Are Religious Tracts a Catholic Invention?

Q. I’ve heard that religious tracts are a Catholic invention. Is that true?

A. St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) pioneered the strategy of doing Catholic evangelization and apologetics by leaving little slips of paper with short handwritten sermons in places where people could find and read them.

St. Francis was a French priest, and in his day, tens of thousands of Catholics in French-speaking Switzerland had fallen into the Calvinist heresy. So he went there as a missionary, hoping to win them back to the Catholic faith. The reception was icy, to say the least; he was known to sleep in haylofts and trees, even during the bitter winters, because almost no one would let him in the door of their homes, much less give him a night’s lodging. People often threw rocks at him.

Nevertheless, St. Francis persevered. He realized that many people were interested in what he had to say, but they were afraid to be seen by their neighbors listening to his preaching. So he devised a plan.

He wrote out his sermons on little leaflets and slipped them under the doors of homes at night when no one could see him. When the residents found them, they could read his sermons privately without fear of spying neighbors. Eventually, St. Francis had the leaflets printed and was able to distribute them openly and post them publicly. You could say, then, that these were the first religious tracts.

Through his perseverance, St. Francis enjoyed considerable success. Estimates of how many people he helped return to the Catholic Church range from 40,000 to 72,000. He went on to become a bishop and a Doctor of the Church.