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The saint who risked his life rescuing prostitutes

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St. John Francis Regis loved nothing more than to reconcile a sinner to God

In 1806, a struggling seminarian made a pilgrimage to a remote village in the French Alps. He longed to be a priest, but all the desire in the world couldn’t make him a good enough student. Kneeling at the tomb of St. John Francis Regis, the young man put his vocation into the hands of this great priest. More than half a century later, as he lay dying, St. John Vianney testified to the witness and the intercession of St. John Francis Regis: “Everything good that I have done, I owe to him.”

Born in France in 1597, Regis was remarkably holy from childhood. He was uninterested in children’s games, preferring instead to contemplate the things of God. Sensitive and devout as he was, he managed not to be insufferable and was well-liked by his peers. At 19, he entered the Jesuit order and began to prepare for a priestly ministry that would save thousands of souls.

Though he longed for the mission fields of North America, there to give his life with the likes of Isaac Jogues, Regis was sent instead to the mission fields of France. In the years since the Protestant Reformation, many French Catholics had become Protestant. Others were so disillusioned by the Wars of Religion that they had abandoned Christianity entirely. Poverty had forced countless women into prostitution and many towns were entirely without priests — often because the townspeople had killed or driven them out and burned down the church! Many of the priests who remained were woefully ill-educated, ordained hurriedly to replace the martyred thousands.

It seemed a hopeless situation, but Fr. Regis knew that God had done great things with poorer instruments, so off he went. He began by feeding the poor and caring for the sick, and soon they were turning out to listen to his sermons. As he preached simply but powerfully, the crowds multiplied. After one parish mission in Sommieres, a town that was almost entirely Protestant, nearly every inhabitant returned to the Catholic faith.

Every summer, Father Regis worked in town, preaching, hearing confessions, and serving the poor. Like St. Vitalis of Gaza, he had a particular ministry to prostitutes, pounding on brothel doors and demanding that new “recruits” be given into his custody. Sometimes, he would see a woman being dragged off by an attacker and would throw himself upon the man, pulling the woman from the grasp of her assailant and allowing himself to be beaten instead.

This work to rescue victims of human trafficking didn’t earn him many friends. Instead, Fr. Regis received frequent death threats, many of which resulted in actual attacks. Each time, his life was saved, whether by Providence or by outright miracle. He established a refuge for rescued women, obtained training in lacemaking for them so that they could support themselves, founded a group of charitable women, and miraculously multiplied grain to feed the poor. But mostly, he preached and heard confessions for hours on end, loving nothing more than to reconcile a sinner to God.

Regis’ mission wasn’t only to towns; the young man who had longed to evangelize the frozen wilds of Canada had snow aplenty in the French Alps. Summers he spent in town, but winters he hiked. Leaving in the wee hours of the morning, he climbed mountains, pushed through waist-deep snow, and arrived in each town with no thought for food or rest. Instead, he went straight to the church to hear confessions.

On one particularly treacherous journey, Fr. Regis slipped and broke his leg. Leaning on his companion, he managed to make it to town, where he refused the help of the doctor in favor of spending a few hours in the confessional. When he emerged several hours later, his badly broken leg had been healed.

In the country as well as in the city, he had great success in preaching. He slept little and ate less, glad to sit in the confessional for many hours each day. Fr. Regis knew that in confession a priest is the hands of Christ dragging sinners back from the brink of damnation, and nothing could keep him from that sacred duty.

It was this commitment that ultimately killed him. Trapped in a snowstorm, Fr. Regis had caught a bad chill, but refused to rest when souls were on the line. Instead, he continued to preach and hear confessions hour after hour until finally he collapsed in the confessional. When he came to, he insisted on hearing more confessions until he lost consciousness again two hours later. Finally, on December 31, 1640, he died as he had lived: entirely poured out for souls.

On June 16, the Feast of St. John Francis Regis, let’s ask his intercession for priests. May God give our priests a deep love of the sacraments, a deep love of souls, and the courage to pour themselves out in love. St. John Francis Regis, pray for us!

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