This past week we celebrated the feast of one of the truly great saints and one of my favourites: St John Marie Vianney who is also known as the Curé d’Ars which means the Parish Priest of Ars. He is also the Patron Saint of Parish Priests and I have an icon of him in my room which a fellow seminarian gave me as an ordination present. Here it is.
St John Marie Vianney was born in the French town of Dardilly, near Lyons in 1786 into a very devout Catholic family. He was one of six children. It was a very turbulent time for the Church in France because of the French Revolution (1789-99). Churches were either confiscated or destroyed and there was a strong anti-clerical movement and priests had to go into hiding for fear of their lives. The Church had to operate underground, with Masses and the Sacraments being celebrated secretly in houses, in barns, in cellars and sometimes in the middle of the night. The Vianney’s would often travel long distances to attend Mass and John at thirteen years old made his First Holy Communion in a neighbour’s kitchen. The Vianney family hid many priests in their own home and John came to love their company and to really admire the sacrifice they made. Through these extraordinary circumstances he came to see these priests as heroes.
Masses were celebrated secretly in farms and private houses during the French Revolution
In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of France and he allowed the churches to re-open. At fifteen years old John revealed his desire “to win souls for the good Father.” In other words he felt called to the Priesthood. His mother was delighted, but his father was very opposed to the idea because he was worried about finance and wanted him to work on the family farm, but eventually he gave in. When John was twenty he went to study with Abbé Balley who was the Parish Priest of Écully. He was there with a group of much younger boys. John was not very good at his studies, particularly Latin. Fr Balley asked one of his brightest pupils, twelve year old Mathias Loras to help John. Mathias was very patient, but one day he lost his temper with John and slapped him hard on the cheek because he just couldn’t grasp or remember anything. The other boys expected a fight to break out, but instead John fell to his knees and said, “Forgive me Mathias. I know I try your patience. I’m stupid and I always have been. One of my sisters told me that and she loves me dearly too.” Everyone was silent when Mathias suddenly burst into tears and said, “Oh John, you will never know what you have taught me this afternoon” as he rushed out of the room. John was mystified and wondered what on earth he could have taught Mathias. One of the other boys told him, “It’s humility you’ve taught him. Latin is not everything.”
John was sent to the major seminary at Lyons in 1813. He struggled with his studies there too, but Abbé Balley persuaded the Vicar General that John’s extraordinary piety made up for his academic limitations. He was finally ordained a Priest on 12th August 1815 and celebrated his first Mass the following day. He was appointed assistant to his great friend and mentor Abbé Balley. When the Abbé passed away three years later, John was appointed Parish Priest of Ars. The Vicar General told him, “My friend, you are going to a small parish where very little of the love of God can be seen. You are now to enkindle the flame of Divine charity there!”
The Vicar General was correct. Ars was a small town of around 230 people and due to the Revolution the people there had virtually all stopped practising the Faith and were totally indifferent to their religion. There is a well-known incident that as he approached Ars he met a young shepherd boy, Anthony Givre, and asked him for directions. The boy obliged and Fr Vianney said to him, “Anthony, you have shown me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Heaven.” There is a statue just outside Ars recalling this famous meeting in 1818.
“Show me the way to Ars and I will show you the way to Heaven.”
When Fr Vianney arrived he knelt down and asked God to bless his Parish, the Parish that he would change forever and where he would spend the rest of his life. Ars to begin with was full of sin. Blasphemy, cursing, profanation of Sundays, gatherings and dances at taverns with immodest songs and conversation were commonplace. These things would be the subject of his sermons and he never held back. But he fasted, did severe penances, went without sleep and used the discipline. He took only one meal a day which consisted of one or two boiled potatoes and water. He performed all these penances and mortifications for the welfare of his people and to convert them. He decorated and made his church as beautiful as possible to make the practice of the Faith as attractive as possible for them.
After ten years of preaching and visiting his parishioners regularly he had converted and transformed the little town of Ars and people were flocking there in their thousands from all over France to see this holy priest and to make their confession to him. The change in the people was very noticeable even to outsiders. Some of the other priests became jealous of Fr Vianney and forbade their own parishioners from going to see him. They even wrote letters to the Bishop saying he was too ignorant to be a Parish Priest and should certainly not hear Confessions. So they got a petition going to have him removed. The petition mistakenly came to Fr Vianney and when he saw the signatures of so many priests he signed it himself and sent it to the Bishop! His great humility moved the priest who had started the petition to great remorse and they became good friends. Meanwhile the Bishop had become tired of the complaints and sent a Canon from the Cathedral to investigate. Fr Vianney had to submit up to two hundred difficult cases of conscience he had come across in the confessional along with his solutions. The conclusion was that his solutions were perfect! However, after this investigation, some priests still continued calling John “mad”, to which the Bishop is known to have responded: “Gentlemen, I wish that all my clergy had a small grain of the same madness!” The Bishop gave him faculties, rare at the time, to hear Confessions anywhere throughout the diocese. After a while, with the Bishop’s support, most of the priests came to learn to love and support him.
People would queue for over three days to see him. Why? Because he was like no ordinary Confessor. Towards the end of his life, around one hundred thousand people were coming to Ars every year. He could spend up to eighteen hours in the confessional every day! He would rise at 1am and he did this in spite of all his other priestly duties such as celebrating Mass, teaching Catechism, reciting the Divine Office, visiting the sick and so on. But in the Confessional he could read souls. If people withheld certain sins he would admonish them, and often, to their astonishment would tell them what their sins were.
Thousands of people would flock to Ars every year to confess to the holy Curé
As people told their sins he would say, “What a pity, what a pity.” He was even known to weep and say, “My friend, I weep because you do not.” And so people were moved to true contrition and they also seemed to find the graces to give up sinful habits after confessing to him.
There is the story of a bandit who had been away from the Church for many years. He was sick and afraid of dying but deep down wasn’t really sorry for his sins. Fr Vianney knew this and when the man had finished he told him, “I’m sorry, you’re wasting your time here because you’re not really repentant.” Then he sent the man away without giving absolution. The bandit returned the following day and this time was repentant, but some of his sins were so awful he dared not mention them. When the man had finished Fr Vianney listed for him all the sins he had failed to mention and then gave him absolution. The man went away reconciled to God and absolutely speechless.
Fr Vianney always insisted suffering with temptation was an opportunity to do good for others. “Offer your temptations for the conversion of sinners. When the devil sees you doing this, he is beside himself with rage and makes off, because then the temptation is turned against himself.” He continued, “we must watch over our mind, our heart and our senses, for these are the gates by which the devil enters in.”
Fr Vianney also suffered violent personal attacks from the devil whom he called the grappin. On the night before a really big sinner was going to come for Confession the attacks would become more ferocious and the holy Curé would say, “There’s a really big fish coming tomorrow.” The demon would continuously bang on doors but there would be nobody there. At first Fr Vianney thought it was burglars and so he asked two other men to sleep in the house in case he needed their help. They too heard all the noises but found nobody. Some men even kept armed guard outside the house but still they found nobody and yet the disturbances continued. Then he realised it was the rage of Satan. One night when Fr Vianney was disturbed more than usual, he said, “My God, I willingly make the sacrifice to You of a few hours sleep for the conversion of sinners.” Immediately the demons vanished and everything fell silent. On other occasions the demons pulled him out of bed and on one occasion even set his bed on fire.
The burned bed of St John Vianney in the house at Ars
Then on one night after a particularly violent assault where the house had literally been shaking he got up to answer the door. There he found a man who had travelled miles to make his Confession. This sort of thing was not an unusual occurrence. The purpose of all this was to make the Cure so tired so as to make him physically unfit to go on with his astonishing work in the Confessional by which he snatched so many souls from the clutches of the evil one. It shows us how much Satan fears the Sacrament of Confession. In the end, these occurrences became so common that Fr Vianney used to make fun of the demon and he would joke to people, “Oh! the grappin and myself – we are almost chums.” The devil once told him, “If there were three priests such as you, my kingdom would be ruined.” Fr Vianney’s friend, Abbé Raymond said, “Only at the Last Judgement will it become known how many souls have found their salvation here.” It was the Confessional which was the glory of his priesthood.
One of the other really great things St John Vianney did was to found La Providence. At the end of the Napoleonic era France was in a grave economic state and many women and girls sold themselves as prostitutes. So Fr Vianney founded La Providence which was an orphanage – in fact it was a two storey beautiful French country house – where numerous young teenage and orphan girls in need of spiritual direction and shelter learned skills such as housekeeping from Catherine Lassagne, who headed the house. One of his great delights was to teach them the catechism. It became a really crowded affair and had to be moved into the church.
St John Vianney and St Philomena
I cannot write about St John Vianney and not mention his favourite saint, St Philomena. He used to attribute all his miracles out of humility to her. He first came to know about her through a friend of his, Pauline Jaricot, the foundress of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the Living Rosary, who in 1835 had been miraculously cured of a grave illness through the intercession of Saint Philomena. Pauline Jaricot offered Fr Vianney a part of the relics of the saint which she had obtained from the shrine at Mugnano. He immediately had an altar erected in her honour in the church at Ars and it soon became the scene of innumerable cures, conversions and miracles. He always told the sick to pray to St Philomena and due to his great devotion to her the whole of France soon knew her name, and altars, statues and churches dedicated to her sprung up all over.
After forty years, life had taken its toll on his physical and spiritual health and there were various times when he wanted to run away from the parish to prepare for his own death. He was never successful in this and he died on 4th August 1859. The Bishop presided over his funeral with three hundred priests and more than six thousand people in attendance. His body is preserved incorrupt above an altar in the Parish Church of Ars.
May the holy Curé of Ars bless us from above, and may he inspire all priests to know more deeply the privilege of bringing souls to Christ through the grace and power of Holy Orders.
May God bless you all.
The incorrupt body of St John Vianney in the church at Ars