FRANCIS RÉGIS CLET CM (1748-1820)
by Thomas Davitt CM
Francis Régis Clet was born in Grenoble, on the western edge of the Savoy Alps; he was the tenth child in a family of fifteen. His father was a prosperous businessman with a shop in a good part of the town, over which the family lived. The house is still extant. After his secondary education he entered the local seminary to study for the priesthood, but at the age of twenty-one he entered the Congregation of the Mission in Lyons, where he completed his studies and was ordained in 1772. He was then appointed to the seminary in Annecy to teach moral theology. Annecy is about ninety kilometers to the north of Grenoble, and the seminary building, still extant, was beautifully situated on the shore of a lake.In 1788 he was elected a delegate of the Province of Lyons for the sixteenth General Assembly of the Vincentians in Paris; he was the youngest delegate present. He made an impression on the newly-elected Superior General, who asked him to remain on in Paris as director of the intern seminaire. The situation of his new home was a drastic change from the house on the edge of the Lac d'Annecy.
Eleven months after the end of the Assembly the Vincentian mother house, Saint-Lazare, was attacked by a mob on 13 July 1789, the day before the attack on the Bastille. During the next few years the central administration of the Congregation was severely disrupted, but in 1791 the Superior General decided to send three confreres to China. One of those selected was unable to be ready in time for the departure of the ship, so Francis volunteered to take his place; he was forty-three years old.
Unfortunately we do not have any letters written by him during his childhood, his time in the seminary or his period in Annecy, nor have we any documentary information about his life or work during that period. When he was accepted in place of the confrere destined for China, he wrote to his eldest sister Marie-Thérèse, who was also his godmother, on 10 March 1791. This letter is the earliest of the seventy-five letters written by him which have survived. The opening sentences of this letter reveal something about the writer:
At last my wishes have been granted and I am at the peak of happiness. Providence wants me to go to work for the salvation of the heathens. The opportunity has just cropped up and I eagerly grabbed it; I've just had a chat with the Superior General about it and he is quite willing to go along with my wishes.
He then goes on to refer to the various practical matters which need to
be dealt with. He says he has previously made his will, but some arrangements
need to be made in case he would outlive her. He is not going to hand over to
her complete control of his assets. If he did that, and then were to return
from China and find that she had already died, he would have no claim. Obviously
he was a practical man. He had to pay for his journey to China with money borrowed
from the community bursar, on condition that Marie-Thérèse refund
the money to the community from Francis' property.
His sister, naturally enough, tried to dissuade him from going. In reply, he wrote:
I could, of course, be making a mistake, but at least I'm in good faith. If God doesn't bless my attempt I'll cut my losses, admit I was wrong, and in future be more on my guard against the illusions of my imagination or vanity; the experience will teach me a bit of sense.
Here again he shows that he was a practical man, in spiritual as well as
in financial matters. The former professor of moral theology is revealed in
his reference to being in good faith.
There is an interesting assessment of Francis written around the time of his departure. Jean-François Daudet, the bursar in Saint-Lazare already referred to, wrote to Robert Hanna, an Irish confrere who was in Macao waiting to get to Peking:
Father Clet, who had been teaching theology with success for fourteen years, arrived here for the General Assembly. They got to know him well enough to appreciate his worth, and made him director of the internal seminary, and I think that, in spite of his affection for you, the General would not let him go if there were any future for the Congregation here. He has got everything you could ask for, holiness, learning, health and charm. To sum up briefly, he is very gifted.
One thing which Daudet did not mention, but which emerges in many letters,
is that Francis had a fine sense of gentle humour.
He left France in April 1791, and by October 1792 was at his final destination in the interior of China. He writes to his sister that he is in a large dilapidated house, which is to be renovated, and that the winter in that region is mild. A new life is beginning for him, and he has to revive the faith of the people who have been without a priest for years. He was forty-four years old, and learning the language was very difficult for him. Our man had been christened François-Régis, and he had an older brother named François, who was a Carthusian in Rome. Six years after arriving in China he wrote to him:
The Chinese language is hopeless. The characters which make it up do not represent sounds but ideas. This means that there is a huge number of them. I was too old on coming to China to get a good working knowledge of them I know barely enough for daily living, for hearing confessions and for giving some advice to Christians
It is a very long letter, and earlier in it he had said he had been seriously ill twice. For food he had rice, wheaten bread, fowl, pork and vegetables. Wine is too scarce to use as a drink and is kept for Mass. Conversions are rare, because the pagans see so many bad Christians, but "they shut their eyes to the vast majority who live lives in keeping with the gospel". Fourteen months later he wrote to the same brother:
We have some lax Christians here but, thank God, we have neither philosophers nor female theologians Our ears are never assaulted with blasphemies nor the word "liberty". Proportionately, there are more Christians here than in France.
He says that his health is keeping up. He has been sick several times, but
only once seriously. He has lost a lot of weight. By choice he always travels
on foot, refusing offers of a horse.
The last surviving letter to his Carthusian brother is undated but seems to be from about 1802. He thanks him for the news that none of the family had suffered during the Revolution, something he had been worried about. He says that for more than fifteen years there has been no religious persecution, and continues:
we cannot preach publicly, because the Emperor allows missionaries only in his capital and not in the interior of the provinces; we slip secretly into such areas. Our ministry has to be secret and undercover as a result. . If we were to decide to preach openly we would probably be arrested and deported back to our own country I see no gleam of hope for martyrdom; anyway, I've no problem in convincing myself that I don't deserve it. All the same, our life is not without danger, as over the past six years large numbers of Chinese have rebelled against the government.
There are no further letters to any member of his family. From 10 June 1804
until 28 December 1815 there are thirty-eight surviving letters to a Chinese
confrere Paul Song, with only six to other confreres in the years 1810-1813.
Paul Song had been ordained in 1803 at the age of twenty-nine, and appointed to work with Francis. For the first eight years there was much tension and misunderstanding between them. Sometimes Francis had to write in Latin, as Paul did not always fully understand the letters in French; Francis, of course, could not write in Chinese. In 1811 there came a change, and Paul began to have enormous admiration for his superior. Even during the period of problems between them he had kept all the letters from Francis. The thirty-eight letters to Paul Song let us know quite a lot about missionary life in China in the early 19th century, as well as a lot about these two confreres.
Paul Song seems to have been a rather scrupulous and over-sensitive man. Francis, the former professor of moral theology, has to explain to him how to avoid scrupulosity about the obligation of praying the Divine Office. Also, as an elderly experienced confrere, with a quiet sense of humour, he tries to point out that Paul, without reason, interprets some things as referring to himself.
In November 1807 he explains to Paul the different levels of attention with regard to the breviary, and concludes:
Therefore I order you to say your breviary and other prayers in a common-sense way, never going back over them, provided you prepared yourself for these actions by a moment of recollection in the presence of God.
In May 1805 Paul thought that he detected a charge of laziness against himself. Francis replied, in Latin; in a postscript he said he did so because Latin is more precise:
Your letter gave me both joy and sorrow; joy because your health is good, sorrow because your return is further delayed until the sixth moon. Actually, eight months have passed since you set out for Ho-nan to hear four hundred confessions; now, obviously, eight months are not necessary for four hundred confessions, therefore seeing that you were slow about coming back I was afraid that you had caught some illness. Now be quite sure that I am not accusing you of laziness
In January 1808 Francis had to write:
It is important, and justice demands it, that I quickly put you right about a wrong meaning which you took from a sentence in a letter from Father [Louis] Lamiot [CM], which you did not understand. Read over again the bit in question and you will see that it does not refer to Paul Song but to a young man from Han-keou called François Lieou He was dismissed for laziness, lack of application and want of steadiness How could you have thought that I would be so stupid as to give you a letter to read which contained complaints against yourself?
Around the end of 1811 or the start of 1812 he has to write to Paul again, this time about the latter's mis-interpretation of his superior's motives. Paul had complained to Jean-Joseph Ghislain CM, in Peking:
Father Ghislain complains very strongly in a letter he wrote to me that
I give my confreres more work than they can handle, so much in fact that even
the strongest constitutions are ruined, and that I never allow them to have
a break. I'm no annoyed that people complain to major superiors about me; I
only wish they would make such strong complaints that my superiors would be
forced to relieve me of a weight or load which I cannot carry.
Anyway, making an examination of conscience I find that I have never had the intention of ruining confreres' health by work beyond their capacities. Therefore I urge you to take care of your health because I have always said that it is better to live for the glory of God than to die for it, especially in China where priests are scarce
Francis made many requests to be relieved of the office of superior, but
Paul probably did not appreciate the gentle humour in the middle of that passage, but Louis Lamiot, Francis' superior in Peking, probably did at least smile at part of a letter he received early in 1819:
I want none of this world's goods, apart from a good watch. Only one of the ones you sent two years ago was any good. The others started by gaining an hour every day, and then two hours. Then they all contracted a recurrent fever which led to their deaths. So, if you have anything in the line of a good watch, I'd like you to send it along, and some money after it, and some red pills
Francis was arrested on Trinity Sunday 1819, betrayed by a Catholic school teacher whose scandalous life had led to friction between himself and the priests. For quite a long time he was badly treated, and moved around from place to place, apparently in the hope that he would die. He explained this in a letter to Jean-François Richenet CM in Paris, dated 28 December 1819, but went on to say that things improved:
I had to be brought to another jail nearby where I had the pleasure of meeting Father Chen and ten good Christians, all in the same room. We have morning and evening prayer in common, and can even celebrate feastdays. No one bothers us Father [Antoine] Tcheng [CM], who maintains an underground ministry to the Christian communities around this town, celebrated Mass in a nearby house and brought Communion to us all without our fellow-prisoners noticing
On 1 January 1820 he was found guilty of deceiving and corrupting Chinese people by preaching Christianity to them, and was sentenced to be strangled on a gibbet. The sentence had to be confirmed by the emperor.
He had not yet sent the letter of 28 December, and he added a postscript dated 26 January:
Yesterday, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, a day to be remembered for the foundation of our Congregation, Father Chen and I received Communion from Father Tcheng, and we had a feastday dinner at midday with three priests and six laymen, two of whom were prisoners and four were visitors. The only one missing was Father Lamiot, who paid for the meal.
These things were possible because he was the prison he was in was for detention,
and for punishment. This circumstance also allowed him to adjudicate, at the
request of Louis Lamiot , in a dispute between the Portuguese and French confreres
in Peking. Francis exchanged letters with both sides, and came to the conclusion
that Lamiot was at fault, being too French and trying to rush matters.
On the morning of 18 February 1820 Francis was executed, six months before his seventy-second birthday.