Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church
(II Samuel 7:4-17; Mark 4:1-20)
As the Week of Christian Unity draws to a close, it might be asked how one of the great Catholics of Reformation times treated Protestants. St. Francis de Sales was a priest and bishop in Switzerland, a country that largely converted to Calvinism. Influenced by religious rivalry, Francis broadly backed social and political pressures to bring Calvinists back to the Church. But when he faced Protestants directly, he spoke to their hearts.
Francis believed that intellectual arguments do not change people’s ways as much as calling forth the good in everyone. He would say that it is not necessary for a farmer to pray like a monk but could offer a simple prayer to place himself on the path of holiness. Francis was able to attract a number of Calvinists to Catholicism. Perhaps more important than conversions, his preaching the possibility of universal holiness allows for common ground among Catholics and Protestants today.
Calvinism emphasizes especially personal righteousness. It sees human nature as seriously defected by original sin. Nevertheless, Calvinism finds some human beings redeemed by Christ. These fortunate few, it teaches, will lead holy lives with Christ’s grace. Whether they are bankers or farmhands, Calvinism insists that their lives exemplify prayer and decency. A convergence may be noted here with Francis’ sense of universal holiness. Both Calvin and De Sales offer the possibility of every baptized person leading holy life. Calvin may be stricter in his sense of what holiness consists and Francis more flexible. But both find the need of seriousness in pursuing sanctity.