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Catholic Heroes… St. John Francis Regis

June 6, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In the late 16th century, Calvinism began to make significant advances in the Catholic population of France. More and more Catholics left the faith, or simply stopped going to Mass and practicing their faith. Then God sent a man to the French who preached tirelessly and then spent hours in the confessional, helping the penitents return to a vibrant practice of the faith.
On January 31, 1597 in Fontcouvarte, France, John Francis Regis came into the world, welcomed by his father, Jean Regis, who was honored for his service during the Wars of the League — a Catholic organization dedicated to removing Protestantism from France — and his mother, Marguerite de Cugunhan, who was from a noble family.
John received most of his education in the Jesuit College at Beziers near the Mediterranean, just 50 miles east of Fontcouvarte. On December 8, 1616 he went to Toulouse, nearly 200 miles northwest of Beziers, to enter the Jesuit novitiate. After two years he made his first vows. He then went to Cahors — about 75 miles north of Toulouse — to study rhetoric.
When he finished that course, John taught grammar at the following colleges: the College of Billom from 1619-1622 (another 200 miles northeast of Cahors); Puy-en-Velay College 1625-1627 (80 miles south of Billom); and then Auch College from 1627-1628 (about 50 miles west of Toulouse).
In 1628 after the circuitous route of teaching at various Jesuit institutions, John Francis returned to Toulouse. He zealously pursued his studies for both theology and pedagogy — the art of teaching. His industriousness was evident in both his prayer life and his academic life, resulting in his Ordination two years later at the end of 1630. A fellow Jesuit explained to his superior about Fr. John: “Regis seems never to go to bed. He’s always on his knees during the night praying.”
After many years of priestly formation, Fr. John Francis began his ministry to God’s people in 1631. His first task was to serve the marginalized members of society. He remained in Toulouse caring for victims of the bubonic plague.
Then in 1632 he stayed at the Jesuit College in Montpellier near the Mediterranean, almost 200 miles west of Toulouse. While at the college, he cared for a variety of souls: He evangelized the French Protestant Huguenots, visited the sick in the hospitals, rescued young women from the grasp of vice, and catechized both the poor and the children.
Fr. Regis helped street children and rescued women by establishing homes and foundations. These homes helped train and prepare both women and children to find jobs in order to support themselves.
He also formed charities such as the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. These charities collected money and food from the wealthy people who wanted to help the less fortunate, and then distributed them where they were most needed. He also organized a ladies auxiliary to care for prisoners.
As a result, these suffering people were removed from those who had been exploiting them. More than once, Fr. John Francis was nearly beaten to death by men who had lost prostitutes due to Fr. John’s intervention to rescue them. The dedicated priest stayed in Montpellier until May 1632.
When a priest once told Fr. John that he was wasting his time and that the women would return to their sordid lives of vice, Father replied, “If I can keep a person from committing one sin except for my efforts they would have committed, it is worth all my effort.”
During this time, as news of his work spread, Louis-François de la Baume de Suze of Viviers invited John Francis in 1633 to come to his diocese and give missions to his people. For the next seven years, he preached, heard Confessions, and catechized the people in more than 50 districts such as le Vivarais, le Forez, and le Velay.
He spent endless hours serving both the laity and priests. His appeals, because they were simple, clear, and concise as well as direct, resulted in many conversions among the peasantry. He met with much more success because he did not follow the trend of the times which used flourishing hand gestures and the language of high academics.
Four hundred years later, another Jesuit, Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, referred to Fr. John Francis Regis as the Curé of Ars of the Society of Jesus, “Hard on himself and easy on everyone else as opposed to most who do the opposite — that’s a sure sign of grace!”
Fr. Regis needed no classroom to evangelize and catechize hungry souls. Whether the location was a front porch or a backyard, he was ready and willing to share the faith. During his travels, he found Catholic churches that had not been used in years — some for more than 20 years.
Yet when he spoke in other churches, so many attended that the churches could not hold them all and thousands were left standing outside. Of course, such popularity and success brought him suffering and persecution.
When laboring for Christ crucified, expect the cross. Fr. John suffered deeply for his unwavering adherence to the teachings of Christ. His enemies misinterpreted his zeal for souls and his bold proclamations of the truth as arrogance and self-righteousness. Other priests argued with him and criticized his methods. At one point his superiors ordered him to cease his work, but Fr. John loved the cross and gave thanks for such persecutions.
The relationship between the local bishop and Fr. Regis was also very tense. In addition, those whose sins he condemned — especially those who took advantage of women — threatened him constantly. His love for souls and teaching the truth for their salvation did not allow the threats or the crosses to deter him from his work.
From the beginning of his religious vocation, Fr. Regis had hoped to go to Canada to teach the indigenous people there as did the Jesuit North American martyrs. However, his mission territory never expanded beyond the borders of France.
Having spent many years traveling through the mountains, frequently with no heat and sleeping on the ground, Fr. John found his health begin to decline. As one witness spoke at Father’s canonization process, “I have seen him stand all day on a heap of snow at the top of a mountain preaching and then he’d go into church and spend the whole night hearing Confessions.”
Finally, at the young age of 43, Fr. Regis caught pneumonia and died on December 31, 1640 in the Dauphine region of France.
Pope Clement XI beatified Fr. Regis on May 18, 1716 and Pope Clement XII canonized him on April 5, 1737. The feast of this patron of lace-makers, medical and social workers, and illegitimate children is celebrated on June 16.
Dear St. John Francis Regis, pray for the Catholic Church, that the once vibrant parishes that are now languishing may once again be filled with people excited to hear the word of God spoken with great zeal and clarity. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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