The Gentle Man Saint


Many of you are probably familiar with the infamous “Florida Man” who participates in all kinds of strange shenanigans unlikely to occur anywhere else.  As a former resident of the state I have all sorts of ideas why this might be.  But imagine that instead of being known for stealing 166 manhole covers or tossing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive thru window, we as a society were to recover the value and honor being known as a “Gentle Man”—a person whose speech was so measured and demeanor so kind that centuries later they would still be remembered.  Such is the man whose feast we celebrate today: Francis de Sales, the “Gentleman Saint

Francis was born in 1567 in the French Alps.  He came from a noble family and so would have been regarded as a “gentleman” by birth.  He enjoyed horseback riding and dancing and all the things his class was known for.  But that is not why he is known as the “Gentleman Saint.”  Rather it is because throughout his life he managed to do through words what others might have attempted to accomplish through war.  In an era and part of the world fractured by religious and political upheaval, he sought to remain in conversation with his enemies.  A favorite story of mine:  Once when Francis met in the street a man who was actively trying to do him in, he walked up to him and stated: “I am told you wish me harm.  I can promise you that even if you put out one of my eyes, I would still look kindly upon you with the other.”  Not sure if it is true or urban legend, but it does seem to capture the spirit of the man.  A favorite axiom attributed to him? “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel of vinegar.”

Francis became bishop of Geneva, Switzerland at the age of 35 and served in this leadership role until his death at the age of 55.  Because of his commitment to honest, tempered conversation he was named the patron saint of journalists.  And each year on his feast day—January 24—for the past many years the pope has released his message for the World Day of Social Communications for the coming year.  (World Day of Social Communications is actually celebrated in May, but the message related to it comes out on January 24.)

I got involved in reading these messages when working on my book #Rules_of_Engagement: 8 Christian Habits for Doing Good and Being Good Online.   I combed through all the recent ones which have tended to focus on social media.  This year’s message is supposed to be on artificial intelligence.  The message tend to be very brief and very good.  I discovered Rome follows contemporary issues more closely than you might think a 2000 year old institution would.

I will be speaking tomorrow on the 2023 World Day of Social Communications message about “speaking with the heart” – a phrase Pope Francis borrowed directly from St. Francis de Sales.  The event will be with the principals of the Durham Catholic District School Board of Ontario and we’ll be looking at what “speaking with the heart” might look like as educators in today’s tense and fractured world… not terribly unlike Geneva in the early 1600s.

In getting ready, I’ve been reading, re-reading, and listening to some great stuff on dialogue and what good listening across difference looks like.  A couple works I’d like to recommend:

  • The Church's Mission in a Polarized World – written by the head of the Glenmary Missioners, Fr. Aaron Wessman.  First half gives a great description of the current political polarization in the US.  Second half gives the best theology of why we keep trying to build bridges that I’ve read.
  • The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling – Didn’t see that coming, did you?  This is a great 7 part podcast series in which the interviewer, who is a former member of Westboro Baptist Church, models what good dialogue looks like around tough topics.  The conversation is thoughtful and deep and gives light where often times there is only heat.
  • Bishop David Talley “To Have an Open Heart” – Interview on Focolare Media podcast during Christian Unity Week with the bishop of Memphis who works on ecumenical dialogue, who includes a bit of his own ongoing conversion story in the podcast.
  • “St. Francis de Sales: Solution to our toxic public discourse” – an article from America Magazine that is a great introduction to Francis’ writing about speech

Lots of good options for honoring St. Francis today!

What else should you be listening to?

  • I have another podcast dropping this weekend (1/26) in the Waking Up Goliath series.  This time I am interviewing Dr. Elizabeth Berkes of Moreau Catholic Highschool in Hayward, CA.   I just love this episode.  It is the very first interview that I did when working on Redeeming Power and it remains one of my favorite just because Dr. Berkes (who I have long time known by her Malayali name Unni) has such a contagious laugh and sense of possibility.  You will find yourself with more energy after just listening to her!

Where might we run into each other?

  • If you will be at ACCU the first weekend in February, look for me at the Chief Mission Officers’ gathering on Saturday.  Copies of Redeeming Power will be available for the first time at the bookseller for this event!
  • If you will be at LA Congress the third weekend in February, know I’m doing a workshop during Session 4 on Saturday morning.  More details to come, but stop by the Ave Maria Press both which is where I’ll be hanging out when not speaking!