THE “DA MIHI ANIMAS” OF SAN FRANCESCO DI SALES (3/8)
First of all, we need to clarify what is meant by pastoral zeal:
“Zeal does not only mean commitment, being busy: it expresses an all-encompassing orientation, the anxiety and almost the torment of bringing every person to salvation, at all costs, by all means, through a tireless search for the least and most pastorally abandoned.”
Often, when one hears talk of pastoral zeal, figures come to mind who are characterised by great activity, generous in spending themselves for others, moved by such charity that sometimes they do not even have “time to eat”. Francis was one of these, completely devoted to the good of souls in his diocese and beyond. However, through his example he gives us a further message: his way of living the da mihi animas springs from the care he took of his interior life, his prayer, his unreserved surrender to God.
Therefore, these are the two sides of his zeal that we want to draw out from his life and writings.
The Council of Trent had just ended when Francis was born. On the pastoral level, it called the bishops to a more attentive and generous care of their dioceses. This care came first of all from being resident in the diocese, being among the people, instructing the clergy by establishing seminaries, frequent visits to parishes, training parish priests, spreading the Catechism as an instrument of evangelisation for the youngest and not only the youngest …; a whole series of measures to make bishops and priests aware of their identity as pastors in the care of souls.
Francis took these reminders seriously to the point of becoming, together with St Charles Borromeo, the model of the pastor bishop, totally dedicated to his people, as he himself said, recalling his episcopal consecration:
“On that day God took me from myself to take me for himself and thus give me to the people, meaning that he had transformed me from what I was for me into what I should be for them.”
Francis, a priest for nine years and bishop for twenty, lived under the banner of this total self-gift to God and his brothers and sisters. At the end of 1593, a few days after his ordination to the priesthood, he delivered a famous address, known as a harangue for its content and the vigour with which it was delivered.
The following year, he offered himself as a “missionary” in the Chablais and set off armed with a strong rope: “Prayer, almsgiving and fasting are the three parts that make up the rope that the enemy breaks with difficulty. With divine grace, we will try to bind this enemy with it.”
He preached in the church of St Hippolytus, Thonon, after the Protestant service.
His apostolate in the Chablais at the beginning was one of contact with the people: he smiled, spoke to them, greeted them, stopped and inquired… convinced that the walls of mistrust can only be broken down with relationships of friendship and empathy. If he could make himself loved, everything would be easier and simpler.
“I am dead tired,” he wrote to his bishop, but he did not give up.
He loved to pray the Rosary every day, even late at night, and when he feared falling asleep from tiredness he said it standing or walking.
Francis’ missionary experience in the Chablais was finally interrupted towards the end of 1601 to go to Paris, where he had to deal with the problems of the diocese and remained there for nine long months.
Due to political commitments and friendship with many people he frequented the court and it was there that Francis discovered many men and women eager to walk towards the Lord.
It was here that the idea of a text was born that would summarise the principles of the interior life in a concise and practical form and facilitate its application to all social classes. And so from this year the Saint began to put together the first materials that would later contribute to the composition of the Introduction to the Devout Life.
On his return from Paris he learned the news of the death of his dear bishop. He prepared for his episcopal consecration with two weeks of silence and prayer.
He immediately felt the weight of the new task:
“You cannot believe how much I feel beset and burdened by this great and difficult office.”
In summary, Francis’ zeal in the 20 years he would spend as bishop was manifested above all in these areas:
He visited parishes and monasteries to get to know his diocese: he gradually discovered its flaws and limitations, including serious ones, as well as the beauty, generosity and good heart of so many people. To visit the parishes mean he was absent from Annecy for a long time: “I will leave here in ten days and continue my pastoral visit for five whole months in the high mountains, where the people await me with great affection.” “every evening when I retire, I cannot move either body or mind so tired am I all over; and by morning I am more cheerful than ever.”
Above all, he listened to his priests and encouraged them to live their vocation faithfully.
The apostolate of the pen: Francis’ Opera Omnia consists of 27 powerful volumes… One wonders how a man could write so much. How much effort, how much time stolen from sleep, from rest!
All the pages that came from his pen are the consequence of his passion for souls, of his great desire to bring the Lord to everyone he met, no one excluded.
The foundation of the Order of the Visitation
A new reality was born in 1610: three women (Baroness de Chantal, Jacqueline Favre and Charlotte de Bréchard) gave life to a new form of religious life made up exclusively of prayer and charity. They were inspired by the Gospel picture of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.
The other aspect of his zeal was the care he gave to his spiritual life.
Cardinal Charles Borromeo wrote in a letter to the clergy:
“Do you look after souls? Do not neglect self-care because this and do not give yourself to others to the point where there is nothing left of you for yourself.”
He returned home exhausted and in need of “readjusting my poor spirit. I propose doing a complete overhaul of myself and putting all the pieces of my heart back in place.”
“On my return from the visit, when I wanted to take a good look at my soul, I felt sorry for it: I found it so thin and shattered that it looked like death. No wonder! For four or five months it had hardly had a moment to breathe. I will stay close to it for the coming winter and try to treat it well.”
In the Introduction he wrote:
“There is no clock, however good, but must be continually wound up; and moreover, during the course of each year it will need taking to pieces, to cleanse away the rust which clogs it, to straighten bent works, and renew such as are worn.
Even so, any one who really cares for his heart’s devotion will wind it up to God night and morning, and examine into its condition, correcting and improving it; and at least once a year he will take the works to pieces and examine them carefully; — I mean his affections and passions, — so as to repair whatever may be amiss.”
Lent was about to begin and he wrote this meaningful note to a friend:
“I am going to dedicate this Lent to observing the obligation of residence in my cathedral and to tidying up my soul a little, which is cracked from the great strains to which it has been subjected. It is like a broken clock: one has to take it apart, piece by piece, and, after having cleaned and oiled it well, put it back together again so that it strikes the right time.”
Francis’ activity went hand in hand with care for his inner life; this is a great message for us today, to avoid becoming dry and therefore useless branches!
“I have sacrificed my life and my soul to God and his Church: what does it matter if I have to inconvenience myself when it is a matter of procuring some benefit for the salvation of souls?”