June 19 of this year completed the Holy Father’s special invitation to the entire Catholic World to pray for priests. His “Year for Priests” looked to a small village of Ars in France, not far from the great city of Lyons. There, shortly after the French Revolution and Napoleon, the local Curé, Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, shepherded the flock of less than 300 persons for over a period of more than 50 years. And during this special year, Pope Benedict XVI named St. John Vianney, that humble priest, more effectively named the Curé of Ars, the patron of all priests throughout the world and for every age.
The France of today, with its 186-mph TOV passenger trains, its majestic city of Paris, its exquisite food and wine and its remarkable quality of life definitely differs from the France that the Curé knew over 150 years ago. As a child, he knew the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars. He knew a Church that was suppressed by the State, which persecuted the Church and even inflicted the death penalty on clergy that interfered.
His life as a priest was in an agrarian setting in a very small village. I often wonder how this seemingly ordinary and plain parish priest would interact in the face of modern-day France and all the rapid changes in our world. I wonder if he would survive the world today.
His stature was not tough but rather delicate; his health was often not at its best, even as a young priest. However, as the pope named him the patron of all priests, I do see a clear attraction to the saint, an attraction confirmed by the fact that many popes over the past 150 years have been drawn to this quiet “ordinary” parish priest.
This attraction to the Curé has always been there. Even as a small boy who commonly played with the other boys of the village, John was known by his peers as extraordinary for his piety and love for prayer. At times his friends would poke fun at his piety, but more often than not they were happy to have him as their good friend. He often would withdraw from the play area to find some quiet time for prayer to Jesus or Mother Mary. Adults also felt a strong attraction to the genuine goodness of this boy.
During the French Revolution his devoutly Catholic family risked being arrested for attending Masses secretly celebrated in private homes. His First Holy Communion celebration was “under cover” with other children in a home, lest the families provoke the Revolutionaries. But this did not disturb young John who described his First Holy Communion as one of the greatest days of his life. His family later recalled the deep piety of his young boyhood on the day of his First Communion.
Although John’s father recognized his son’s deep piety, he resisted the boy’s fervent desire to respond to the call of priesthood. The family farm had to be worked, and finances were tight. John was needed at home, and the family did not have the financial resources for him to pursue studies in the priesthood. However, after much time and wrestling with his own resistance, John’s father realized that little or nothing would stop his son from responding to God’s call.
The Catholic schools were closed during the French Revolution, and John was found lacking in his command of the Latin language since he had not had the benefit of a classical background. At that time both philosophy and theology in the seminary were lectured and taught in Latin, as well as both written and oral exams given in the Latin language.
Fortunately a devout priest by the name of Father Bailey, who had seminary faculty background, became a strong advocate for John and tutored him in his studies of philosophy and theology. But the young seminarian’s struggle with philosophy and theology was clearly compensated by his goodness, zeal and undivided heart. John recalled the day of his priestly ordination as the greatest day of his life. It was a significant event for the entire community, the town and the Vianney family.
As a newly ordained priest John was overjoyed to find out that his first priestly assignment would be as parochial vicar or assistant to the same holy priest who had tutored him through seminary studies. His first pastor, though already up in years, taught John the basics of priestly ministry and service. John always remained grateful for all that he learned from the presence and example of this venerable priest.
Soon came the call from the bishop that John was to become the next Curé in the small town of Ars. To his new assignment he actually walked several kilometers, carrying his luggage. Losing the way, he attempted to ask passersby for directions. However, since most did not speak the French language but a dialect, they did not understand him.
Finally, a young boy understood the new priest and pointed him in the direction of Ars. John thanked the boy with a remark now well known to all who are devoted to the Curé, “You have shown me the way to Ars, and now I will show you the way to Heaven.”
Beyond all shadow of a doubt Ars was not a Lyon or a Paris. During the French Revolution the small parish church of St. Sixtus had been closed and turned into a social and meeting place. In its small sanctuary, card games were played and smoking permitted by the Sons of the Revolution.
When the Curé arrived in Ars, the scars of the French Revolution were still visible and still affected the practice of the Catholic Faith. Mass attendance and the observation of Sunday as a day of rest were taken very lightly by the people. Instead, dance halls and bars were packed full, too often at the expense of the family, depriving children of proper food and clothing.
But even with all these negative forces, the Faith was not dead, but rather in need of revival. The whole town, including the town mayor, the school administrators and even the bar and dance hall owners welcomed the new Curé. All were attracted to his goodness.
He began to teach, preach, visit each household of the parish, and let his presence be felt in the community. He spent hours in prayer, especially in the parish Church, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. In his instruction and formation of the faithful, his method was always to point the way to heaven. He continuously reminded his flock of the reality of sin — both mortal and venial — and the reality of hell, while at the same time never forgetting to recognize God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The Curé’s younger years as a priest were marked by extreme measures of fasting and even physical penances such as a hair shirt and a small whip — practices he later assessed as harsh and embraced due to youthful inexperience. His visible goodness and deep commitment to prayer gradually brought about a return of the villagers to Sunday Mass and the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.
Christian instruction became alive again with adults fully participating, and the dance halls and bars became less frequented. The bar owners became less welcoming to the Curé since he was bad for business. In fact the bar and dance hall owners once made an unsuccessful attempt to have the Curé transferred by the bishop.
The Curé is best remembered for the magnetic attraction the people had to him as a confessor. In his later years as a priest, people came to him from all over France for confession with him; sometimes waiting over three days. He heard confessions for 14 hours a day. In the presence of the Curé, people experienced a deep conversion of life, peace, forgiveness and the Grace of God.
The Curé was not only steeped in prayer, Word, and sacrifice, but was also very committed to the poor and the needy. He founded the Providence House in Ars for orphans and poverty-laden children. At Providence House children in great numbers were fed, sheltered and educated. Soon it was bursting at the seams, requiring expansion and staffing by a community of religious Sisters.
The sick, to whom the Curé often ministered, claimed healings through his instrumentality. When they returned to say thank you, he was quick to respond that all healing and favors were not of his doing but from the Lord and through the intercession of his favorite saint, St. Philomena, virgin and martyr of the Church.
Humanly speaking, the Curé often thought that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. He thought that he would have done better as a priest to live his calling in the quiet of a monastery instead of being constantly surrounded by people. But every time he attempted to “flee from it all,” he did not leave Ars.
Somehow he knew that the Holy Spirit was calling him to stay. In the end, most of his years as a priest were spent at Ars. His life and his goodness characterized the small parish where his heart was with the people and for the salvation of their souls.
As said before, should the same Curé live today in our present world as we know it, I am not sure he could survive the complexities of this age. He waged a war against town bars and dance halls and won. I am not certain if he could win a war against the drugs, alcohol, violence and addictions that prevail in our world today. Would he be able to turn it all around?
I know many devout Christians who wage such spiritual wars, but most often without total success. Nevertheless, the life of St. John Vianney convinces me that it is not so much the society in which the Curé ministered and worked that counted, but rather his absolute fidelity to his calling. God asks us to be faithful rather than successful, and the Curé of Ars served as a faithful priest.
His fidelity was marked by his tremendous love for the Mass, his daily prayers, his love for the Liturgy of the Hours, his calling as a parish priest totally in love with the pastoral care of souls. He was generous, without guile, faithful and wholehearted in commitment, and I think that is why many popes, priests and people have experienced a strong attraction to him as an example for all priests everywhere and for every age.
In short, the signs of the times for the Curé then, were very different from the signs of the times today. However, the Word of God, like a two-edged sword, is eternal and never passes away. The Curé remained faithful to the Eternal Word without compromise. It all happened in a small village to a humble, quite ordinary priest who gave of himself wholeheartedly for the sake of Christ and His Church and who was always a man for others.
The Catholic world, a world embracing a vast variety of cultures, races and nations, recently completed its “Year for Priests.” Even in an ever-changing world, it can be said that one thing doesn’t change — a faithful priest in the midst of the assembly for the salvation of souls and the salvation of the whole world.
St. John Vianney — Curé of Ars — Pray for us. “Au revoir.” TP
Msgr. Cariglio is judicial vicar for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.