By Barry Michaels
When Pope Benedict XVI recently announced a special Year for Priests to be observed in the Church (June 19, 2009 -- June 19, 2010), he noted that the timing was not arbitrary. The year coincides, he said, with the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, "a true example of a pastor at the service of Christ's flock."
But who exactly is St. John Vianney, and why was his life and ministry so significant that the Pope wants to remember him in such a prominent way?
Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney was born May 8, 1786, into a farming family in Dardilly, a tiny community near Lyons, France. His parents, Matthew and Marie, had five other children as well.
He was a child during the French Revolution, a time of intense persecution of the Church in France. John attended Mass clandestinely with his family, meeting others in private homes or barns late at night. The priests who offered these Masses were fugitives from the law who had refused to take an oath of faithfulness to the nation rather than the Church and faced execution if caught.
In fact, the Vianney home became a refuge for these fugitive priests. One of them heard 11-year-old John's first confession in their home. John received his first Communion, at age 13, at a Mass conducted in a private home, with bales of hay stacked against the windows.
What a remarkable time for a boy to develop his first impressions of what being Catholic, and being a priest, was all about!
At 19, John decided to become a priest. His studies were interrupted, though, when he was drafted into the French army, an event which led to an intriguing period of the young man's life. At that time Napoleon's army was at war with Spain.
John reported for duty but soon became ill and was hospitalized. At the hospital, he was ordered to return to his unit, which would be setting out for the field of battle in Spain. But by the time he reached his barracks, the unit had left without him. Soldiers at the post sent him to catch up on foot.
Along the way, John encountered a group of military deserters, hiding in the forest to avoid arrest. They led him to a farm in a small community, where he hid for the next 16 months, even taking a false name. Only the announcement of an amnesty allowed him to come out of hiding.
John returned to theological studies, where his academic achievement was unimpressive. Having grown up with little schooling, he simply was not equipped to handle academic studies, and particularly the Latin language.
At one point he was actually dismissed from the seminary. But it was through the intervention and tutoring of a holy priest named Father Balley that John was ordained on Aug. 13, 1815, following a dispensation from a generous diocesan official.
His first few years of priesthood were spent as assistant at Father Balley's parish. The two were close friends, and Father Balley provided an excellent example to the new priest.
In February 1818, Father Balley died, and Father Vianney received a new assignment: curé (pastor) of the parish in the village of Ars (population 230). It was an assignment he would carry out for the rest of his life, in a way that the village, as well as the universal Church, would never forget.
When he arrived in Ars, John found that most people had grown careless in practicing their faith. Many ignored Sunday Mass, and those that did come yawned indifferently in their pews, paying more attention to what others were wearing than to the liturgy.
In response, he preached long sermons, criticizing those who worked on Sundays, drank at taverns, went to dances and ignored prayer. He often reminded them of the possibility of hell.
In his sermons and lessons, he always used homey images that drew on family and farming life.
Once, for example, when a group of people asked why they couldn't be good Christians by praying to God on their own, rather than having to be a part of the Church, John replied:
"My friends, what would you think of a child if it were to say, 'I love my father dearly, but as for my mother, I have no wish ever to see her again?'"
Three aspects of his priestly ministry appear most prominently: the orphanage he founded, his catechism lessons, and his ministry in the confessional.
John frequently said that his favorite activity was involvement in the orphanage he founded in Ars. He began plans for the home just two years after his arrival and chose two local women to administer it. He purchased a house and, in November 1824, opened a free school for girls in Ars.
Soon after that, he began taking in orphans and children of destitute families to live there. For two decades, as many as 60 children at a time lived in the home, and John relished his time with them. In 1848, hoping to prepare the institution to carry on after his death, he entrusted it to a group of sisters. But without his active involvement, the orphanage languished and eventually closed.
He also became well known for his catechism lessons. These started out as daily lessons to the orphans, but soon visitors began attending, too, and the crowds became large.
At 11 a.m. each day, he would sit before the group, read a brief passage from the catechism and then explain the teaching. These lessons were rich in earthy illustrations and examples, and attendance at them became an important part of a visit to Ars for the crowds that came.
Nevertheless, the main reason for the crowds was John's ministry in the confessional. From his earliest days in Ars, the new pastor became popular as a wise confessor. People began to visit from other locales in order to go to him for confession, and soon hundreds were visiting every day.
For several decades, he spent 12 to 16 hours every day hearing confessions! By the end of his life, Ars was receiving more than 100,000 pilgrims per year.
In the early days, John, like many priests of his day, was a rigorous and demanding confessor. He sometimes refused absolution to penitents. But as time went on, his practice changed, and he became far more understanding of people's faults.
When he was criticized on one occasion for giving penances that were too light, he said, "I give them a small penance, and the remainder I perform in their stead."
Not surprisingly, many people experienced extraordinary conversions through their encounters with him in the confessional.
The story of St. John Vianney is a rich one, with intriguing reports of miracles, a deep prayer life and battles with the devil himself. He was known to read souls in the confessional and to possess, at times, supernatural knowledge of the past and the future. He sometimes performed healings, especially of children, and worked several miracles to obtain money for his charities and food for orphans.
The Curéof Ars, as he is popularly known, died Aug. 4, 1859, at the age of 73. He was beatified in 1905 by Pope St. Pius X and canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. He is now venerated as the patron saint of parish priests -- a most worthy role model in this Year for Priests. TCA
Let sacred ministers think over the offices and burdens they have assumed by looking at St. John M. Vianney as if he were a mirror. "A terrible disaster strikes us Curés," the holy man complained, "when our spirit grows lazy and careless." If they want to imitate the Curé of Ars more closely … then let these priests ask themselves what kind of love they have for those whom God has entrusted to their care and for whom Christ has died!
Because of human liberty and of events beyond all human control, the efforts of even the holiest of men will sometimes fail. But a priest ought to remember that in the mysterious counsels of Divine Providence, the eternal fate of many men is bound up with his pastoral interest and care and the example of his priestly life. -- Pope John XXIII, encyclical letter Sacerdotti Nostri Primordia on St. John Vianney (1959)
Together we wish to thank Christ, the Prince of Pastors, for this extraordinary model of priestly life and service which the saintly Curé of Ars offers to the whole Church, and above all to us priests. How many of us prepared ourselves for the priesthood, or today exercise the difficult task of caring for souls, having before our eyes the figure of St. John Mary Vianney! His example cannot be forgotten. More than ever we need his witness, his intercession, in order to face the situations of our times…. Let us not doubt that he still presents to us today that great evangelical challenge. I therefore invite you now to meditate on our priesthood in the presence of this matchless pastor who illustrates both the fullest realization of the priestly ministry and the holiness of the minister. -- Pope John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday (1986)
In his time the Curé of Ars was able to transform the hearts and the lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord's merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love. Thanks to the Word, and the sacraments of Jesus, John Mary Vianney built up his flock, although he often trembled from a conviction of his personal inadequacy, and desired more than once to withdraw from the responsibilities of the parish ministry out of a sense of his unworthiness. Nonetheless, with exemplary obedience he never abandoned his post, consumed as he was by apostolic zeal for the salvation of souls. -- Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to Brother Priests on the Year for Priests (2009)
Barry Michaels' most recent book is "Saved in Hope: Your Guide to Spe Salvi"(Pauline Books & Media, 2009).
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