Pope Francis has published an apostolic letter to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church. It is the Holy Father’s way of having us revisit the second paragraph of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium(which appears on page 10 of the letter):
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless.
Pope Francis considers St. Francis de Sales to be an ideal antidote to these ills for reasons that the apostolic letter spells out:
A man of experience
Pope Francis in the letter stresses that Francis de Sales “recognized the importance of concern for the human dimension. … His teachings were the fruit of a great sensitivity to experience.”
This sensitivity was conditioned by Francis de Sales’ personal experience with “two consecutive interior crises that would have a lasting mark on his life. … The experience of this crisis, with its anxiety and uncertainties would remain illuminating for him, and provide him with a singular approach to the mystery of God’s relationship with humanity.” Pope Francis lauds St. Francis de Sales for “his flexibility and his far-sighted vision” that “have much to say to us” and which seem to be the direct result of the saint’s own struggles with suffering. Francis de Sales remains a profoundly human figure who can lead us to rediscover and live our own humanity.
A man of perception
The Holy Father notes that “Francis perceived clearly that the times were changing” and that “those changes represented so great an opportunity for the preaching of the Gospel. The Word of God … now opened up before him new and unexpected horizons in a rapidly changing world.” And then he immediately shifts to our predicament: “The same task awaits us in this, our own age of epochal change. We are challenged to be a Church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness.”
Pope Francis presents Francis de Sales—whom St. John Paul II dubbed the “Doctor of Divine Love”—as an outstanding exemplar for us to follow:
Today [St. Francis de Sales] bids us set aside undue concern for ourselves, for our structures, and for what society thinks about us, and consider instead the real spiritual needs and expectations of our people.
A man of devotion
Key to this is what St. Francis, the author of the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life, calls devotion “a sort of spiritual alertness and energy whereby charity acts within us or, we act by means of it, with promptness and affection.”
Pope Francis tells us that devotion is meant to become “a style of life, a way of living immersed in our concrete daily existence” … one that “embraces and discovers meaning in the little things.” For it is the “ecstasy of life” generated by devotion that brings forth what Pope Francis hails as “the joyous exuberance of a Christian life” that “transcends the mediocrity of mere conformity,” while causing us to rediscover “the wellsprings of joy” and to avoid “the temptation of self-centeredness.”
The apostolic letter encourages us:
To live in the midst of the secular city while nurturing the interior life, to combine the desire for perfection with every state of life, and to discover an interior peace that does not separate us from the world but teaches us how to live in it and to appreciate it, but also to maintain a proper detachment from it. That was the aim of Francis de Sales, and it remains a valuable lesson for men and women in our own time.