January 8, 2023 Essay: “Totum amoris est”

Jan 3, 2023

If you took home one of the 2023 appointment calendars that were on offer in the narthex last month, and if you have that calendar hanging next to the refrigerator, you will be gazing on a painting from Madrid’s Museo del Prado. The subject of the painting is Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, whose feast day is January 24th.

This French saint, who was born in the castle of Sales, in Savoy, on August 21, 1567, and died in Lyon on December 28, 1622, was able to help people seek God in charity, joy, and freedom in a time of great change.

On the 400th anniversary of the death of Saint Francis de Sales, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter entitled ‘Totum amoris est’ (‘Everything Pertains to Love’) in which the pope summarizes the spiritual legacy left to us by Saint Francis de Sales. The Pope highlights that the great vocation of this exiled Bishop of Geneva and co-founder of the Visitation Sisters was that of asking himself “in every situation of life where the greatest love is to be found.”

The central question of the saint’s life was, ‘Where is God to be found?’ In his Treatise on the Love of God, he explained it with simplicity and precision: “At the very thought of God, one immediately feels a certain delightful emotion of the heart, which testifies that God is God of the human heart.” Pope Francis observes, “In this light, we can understand why Saint Francis de Sales felt that there was no better place to find God and to help others to find him, than in the hearts of the women and men of his time. He had learned this, from his earliest years, by developing a keen insight both into himself and into the human heart.”

Saint Francis de Sales was educated at the Jesuit College of Clermont in Paris, and this fact provides an important indicator of the refined spirit of discernment, the interior attitude that unites thought and feeling, reason and affections, which he called the “God of the human heart.”

The Ignatian background of the discernment of spirits was further realized in two essential dimensions of the theology of Saint Francis de Sales. Pope Francis explains: “The first is the spiritual life itself, for it is in humble and persevering prayer…that we attempt to communicate the word of God…. The second is the life of the Church, the ability to think in the Church and with the Church.” This synthesis of action and contemplation, of being a person of creative fidelity to God’s Spirit in a concrete ecclesial reality, bore abundant fruit in the founding of the Visitation Sisters with Saint Frances de Chantal and, two centuries later, the Salesian optimism of Saint John Bosco.

The Pope moves on to reflect on the legacy of Saint Francis de Sales for our time, praising the saint’s realization that the world was changing, and the mark of a completely evangelical response was flexibility and a far-sighted vision. “[Saint] Francis perceived clearly that the times were changing. The word of God that he had loved from his youth now opened up before him new and unexpected horizons in a rapidly changing world.

“That same task awaits us in this, our own age of epochal change. We are challenged to be a Church that is outward-looking and free of all worldliness, even as we live in this world, share people’s lives and journey with them in attentive listening and acceptance. That is what Francis de Sales did when he discerned the events of his times with the help of God’s grace. Today he bids us set aside undue concern for ourselves, for our structures, and for what society thinks about us and consider instead the real spiritual needs and expectations of our people.”

– Michael Hilbert, S.J., Associate Pastor