St. Francis de Sales calmly enforces authority

June 19, 2021 • 10 min

From The Life of St. Francis de Sales, page 258

Francis and the Catholics were most anxious that the church of St. Hyppolitus, surrendered to them by the Duke, should be promptly restored, that he might officiate therein at the approaching Christmas festivals. He therefore hastened to deliver the Duke’s letters to the governor of the province, and to the syndics of Thonon.

A report had already been circulated that the Mass was to be restored, and the heretics, in their fury, declared they would do their best to prevent it. The governor promised his assistance, according to the orders of his Highness, and desired Francis to let him know promptly and minutely, if he met with any opposition on the occasion; but the syndics no sooner read the Duke’s letter than they themselves excited a sedition.

The Calvinists ran to arms, and immediately closed the gates of the town, to prevent the governor and the country people from coming to the assistance of Francis and his friends. One party invested the Church, to hinder him from taking possession of it, whilst the others marched round the town, threatening to massacre all the Catholics, and to burn Francis in the market-place.

The Catholics seeing the danger to which their pastor was exposed, likewise took up arms, and acknowledging no other ruler than the Saint (viewing in him the sovereign, whose orders he was obeying) were determined to sell their lives at a dear rate. The authority of the prince gave them courage; and though far inferior to the Calvinists in number, were evidently not to be despised.

It seemed as if some man of authority directed them (but in an under-hand way), for they took up their post most advantageously, and in regular order, so that even a smaller number would have been able to stand their ground.

The safety of Francis was their first concern; they surrounded his lodging, and though he told them that he would on no account oppose force to force, and that he should deem himself most fortunate to die in so just a cause, nothing would induce them to withdraw.

“You are too susceptible under insult,” said he to them; “it is very clear that you are as yet mere novices in your religion, which orders us to die for our neighbour, whereas you would kill him. Are these the miracles of the Church you have forsaken? The Apostles raised the dead; but you would slay the living. They cured the cripple, but you would cripple the healthy. Oh, no! shew yourselves to be the worthy children of Christ, by suffering injuries and blows; for it is far more glorious to suffer for His love, than to avenge oneself for the glory of the world.”

Thus fortified by the grace of the Lord, he went forth at the head of his little troop, to meet the enemy; who though vomiting a thousand imprecations upon him, did not dare to touch him; restrained either by the majesty and sweetness of his aspect, or by the fear of those who accompanied him, or by some superior power. Towards evening he was able to enter the church, and having work men ready at hand, they began operations at once.

No sooner were the heretics aware of this than they resumed their arms and surrounded the church; when there was every appearance that the two parties would proceed to blows.

Francis placed himself immediately between them, at the risk of his life. His presence restrained the Catholics, and checked the fury of the Calvinists. The syndics insulted him, calling him a disturber of the public peace; and telling him that it was not lawful for him to say Mass in their city against their consent; as it was settled at the treaty of Noyon, that they should enjoy liberty of conscience.

The Saint replied: “It does not belong to you to pass judgment on my actions. I have full power from his Highness,” (here he produced his authorization), “as you well know; and it behoves me to inform you, that come what will, your heads will pay the penalty of any injury inflicted on me and mine.”

Then, raising his voice so as to be heard by those at a distance, he told them that if he had taken the church on his own authority, they would have some right to oppose him, yet even then, it ought to be done according to the ordinary forms of justice, and not with weapons in their hands, as they were not allowed to use them, unless by permission of the prince, in his service, certainly not in opposition to his intentions.

They might judge from the letters they had received, whether he was acting by orders of his sovereign; and if so, they were bound by their office to second him, and not oppose him. It was with their consent that the citizens had taken up arms, perhaps even by their command. Let them beware lest their disobedience drew upon them the destruction of the town.

It was not his intention to become their accuser in this case; nevertheless, he had orders from the Duke to inform him of the manner in which they received these his formal decisions.

His Highness had no idea of depriving them of liberty of conscience; but reason suggested, that having so many other places of public worship, it was but just that they who professed the religion of the sovereign should at least have one church wherein to assemble.

He was depriving them of nothing of their own, since it was well known that the church of St. Hyppolitus had for centuries been dedicated to Catholic rites, and that they were merely requiring possession of what had been wrested from them by violence, so that if the Catholics now made use of the same means (which they did not), the Calvinists would have no right to complain of them.

He concluded by conjuring his hearers, for the love which they owed their common country by the solicitude with which they ought to guard it, to open their eyes to the miseries which they would entail on themselves by persevering in contumacy, and opposing themselves to the express orders of their sovereign.

His own followers loudly applauded this speech, to which the heretics responded by calling him a magician, an idolater, a papist, the enemy of his country, and there was every appearance that the infuriated mob would bring matters to a crisis, when some of the more moderate proposed an accommodation; whereupon the rest laid down their arms.

The leaders repaired to the house where Francis lodged, at no great distance, when several arrangements were suggested, but as they all implied a suspension of the prince s designs, at least till they could apply to him, Francis rejected them all with a courage that astonished them.

He insisted on the provisional execution of the Duke’s express command, saying, “Even if he should be inclined to favour you, and should deem your pretensions lawful, it shall be no benefit to you to have taken up arms to compel me and mine to obey you.”

In despair of bringing him to their terms, the councillors threatened to have him assassinated by some one who should send for him under the pretext of a desire to be converted to his faith; to this the Saint replied, with an energy that completely confounded them, “You ought to be well aware that there is nothing I should like better than to give my life in so just a cause; my only regret would be the certainty of the terrible vengeance that would follow. Be wise then in time, and endeavour to bring your people to obedience arid submission, lest you provoke the just indignation of your prince.”

The councillors declared they would not answer for what might ensue, and demanded a public acknowledgment of their opposition, whilst he, on the contrary, protested against them, as guilty of rebellion and high treason: and thus finished the contest.

However, when the principal inhabitants began to reflect on the probable consequences of the affair, they tried to appease the people by telling them that they were resolved to write to the prince, hoping that when better informed, he would do them justice, and in the meantime to show their respect for his commands, it was judged advisable to leave them to be carried into effect without further opposition.

Letters were accordingly written by both parties, the tumult ceased, and the Saint remained in peaceable possession of the church; immediate repairs were begun, in order that it might be ready for the new born Saviour, and that the Catholics might assist at the holy offices within its walls at the following Christmas festivals.

The night preceding the solemnity, the Catholics assembled in great numbers, even from the neighbouring villages. The Church was prepared with more neatness than ornament, and the Saint celebrated holy mass, which had not been done since 1535. The concourse was so numerous, that communion was administered to at least eight hundred persons.

At the conclusion of the mass, he preached with such a deep feeling of devotion, that all hearts were influenced with love for the precious Babe of Bethlehem, born for the redemption of mankind. At daybreak he said his second mass, and the third about nine o’clock, an equally large assembly assisting at it.

To him, these indeed proved festivals of multiplied consolation, for the inhabitants of three villages came in a body to abjure heresy at his hands, namely, those of Allinges, Messing, and Breno. Acting on the faculties given him by the Bishop, he appointed curates to these villagers, and obtained several immunities for them by applying to the Duke.

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