Francis de Sales was born into a noble family in Savoy in the south east of France on 21 August 1567. During this time the Calvinist teachings on predestination had taken over Savoy and much of neighbouring Swtizerland. Francis studied law and theology at the great universities in Paris and Padua, because his father wanted him to be a lawyer. At Paris he struggled with Calvinist doctrines until he had deep experience of the mercy of God. He became more and more attracted to following Christ as a priest and was ordained by the Bishop of Geneva in 1593. Six years later he was appointed coadjutor bishop, eventually becoming bishop of Geneva in 1602.
St Francis became well known for his preaching. He wanted to ensure that Catholics were not led astray by Calvinism as he had almost been. He began programs of catechesis for adults as well as for children, and wrote his encouraging Treatise on the Love of God.
Above all, he practised and taught a consoling spirituality, writing An Introduction to the Devout Life, which remains one of the most popular works of spiritual direction in the Catholic Church.
In 1604 he met Jane Frances de Chantal, the widow of Baron de Chantal at the age of 28, and the mother of four children. Guided by St Francis, she formed a new kind of religious institute, the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, to visit the sick and care for the poor, rather than live behind cloister walls.
St Francis died of a stroke on 28 December 1622, declaring, “God’s will be done!” His body was returned to Annecy, the French town to which the bishopric of Geneva had been moved after the Calvinist occupation of the city. He was buried on 24 January 1623 in Annecy at the convent of the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin. His tomb remains a place of pilgrimage today. St Jane Frances de Chantal died in 1641 and was buried in a tomb next to that of St Francis.
St Francis de Sales’ reputation for sanctity was so great that he was beatified by Pope Alexander VII less than 40 years after his death, and canonized in 1665. The clarity of St Francis’s spiritual writing convinced Pope Pius IX to add him to the list of the doctors of the Church in 1877.