Hail patron

A reader from the Ontario boondocks (the word is from Tagalog) reminds me that today is the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, patron of all journalists and hacks, as we near the fourth centenary of his burial. I think of Doctor Johnson, too, in this connexion, but the greatest of English hacks was no saint; just an honest, diligent and decent Christian man, of sound common-sensical reason. I think of Chesterton, too. Why this Saint Francis should be assigned this rôle, on behalf of the Church, is itself a subject for contemplation. All his writings (so far as I have read them) are to an immediate point. That is part of the reason he is still up-to-date; for the “breaking news” with which he dealt — way stops in the journeying of souls — is immortal.

Thrice in a single day, according to the legend, this scion of a noble family, that was grooming him for high station in law and public life, fell off his horse. Each time his sword and scabbard came off — how embarrassing! — and each time they came to rest in the pattern of a Christian Cross. I mention this as if it were important, because it is. We portray saints and mystics today as if they were Triumphs of the Will, heroes overcoming all adversities to win the main prize, each a spiritual Hercules. This tends to leave God out of the account, and thus the Will by which each was actually not only motivated, but directed.

Francis proceeded to the heart of the Calvinist country around Geneva, where precious few Catholics remained; tramped through ice mud clobber and snows; became accustomed to doors slammed in his face, and rocks thrown at him. He had the gift of poetry, and became a patient, tireless writer of — pamphlets. This was an innovation for a Catholic, for pamphlets were the “mainstream medium” of that early modern age. It was a genre the Church had surrendered almost entirely to the Protestants. Francis spoke, wherever he could be heard, with the highest and with the lowest of society, and conquered, soul by soul. He converted, or re-converted, some tens of thousands who, under his direct tutelage, returned to the old faith.

In worldly terms, a demographic change of historical significance was achieved by one man. By those writings on the fly, he continues his mission to the present day; and by other means of which only Heaven knows.

Eventually, the Church that Francis served appointed him to her throwaway position as Bishop of Geneva. This must have been divine intervention, too, for like any large, centralized organization, the Church tends to be run by incompetents on self-defeating principles. The “lifestyle” of this Francis did not change, however. He seemed happiest in a hovel.

Writing on the run, against pressing deadlines: this is a journalist’s lot. How odd, when it is ever done to some purpose, beyond interests that are unambiguously worldly. Perhaps God will send us more like him. We might think to ask.