How St. Francis de Sales dealt with those in error

January 2, 2022 • 5 min

From The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, page 106
By His friend, Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Belley

To come now to the particulars which I promised you, let me tell you how our Blessed Father, having read in St. Augustine’s works and in those of other ancient Fathers that in the early centuries Christian Priests, in addressing heretics and schismatics, did not hesitate to call them their brethren, inferred that he might quite lawfully follow so great an example.

By doing so he conciliated these people to such an extent that they flocked to hear him, and were charmed with the sweetness and gentleness of his discourses, the outcome of his overflowing kindliness of heart. This mode of expression was, however, so offensive to preachers who were in the habit of speaking of heretics as rebels against the light, uncircumcised of heart, etc., that they called a meeting, in which they resolved to remonstrate with the Provost (Blessed Francis), and to represent to him that, though he meant well, he was in reality ruining the cause of Catholics.

They insisted that he was flattering the pride so inherent in heresy, that he was lulling the people to sieep in their errors by sewing pillows to their elbows; that it was better to correct them in mercy and justice than to pour on their heads the oil of wheedling, as they called the kindliness of our Saint.

He received their remonstrances pleasantly, and even respectfully, without defending himself in any way, but, on the contrary, appearing to yield to their zeal, albeit somewhat sadly and unwillingly. Finding, however, that he did not begin to act upon their suggestions, as they had promised themselves he would do, some of them sent a written appeal to the Bishop, representing to him that he would have to recall the Provost and his companion missioners, who with their unwise and affected levity ruined in one day more souls than they themselves could convert in a month.

They went on to compare the labour of the missioners to Penelope’s web: to say that our Saint preached more like a Huguenot pastor than a Catholic Priest, and, in fine, that he went so far as to call the heretics his brethren, a thing so scandalous that the Protestants had already conceived great hope of bringing him over to their own party.

The good Bishop, however, better informed as to the real state of the case, paid little heed to this appeal, dictated by a bitter zeal, rather than by the true science of the Saints. He merely exhorted each one to persevere, and to remember that every spirit should praise the Lord according to the talents committed to it by God.

Our Blessed Father, being informed of these complaints made against him to his Bishop, would not defend himself, but commended his cause to the judgment of God, and, silently but hopefully, awaited the result. Nor was his expectation disappointed, for experience soon showed that the too ardent eagerness of these zealots was more likely to delay than to advance the work.

To crown all this, the preachers who had objected to his method had ere long themselves to be set aside as unfit.

On one occasion when I was talking with him and had turned the conversation on this subject, he said to me:

These good people looked through coloured spectacles. They saw all things of the same hue as their own glasses. My predecessor soon found out who were the real hindrances to the conversion of the Protestant Cantons.

On my asking him how he could in reason apply the term “brethren” to persons who certainly are not such, since no one can have God for his Father who has not the Catholic Church for his mother, and since, therefore, those who are not in her bosom cannot be our brethren, he said to me:

Ah! but I never call them brethren without adding the epithet erring, a word which marks the distinction with sufficient clearness.

Besides, they are in fact our brethren by Baptism, which they duly administer and receive. Moreover, they are our brethren according to the flesh, for are we not all children of Adam? Then, too, we are fellow citizens, and subjects of the same earthly prince. Is not that enough to constitute a kind of fraternity between us?

Lastly, I look upon them as children of the Church, at least in disposition, since they are willing to be instructed; and as my brethren in hope, since they also are called to inherit eternal life. In the early days of the Church it was customary to give the title of brethren to catechumens, even before their baptism.

These reasons satisfied me and made me esteem highly the ingenious method suggested to him by the Holy Spirit to render these unruly and untaught souls docile and tractable.

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