Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales

I like the fact that the feast of St Francis de Sales occurs during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He has so much to teach us about how to ‘do’ Christian Unity. It matters that Francis was graciously received by Theodore Beza, the great Protestant scholar and theologian. It also matters that, as Bishop of Geneva, Francis was remarkable for his gentleness and courtesy, yet there was never any doubt about what he believed or taught. He was clear about his Catholicism, and because he was clear, he was able to transcend the polemics of his time. He was more interested in winning souls for God than in scoring points off his opponents.

Sometimes I think we all get a little weary with the quest for Unity. We know it isn’t optional, but we don’t quite see what we ought to do or be to attain it. As a Catholic, my primary focus is on reconciliation with the Orthodox, but living as I do in England, practically speaking, I am more concerned with the Anglican and Protestant traditions of my fellow citizens. That is why I find St Francis de Sales such an encouragement. If you look at his life or read his writings, you can see that his way of working for the Unity of the Church was simply to be faithful to his own vocation and allow God to do with him as he chose. That strikes a chord because the holiness of Benedictines consists largely in a lifetime of small fidelities. God can write straight with crooked sticks; he can also use our littleness to do something great.

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7 thoughts on “Christian Unity and St Francis de Sales”

  1. We marked this feast at Holy Communion this morning. Our Vicar remarked on the coincidence of Francis’s feast and the week of prayer for Christian Unity. His intercessions featured both strongly.

    It was interesting to get a potted history of his life and works and how he had matriculated first as a Advocate at Law, latterly a Priest. His chief reformist opposition came from Calvin, who was also in ministry at the time.

    It would have been good to hear or read a record of the debates they might have had (if they did it in person or by letter) back at a very troubled time for both Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers.

    I also like that way that both Anglican and Catholic can remember the life of a great Priest and Bishop, without animosity. That says more about unity perhaps than some of the more controversial stuff which seems to dominate people’s dialogue with each other.

  2. You have remarked that you find it interesting what people take away from your posts, and on paying closer attention, I too have found it very interesting.
    My first thought was of a parish named for the saint. I found what I was reading about the saint to be a little ironic, with this parish in mind, as it was probably the least welcoming parish I have ever visited (much less tried to attend on a regular basis). They were not welcoming to Catholics who did not believe exactly as the core group did (very conservative), and the idea of welcoming non-Catholics , was out of the question. I was uncomfortable there for a year and a half, and I ended up driving 120 miles every other week to go to a different parish.
    I am so glad to read that St Francis de Sales does not deserve the things I had thought of him.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I hope St Francis de Sales has spread a little of his gentleness through the blogosphere today. He is the patron saint of writers, too, so we can ask the help of his prayers when the words don’t come out quite as we intend and we create discord and hurt where we had hoped to bring healing and harmony.

  4. ‘A lifetime of small fidelities.’

    Yes, that is what I truly believe. ‘Faithful is small things, faithful in much,’ as the Gospels say. St Francis de Sales is one of my favourite saints, especially as he is a patron saint of writers. His thinking may resonant more easily than some with the modern mind.

    The whole question of Christian unity can be deeply painful for English Christians and can divide families. I see it everywhere and have experienced it firsthand. It doesn’t exist in the Catholic church abroad as far as I can tell.

    Now here’s a confession: I am an Anglo-Catholic (devout, I hope). The liturgy is the same as the Catholic Church. I passionately believe in Transubstantiation. But though I sometimes attend Roman Catholic services, because the peace of a Convent and the company of nuns is important to me, the Eucharist is forbidden since my wing of the Church of England is in Communion with other (interpretations of Christian) belief. It sometimes amazes Roman Catholics that we pray for the Pope!

    I don’t want to forsake good friends and my place of worship which focuses on the power of prayer, daily disciplines and has a healing mission, whilst also being a dynamic and energetic community whose witness is far-reaching. Nor do I want to forsake the Baptism and Confirmation which have been a powerhouse of strength through much grief and anguish. At the end of the day, I cannot think Christ would refuse himself to any who approach His Table in good faith. (This is He who came that Gentiles might be admitted to God’s chosen family.)

    Catholics have said to me, ‘but why would you ever want to go back to the Church of England, if you had Catholic Baptism and Confirmation?’ I can only answer that my heart is among an Anglo-Catholic community which, as I see it, combines Roman Catholic values in a world crying out for them, with vital and courageous witness. (Sometimes, I think Catholics don’t know what they’re missing!)

    Interestingly, my church is twinned with a Roman Catholic church in Bavaria and there are annual exchange visits. No problem exists in this context.

    Surely, actually doing it (provided we approach with humility and trust) is the only way barriers will be broken down. It gives the Holy Spirit a chance to work in those who may not otherwise be so deeply blessed. The act of communion is surely not polluted by ‘unbelievers’, but Eucharistic blessing has the power to change hearts and increase unity all round. The readiness to ‘commune’ will transform.

    There have been errors on both sides of this schism in our English history, but the Anglo-Catholic church believes that, in essence, it has not departed from the hereditary Church of St Peter, despite a wilderness period.

    Priests should pray earnestly for ‘the discernment of spirits’. From early childhood, I have attended almost every expression of mainstream Christian worship, some on the fringes, and have been an Anglo-Catholic for twenty-three years. My faith has burgeoned through some dire trials during these years. I feel no longer ‘repressed’. But I am quite ready to applaud and write about Methodist communities whose historic faith has worked like leaven to improve social conditions and demonstrate the love of Christ. I owe so much to this church which, through its personal love and witness, set me on my pilgrimage.

    I have no desire to be contentious here, just to find the truth and heal divisions, that there be a clearer outward expression of Christian ecumenism.

    In the Spirit, it already exists.

    Thank you for your wise and patient blog, Sr Catherine. It has given me a chance to air this!

  5. Thank you, Rosy, for your thoughtful (and brave!) comment. I should like to think and pray a bit before responding because the questions you raise are important. It may mean another blog post. I don’t know yet.

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