St John Marie Vianney
This Friday 4th August, the Church celebrates the feast of one of its greatest priests – St John Marie Vianney (1786-1859). He is the Patron Saint of Parish Priests and is also known as the Curé d’Ars which means the Parish Priest of Ars.
He was born in the French town of Dardilly, near Lyons into a very devout Catholic family and was one of six children. It was a very turbulent time for the Church in France because of the French Revolution. Churches, monasteries and convents were either confiscated or destroyed, and priests and religious had to go into hiding for fear of their lives. Masses and the Sacraments had to be celebrated secretly in houses, in barns, in cellars and sometimes in the middle of the night. The Vianneys 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 for Christ.
John always wanted to be a priest, but struggled with his studies, and it seemed he would never be ordained. But a kindly priest took him in hand and he overcame the obstacles. 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, and then three years later, despite the difficult times, he was appointed Parish Priest of Ars where he would spend the rest of his life.
Ars was a small town of around 230 people not far from Lyons, and due to the Revolution almost all the people there had stopped practising the Faith and were totally indifferent to their religion. There had been no priest there for years. Blasphemy, cursing, profanation of Sundays, gatherings and dances at taverns with immodest songs and conversation were commonplace, and so he wasn’t well received. These things would be the subject of Fr Vianney’s 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. However, we must note that he was only able to do these things because he was given a special gift by God. Don’t try and do these extreme penances yourselves!
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. 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.
He was like no other confessor, and thousands of people, including the nobility, would queue for three days to see him. 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! If people withheld certain sins he would admonish them, and often, to their astonishment would tell them what their sins were.
He also suffered violent personal attacks from the devil. 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.” He would hear howling noises, shouting and evil singing. On other occasions the devil would curse him, and on one occasion pulled him out of bed and set it on fire. The devil at one point even admitted to him, “If there were three priests such as you, my kingdom would be ruined.”
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.
St John Vianney is both a shining and challenging example for us priests. The job description for the priest is very simple – to save and to sanctify souls. So please continue praying for all priests that we will both look to and be inspired by the example of St John Vianney.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC