Saint Francis Régis Clet: The Missionary Who Was Strangled Three Times

by | Jul 8, 2023 | Formation

Among the Missionaries of the Congregation of the Mission, there is a martyr who cried tears of joy when he was sent to China and when he was imprisoned there. Francis Régis was sent to evangelize non-believers and in the end, offered them his very life.

Image of Saint François Regis Clet in the formation house of the Congregation in Theux (Belgiun).

A rope of three strands is not easy to break … François Régis Clet often repeated those words, quoting from Ecclesiastes. With this he offered his own experience: those who have a community and a mission can better withstand the storms of life, even if, in this case, that storm is a relentless persecution that ends in martyrdom.

François Regis was born in Grenoble, at the foot of the Alps, on August 19, 1748, and received the name of François Régis in honor of the French saint/apostle among the Huguenots and whose devotion was widespread among the Catholics of the area. Cesario and Claudine succeeded in educating their 15 children in a faith that was simple and strong at the same time, and in addition to the fruits of a marriage vocation, offered the Church a Carthusian and a Carmelite. François Régis, the tenth son of the Clet family, chose the Congregation of the Mission, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, and joined the Order in 1769.

After his ordination in 1772, he exercised various ministries, especially in the area of formation, but soon the winds were to change in France, and this gave his life an unsuspected direction. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the saint gave exceptional witness. We should recall that the event that preceded the storming of the Bastille was the assault by the insurrectionists on the mother house of the Congregation in the French capital.

Religious life was becoming increasingly inhospitable in revolutionary France, which led to the departure of the missionaries to other parts of the world. So when, two years later, the superior general of the Congregation decided to send three confreres to China and one of them was unable to go, Clet volunteered … and his request was accepted. After hearing the news, he wrote to his sister: I find myself on the cusp of happiness. Providence wants me to go to work for the salvation of non-believers.

He had to pay for the trip with his own money and thus arrived in the Portuguese colony of Macao in October 1791. A year later he managed to enter the Chinese province of Jiangxi, in the interior. The emperor had allowed the presence of missionaries only in the capital, in the rest of the country their work was forbidden, and they risked deportation … or something much more serious.

François stated: A new life begins for me. I have to revive the religious sentiments of the first Christians who were abandoned for many years before converting. I hope that will be my concern until death. However, what he met with was failure caused by language difficulties and the indifference of those to whom he was sent. Nevertheless, he traveled hundreds of miles on foot each month in order to administer the sacraments and catechize small communities scattered throughout the countryside … with only the occasional conversion.

In 1818, an atmospheric phenomenon occurred in Peking that darkened the capital’s sky for a few hours. The emperor’s advisors led him to believe that this indicated the threat that the new foreign religion posed to his people. Therefore, the emperor signed a decree that stiffened the punishments against the missionaries. François Régis Clet, whose presence had hitherto been simply tolerated, suddenly saw a price put on his head: 1,000 taels, more than 1,300 euros today, a veritable fortune for the time. The opportunity occasion to hand him to the authorities was seized upon by a nonbeliever who wanted to take revenge on a newly converted neighbor. He betrayed the missionary was captured by the emperor’s soldiers. “You have come to China secretly, you have perverted numerous people with the doctrine you preach and you have to be strangled to death”…  such was the accusation and the verdict. He remained imprisoned for months. Ragged and full of lice, he shared a cell with other believers. When I saw them, I could not but weep for joy, he wrote to his superior … If it were not for me, they would not be able to receive the sacrament of Confession.

In his 70s François was flogged … but despite countless threats, he never apostatized but always acknowledged his presence in China as a priest and missionary. On February 17, 1820, he was strangled several times. According to tradition, the rope was tightened three times. When he lost consciousness, they loosened the rope and started again, until he took his last breath. The rope that ended his life did not have the strength of the three strands that gave meaning to his life: God, China and the mission.


Juan Luis Vázquez Díaz-Mayordomo
Fuente: ALFA&OMEGA, February 16-22, 2023.