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The Saints of Wuhan: Isolation, Suffering, and the Breath of Faith

Providence often carries us in unexpected directions. When I was in Wuhan, China, some time ago conducting research on the martyr saints of that area, I was certain that almost no one from my native U.S. had ever heard of Wuhan, and I also thought that they never would hear of Wuhan. I was wrong. “Wuhan” is now in the common lexicon of nearly every person on earth.

Today I would like to offer some remarks on two Catholic missionaries – both Vincentians (that is, members of the congregation of priests founded by St. Vincent de Paul [1581-1660]) – who were martyred in a district of Wuhan: Saint Francis-Regis Clet, CM, (1748-1820) and Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, CM, (1802-1840). We are all anxiously aware of the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping across our planet, and there is much about how these two Catholic martyrs suffered and died that will sound familiar to those who know how this particular illness afflicts those who have it. Saints Clet and Perboyre lived in fear because of the chaos and turbulence that churned around them; they were isolated; and they died from strangulation. They are among the few Catholic saints who died because they could not breathe.

These saints of China were canonized not only for how they suffered and died, but also for their heroic witness of charity and faith. The famous Carmelite nun, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), was so impressed by these two martyrs of Wuhan that she kept in her personal prayer-book a holy card of Saint Perboyre. I shall organize my remarks into four brief sections: first, I will provide a few details about the lives of Saints Clet and Perboyre; second, I will describe the fear they experienced before their deaths; third, I shall describe their isolation; and fourth, I will recount the holiness and courage they displayed during their final suffering and death in Wuhan, China.

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