|Benedict XVI also cited the
example St. John Mary Vianney, a "humble parish priest" at the time of
the French Revolution who transformed "the small town of Ars into a
model Christian community animated by the Word of God and the
St. John Vianney Patron of priests
St. John Vianney, Priest (Patron of priests) Curé of Ars, born at Dardilly, near Lyons, France, on 8 May, 1786; died at Ars, 4 August, 1859; son of Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze.
Universally known as the "Cure of Ars)," son of a poor farmer in Dardilly, France. He worked as a shepherd and didn't begin his education until he was 20.
In 1806, the curé at Ecully, M. Balley, opened a school for ecclesiastical students, and Jean-Marie was sent to him. Though he was of average intelligence and his masters never seem to have doubted his vocation, his knowledge was extremely limited, being confined to a little arithmetic, history, and geography, and he found learning, especially the study of Latin, excessively difficult. One of his fellow-students, Matthias Loras, afterwards first Bishop of Dubuque, assisted him with his Latin lessons. A man with vision overcomes obstacles and performs deeds that seem impossible. John Vianney was a man with vision: He wanted to become a priest. But he had to overcome his meager formal schooling, which inadequately prepared him for seminary studies.
He was called for military service while an ecclesiastical student, and became a "delinquent conscript" more or less because of illness, and hid to escape Napoleon's police during war with Spain and the urgent need of recruits. This caused Napoleon to withdraw the exemption enjoyed by the ecclesiastical students in the diocese of his uncle, Cardinal Fesch.
Matthieu Vianney tried unsuccessfully to procure a substitute, so his son was obliged to go. His regiment soon received marching orders. The morning of departure, Jean-Baptiste went to church to pray, and on his return to the barracks found that his comrades had already left. He was threatened with arrest, but the recruiting captain believed his story and sent him after the troops.
At nightfall he met a young man who volunteered to guide him to his fellow-soldiers, but led him to Noes, where some deserters had gathered. The mayor persuaded him to remain there, under an assumed name, as schoolmaster. After fourteen months, he was able to communicate with his family. His father was vexed to know that he was a deserter and ordered him to surrender but the matter was settled by his younger brother offering to serve in his stead and being accepted.
Upheaval was also felt within the Church in France. In the wake of the Revolution, the faithful were often confused about the relationship between faithfulness to the Church and allegiance to the State. The State had sought to subsume the Church, going so far as to force the clergy to take an oath to the State, effectively making the priest more of an employee of the State than a servant of the Gospel. The faithful, moreover, were scandalized when many priests succumbed to this pressure, including the then pastor of Ars, Father Saunier. Educated at the Sorbonne, Ars’s pastor took the oath in 1791 and the spiritual unraveling of the parish in Ars began. The next year the parish church was looted and Father Saunier left the priesthood. The sanctuary of the parish church was converted into a club where the “free thinkers” of the area held their meetings. Though restoration of the Church in France began in 1801, tension and confusion about the clergy still existed. Which priests could one trust? What of the priests who took the oath? What about those priests who refused and suffered or were even killed?
His failure to comprehend Latin lectures forced him to discontinue. But his vision of being a priest urged him to seek private tutoring. After a lengthy battle with the books, John was ordained. Jean-Baptiste now resumed his studies at Ecully. In 1812, he was sent to the seminary at Verrieres; he was so deficient in Latin as to be obliged to follow the philosophy course in French. He failed to pass the examinations for entrance to the seminary proper, but on re-examination three months later succeeded.
Father Vianney arrived at his parish a generation after unparalleled cultural and political upheaval in France. The Revolution and subsequent Terror, the hardships under Napoleonic rule, the widespread devastation of churches, religious communities and practices, and the outright attack on the Church in France herself, were still fresh in the minds of many. The Revolution’s spawn of secularism had permeated much of French society, with even the smaller villages feeling its reverberations. God and the Church were relegated more and more to the margins of French life.
On 13 August, 1815, he was ordained priest by Mgr. Simon, Bishop of Grenoble. His difficulties in making the preparatory studies seem to have been due to a lack of mental suppleness in dealing with theory as distinct from practice -- a lack accounted for by the meagreness of his early schooling, the advanced age at which he began to study, the fact that he was not of more than average intelligence, and that he was far advanced in spiritual science and in the practice of virtue long before he came to study it in the abstract.
He was finally ordained at the age of 30, but was thought to be so incompetent he was placed under the direction of Fr. Balley, a holy priest in a neighboring village, for further training in 1815.
Into this cultural milieu stepped the little priest from the village of Ecully, and he gave the people of Ars something they had never seen before. How did he do it? Our group detected eight basic features to his pastoral plan: 1) the conversion of his own life as a priest; 2) manifesting an approachable and available demeanor; 3) prayer and ascetical living; 4) channeling initial energy into those families already faithful; 5) giving special attention to the liturgy, preaching and catechesis; 6) addressing problems at their roots and not in their symptoms; 7) planting good habits of prayer and the works of mercy; and 8) doing it all with a strong priestly identity.
He was sent to Ecully as assistant to M. Balley, who had first recognized and encouraged his vocation, who urged him to persevere when the obstacles in his way seemed insurmountable, who interceded with the examiners when he failed to pass for the higher seminary, and who was his model as well as his preceptor and patron.
In 1818, after the death of M. Balley, M. Vianney was made parish priest of Ars, a village not very far from Lyons, where his reputation as a confessor and director of souls made him known throughout the Christian world. It was in the exercise of the functions of the parish priest in this remote French hamlet that as the "curé d'Ars" he became known throughout France and the Christian world .
St. John Vianney did not come down from Mount Olympus to reform and save the poor parishioners of Ars. He first of all set out to save his own soul, and by example drew others into this path of holiness. In this he followed the spiritual maxim from the Desert Fathers and from the Lord himself: If you want to sanctify others, begin with yourself. Vianney’s conversion of the parish started with his own, and his deepened along with theirs. One deacon in the group observed that early on, the Curé of Ars made the conscious decision to become a saint. Yet he did not arrive in Ars already a saint. He became one at Ars by being a priest for his flock, and gained sanctity over time through much grace and struggle.
The religious ignorance and indifference spawned by the Revolution had their effect on the life of Ars.
People frequently missed Sunday Mass, and work dominated the lives of most. The tiny settlement boasted of four taverns where the livelihoods of many families were squandered. The very people who could not find time for Sunday Mass spent themselves in festivities, lasting far into the night and ending in the usual evils. Religious ignorance was rampant in both children and adults.
Ironically the efforts of the Revolution to replace worship of the living God with the goddess “Reason” reaped the fruit of widespread illiteracy, and only a minority in Ars could read. Ars, however, was no better or worse off than the other villages in France. Remnants of faith and morals were still found scattered about among some of the families. The faith and the priesthood were not despised, just ignored. The impact of the Revolution and Terror, and the poor example or lack of stable clergy left the parish unsettled, ignorant, confused and at best lukewarm.
Jansenism, with its harshness, scrupulosity and anxiety, was still felt within the faithful. The heresy had been put down, but its bitterness could still be tasted in the spiritual groundwater.
Situations calling for “impossible” deeds followed him everywhere. As pastor of the parish at Ars, John encountered people who were indifferent and quite comfortable with their style of living. His vision led him through severe fasts and short nights of sleep. (Some devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.)
A few years after he went to Ars, with Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet, he established La Providence, a home for girls. Only a man of vision could have such trust that God would provide for the spiritual and material needs of all those who came to make La Providence their home. It was called "The Providence" and was the model of similar institutions established later all over France. M. Vianney himself instructed the children of "The Providence" in the catechism, and these catechetical instructions came to be so popular that at last they were given every day in the church to large crowds. "The Providence" was the favourite work of the "curé d'Ars", but, although it was successful, it was closed in 1847, because the holy curé thought that he was not justified in maintaining it in the face of the opposition of many good people. Its closing was a very heavy trial to him.
His life was one of extreme mortification.But the chief labour of the Curé d'Ars was the direction of souls.
Accustomed to the most severe austerities, beleaguered by swarms of penitents. He allowed himself 2 hours of sleep each night, and besieged by the devil, who assaulted him with deafening noises, insulting conversation, and physical abuse. These diabolical visitations were occasionally witnessed with alarm by the men of the parish, but the pious Cure accepted the attacks as a matter of course and often joked about them: this great mystic manifested a imperturbable patience. He ate potatoes he boiled, and learned to keep suspended by a rope from the ceiling, so the rats wouldn't get to them. He was a wonderworker loved by the crowds, but he retained a childlike simplicity, and he remains to this day the living image of the priest after the heart of Christ.
St. John was given many spiritual gifts, such as the power of healing and the ability to read the hearts of his penitents. It was this latter gift which caused his fame to spread throughout France, and created large crowds seeking guidance from him. The frail Cure began hearing confessions at 1 o'clock in the morning, and it has been reported that he spent from 13 to 17 hours a day in the cramped confessional. He heard confessions of people from all over the world each day.
He had not been long at Ars when people began coming to him from other parishes, then from distant places, then from all parts of France, and finally from other countries. As early as 1835, his bishop forbade him to attend the annual retreats of the diocesan clergy because of "the souls awaiting him yonder".
During the last ten years of his life, he spent from sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional. His advice was sought by bishops, priests, religious, young men and women in doubt as to their vocation, sinners, persons in all sorts of difficulties and the sick. In 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached twenty thousand a year. The most distinguished persons visited Ars for the purpose of seeing the holy curé and hearing his daily instruction. The Venerable Father Colin was ordained deacon at the same time, and was his life-long friend, while Mother Marie de la Providence founded the Helpers of the Holy Souls on his advice and with his constant encouragement. His direction was characterized by common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge. He would sometimes divine sins withheld in an imperfect confession. His instructions were simple in language, full of imagery drawn from daily life and country scenes, but breathing faith and that love of God which was his life principle and which he infused into his audience as much by his manner and appearance as by his words, for, at the last, his voice was almost inaudible.
His life was filled with works of charity and love. It is recorded that even the staunchest of sinners were converted at his mere word. He died August 4, 1859, and was canonized May 31, 1925.
St. John died peacefully on August 4, 1859. His body was exhumed because of his impending beatification, and was found dried and darkened, but perfectly entire.
St. John Vianney, who as a student had difficulties being accepted for the priesthood, was canonized in 1925 and was named later the Patron of Parish Priests throughout the world.
“Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that” John Vianney.
The miracles recorded by his biographers are of three classes:
* first, the obtaining of money for his charities and food for his orphans;
* secondly, supernatural knowledge of the past and future;
* thirdly, healing the sick, especially children.
The greatest miracle of all was his life. He practised mortification from his early youth. and for forty years his food and sleep were insufficient, humanly speaking, to sustain life. And yet he laboured incessantly, with unfailing humility, gentleness, patience, and cheerfulness, until he was more than seventy-three years old.
THE BEST information on St. John Vianney can be obtained from The Cure of Ars, Abbe Trochu, 1926
Text (abridged) from The Incorruptibles ©1977, The Catholic Dictionary http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08326c.htm.