Regis Francis Clet

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Regis Francis Clet

Vincent de Paul heralded the courage of martyrs, but he frequently told his sons and his daughters that to live the Gospel faithfully and to cultivate the Vincentian virtues of humility, simplicity, zeal and charity each day of one's life is a virtual martyrdom, "a dying to self that Christ might live in you." Francis Regis Clet, through his conscientious living out of his daily responsibilities, grew in that holiness which strengthened him to accept martyrdom for his Christian faith in 1820 in China.

Francis Regis Clet, the tenth of 15 children, was born into a farm family in Grenoble in the southwest corner of Francis in 1748 and was named for the recently canonized fellow-Grenoblian, Jesuit 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.

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 behavior. Like the missionary St. Paul, Clet endured ignominy and forced marches in chains over hundreds of miles.

On January 1, 1820, Clet was found guilty of deceiving the Chinese people by preaching Christianity and was sentenced to strangulation on a cross. On February 18, after approval of his sentence by the Emperor, Francis Regis Clet was executed. 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 honored at St. Lazare.

Food for Thought

Catholic universities will be particularly attentive to the poorest and to those who suffer economic, social, cultural or religious injustice. This responsibility begins within the academic community but it also finds application beyond it.

Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (40)