I have always had a particular fondness for the Saints of the Counter Reformation, perhaps because they were such exemplars of apostolic zeal in a time of great social upheaval. They were men and women of admirable enterprise, often facing the resistance of both the world and the Church, even though they were engaged in work for the salvation of both. They surmounted almost unimaginable moral and physical dangers in order to achieve their life’s vocation.
Saint Teresa of Avila’s crisscrossing of Iberia to found monasteries, sometimes even clandestinely, comes readily to mind. Saint Francis Xavier’s burning desire to convert the peoples of Asia puts in stark relief the anemic efforts of the Church’s programs of evangelization today. Saint Philip Neri, who was told that “Rome [was] his India”, shows us how evangelization doesn’t have to start with the grand and the international stage, but perhaps is best done locally and with intense formation of disciples in one’s own community.
The example of St. Francis de Sales
Most outstanding among the saints of that era, especially in the lessons he has for postmodernity, is the great Saint Francis de Sales, the Savoyard aristocrat turned Churchman whose erudition, goodness and gentleness are still famous. At the present time, the Church is replete with proposals as to how to proceed with the New Evangelization. We’ve also heard about The Benedict Option, The Marian Option, and all other sorts of ‘options’ which are meant to strengthen the Church in the face of the challenges of our times. All of these proposals have merit, and it is evident that their creators have a love of the Gospel and a firm commitment to the mandate of the Great Commission. Rod Dreher’s book especially deserves praise, if only because it was the catalyst for a great deal of discussion in regard to how we ought to ‘be Church’ in the 21st century.
Saint Francis de Sales’ situation, like several other people of his time, is almost a metaphor for the Christendom of the 21st century. As the Bishop of Geneva, barred from his own city, which was under the control of a hostile Calvinist theocracy, we can see parallels in our own time, as we are increasingly excluded and ‘cancelled’ from the very culture we helped to create. Saint Francis, in response to such exclusion, engaged in one of the most successful apologetical campaigns of his time, slipping pamphlets and other materials under doors and in public areas in order to bring his people back to the Church. Communication was at the heart of Saint Francis’ program of re-evangelization, and it must always form the center of our strategy in sharing Christ with others.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, all three of our popes thus far (and indeed, before) have put evangelization at the forefront of the Church’s mission. Yet the ground beneath us has continued to shift at an increasing, and perhaps threatening, pace. Yet this is not the first time the Church has had to adapt to rapid social change, and this will not be the last. Whereas in Francis de Sales’ time, the printing press allowed for the quick and inexpensive dissemination of information for the public, today anyone with access to the internet has more information at his or her fingertips than perhaps all the libraries of the world combined.
It is because of St. Francis’ ingenious and zealous use of the communication technologies of his time that the Church has for 54 years now celebrated the World Day of Communication on his feast day, the 24th of January. Pope Francis has delivered some incisive addresses for this day the past few years, especially in 2018, where he discussed fake news and the need for truth as the bedrock for societal peace; indeed, we can see how that warning continues woefully to unfold in current events. The need for communicators—and journalists especially—to see their job as a vocation in service of the truth and in service of people, is so much more necessary today. The goal of a communicator, to borrow from Fred Rogers’ exceptional speech when he was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame in 1999 (bring your tissues), is to “make goodness attractive” and to teach people, and especially youth, “to cherish life”.
At the same time, the example of St. Francis de Sales reminds us of the importance of the increasingly lost art of apologetics, the rediscovery of which must occur if Christians are to be able to share the faith with intelligence and consistency.
The need for robust apologetics
Apologetics, unfortunately, has acquired an almost radioactive reputation in the decades after the Second Vatican Council, wedded to the idea of ‘proselytization’ or forced conversion. That is a completely inaccurate and misleading equivocation. The work of apologetics is as old as Christianity itself, as St. Peter made clear (1 Pet 3:15), and as some of our earliest literary output is in the form of comprehensive defenses of Christian belief and practice, such as is found in Justin Martyr or Origen of Alexandria. The task of apologetics is not opposed in any way to the paradigm of dialogue. Dialogue sets the stage for an engagement of hearts and minds; apologetics, when presented well, gives depth and content to that dialogue. This is one reason why appeals to dialogue as a bringing of people ‘to the table’ is only a first step, without being sufficient to engage the whole person.
In a sense, postmodern dialogue has the dia but lacks the logos. That is, there is communication through or between people (hence the prefix, dia) but there is no rationale or underlying content to transmit. This lacuna has become especially acute today, and is particularly relevant as the Church also celebrates in late January the weeks of Christian Unity and Catholic Schools Week right around the World Day of Communication. Both weeks could derive inspiration from the example of Francis de Sales.
Since the Vatican Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio, and especially after John Paul II’s 1995 Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, ecumenism has been a core priority of the Church, in accord with the desire of Our Lord for unity among the faithful. However, as has been widely observed, two things have happened. First, the differences between Apostolic Churches and ‘Ecclesial Communities‘ has continued to widen, which has made John Paul II’s insistence that communities “help one another to look at themselves together in the light of the Apostolic Tradition” (Ut Unum Sint, 16) a nearly impossible task, as so much of the Christian world does not view Apostolic Tradition as necessary or binding, and never has. Secondly, John Paul’s insistence that the “unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety” (ibid, 18) has also been routinely ignored.
As much as the Vatican Council was insistent upon the union inherent in having one baptism and one Lord, the preceding need to have one Faith was not as forcefully observed. For example, an increasing number of priests in pastoral work are aware of the fact that the baptisms of Protestants are becoming increasingly doubtful due to defects of matter and/or form. The further these groups are distant from Sacred Tradition, the more disparate their praxis—liturgical and otherwise—becomes. In any case, the intellectual and spiritual richness which exists in Apostolic Christianity (as defined as those Churches which maintain apostolic succession and a sacramental system, as well as adherence to at least some of the ecumenical councils) remains a primary draw for converts. Authentic liturgy, since it is a manifestation of the faith of the Church, also is a powerful tool for the formation of Catholics, and can likewise draw those who do not share our faith into the beauty of the worship of the Triune God.
Catholic schools as places of faith
Catholic schools remain, at least potentially, the vanguard of the Church’s mission of evangelization, especially since they form the institutional backbone of the Church’s mission to “teach all nations” (Matt 28:19). Similar to how our approach to ecumenism needs revision and reform, there is little doubt that we must redouble our efforts to reform and renew our Catholic schools, even if that means completely bypassing sclerotic diocesan bureaucracies and establishing new institutions which are faithful to the vision of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and other documents on Catholic education. Apologetics must be a mandatory part of theological education in the schools, especially where the enrollment is majority non-Catholic.
Initiatives streamlining the process of conversion for students should be introduced, if only because in some places, the unnecessary linking of RCIA to parishes has created unhelpful red tape for young people who may not have the ability to attend the seemingly endless rituals at parishes and cathedrals where they have no human connection. The school seems to be the most natural place for the faith to be shared and nourished in a communal context for the students who attend them. If the family is the domestic church, and the parents are the primary educators of children, it follows that holistic Catholic education represents to children and adults the figure of Church Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) to them, because the adjective ‘primary’ implies other levels and sources of education. Although parents are the necessary sine qua non of the Christian formation of youth, the Church has a divine mandate to support parents in that sacred trust.
What does the Salesian Option entail? First, it begins with an emphasis on the moderation of one’s temperament, especially those passions of anger and fear which so pervade our contemporary media. One thing often overlooked in the story of St. Francis’ achievements in life is his early education, which created a firm foundation for him as an educated gentleman. This served him well later as an evangelist and guide of souls. His character, even before receiving Holy Orders, was very much like the famous words of St. John Henry Newman regarding the formation of the lay faithful:
I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity; I am not denying you are such already: but I mean to be severe, and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands, I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, [and] what are the bases and principles of Catholicism…
We see how Newman, with his usual perspicacity, saw good manners in speech and action as a necessary precondition to being able to begin the work of evangelization. Much like de Sales reached the faithful with his renowned gentleness, Newman knew that love and knowledge must go hand in hand. St. Francis de Sales, in his Treatise on the Love of God, reminds us how love, being the form of faith (in the Thomistic sense), is truly the life of the other theological virtues. He compares divine love or charity to a source of fragrance, which is the divine life in a justified soul. If divine love is absent, the ‘fragrance’ of hope and faith may remain in the soul’s ‘spiritual air’, so to speak, but their source has departed.
This is why it is all the more important that writers and apologists be very attentive to the life of charity. Is it any coincidence that so many people begin with good intentions defending the Faith on the internet, but find themselves at the end of the day suffering from disillusionment, anger, and disgust? Or that some, beginning with love of the truth, grow bitter and so grow in rage toward the Church, her priests, and other Catholics? The Salesian Option puts character and virtue first as the soundest foundation for evangelization, so that in our words and deeds, we may always be kind, truthful, and informative.
The second priority is education, in the fullest sense of the word, and at every available opportunity. The priest especially must avail himself of the opportunities he has, and create more ones, to teach effectively the faithful with sound doctrine. Whether that is in the homily, Bible studies, teaching in a parish school, or many other ways, the more he imparts saving Christ’s teachings to the lay faithful in a way they are able to share, the better off the souls in his charge will be.
The third priority is the cultivation of divine worship in its most reverent and most solemn forms, since it is in that context that we most intensely offer God our adoration, which is where the love of the Eucharistic Lord enters most intimately into our bodies and souls. St. Francis de Sales practiced all these things in his life and ministry. We forget sometimes that his most famous works are actually works of spiritual direction, and he uses a staggering and wondrous amount of imagery in order to convey the meaning of what he says. His devotion to virtue, sound teaching, and worthy worship was, and is, a winning strategy.
St. Francis de Sales truly understood the reality of the Church Militant, in that she is not to be understood firstly as a fortress under siege, but rather as an army on the move: when Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against her, we ought not to presume that he merely meant that defensively, but offensively. The gates of hell, that is, the kingdom of lies and malice, cannot withstand the power of truth and charity. The figure of St. Francis de Sales, beckons us to proclaim Christ with heroic charity, and winning charm.
(This essay appeared originally in slightly different form on the Scrutum et Lorica website.)
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