Saint John Vianney: Patron Saint of Priests
(Feast Day ~ August 4)
by Catherine Fournier
The life of the Curé of Ars is a story that really shows that with God all things are possible. John Vianney was a famous confessor, and was loved and revered by his parishioners. People travelled for miles and stood for hours in the rain just to speak to him for a few minutes, or hear him preach.
Yet he almost didn’t become a priest at all. First his father was reluctant to let him leave the family farm. Then he was conscripted into Napoleon’s army, and by a series of mistakes was accused of deserting and had to hide for nearly two years. When he returned, he had terrible trouble with his studies, especially Latin. Then he failed the entrance exam for the seminary. When he was finally accepted into the seminary, he failed the final exams because he couldn’t write well enough and became confused and tongue-tied in the oral exams.
It took a special appeal to the vicar-general of France to get permission to be ordained. The vicar-general asked “Is he pious?” Yes, he was undoubtedly pious.
“Ordain him,” the vicar-general decided, “The grace of God will do the rest.”
Father John Vianney was sent to Ars, a remote French village of some 40 houses. There, the work of God began. He hadn’t been there long, when people heard about this new priest and began visiting from other parishes. He visited all the homes in Ars, performed penances for their souls, and helped the villagers with their everyday problems. Ars was soon transformed from a rough and rowdy place with four taverns and low church attendance to a pious and faithful village.
By the end of his life, Saint John Vianney was visited by people from all over the world. He spent from 16 to 18 hours in the confessional each day, and survived on a few pieces of bread and a few hours of sleep. He performed miracles of aid and healing.
No-one who knew him as a child or young man would ever have expected John Vianney to amount to much – except God.
Two decades after the French Revolution inspired massacres of 300 priests in France, there was a desperate need for priests. But no-one seemed to want an admitted ‘blockhead’ and poor student such as John Vianney. Even when he obtained permission to be ordained, he had to walk to Austria for his ordination in 1815. Three years later he was made parish priest of Ars, a remote French hamlet.
He wasn’t wanted there either. In a village of 40 houses, there were 4 taverns. Church attendance was very low, the farmers worked on Sunday, everyone spend their time drinking and swearing. It was a ‘punishment parish’ and the people laid bets on how long this new priest would last. But the new Curé of Ars surprised them all.
Someone peeked in his window and saw that he prayed all night. Others noticed that he removed all the fine furniture from the rectory and turned the parlor into a woodshed. He gave his clothes away to the poor and ate only two potatoes a day. Others reported that though his voice seemed to hurt their ears, his sermons stirred their hearts. He became part of the village life as well, visiting all the homes, and helping the villagers with their daily lives. He helped a shop owner with his bookkeeping, prescribed remedies for whooping cough, and when a tavern closed for lack of business, raised money for the owner to buy a farm, then tore the tavern down.
Twelve years later, people would say “Ars is no longer Ars.” Everyone went to the three hour masses. The farmers prayed the rosary as they worked in the fields. When Father Vianney heard confessions, people would stand in line for hours.
It was as a confessor that his true talents lay. His spiritual directions and hearing of confessions was distinguished by common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge. He would sometimes know what sins had been withheld in an imperfect confession. People travelled for miles and from around the world to make a confession to him. Sinners were converted at a few words from him. By the end of his life, he spend 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional, and he was mobbed whenever he appeared. He heard 20,000 confessions a year, up to 300 a day.
In a country that had murdered great numbers of its priests, and discouraged the practicing of the Catholic faith John Vianney moved like a bright light, restoring faith and healing hearts.
Universally known and loved as the Curé of Ars, Saint John Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in 1815. Three years later he was made parish priest of Ars, a remote French hamlet, where his reputation as a confessor and director of souls made him known through the Christian world.
The heroes of his youth were those priests who refused to submit to the French revolutionary government’s nationalization of the Church, and risked martyrdom to celebrate Mass in secret in houses and barns of the faithful. John began to practice mortifications in imitation of these priests and as sacrifice for sinners from an early age.
When he was ordained and sent to Ars, he continued these austerities. He disposed of the fine furniture in the rectory, and used the money to help the poor of the parish. He spend hours in prayer, hours in the confessional and more hours serving the day to day needs of his parishioners. Indifferent at first to their new priests, the people of Ars first came to listen to his sermons that ‘stirred their hearts’ and soon grew to love him.
Famous for his skill as a confessor, Saint John Vianney’s instructions were simple and clear. He used imagery drawn from daily life and country scenes to instruct and teach the penitents. It is recorded that even the staunchest of sinners were converted at his mere word. The miracles he performed fall into three categories: first, the obtaining of money for his charities and food for the orphans; secondly, supernatural knowledge of the past and future; thirdly, healing the sick, especially children. The greatest miracle of course is his life. Despite numerous obstacles, he fulfilled his heart’s desire and became a priest. In addition, in carrying out his duties for forty years his food and sleep were insufficient to maintain health.
It wasn’t all smooth and easy. Fellow priests envied his success and accused him of ‘ostentatious poverty.’ Parishioners, angered by the reform of the parish, vandalized his home and spread rumors about him. At nights, he was tormented by and wrestled with the devil. But he calmly, patiently and faithfully persisted in the life God had called him to and continued to serve his people.
Saint John Vianney remains to this day the living image of the priest after the heart of Christ. He died on August 4, 1859 and was canonized on May 31, 1925.
Almighty and merciful God, in Saint John Vianney You have given us a Priest who was outstanding in pastoral zeal. Through his intercession help us to win men for Christ and together with them attain eternal glory. Amen.
This article is made available courtesy of the Domestic Church web site.