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THE HEART OF AN APOSTLE

6/21/2002 - 12:30 PM PST

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THE HEART OF AN APOSTLE

If you want to make converts, begin by converting your own heart.

By Patrick Madrid

THE WIND HOWLED and the snow began to fall more heavily as nightfall gathered itself around the young priest. Though he had been riding since early afternoon, there were several miles yet to go before he would reach his destination. He kept to the path as best he could, but the drifting snow made it difficult for the horse to go much faster than a walk.

The temperature had dropped well below freezing, and after having ridden in the frigid open air for several hours, he was having trouble gripping the reins. He held them as best he could, hoping the thin wool gloves a Catholic couple had given him the previous winter would keep at bay the aching numbness in his hands long enough for him to revive them before the fire later that night. Shivering within his cloak, his teeth chattering, the priest continued reciting his evening prayers and plodded on into the night, his head bowed slightly against the wind.

His name was Francis de Sales, a Catholic priest not yet thirty years old who had volunteered for an arduous pastoral assignment in the Chablais region of southeastern France,1 an area that had in recent decades become a mission field. He was on his way to a modest farmhouse in an outlying town a few miles away, the home of a Catholic family who had offered him hospitality whenever he was in the area. He knew he would be greeted with a hot meal and a fire in the hearth where he could warm himself and let his clothes dry out.

From that “safe house,” he planned to spend the next week ministering to the few Catholics living in that town, preaching, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing and, if the non-Catholics in the area would listen, giving public talks on the Catholic faith. Most of the inhabitants of the region were not Catholic, so he knew he would face challenges and obstacles to his ministry.

This was nothing new to him. Riding alone through this cold night in January of 1596 was like many other such nights for the tired priest. He often traveled by night and in harsh weather to carry out his priestly ministry. Getting soaked and chilled, even chased, had become a way of life for him.

He smiled at the grim memory of another winter night he spent in the limbs of a tree, safely out of reach above the snapping jaws and threatening growls of a pack of dogs that had been set on him by a farmer who was displeased to see a Catholic priest venturing into the area. The dogs eventually wandered away in search of more accessible prey, but, fearful that they might return, Francis used his belt to lash himself to a sturdy branch so he could avoid the danger of falling out of the tree once he had fallen asleep. It was one of many such “adventures” he had endured cheerfully and out of love for Christ as he carried out his spiritual search and rescue mission.

A MAN ON A MISSION

Though Francis de Sales had been assigned by his bishop to a region that had been deeply Catholic for centuries, his presence there was not welcomed by most of the local inhabitants. Some sixty years earlier, the gloomy, powerful Protestant scholar, John Calvin, had taken up residence in Geneva, less than thirty miles from where the priest was riding. With the help of the armed might of the Protestant Duke of Savoy’s troops, Calvin’s iron grip rapidly closed itself around the population of the Chablais district, crushing the Catholic Church’s influence there, and converting most of the local population to Protestantism. The area thus gradually became encased in a hardened, Calvinist anti-Catholicism.

In recent years, however, under the protection and patronage of Charles Emmanuel, the new Catholic Duke of Savoy, the Catholic Church had been allowed to reestablish itself. But uprooting the now-entrenched hatred of Catholicism was, as one can imagine, an extraordinarily difficult, if not seemingly impossible, task. And that was exactly why young Francis de Sales volunteered for it.

His work would involve not only the pastoral care of souls, but also a full-blown effort to re-evangelize the populace—and that, he knew, would be a formidable challenge. He faced vociferous opposition from the many Calvinist ministers in the region. They constantly thundered from their pulpits against the “evils” of Catholicism.

The priest’s ministry in the towns and hamlets surrounding Geneva had been especially challenging. Few people would gather for, much less listen to, the open-air sermons he often preached in the town square. His Masses were poorly attended. It seemed that, aside from a few recent converts and those hardy Catholics who had managed to weather the decades-long Calvinist winter and remain true to the Church, no one was willing to listen to his arguments in favor of ...

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