On August 4 2009, the Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of the death of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the Holy Curé of Ars, patron saint of both religious and diocesan priests. To mark the anniversary, Pope Benedict XVI declared a special “Year for Priests”, encouraging them to follow the example of the great nineteenth century French saint.
Beginning at a young age and throughout his life as a priest, St. Jean-Marie Vianney demonstrated great sacrifices through fasting, prayer and sleep depravation in order to meet the needs and demands of thousands of parishioners who sought confession and his counsel on a daily basis. .. The young seminarian will find Vianney’s life to be a genuine exhortation which will operate to fortify him in the face of trials and temptation. The priest himself, who aims to acquire all the graces which may bless the priesthood, may justly take pleasure in imitating the virtues, zeal, mortification, piety and charity of the humble curé of Ars.
Introducing St. Jean-Marie…
Jean-Marie was born on May 8, 1786 in the village of Dardilly, France and grew up in a peasant family. His family would attend mass in secret as the churches were closed during the French Revolution. Ever since his boyhood St John Marie Vianney has already showed exceptional devotion to the Blessed Mother and an indication of God’s calling to priesthood. While he was shepherding, he will take a rest just to have time to pray.
At 16, Jean-Marie Vianney told his family his desire to become a priest. To this, his father objected. And not until 3 years after, that his father finally relented and Jean-Marie left for the neighboring town, Ecully. As a young man, his fervent desire was to become a priest, but his own intellectual shortcomings made that dream nearly impossible. He had a poor memory, little ability for abstract thought, and he simply could not grasp the fundamentals of such subjects as Latin and theology. Though the young lad had little formal schooling, had struggled academically, Father Balley saw his potential. He accepted and trained Vianney himself.
He entered the seminary but was cut short when recruited by the French authorities as a soldier in a war against Spain. He missed the ship he was to board and went back to the seminary. He was considered a deserter. Shortly his mother died and he was principally blamed by his father because of bringing trouble to the family with his desertion. His brother however replaced him in the army and he went to study in the seminary once more.
He was a slow learner and was not endowed academically and he got poor grades. His superiors debated whether to finally graduate because of his mediocre academic performance. They feared once Vianney will become a priest, parishioners will be lost from the faith. They saw Jean-Marie’s academic deficiencies, but also saw his holiness and suitability for the priesthood. Father Vianney was eventually ordained as a priest by the time he reached 29.
A life of Service…
His first assignment was to serve as Father Balley’s assistant in Ecully. Fr. Vianney’s sermon caused the church to be filled as simple people identified themselves with him. After the death of Father Balley, the young priest was sent to the little town of Ars, an obscure place known for its taverns and the villager’s indifference to religion.
Father Vianney’s first mass was attended only by a handful of old ladies. “There is not much love for God in the parish” was the vicar general’s warning and this echoed as he saw the almost empty church. Thus, his mission of bringing the people to repentance and leading his flock to holiness began. He intensified his prayers and penance. Vianney maintained the habit of reading & studying and he took efforts in preparing his sermons. And by the example he set, he inspired many.
Father Vianney began his ministry by house-to-house visits in the parish, catechism classes for children, and most important of all, by personally living a life of humility and holiness that was a model for his parishioners
But there was a time in his stay in Ars that he wanted to leave, thinking that there was no room for him in the village. Nobody was going to mass, to confession, to communion, and nobody was heeding his exhortations. He left the convent one night with no intentions of going back. Before leaving the village, he passed by the cemetery, entered and stopped there for a while. There he was struck by an interesting thought – the villagers of Ars would all end up in the cemetery, and they would need salvation, a salvation that a priest as he could offer. The villagers needed him whether they were aware of it or not. By leaving the village, he was taking the villagers away to salvation. And so, he went to the other direction and went back to the convent. And there he found his holiness.
With his perseverance and dedication however, his parishioners came flocking in his masses until finally even those people who are not from his parish attended his masses to hear his sermons. . Slowly but surely, things began to change in Ars. The taverns closed, the church became crowded even on weekdays, and the line to the confessional grew always longer. In the confessional, Father Vianney discovered that he had a real gift for seeing into the depths of his parishioners’ souls and for giving them absolution with a few compassionate words that often changed the whole course of their lives.
His care for the people was genuine and many came to seek him. All kinds of people from neighboring places came to Ars to listen to him. The sick came to be healed and St. Vianney sought the intercession of St. Philomena for the healing of the sick. He also put a free school for girls that eventually turned into an orphanage. Everyday he would spend not less than 15 hours in the confessional and sometimes he would be heard weeping at the offenses made against God. Such was the love, patience, compassion and zeal Father Vianney lavished on God’s people.
As Father Jean-Marie Vianney was winning souls, he was on the other hand battling the preternatural harassment of the Devil. The parish priest would be knocked down by a hard slap and yet no one was in the room with him. Shouts, loud knocks and other strange noises were heard. Vianney noticed that this intensified the night before a huge conversion or “a big catch” was made and he sees this as a good sign.
For 41 years, Father Jean-Marie Vianney remained as parish priest in Ars, and yet unknown to many, the temptation to leave Ars and to live in solitude was among the many challenges he had to face. He felt unworthy to be a parish priest and repeatedly sought permission from the Bishop to leave the town but each time he was denied. In his great desire to live in a monastery, he attempted several times to slip out of the village only to come back again for he sensed deep within him that God was calling him to remain in Ars and his work with the sinners was his mission in life. St. John Marie Vianney was on the verge of giving up on Ars, but he was moved with pity for souls. Compassion pulled him back to the convent and went to become a model and patron priests.
Inspiration that Lasts…
When on the edge of giving up, of saying it quits, of giving in to failure, what pulls us back on our toes is compassion. “To be moved with pity” is to find meaning anew in service, sharing and sacrifice. Sometimes we do not get what we expect from people we serve or from activities we plan. Sometimes we get discouraged. But the challenge for compassion never runs dry. There will always be people to serve, activities to plan, souls to save. To recognize them always and not be numb, to be sensitive to needs and not on results, to persevere and not to give up, these are lessons St. John Vianney lived.
St. Jean-Marie Vianney could also be considered a patron saint of all of those who worry about their shortcomings, their failures, and their mediocrity.
If there’s one lesson we can learn from St. John Vianney’s life, it’s that God has given each of us all of the talents and gifts we need, and even the most unpromising of assignments has the potential for greatness. It’s in the smallest of ways, by living genuinely good lives and extending ourselves in kindness to others, that each of us, like St. John Vianney, achieves lives of true impact and importance.
Our Creator and Savior Jesus Christ is calling a man to the priesthood by His Will and Providence, not because he is so smart, but because is he attentive, submissive and obedient to the will of God who needs many holy priests. Without our beloved priests, we cannot have Christ in the Eucharist, for it is the priest, who through the grace of God, is a minister of this most Holy Sacrament – most important and at the center of our Catholic faith. The priest acts as another Christ and is deeply needed by all humanity. He is there for us from birth to our death and in all key moments of our lives of joy or suffering. He, like Christ, sacrifices himself for the salvation of souls.
St. John Mary Vianney, pray for us.
1. Fr. Bartholomew J. O’Brien. The Curé of Ars
2. Francis Trochu. Curé D’Ars