Aug 4, 2011

St. John Vianney: 1786-1859 - the ordinary made extraordinary


Painted during his lifetime: Cure of Ars


This memorial feast day of likely the most well known parish priest in the Church, St. John Vianney, the saintly Cure of Ars, France, lends itself to some personal thoughts on my priestly service in the Church. Six years ago, during a pilgrimage to France, we visited Ars and spent a few amazing hours there. I truly felt that I "met" this great saint in a deeply personal way. What a grace that was! I felt humbled to say the least with all the emotions that go into naturally comparing oneself with someone so extraordinary.

The stories of this saintly unassuming French diocesan priest abound. With little indication that he would ever amount to anything significant, Fr. Vianney was sent by his Bishop to an outpost, a literal “Siberia-like” assignment in the tiny village of Ars, France in 1818. There he remained for the rest of his priesthood until his death 41 years later. But, the future for Ars and for Fr. Vianney himself was a plan known only to God and one that literally angered the devil himself.

Ars was a village with a dilapidated Church and little interest in the faith. In fact the lukewarmness of the people and the almost pagan-like drinking and celebrations that took place with the four taverns open daily, including Sunday, was an almost hopeless situation, even for this holy and sincere young priest. No one, literally, was attending Sunday Mass with the exception of a few older women. Where to begin? Is it even worth trying?

There is no doubt that holy people we call saintly seem to have an extra infusion of grace from God. For Fr. Vianney, it was noticeable in his demeanor and his personal gentleness. But, he was determined through prayer and his own personal zeal for souls to do what he could, with God’s help, to save this little town and its people. He began with his own reform knowing that if he doesn’t bring about his own interior conversion he could never expect to do such for his people.

The rest, as we say, is history. Over the next 40 years we hear of increasing conversions through his preaching, his personal penances which were severe, his pastoral touch in visiting all his people (easy to do in a small village), his care for the poor and sick, and ultimately through the power of forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. Eventually, his reputation spread and he found himself as a full-time confessor to thousands of people who traveled to little Ars to see and hear this saintly parish priest.

By the last ten years of his life, Fr. Vianney was spending 16 – 18 hours a day in the confessional. People from his parish, from surrounding parishes, from France, and ultimately from other parts of the world were coming to him to confess sin and to hear his personal counsel. Once again, as we always see, God chooses those whom the world considers small and insignificant to accomplish his mighty works.

Verified stories of diabolic obsession continued for 30 years of his priesthood. Fr. Vianney was very much aware that the devil was angry about his accomplishments, especially in the grace of forgiveness. This priest was big time competition as he snatched souls away from the devil and turned them to God.

St. John Vianney has been a favorite saint of mine since I first met him in my seminary days. He is certainly a saint for priests, especially parish priests. But, I see he is a saint for everyone for we are all in need of conversion and forgiveness. The Sacrament of Penance offers us the grace of renewal, the gift of truth, the opportunity to name our sin and receive the joy of healing through reconciliation. As John Vianney once said, “How fortunate we are to have a sacrament which heals the wounds of our souls.”

Father of mercy,
You made St. John Vianney outstanding
In his priestly zeal and concern for your people.
By his example and prayers,
Enable us to win our brothers and sisters
To the love of Christ
And come with them to eternal glory.

(Opening prayer for Mass)