Saturday, January 23, 2016

Homily for Feast of St. Francis de Sales

Homily for the Feast of
St. Francis de Sales

Jan. 23, 2016
Provincial House, New Rochelle

With the proper day of St. Francis’s feast, Jan. 24, falling on Sunday this year, we opted to celebrate the feast among ourselves on Saturday, a “free day” in the liturgical calendar.

Bro. Kevin was wondering why the feast of St. Francis de Sales was moved from Jan. 29 to Jan. 24 when the calendar was reformed after Vatican II.  It’s the Church’s wish that the saints’ feasts and memorials be kept, when possible, on their “heavenly birthday,” as the Martyrology calls the day of their earthly death; and when that isn’t possible for some reason, such as a pre-existing feast, then on some other significant date in the saint’s life.  St. Francis died in Lyons on Dec. 28, 1622, feast of the Holy Innocents.  Scratch off that day!  Those of us of a certain age—old enuf to remember the daily reading of the Martyrology at lunch—recall some days being marked as the date of so-and-so’s “translation,” i.e., the date when the saint’s remains were transferred to a final resting place.  That’s exactly why Francis’s feast was moved to Jan. 24, the date of his burial in the chapel of the Visitation motherhouse at Annecy.

The version of the Collect for the feast of St. Francis for use with the religious community begins with the note that God raised him up in the Church, and then describes him “as a zealous shepherd and gracious tutor.”  Then—with Francis’s intercession implied—it asks that we may be diligent in carrying out “our mission to the young with the same apostolic spirit.”

The shepherding idea comes out strongly also in the gospel passage of the Good Shepherd who protects his flock from the wolves and works hard to keep them together as one flock.

That passage certainly calls to mind Francis’s early career as the missionary priest in the Chablais region of the Geneva diocese—a diocese so transformed by John Calvin that the bishop couldn’t enter his own episcopal city.  By his writing and preaching, Francis labored to restore unity to the flock whom Calvin and his followers had divided.  Francis’s life was at risk not only from the enmity of the so-called Reformers but even from the wolves in the forests thru which Fr. Francis had to walk.  We remember how he spent one nite in a tree to escape the prowling beasts.  He was truly a good shepherd, not afraid to risk his life to safeguard his flock and to try to guide all of them back into their proper fold, which he had some success at, at least in the Chablais, even if he was never able to reclaim Geneva.

St. Francis preaching
(Painting in the Church of St. Francis de Sales 
at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin) 
As a gracious tutor, Francis taught both high and low—taught God’s love and love for God.  His teaching appealed to kings, nobles, bishops, merchants, artisans, peasants; city folk and country folk; Frenchmen and foreigners; even his Protestant opponents.  He preached, he corresponded, he published, both defending the faith and guiding souls.  His teaching was gracious—revealing God’s grace, graceful in style, graced by what’s often called sweetness but we might call humility, gentleness, simplicity, a down-to-earth approach.  In word and deed Francis attracted people to himself and thus to his Gospel message (which must be why he’s the patron saint of Catholic journalists and why the highest honor given by the Catholic Press Association is the St. Francis de Sales Award, fondly nicknamed “the Frannie”).

God raised up Francis for this apostolic ministry of writer, preacher, bishop, spiritual guide, founder of the Visitation.  God called him for this ministry against the odds, as it were, given his noble birth and first-born status; against even the desperate turmoil of his student days when he doubted God’s eternal love for him.  But he allowed God’s grace to touch his heart.  He allowed himself to become God’s instrument.  God’s plan involved Francis’s own salvation—which he was given the grace to realize after that youthful interior struggle—and it involved Francis’s role in that great movement we call the Counter-Reformation; even more, it involves his ongoing role in guiding the spiritual lives of many generations of Christians.  The action is God’s action, the activity of a providential God, a merciful God, a God who continually shepherds his flock thru the shepherds he provides for us.

We speak of ourselves, too, as having been chosen by God, called by God—in effect, raised up by God—e.g., in our formula of profession.  When we pray in the Collect today “that we too may work diligently in our mission to the young,” we’re praying that we may correspond with our divine election, as Francis corresponded with his.  We’re not called, obviously, to correspond to the same mission he had—converting Calvinists, serving as bishop, writing down-to-earth, theologically rich spiritual books, offering spiritual guidance thru hundreds of letters (or emails), advising social elites, etc.

But we have been called to be “zealous shepherds and gracious tutors” in Francis’s spirit, and particularly for the young, the poor, the marginalized of society, those who’ve never heard the Gospel—in Don Bosco’s style; to be “signs and bearers of God’s love,” as the Constitutions say.  For many of us, our days of doing that in the classroom or the parish are over; for others, those days have been suspended while the Congregation gives other responsibilities.  But that doesn’t preclude our remaining “zealous shepherds and gracious tutors”—among our confreres, especially younger ones (which has long been part of our community pastoral plan, which encourages us to get to know the men in formation and let them get to know us); among the house and mission office and school staffs; among any young people we may meet on the grounds or in such outside pastoral work as we may have (altar servers, penitents, et al.); among the people to whom we speak by phone or to whom we write; thru various social media (Web sites, Facebook, blogs, etc.); thru print media if we have that possibility.  If we can’t be in direct contact with the young because of age or the responsibility that Providence has assigned to us, we can offer that sacrifice as our “diligent work” on behalf of the young, and follow up the sacrifice with our prayers.  Many varieties of apostolate remain open to us even here in which we may imitate our patron saint, “zealous shepherd and gracious tutor” of God’s people in 16th/17th-century Savoy and still today, because he opened himself to God’s love; he “let the divine fire of the Holy Spirit burn in his gentle heart,” as the Prayer over the Gifts will say, bursting forth in his words and his manner to “inspire us with God’s compassion and love.”

May we truly be Salesian in our relationship with Jesus our Lord, Salesian in our care for each other; and Salesian in our zeal for the salvation of souls.

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