirring up of controversies. Patience is the key virtue. Meaningful change does not happen overnight. Rather, it is only possible for those who put more effort into offering teaspoons of sugar than barrels full of vinegar.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at 

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