Counseling the doubtful
St. Francis De Sales
Born in 1567 in France to a wealthy noble family, St. Francis de Sales knew as a child that he wanted to serve God as a priest. His plan, however, was thrown into question when he heard a theological discussion about predestination.
The Calvinist position — that some people were predestined for hell and others for heaven — convinced the 17-year-old de Sales that the doors of heaven were barred against him. In 1587, however, while praying before a statue of Our Lady of Deliverance, de Sales’ doubts subsided, and he became firmly convinced of God’s love. On that day, de Sales resolved to dedicate his life to helping others overcome their own spiritual doubts.
Despite his father’s protests, de Sales was ordained to the priesthood in 1593. Soon afterward, he began working to win Calvinists back to the Catholic Faith, traveling throughout nearby Switzerland. By the time de Sales returned to France, more than 40,000 people had returned to the Church.
Installed as bishop of Geneva in 1602, de Sales next devoted himself to the formation of both his priests and their congregations, believing (contrary to popular opinion at the time) that holiness was as much for the laity as for the ordained. He also offered spiritual direction to whomever asked for it, counseling some in person and many more in writing.
“I have more than 50 letters to answer,” he once wrote to a friend. “If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same, and so I shall go on until I have finished.”
In 1665, 43 years after his death, the Church declared Francis de Sales a saint. Two centuries later, in 1877, it declared him a Doctor of the Church.
Giving drink to the thirsty
St. Peter Claver
In 1510, King Ferdinand of Spain authorized the shipment of 250 Africans to his territories in the New World. It was the first large-scale shipment of African slaves and marked the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. Exactly 100 years later, St. Peter Claver arrived in the city of Cartagena (in modern day Columbia), where the slave trade flourished.
The son of a wealthy Catalonian farmer, Claver entered the Jesuits at the age of 20 in 1601. Nine years later, with six years of formation still to go, he asked to serve in the Spanish missions. His superiors consented, permitting him to complete his studies in South America. Upon his arrival, Claver witnessed the grim plight of the Africans and vowed to dedicate his ministry to their care.
Claver based his ministry primarily in Cartagena, where large ships, densely packed with slaves, arrived regularly in the harbor. The conditions of the slave ships were so horrific that an estimated one-third of the men and women aboard died in transit. Knowing this, Claver didn’t wait for the slavers to unload their cargo. Instead, he boarded as soon as the ships docked, heading straight to the hold to give the Africans something to drink. After they had been moved to the slave market, he continued to move among them, distributing brandy and bread.
As he cared for the slaves’ bodily needs, Claver also cared for their spiritual needs. With the help of a translator, he assured them of their dignity and told them of a God who loved them, baptizing all who asked for it. Then, in the months when few ships arrived in the port, he traveled to the plantations, meeting with those he’d baptized, giving further instruction in the Faith and advocating for their humane treatment. When he visited those plantations, he always insisted on staying in the slave quarters.
By the time of St. Peter Claver’s death, in 1654, it is estimated that he baptized more than 300,000 slaves and quenched the thirst of countless more.