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Saint John Francis Regis - Jesuit Saint
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
After some lapse of time, our conference this evening will be on St. John Francis Regis. In many ways he is the Cure de Ars of the Society of Jesus. He was born in 1597 in France at a town called, Fontcuvarte. His family was not wealthy, but also not too poor, you might say (?) farmers. He went to the Jesuit college and entered the Society, as we call ourselves, in 1615, that would be the age of eighteen. From his days in the novitiate he had a reputation for being hard on himself and easy on everyone else. The comment, 'he vilifies himself beyond measure and he canonizes everyone else.' That surely is a mark of grace. Naturally, our tendency is to vilify everyone else and canonize ourselves. Because of his gift in preaching, years before his ordination he was allowed to give religious instruction to the people in the towns nearby where he was in studies and among the many episodes recorded at his process for canonization, while he was in studies in theology, he was sharing a room with another scholastic who didn't complain about being disturbed in his own sleep, but he went to the rector and said, 'Regis seems never to go to bed, he's always on his knees during the night praying.' He had permission, so the rector told his companion to be sure not to disturb his prayers, 'come a day' he said 'when I think, the Society of Jesus will celebrate his feast day.' He was ordained in 1631, that would make him thirty-four, (I was ordained on my thirty-third birthday, at least they give us a long, long education). Immediately after ordination and especially after his so-called tertianship, which as you know is our third year of novitiate, two years before vows and one year before final vows. So two years before the first vows of novitiate and one year called, third year or tertianship just before the last vows after ordination.
He seems to have done no other kind of apostolic work, except preaching. His talks were very simple, he avoided much of the rhetoric and fanfare that popular preachers in the early 17th century France indulged in. He favored the poor people, both the places where they lived and addressing himself to their mentality. When he spoke it was with a burning ardor; people knew that he was talking from his heart. Understandably, his following became immense. More than once, the Churches in which he spoke, packed onto the outside, that were not meant to seat this many people, would have four or five thousand hanging on his every word. Just for the record, I'm talking about St. John Francis Regis. I'm about half-way through the Jesuit saints.
In many ways, he made a fool of himself trying to help people because he realized the poor of course, need the Gospel to be preached to them, but being poor they need just about everything else. I don't have this in my notes, but over the years, among the Jesuit saints, I've tried to imitate certain things from each one and you end up with a long list. Regis seems to have stocked piled his room with all kinds of what people in good French would call junk who knows, somebody may need it. People complained you can hardly get into his room, there is so much debris all around. And when he was reproached for appearing so sometimes ridiculous in his effort to practice charity, would carry the oddest piece of clothing through the streets pieces of furniture. 'Look, you're demeaning yourself, it's humiliating.' "Well, so much the better, the more humiliation, the more valuable" he said "is the challenge." So that for thirty years I've been telling people, 'you don't practice real charity unless you are ready to be humiliated and often by the person towards whom you're trying to practice charity.
He specialized in trying to convert, by then the thousands of Calvinists in France. John Calvin wrote his devastating book against the Catholic Church in 1537 so it's just about a hundred years before. Many French Catholics had lost their Catholic faith. He tried to convert them, was very successful and blacks Catholics whose number was legion. An interesting thing that might give somebody an idea today. He organized a lady's auxiliary to care for prisoners, visit them, give them some little delicacy, delivery mail. The works that is going on, I understand, to the present day. I suppose that in most short biographies of John Francis Regis, he is best known for his convert work amongst prostitutes. Needless to say, he was very successful. He recognized most of them were not in the business, so to speak, because they liked it, but they were poor. How I wish we had at least a half a dozen Francis Regis' in New York. Any one day, so the figures, that I've learned go, there are ten thousand women walking the streets of New York City and many are young, no home, no money, no friends, with all the consequences that follow. He was it seems, all his life answering complaints; people criticized or complained about his work. They didn't like this and they didn't like that. He'd always have a pat answer. It was told him, 'Look, these people you are "converting" the conversion won't last.' His answer was, "so what, if I can keep a person from committing one sin that except for my efforts they would have committed, it's worth all my effort."
He would preach, what we now call missions, and by the way, lest I forget, pray that the parish missions will come back in the United States. In most dioceses, they're just a past memory desperately needed. He would specialize, however, in his work of instruction that's what he was doing, preaching and instructing never in a classroom. He would favor small out-of-the-way places where the people would be instructed in their backyards, on the porch, in bars, you name it. You might say the peak achievement of his priestly ministry came when he was invited by a bishop of the place called 'Vivie' in south eastern France, which is mountainous country, the French Pyrenees. The bishop asked for his services and he took with him another Jesuit as his assistant. By this time in south eastern France, the conditions of the Church had fallen to a very low level. The peasants were described as savages and the nobility were said to have been phased. What was the problem? bishops. Who knows where, they just were not running their dioceses. And priests, again the Lord knows, doing what? Countless churches were empty. During Regis' day, parishes were known, when he came in, not to have administered the sacraments for twenty years. All I can tell you is, that the situation of the Church today is a carbon copy same reason, same reason. The morals of the people were understandably bad, many Catholics had simply ceased to be Catholics, became Calvinists, call them Huguenots. Father Regis, as he came to be known, they would precede the bishop of this particle, large, far flung diocese, by several days and the bishop, of course, noticed the kind of a bishop. He would send them ahead to prepare the people and the bishop will build on what they had done. In one three year period of ministry in that part of France, there were numerous, and we might say miraculous conversions, both among Protestants to Catholicism and among bad Catholics, back to the faith. He was very successful in his preaching, teaching and convert work (notice never in a classroom). His success aroused the envy of many people, including priests, including his fellow Jesuits. The result was, superiors told him, to cease and desist.
Number thirteen in my notes, it reminds about a confession that I had in Cincinnati. Father Charles in the community he was known as Charlie had a delightful sense of humor and an immense following. He was always smiling. You know there are certain people that remind you, as you put these notes together who was Regis-like, well, he was very much like this Father Charles. Maybe I told you this. One day I asked him, I said "Father, you're always jovial, always happy; could you give me the secret of your happiness that I can tell others." 'Oh, sure' so I've told many people 'the secret of happiness is the ability to enjoy the cross.' Maybe I told at least you, sisters. He was the one who was charged with breaking the seal of confession. It was a false accusation. But was as a result, forbidden to ever hear confessions. All the years that I knew him, he was allowed to hear just a few confessions indoors. I chose him as my confessor, years before I was ordained.
His success therefore, aroused envy. If you want to be envied, it's a very simple formula succeed. If you don't want anyone to envy you, that's simple just fail. No one envies a failure. They may pity you, but they won't envy and this is in every enterprise; material, business, and the spiritual. Francis Regis begged several times to be sent on the North American missions. Well, he was never sent. That reminded me, I volunteered six times for the missions in Asia. They never sent me. They said my health wasn't good enough and my record was bad. So he figured (this is Regis) he figured 'I guess I'm too big a sinner' he just didn't deserve it. All the while, he kept with his mission, preaching and teaching. No matter how bad the weather was, and it could be very severe because we're talking about the Pyrenees Mountains. Much of his preaching was done in snow covered territory. On one occasion, there is a record of his being snow bound for three weeks couldn't get out. He had just a little bread left; he didn't know how long it would last. He had no bed how he survived no heat, sleeping on the ground. After the people were duly preached to by Francis Regis, the pastors back home would say, 'I just can not recognize my parishioners' (they were changed people). One of the witnesses at his process of beautification testified, I quote "I have seen him stand all day on a heap of snow at the top of a mountain, preaching and then (I underlined the adverb, and then) he'd go into Church and spend the whole night hearing confessions." I was hoping that my doctor, Doctor Dolahyde would come into Chapel before I said that. He didn't come yet, so he would understand why I do some very foolish things. I've had the bad example of saints to imitate. He would think nothing of going to a distant village. To get there in time he'd leave at three in the morning with apples in his pockets to keep him going and go on all day. By now, throughout the Catholic world, there are many social institutions named after him, Regis this, St. Regis that, because he did this is anticipating Vincent DePaul a great deal of social work, organizing nurses, getting them trained to take care of the sick, caring for the poor. He was more than once beaten to an inch of his life by the men who had lost the women whom he converted. And, let me tell you, there is no cruelty like that of a man who is sexually aroused and in this case, he was right, in thinking that Regis was depriving him or them of further gratification. He would almost expect the Lord to work miracles, which he did during his life time. Talk about not being cut to the same pattern. They were Jesuit saints, the best they could do during life was read about miracles. Regis worked them. And there's a certain divine logic. Robert Bellarmine or Canisius, in teaching, all I know, is that a miracle in the classroom wouldn't do any good. Regis was dealing with simple people, like the Master in Palestine, right? The sophisticates of Palestine, Christ, as, remember He admitted the lack of faith, "why waste your miraculous energy." Regis worked many authenticated miracles.
They are just finishing a conference on St. Francis Regis, a Jesuit saint and I just described his exploits doing all kinds of unwise things in search of souls. His life ended with what we would call an act of folly. Post factum, it is known that he suffers from a severe case of pleurisy. He had been exhausted. He was to give a mission however, and pleurisy or no pleurisy, the mission must go on. He spent hours during the mission in the confessional. Finally, one of the penitents came in and there was no sound from the confessors side of the confession. So they pulled him out of the confessional, he died a few hours later. Not surprisingly, he died in 1640, which makes him forty-three years old at the time of his death. You might say, no wonder. Oh, but that's also the way, at least some people became saints.
Now something about his spirituality. I would say the first and most obvious virtue was his zeal for the conversion of sinners. There is more hidden here that meets the eye. We can take the practice of charity so casually, we know, we're reminded by Christ that on the last day, we're going to be judged by our practice of charity, which doesn't mean paying a just wage. But, as Christ symbolically expressed it, "I was hungry, you gave me to eat, first you gave me to drink; naked, you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me." Well, if that is the general foundation on which all Christian morality is based, then we ask ourselves, what kind of charity are we to practice. Well evidently, we are to help people in their physical need, symbolized by hunger first, nakedness, but, most people, surely in our affluent society, are not all that poor; though there are poor people in America, believe me, but, the poverty of most people is a spiritual poverty. Now this is where I hope I'll be clear. We assume this is true in things material. Evidently, if a person is hungry and poor, somebody must give that person food, a hand-out as we call it, otherwise the person would starve. In India, by the way, and these are the lowest figures, the average deaths per month of starvation in India is 100,000. We assume, therefore, that where people are in material need, someone must supply that need, otherwise, those consequences will follow, which always follow on the lack of what we need, the ordinary means, say of sustaining life. What we're liable not to be so clear about is (watch this) the same principle holds good for spiritual needs someone else must provide, all right? which is not obvious, I know it's not. We're talking about the kind that Francis Regis labored to bring back to God. Sinners of his day, sinners of our day do not come back to God by themselves, all right? no more than a physically destitute person, by definition, can help himself, otherwise the person would not be destitute. The essence of charity, the heart of it, is if someone is in need God provides; He makes sure there are people in need and inspires others to meet their needs. Regis saw that principle and acted on it.
Second feature of his spirituality. He had a deep consciousness of the gravity of sin. We can not over-emphasize this in a society, I mean our own in the United States in which, except for knowing that there is such a word, sin has become a mockery. Did you know there is a perfume, a woman's perfume named, 'my sin.' That's no joke, unless there are jokes in Hell. Millions of unborn children throughout the world killed every year, 50,000,000, the figure that I'm quoting, every year. By now, I don't know how many people know that my number in Lake Villa is 356- 9307. What I found out is that there is so much blindness, not just to the suffering caused by sin; a woman I've never met, may never meet, but she knows somebody who knows somebody who suggested she might call, call from Houston husband, seven children; the wife knows he has three mistresses, she knows. The scandal, the anguish, and as we know the gravity of sin is not mainly, not mainly in the harm it does to other people or to the sinner, himself, and this is Regis' vision. The real gravity of sin is the offence against God. There is no other explanation, there can be none, for God becoming man and dying on the cross except because of sin and as I tell people, "look, look, there's only one short life and the older you get I can talk this language now, feel confident, in most cases I won't be challenged the longer you live, the shorter the span of time you've already lived. It seems like 35 days that I've been ordained instead of 35 years. One life, one death, one judgement and then one endless eternity. Listen to this, and this is Regis insight. A sinner by himself will never wake from his stupor unless somebody arouses him, shakes him. He realized the gravity of sin, made a fool of himself, exhausted himself to save sinners from their own folly.
Third feature and how we need to learn this one. He didn't spend those long hours in the confessional because people had been in the habit of going to confession quite the contrary. Neglect on the part of the priest and the corresponding neglect on the part of the people. The ten, twelve and more hours on end he spent in the confessional, well, because the people needed it. I never dreamt, I never dreamt I would be called as I was, just before I left this morning, to return to Virginia where I taught this summer this is from the Chancery Bishop Welch: would I please come back to the parish where I had been staying (I wasn't teaching there, I was just staying there, but of course, I have my daily Mass and little homily) would I come there during October and November. I thought I had lost every friend in the parish. I told them, I was expecting people to walk out Sunday, crowded Mass, I knew everybody would go to Communion. I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I was hearing confessions yesterday, almost nobody went to confession. You can not all be that sinless. Pray the dear God to enlighten bishops and priests to preach the necessity of sacramental absolution.
And my last feature, out of many that I could share with you, with my confrere, John Francis Regis. The last thing you might expect me to say, 'Father, you're joking.' "No I'm not." Part of his spirituality was exhaustion. Now, exhaustion is not a virtue, I know, I know my theology, but I also know that if we're going to serve others the way God wants us to in order to merit Heaven for ourselves and help others get there, we have got to work, work, work, work hard. And the natural effect of working is exhaustion. It was not John Francis Regis who defined work, 'is that which a man would rather not be doing if he could be doing something else.' No saint would define work by those terms, labor. Let's ask St. Francis Regis to teach us something of his own great love for Jesus Christ shown in his exhausting love for others. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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