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How St. Francis de Sales dealt with heretics

13 min • Digitized on July 21, 2021

From The Life of St. Francis de Sales, in file "The Life of St. Francis de Sales, Vol I", page 148
By Peter Hyacinth Gallitia


Almighty God who sometimes speaks to us by means of dreams, gave an indication, even during our Saint’s youth, of the sort of employment to which He destined him. And, as in a dream, He gave St. Francis Xavier an idea of his after-labours in the East, so did He represent to St. Francis of Sales what he was destined to undertake in the West.

Whilst he was studying in Paris, John Boyard of Tulle, a man of mature age and judgment, likewise residing in the French capital, dreamt that he was crossing Mount Cenis, as if travelling from Italy to Savoy, and that he beheld a most formidable hydra rapidly advancing, endeavouring to ascend the mountain, when, suddenly, Francis, under the figure of Hercules, armed with a flaming two-edged sword, advanced, and prevented the monster’s progress; after wounding it in several parts, he drove it back to Geneva, where its wounds were to be dressed. In the morning, Bovard related his dream to Dr. Deage and Francis, when the latter remarked with a smile, “Would to God that this figurative display may some day or other be verified!” The sequel of this history will prove how literally it was verified.

The two new apostles set out on the 14th September, 1594; on reaching the frontiers of the Chablais, they felt animated with fresh zeal, and prostrating on the ground, with tears in their eyes, they implored the blessing of God upon their entrance and sojourn in the province, and besought Him to be their guide and strength, to put words of life into their mouths, and such an ardent charity in their hearts as would stand proof against the contradictions of men, and against all the obstacles which the devils might raise to hinder the people from returning to the Catholic Church; they saluted the tutelar angel of the country, and fulminated a general exorcism against the malignant spirits which infested it, a plan which they resolved always to follow, (though in a low voice,) when about to dispute with the heretics. Francis was of opinion that the Calvinists, and more especially their preachers, were aided, or possessed by the devils, and therefore regularly exorcised those spirits, who either hardened their hearts or suggested the errors to be confuted; and he declared that the plan was most serviceable to him.

After concluding their prayers and exorcism, Francis looked at Lewis, affectionately embraced him, and said that an idea had just occurred to him, to this effect, as they were entering the Chablais to exercise apostolic functions, they ought to imitate the apostles, and therefore they had better dismiss their horses and attendants and make their entry on foot, satisfying themselves, like the apostles, with that which was barely necessary. Lewis consented, and the two walked onwards to the fortress of Allinges, at that time entrusted to the care of the Baron of Hermance, who, under the title of governor, commanded the province in the name of the Duke of Savoy; he had a strong garrison and watched over the peace of the surrounding districts.

He was a brave and worthy man, a great friend to the house of Sales; he was surprised and delighted when he saw the two cousins approach the palisades of the castle. After the usual compliments, he took them into the fortress, when the Provost placed three letters in his hand. In the first, the Duke of Savoy gave him orders to receive and protect the missionaries whom the Bishop of Geneva would send to attempt the re-conversion of the Chablais; in the second, the Bishop warmly recommended to his care the missionaries he had sent him; in the third, the Count of Sales revealed his fears, and conjured the Baron, by their long-standing friendship, to protect and favour his son and nephew, and to assist them with his advice for the better success of the mission.

As they were entering the castle, the governor pointed to the cannons on the walls, and said, “We shall not long stand in need of this defence if the Huguenots will hearken to you, for if you can but make them faithful to the laws of the Gospel, undoubtedly they will yield submission to the laws of their sovereign.”

From the summit of the fortress our Saint beheld a scene which pierced his very heart; he could from that elevated spot nearly overlook the whole province, but yet he could not see so much as one symbol of Christianity; on the contrary, ruined monasteries, unroofed churches, overthrown steeples, crosses pulled down, villages and hamlets in ashes on all sides met his eyes, the sad effects of heresy and rebellion.

The sight drew tears from his eyes and sighs from his heart, as he exclaimed with the prophet, “How has the hedge been taken away from the vineyard, and its walls broken down! the ways of Sion weep, for there are none to come to the solemnity; the enemy has carried away all that was beautiful and good; no longer is there any law, no longer have the prophets visions of the Lord: everywhere are the stones of the sanctuary dispersed. Great is thy trouble as the sea: who shall remedy thy evil? O Chablais! O Geneva! be ye at least converted to the Lord thy God!”

Then addresing himself to God, he said, “Ah, Lord! these people have rebelled against Thee, and against Thy Christ; the nations have seized Thine inheritance; they have profaned Thy temple, destroyed Thy worship, and ruined Thy sanctuary. Arise, O Lord, and judge Thine own cause, but judge it according to Thy mercy!” He remained silent a short time, shedding abundance of tears, but at last turning to the Baron of Hermance, he said, “The disease is grievous; a great physician is required to cure it.”

They afterwards conferred together on the means most likely to succeed in the mission; the Baron qualifying his advice according to the time and the dispositions of the people to be dealt with. He was not only a valiant officer, whose military prowess and state services had obtained for him the esteem of his prince; he was, moreover, a man of consummate experience, who thoroughly understood the character of the people he governed, and was equally zealous for the Catholic religion, in consequence of which he had been promoted to the government of the Chablais.

He frankly represented to the two missionaries the difficulties of their undertaking. He told them they would have to do with a people, gross and simple, it was true, but most obstinate in their own opinions. Not the least pernicious of their errors was the persuasion, that the preservation of their privileges and liberty depended on the preservation of their so-called reformed religion, and this very error was quite strong enough to make them undertake any measures rather than surrender it.

The proximity of the Swiss, and the Genevese emboldened them, as they were ever ready for rebellion. Intimacy with them, and the form of ecclesiastical government introduced by Calvin, made them look on monarchical government as a tyranny; hence they submitted with ill grace to a sovereign, whose yoke they had frequently attempted to throw off, and who would at that moment renew the attempt if they could do so with the slightest chance of success.

The re-establishment of the faith, would, in time, dissipate the seeds of rebellion, and attach the people to their sovereign; but, in the meantime great caution would be necessary, because catholicity had been depicted to them in so black a shade, that they abominated it beyond all things. They looked upon the Pope as anti-christ; the bishops and priests as the emissaries of that monster; the Mass as a public profession of idolatry; the faithful as pagans; and the laws of the church as the offspring of the most intolerable tyranny. The preachers, as men, were the very quintessence of presumption, and looking on the people as their conquest, declared they would employ every means to preserve it.

Hence, having to deal with such materials, they treat the people with all possible mildness and condescension, save on questions of faith. The missionaries should confine themselves to essentials, avoiding singularity, and whatever might spring from a zeal to which prudence wanting; the least precipitation might spoil all; whereas patience and longanimity, with the blessing of God, would bring success to their efforts.

He added that it would be advisable to begin with Thonon, the capital of the province, because as it was near the fortress of Allinges, they could return there every night; and he was of opinion that it would not be safe for them to lodge elsewhere; in fact no one would venture to admit them, so general was the hatred against catholic priests; it would even be dangerous to attempt to say Mass at Thonon; therefore, for the present, they must use the chapel belonging to the fortress for this purpose.

The saint, who excelled in meekness and moderation, was quite satisfied with the remarks, the chief of which he committed to writing, conforming him self exactly to them. On the following morning he celebrated Mass in the chapel, after which, taking his Bible and breviary, he set out for Thonon, accompanied by Lewis and a man-servant.

It will not be amiss to narrate his line of conduct at this time. He always went on foot with a staff in his hand, although he had daily four miles of very rough ground to traverse. His dress was plain and without affectation; and as it was then customary to wear the beard thick, the hair short, and to encase the lower limbs in buskins, he accommodated himself to all this, as being the mode of dress worn by respectable persons, so that his outward appearance was not very different from that of seculars; and this it was which procured his admission to the houses of several Calvinists, who by degrees, were by him converted to the faith.

In a spirit of meekness, he made a resolution of never using any offensive expressions either to or of heretics, or of their creed. Imitating the angelical doctor, who, though he combated with all his power against error, always spared the erring: moreover he resolved to oppose the insults to which he foresaw he should be subjected, with no other weapon than that of invincible patience.

The issue proved the wisdom of his rule. Some of the missionaries who were afterwards sent to his assistance, glorying in shewing no condescension to heretics, and refusing to act with his caution, encountered innumerable obstacles, and were looked upon by the Calvinists as superstitious dissemblers, and were hated accordingly.

In the course of time, the saint was accused and blamed by those who were associated with him in the mission, on the plea that he was too condescending to the enemies of the faith, and that he did not make sufficient use of the authority imparted to him by his sovereign. He did not on this account change his plan; and experience demonstrated that his accusers were in fault; seeing that several times they were on the point of defeating every chance of reuniting those people to the church, a re-union which was ultimately effected by his prudent behaviour; hence to him is given, and ought to be given, all the glory of a mission which ended so successfully.

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