Saint of the Day – 18 February – Saint Francis Regis Clet CM (1748-1820) Martyr, Religious Priest of the Vincentian Order, Missionary to China – born Francois Regis Clet on 19 August 1748 in Grenoble and died 18 February 1820 in Wuchang, China) is one of the Martyr Saints of China.
Francis Regis Clet, the tenth of 15 children, was born into a farm family in Grenoble in the southwest corner of France in 1748 and was named for the recently Canonised fellow-Grenoblian, Jesuit St John Francis Regis (Jean Francois Regis). After completing studies at the Royal College (founded by the Jesuits), he followed his elder brother and sister into vowed religious life. In Lyons in 1769, he entered the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians). After Ordination, Francis served as professor of moral theology at the Vincentian seminary in Annecy where he was affectionately called “the walking library” because of his encyclopedic knowledge and academic discipline. In 1786, he became Rector of Annecy and two years later, Director of Novices in Paris.
Francis Regis petitioned to go to China as a missionary several times but his superiors did not accede to his request until 1791. At the age of 43, he replaced another priest who had to withdraw from the assignment at the last minute. A confrere, in writing about Clet’s assignment to China, noted: “He has everything you could ask for – holiness, learning, health and charm.”
After a six month sea journey from France and some transition time in Macao, which included assuming the dress and customs of the Chinese people, the new missioner arrived in Kiang-si in October of 1792 as the only European in the area. Clet’s acculturation was hampered by his life-long difficulty with the language. In 1793 Clet joined two Chinese confreres in Hou-Kouang in the Hopei Province where both of his companions died within his first year, one in prison and one from exhaustion. In that year, Clet became superior of an international group of Vincentian missioners scattered over a very large territory, and he himself pastored an area of 270 thousand square miles. In that leadership capacity, he developed standards so that there would be a uniform approach to ministry (sacramental and catechetical) among the missioners.
His own life was simple and austere – he lived like the poor in the country. His great spirit of mortification accommodated the most diverse regimes and it was on foot that he made his long journeys. Gentle and humble, he nevertheless showed great firmness inspired by sound and upright judgement.
In 1811, the anti-Christian persecutions in China intensified with the Christians being accused of inciting rebellion against the ruling dynasty. For several years, Clet endured abuse and attacks, which frequently forced him to find refuge in the mountains. In 1819, with a generous reward on their heads, Clet and a Chinese confrere became fugitives. Like Jesus, he was finally betrayed by one of his own, a Catholic schoolmaster whom Clet had challenged for his scandalous behaviour. Like the missionary St Paul, Clet endured ignominy and forced marches in chains over hundreds of miles.
During the course of his judgement, Francis Régis Clet was treated with the most extreme inhumanity. To one of his judges, the holy confessor allowed himself to say: “My brother, you judge me now, in a short time my Lord Himself will judge you.” A few months later, the magistrate, who fell out of favour, was executed. On 1 January 1820, Fr Clet was found guilty of deceiving the Chinese people by preaching Christianity and was sentenced to strangulation on a cross. Pending confirmation of the sentence by the emperor, he wrote: “I prepare for death, often repeating with Saint Paul: ‘if I live, it is for Jesus Christ and death will be for me a gain’.” Finally, the emperor Tsiatsïn declared that “the European had deceived and corrupted many people by preaching the Christian religion and that he should be strangled.” On 18 February Francis Regis Clet was executed. He was 72 years old, twenty-nine of whom spent in the Chinese mission.
As in the case of Jesus, Christians took his body and buried it on a hillside where it rested until it was returned to the Vincentian motherhouse in Paris several decades later and is now honoured at St Lazare.
St Francis was Beatified on 27 May 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and Canonised on 1 October 2000 by St Pope John Paul II.