By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
Last weekend, two important dates came together, the Conversion of St. Paul and the feast of St. Francis de Sales. St. Paul was on his way to Damascus: He was doing his duty. He was “right.” Suddenly, he is blinded by light. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Some 17 centuries later, a man named Francis de Sales met Jesus along the way. It was a time of great travail. Both Church and society were reeling from what was called – in the language of the time – a great “laxism.” Morals were in steep deterioration.
At that time, a reform movement took place. New religious orders flourished; saints arose – Margaret Mary, John Eudes, Francis’s dear friend, Jane Francis de Chantal, Vincent de Paul and so many others.
However, at the edges of the flourishing, there occurred a damaging movement, one that historically goes by the name of “Jansenism.” Jansenism started as a legitimate reform movement, but it became disfigured, rigid, and introverted. It left its mark on Northern Europe, on Ireland and even on the Church of North America.
It was into this 17th century context that God called St Francis de Sales – Bishop, preacher, teacher, journalist, spiritual director. Francis is a man most known for his gentleness, kindness, and amazing pastoral sensitivity. It was Francis and Jane who have blessed us with our present Oblates of St. Francis, with our Sisters of the Visitation and, ultimately, with the many religious orders of men and women who took on the reconciling ways of this good Bishop.
Today, we in the Church find ourselves in a place not dissimilar from the early 17th century. There is a very visible deterioration of moral and sacramental life – a deepening laxism of the 21st century. One could be tempted to play the angry “prophet.” Just as in 17th century Jansenism, so now there can lurk – even among very devoted Catholics – a new rigidity, a self-righteousness, an impulse to be “right” in a wrongful way.
The spirit of Francis de Sales blows upon us a gentler breath. Let me list a few of his great sayings. They speak for themselves:
“Whoever preaches with love is preaching effectively against the heretics, even though he does not say a single word against them.”
When Francis had been charged with being “too indulgent with sinners,” he said, “If Saul had been cast off, we should never have had Paul.”
One woman, Mother Angelique, responded to his accusers: “His direction was not feeble or soft, as the majority seem to think… I found no one as firm as he.”
“Do not think that the work we have begun in you can be finished so soon. The cherry tree bears its fruit early…. But the palm tree bears dates a hundred years after it has been planted.”
I recently read of an older priest’s (mid-80s) recollections. He had been known to be a very gentle pastor. Yet, as he reflected on Isaiah’s prophecy, “give comfort to my people,” he said this: “If I were beginning as a priest, I would be gentler.” The comfort we give, he said, must emerge from our own experience of having “come to know the ineffable, all-empathetic, all-embracing, all-forgiving heart of God” (Excerpted from spiritual writer, Father Ron Rolheiser).
St. Paul underwent such an experience of God on his journey. St. Francis de Sales met Jesus along the roads of France and Switzerland. May all of us continue to meet this very nonviolent Christ along the perilous journeys of our own 21st century!
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.