On the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI designated a “Year for Priests” to conclude on the same solemnity in 2010. The Holy Father hoped thereby “to encourage priests in striving for spiritual perfection on which, above all, the effectiveness of their ministry depends,” and to make clear to all “the importance of the priest’s role and mission in the Church and in contemporary society.”
This Year for Priests was inaugurated in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the entry into eternal life of St. John Mary Vianney, who died in 1859. On the 80th anniversary of his death, in 1929, the cure of Ars—that is, the local pastor in the southeastern French town of Ars—was named the patron saint of parish priests by Pope Pius XI.
St. John-Mary-Baptist Vianney—the third being his confirmation name—was born on May 8, 1786, at Dardilly, France, in the province of the Rhône and about eight miles from the second-largest city of France, Lyons. Like his divine Master and Model—who as an adult never left his native land except for a short visit on foot to Sidon in modern-day Lebanon—John never saw or visited any city apart from Lyons in his long life except for Grenoble, where he had to walk to be ordained. He was a farmer’s son, and throughout his entire priesthood he ministered to a farming community which only numbered about 230 souls when he arrived there in 1818.
The dates of his life reveal that St. John lived in “interesting times.” He was born just three years before the cataclysm that was the French Revolution. In his earliest years he and his family worshipped in an underground Church not unlike the church of the catacombs of the early Christians. (See “The Anti-Catholic French Revolution,” below.)
That he was able to get ordained at all in the midst of the turmoil of the times was something of a minor miracle. At one point in his early 20s, he was conscripted into Napoleon’s army and ordered to Spain. On the way, the young recruit fell ill, got separated from his unit, and, as a result, became officially a deserter. He had to go into hiding for more than a year until Napoleon declared an amnesty for deserters in 1810.
A Model of Goodness
Returning home, John was determined to pursue the vocation to the priesthood that he had long discerned and hoped for. Previously, his father had not allowed him to leave the farm to pursue the necessary studies. When he did finally begin his studies, he did not do well. Like St. Ignatius of Loyola, he was older than the other boys, who teased and patronized him. Latin in particular proved difficult for him; just as some people have no ear for music, so he apparently had no grasp of the conjugation of verbs or the declension of nouns. Still, he was not stupid (though in his humility he sometimes characterized himself as such). Rather, throughout all his life he evidenced what might be called a peasant shrewdness—even sharpness. Biographical accounts of his life have exaggerated his academic deficiencies. After all, he had only had two years of formal schooling when he began his studies for the priesthood.
In 1813, he entered the major seminary at Lyons, where the instruction was in Latin. Though his goodness was recognized and allowances made for him, he made little headway. He had been coached privately by his own saintly parish priest, Fr. Balley, who early recognized what sort of person he was dealing with. Nonetheless young John suffered a breakdown at his oral examinations, and he failed to pass. The examiners were unwilling to recommend him for ordination.
Fr. Balley immediately began an appeal process on behalf of the candidate he styled “the most unlearned but the most devout seminarian in Lyons.” As a result of this effort, a wise vicar-general was moved to ask the really essential question: “Is John Vianney good”? Came the reply: “He is a model of goodness.” “Very well, let him be ordained. The grace of God will do the rest.”
Thus it was that on June 2, 1814, the young candidate received minor orders and the subdiaconate. In June 1815, just five days after the battle of Waterloo, he was ordained deacon at the age of 29. In August he was ordained to the sacred priesthood. At first, he was forbidden to hear confessions because of what was considered his deficient formation. He would become one of the most famous confessors in the history of the Church.
Instill the Love of God
In his first couple years of priesthood, John was assistant to his mentor and tutor, Fr. Balley. Both priests practiced a strict asceticism and self-discipline, including wearing a hair shirt and self-scourging. (And each reported the other to the bishop as being too strict in his ascetical practices!) Shortly after Fr. Balley’s death in 1817, his young assistant was summoned by the vicar general, who told him: “Thirty miles from here . . . the village of Ars is without a curé . . . There is not much love of God in this village. Your job will be to instill it.”
On the evening of February 9, 1818, as Fr. Vianney approached the village of Ars on foot, he lost his way in the mist and asked a shepherd boy named Antoine Givre for directions. The boy readily obliged, whereupon the curé said to him: “You have shown me the road to Ars. I will show you the road to heaven.” Forty-one years later, at the saint’s funeral, the elderly Antoine Givre led the public procession that followed the coffin.
Ars was a small, unprepossessing village with only two streets. It did, however, boast no fewer than four taverns, against which the new pastor would shortly be inveighing. The small church was in disrepair. Revolutionaries had pulled down the steeple, and the church bell hung precariously between two supports. The sanctuary lamp was extinguished and the tabernacle was empty. The new priest gradually refurbished, enlarged, and beautified the church, even acquiring new church bells. Today, a basilica on the site holds the incorrupt body of St. John Vianney. But all that would only come with time. On the morning after his arrival, Fr. Vianney resumed the ringing of the church bell for the Angelus and the early Mass that followed. This would henceforth be his daily custom, and he never stopped or looked back after that.
The World Comes to Ars
The means and methods of the curé of Ars were not extraordinary; they were the means and methods available to any Catholic priest. (See “The Curé’s Methods of Evangelization,” below.) On the other hand, he was extraordinary. And he had an extraordinary effect on almost everyone he met. He once rather naïvely recalled: “I began to speak about the love of God. Apparently everything went all right. Everybody wept.” When questioned, his parishioners replied: “Our curé is a saint. We must obey him.” And they did obey him. Very soon it was being said that Ars was no longer Ars. Several of the taverns even had to close down because of a lack of business.
Moreover, the curé ended up converting many more than just the people of his parish, in part through missions he occasionally preached in surrounding towns. Also, word began to spread about the work of the curé of Ars, especially in the confessional, where he was spending more of his time. By 1827, after being pastor for nearly a decade, about 20 visitors a day were coming. Some of them were curious or mere onlookers; others, however, in increasing numbers, came to stand in line for confession or spiritual direction. By 1845, 300 to 400 were coming every day. A special office was set up at the railroad station in Lyons to sell tickets for Ars. Special horse carriages met the trains from Paris. Hotels and guesthouses were built. The waiting period for confession with the curé at times grew to a full week. During the last year of his life, more than 100,000 visitors passed through Ars.
St. John obviously did not accomplish all this without supernatural help. The vicar-general who approved his candidacy for ordination had not exaggerated when he said that “the grace of God would do the rest.” The curé himself ascribed it all to grace. Moreover, his ministrations were occasionally supplemented by actual miracles. Once an empty barn loft was suddenly found to be overflowing with grain. Another time a baker testified that when water was added to a remnant of flour at the saint’s direction, he was able to bake no less than ten 20-pound loaves of bread. A tumor on a boy’s face was instantly healed when the curé touched it.
Like some other great confessors in the history of the Church, the curé sometimes seemed to know the nature of a penitent’s problem before it was mentioned it, and he would remind penitents of sins they had failed to confess. Once in a while he would refuse Communion to someone who had not been to confession. On one occasion a farmer, knowing the curé was coming to see him, tried to hide in his haystack; arriving there, the curé made a beeline to the haystack, pulled the man out, and laughingly said, “You are upset to see me here, but God sees you always!”
On another occasion, a lady came to consult him because she was unhappy with her son’s choice of girl to marry; while she was waiting in line, the curé burst unexpectedly out of the door of the confessional, came to her and said: “Let them marry! They will be very happy together!”
The curé regularly disavowed any responsibility for such miraculous happenings and instead ascribed them to the intercession of St. Philomena (an early Christian martyr whose bones had been discovered in an excavation in 1802, after which popular devotions to her grew up). He dedicated a special altar to her in his church and insisted that supernormal occurrences were owing to her intercession.
There were other supernatural manifestations which were not so benign, and which the curé believed to be persecutions by the devil. Such phenomena, sometimes witnessed by others, included strange taunting voices, dislocations of objects, and the unexplained burning of the saint’s bed, among other things. These manifestations of an evil spirit recurred for years.
The saint tended to be dismissive, scornful, and even contemptuous of his supernatural foe, believing him to be utterly defeated already and made an outcast by the cross of Jesus Christ. “You must be frightened,” another priest once said to him. “One gets used to everything” was the saint’s laconic reply.
It surely had to be the cross of Christ and the grace of God, though, that enabled the curé to perform his extraordinary spiritual work over so many years. On his deathbed, there were still several penitents kneeling by his bedside, next to his bishop who had arrived in haste. At two in the morning, on August 4, 1859, amid thunder and lightning, the priest John Vianney passed into eternal life. Today on the Roman calendar, August 4 marks his feast day. It has been remarked that “only on the Day of Judgment will one know how many souls were saved in Ars.”
How Great Is the Priest
It is no surprise that the Catholic Church which he served so faithfully and fruitfully now designates him the patron saint of parish priests.
In this Year for Priests, it is worthwhile citing some of the things that he said about priests and the priesthood:
- The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.
- When one wants to destroy religion, one begins by attacking the priests.
- At the sight of a steeple, you can say, “What’s in there? The body of the Lord. Because a priest passed by and said holy Mass.”
- A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest gift the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.
- O how great is the priest!—If he realized what he is, he would die . . . God obeys him: He utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host . . .
In his “Letter for the Year of Priests,” Pope Benedict said that “the curé of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people.” He further noted how St. John Vianney “spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift entrusted to human creatures.”
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Catholic Church in France and in the other extensive territories then incorporated into the (short-lived) Napoleonic Empire was to most intents and purposes destroyed and seemingly on the way to extinction. A century later, however, the Catholic Church looked back on a period that marked one of the most remarkable revivals of religious faith and practice in the entire 2000-year history of the Church, including what perhaps amounted to one of the greatest single bursts of missionary expansion of the Church’s history.
This great revival of Catholic religious faith and practice, followed by the Church’s great 19th-century missionary surge, began in France, where the Church had been most thoroughly devastated. Moreover, a very large percentage, if not a majority, of the missionaries who then began fanning out to the ends of the earth were also, initially, French. For one of those “brief shining moments,” the eldest daughter of the Church came into her own again for a time. And all of this came about in large part because of the saints who rose up to restore the faith which the Revolution had tried so hard to eradicate. At the head of this saintly company is St. John-Mary-Baptist Vianney (1786-1859), the holy curé of Ars and patron saint of parish priests.
The Anti-Catholic French Revolution
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, enacted by the revolutionary government in 1790, aimed to convert the Church into a department of the state. Church properties were confiscated on a massive scale, many priests and nuns were laicized and religious orders abolished, and the clergy were required to swear a loyalty oath to the government that was trying to destroy them. Most of the bishops and many of the priests refused and were rendered destitute, forced into exile, and even put to death. Meanwhile, the “constitutional” clergy that remained or were newly recruited could not command the loyalty of the faithful.
The family of John Vianney had to attend secret Masses celebrated by whatever fugitive priest happened to be in the neighborhood. Young John received his instruction for First Communion from two laicized nuns. The ceremony took place in a private house with windows shuttered so that the Mass candles could not be seen from outside.
It is no exaggeration to say that the French Revolution aimed to destroy the Catholic Church in France, or at least bring the Church under the total control of the state.
The extent to which the French Revolution partially succeeded in destroying the Church is little realized today, but this devastation helps to account for the de-Christianization which the young Fr. Vianney encountered when he was first assigned to the village of Ars, where no priest had been present for many years.
The Curé’s Methods of Evangelization
Precisely because the tenure of St. John Vianney in his parish of Ars was so remarkable, and because his fame eventually became so great and spread so far, it is important to note that there was nothing all that remarkable about his methods. Essentially he did what any priest does: He preached the word and administered the sacraments; he counseled the faithful and admonished sinners; he taught the catechism; he visited the sick and comforted the dying. One of his first acts in Ars was to pay a visit in person to every single inhabitant. Another thing that quickly impressed his parishioners was the time that he spent in the church—whether for Mass, confessions, baptisms or other sacraments, catechism lessons, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Angelus, the rosary. All these things were revived and soon became commonplace in Ars.
Sometimes the faithful of Ars would find their pastor before dawn kneeling at the altar, arms outstretched, praying to God with words such as: “Convert my parish. If you do not convert my parish, it is because I have not deserved it.” This was a constant theme with him; he saw the conversion of his parish as his responsibility as a priest.
He not only prayed to God about it. He regularly spoke directly to his parishioners themselves about this conversion. Nor did he fail to speak plainly, often bluntly. There can be no doubt that he was quite strict by the standards of the day—not to speak of our day! He set himself firmly and vocally against religious and doctrinal ignorance and lax practice, against cursing and blasphemy, against the work on Sundays to which his farmers were habitually prone, and against excessive pleasure seeking, especially drinking and dancing. Addiction to drink, he thought, not only impoverished families, it killed souls. Dancing, in his view, led to greater moral laxity and impurity.
He was strict in his preaching, but, especially later in his life, he was said to exhibit in confession “a fire of tenderness and mercy.” He seemed to have an intuitive grasp of questions of conscience more unerring than if he had studied moral theology for many years. His preaching was always sound and solid, if not particularly eloquent. What seemed to impress his hearers was what someone called his “obliviousness to self,” his constant deep earnestness, his intensity, and what he obviously considered the urgency of getting the truths of the gospel out so that people could believe and act on them. In the first sermon he delivered to his parishioners, he cried out:
Christ wept over Jerusalem . . . I weep over you. How can I help weeping, my brethren? Hell exists. It is not my invention. God has told us. And you pay no heed. You do all that is necessary to be sent to it. You blaspheme the name of God. You spend all your evenings in the cabarets. You give yourselves to the sinful pleasures of dancing. You steal from your neighbor’s field. You do a world of things which are offenses against God. Do you think that God does not see you? He sees you, my children, as I see you, and you shall be treated accordingly. What misery! Hell exists. I beg you, think of hell. Do you think that your curé will let you be cast into hell to burn there forever and ever?
What is most striking about the sermons is the degree to which they simply reflect and repeat the gospel of Jesus Christ. One will find this to be generally true of the saints: The saints are people who take the gospel of Jesus Christ more seriously than the rest of us do. With them the gospel is fully internalized. They think that we are not only supposed to hear the Word; they think that we are supposed to act constantly on it and always put it first in our lives. This was certainly true of St. John Vianney.
Diary of a Country Priest
The daily schedule of this one-time humble country pastor needs to be described to understand how he could manage the influx of visitors and penitents. For more than 30 years he hardly slept or ate, an undeniably superhuman regimen that, in the words of the curé, depended entirely on grace.
- 1:00 a.m. Arrive at church
- 1:00 – 6:00 a.m. Women’s confessions
- 6:00 a.m. Angelus followed by Mass
- 6:30 – 8:00 a.m. Meet with parishioners; dispense blessings
- 8:00 a.m. Breakfast at orphanage
- 8:30 – 11:00 a.m. Men’s confessions (break for prayer)
- 11:00 a.m. Catechesis at orphanage
- 12 noon Angelus followed by lunch
- 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. Sick calls
- 2:00 – 5:00 p.m. Women’s confessions
- 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. Men’s confessions
- 10:00 p.m. Depart church for rectory
- Fr. Bartholomew O’Brien, The Curé of Ars, Patron Saint of Parish Priests
- The Sermons of the Curé of Ars
- Fr. William George Rutler, The Curé d’Ars Today