Renaissance and Reformation Saint Francis de Sales
Jill R. Fehleison
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0398


In many ways, Francis de Sales was the embodiment of the Catholic Reformation. Born in 1567, the eldest son of a noble Savoyard family, he was expected to study law and inherit the family title and estate. Instead, due to Francis’s deep religious faith, his younger brother Louis became the heir, allowing Francis to pursue a career in the Catholic Church. His education exposed him to the dynamic and often-turbulent intellectual climate of post-Tridentine Catholicism of the day. He attended the college of Clermont in Paris from 1583 to 1588, where he studied with the Jesuits and attended the lectures of Gilbert Génébrard, a celebrated Benedictine scholar and supporter of the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion. Francis then studied law at the University of Padua where the renowned Jesuit missionary and diplomat, Antonio Possevino, served as his spiritual advisor. He returned to his native Savoy for his ordination and spent his entire career in the diocese of Geneva whose See was in exile in Annecy. In 1592, he was appointed provost of the Geneva chapter of cathedral canons. From 1594 to 1598, he served as a missionary among the Protestants in the Duchy of Chablais, an Alpine region on the outskirts of Geneva. In 1599, he became coadjutor of the bishop with the right of succession. On the death of his predecessor Claude de Granier in December 1602, he became bishop, a position he would hold until his death in 1622. He was a key intellectual and spiritual leader of early modern Catholicism and at the forefront of bishops that implemented post-Tridentine Catholicism. Along with Jeanne de Chantal, de Sales established the female Order of the Visitation. His vast correspondence reveals his spiritual guidance of a wide range of people from both the religious and secular worlds. De Sales chose to remain bishop of Geneva as a Savoyard rather than moving to France when he was reportedly offered more lucrative positions by King Henri IV who greatly respected him. He fell ill and died while in Lyons on a trip with the Duke of Savoy Charles-Emmanuel I. At his death, de Sales’s reputation was already great, and the process to canonize him began shortly after his death. He was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1665.

Primary Sources

De Sales left behind a vast collection of correspondence, spiritual treatises, and writings associated with episcopal administration included in the Annecy edition of the Œuvres de Saint François de Sales (de Sales 1892–1932). The surviving sources offer a unique window into early modern Catholicism during the critical period as reformers attempted to introduce the directives promulgated at the Council of Trent. De Sales was a model post-Tridentine bishop in that he worked both to revitalize Catholic parishes and to convert Protestant populations located in his diocese. Evidence of his concern for the parish laity can be seen in Rebord’s Visites Pastorales du Diocèse de Genève-Annecy, 1411–1900 (Rebord 1921–1922). His most significant works are his two widely published books: An Introduction to the Devout Life (de Sales 2010), originally published as Introduction à la vie devote in 1609, and Treatise on the Love of God (de Sales 1997), originally published as Traité d l’amour de Dieu in 1616, both of which are available in many languages. His extensive correspondence with friends, family, other clergy, and secular officials offers rich details of the early modern world. Selected letters, particularly those of spiritual guidance, are available in St. Francis de Sales: Selected Letters (de Sales 1960) and Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction (Wright and Power 1988).

  • de Sales, François. Œuvres de Saint François de Sales. 26 vols. Annecy, France: J. Niérat, 1892–1932.

    This is the most comprehensive set of work by de Sales and is considered the definitive addition of the collected writings of de Sales. De Sales left a vast collection of correspondence, sermons, religious treatises, and memoranda documenting his decades as a priest and bishop of the diocese of Geneva. It includes definitive versions of his publications as well as eleven volumes of his correspondence and four volumes of sermons. It also includes de Sales’s lesser-known polemical writings when he was a missionary among Protestants in Chablais in the 1590s.

  • de Sales, François. St. Francis de Sales: Selected Letters. Translated and introduction by Elisabeth Stopp. New York: Harper, 1960.

    English translations of 125 selected letters, especially those to women including Baronne de Chantal. The edition includes an index with dates and location of each letter in the Annecy Edition of the Œuvres (de Sales 1892–1932). It also includes brief biographies of each recipient.

  • de Sales, François. Treatise on the Love of God. Translated by Henry Benedict Mackey. Rockford, IL: Tan, 1997.

    Originally published in French: Traité d l’amour de Dieu (Lyons, France: Rigaud, 1617). This book offers de Sales’s view of divine love explores how this kind of love is present in the soul and demonstrated through prayer and meditation and in a person’s submission to God. Although the translation is a bit dated, Mackey’s version is widely available.

  • de Sales, Saint Francis. An Introduction to a Devout Life. Charlotte, NC: Tan, 2010.

    Originally published in French: Introduction à la vie devote (1609). This is de Sales’s most famous publication written for those seeking a closer and more spiritual relationship with God. His guidance was practical and offered laypeople ways to practice their faith in their daily lives. It was quickly translated into many languages, and both Catholics and Protestants found value in its guidance.

  • de Sales, Saint Francis. The Catholic Controversy: St. Francis de Sales’ Defense of the Faith. Translated by Henry Benedict Mackey. Rockford, IL: Tan, 1989.

    Originally published in French: Les Controverses (Paris: Léonard, 1672). Written during his time as a missionary in the Duchy of Chablais, the treatise presents Catholic doctrine for a Reformed audience. The mostly completed chapters were found among de Sales’s family papers in 1658 and subsequently published.

  • Rebord, C. M., ed. Visites pastorales du diocèse de Genève-Annecy, 1411–1900. 2 vols. Annecy, France: J. Abry, 1921–1922.

    This collection offers transcripts of pastoral visitation records. These records are from both de Sales and his designates who visited parishes of the diocese to assess the physical and spiritual conditions of each church and village. The documents are an invaluable source for exploring early modern Catholicism and provide important evidence of the way in which bishops implemented the decrees from the Council of Trent at the local level. Volume 1, Analyses détaillées des visites de Saint François de Sales, includes a helpful introduction that offers an overview of the process and the findings of the visitation records.

  • Wright, Wendy M., and Joseph F. Power, eds. Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction. Translated by Péronne Marie Thibert. Preface by Henri J. M. Nouwen. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

    These English translations include a lengthy introduction with six themes explored within the letters. The letters are divided between those written by de Sales and those by de Chantal. The majority of the letters from de Sales are to women; those from Chantal include key letters she wrote as superior of the Order of the Visitation.

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