t. John Mary Vianney, Our Patron Saint
On the 150th anniversary of the “birthday” of John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests worldwide, the Holy Father inaugurated a Year for Priests. “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”, the saintly Curé of Ars would often say.
The Curé of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy”. He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human creature: “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host…”.
Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the sacraments, he would say: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest… After God, the priest is everything! … Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is”.
These words, welling up from the priestly heart of the holy pastor, might sound excessive. Yet they reveal the high esteem in which he held the sacrament of the priesthood. He seemed overwhelmed by a boundless sense of responsibility: “Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love… Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth… What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods … Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there … The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you”.
He arrived in Ars, a village of 230 souls, warned by his Bishop beforehand that there he would find religious practice in a sorry state: “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there”. As a result, he was deeply aware that he needed to go there to embody Christ’s presence and to bear witness to his saving mercy: “[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life!”: with this prayer he entered upon his mission. The Curé devoted himself completely to his parish’s conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care. The Curé of Ars immediately set about this patient and humble task of harmonizing his life as a minister with the holiness of the ministry he had received, by deciding to “live”, physically, in his parish church: As his first biographer tells us:
“Upon his arrival, he chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought whenever needed”.
The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the fact that the Curé also knew how to “live” actively within the entire territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families, organized popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the “Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at his side.
Saint John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. “One need not say much to pray well” – the Curé explained to them – “We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. That is the best prayer”. And he would urge them: “Come to communion, my brothers and sisters, come to Jesus. Come to live from him in order to live with him… “Of course you are not worthy of him, but you need him!”.
This way of educating the faithful to the Eucharistic presence and to communion proved most effective when they saw him celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Those present said that “it was not possible to find a finer example of worship… He gazed upon the Host with immense love”. “All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass” – he would say – “since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God”. He was convinced that the fervour of a priest’s life depended entirely upon the Mass: “The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!”. He was accustomed, when celebrating, also to offer his own life in sacrifice: “What a good thing it is for a priest each morning to offer himself to God in sacrifice!”.
This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led him from the altar to the confessional. He sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a “virtuous” circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day. It was said that Ars had become “a great hospital of souls”.
His first biographer relates that “the grace he obtained [for the conversion of sinners] was so powerful that it would pursue them, not leaving them a moment of peace!”. The saintly Curé reflected something of the same idea when he said: “It is not the sinner who returns to God to beg his forgiveness, but God himself who runs after the sinner and makes him return to him”. “This good Saviour is so filled with love that he seeks us everywhere”.
The Curé of Ars dealt with different penitents in different ways. Those who came to his confessional drawn by a deep and humble longing for God’s forgiveness found in him the encouragement to plunge into the “flood of divine mercy” which sweeps everything away by its vehemence. If someone was troubled by the thought of his own frailty and inconstancy, and fearful of sinning again, the Curé would unveil the mystery of God’s love in these beautiful and touching words: “The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, he already knows that you will sin again, yet he still forgives you. How great is the love of our God: he even forces himself to forget the future, so that he can grant us his forgiveness!”.
But to those who made a lukewarm and rather indifferent confession of sin, he clearly demonstrated by his own tears of pain how “abominable” this attitude was: “I weep
because you don’t weep”, he would say. “If only the Lord were not so good! But he is so good! One would have to be a brute to treat so good a Father this way!”. He awakened repentance in the hearts of the lukewarm by forcing them to see God’s own pain at their sins reflected in the face of the priest who was their confessor. To those who, on the other hand, came to him already desirous of and suited to a deeper spiritual life, he flung open the abyss of God’s love, explaining the untold beauty of living in union with him and dwelling in his presence: “Everything in God’s sight, everything with God, everything to please God… How beautiful it is!”. And he taught them to pray: “My God, grant me the grace to love you as much as I possibly can”.
The Curé of Ars lived the “evangelical counsels” in a way suited to his priestly state. His poverty was not the poverty of a religious or a monk, but that proper to a priest: while managing much money (since well-to-do pilgrims naturally took an interest in his charitable works), he realized that everything had been donated to his church, his poor, his orphans, the girls of his “Providence”, his families of modest means. Consequently, he “was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself”. As he would explain: “My secret is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back”. When he lacked money, he would say amiably to the poor who knocked at his door: “Today I’m poor just like you, I’m one of you”. At the end of his life, he could say with absolute tranquility: “I no longer have anything. The good Lord can call me whenever he wants!”.
His chastity, too, was that demanded of a priest for his ministry. It could be said that it was a chastity suited to one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who contemplates it blissfully and with that same bliss offers it to his flock. It was said of him that “he radiated chastity”; the faithful would see this when he turned and gazed at the tabernacle with loving eyes”. Finally, Saint John Mary Vianney’s obedience found full embodiment in his conscientious fidelity to the daily demands of his ministry. We know how he was tormented by the thought of his inadequacy for parish ministry and by a desire to flee “in order to bewail his poor life, in solitude”. Only obedience and a thirst for souls convinced him to remain at his post. As he explained to himself and his flock: “There are no two good ways of serving God. There is only one: serve him as he desires to be served”. He considered this the golden rule for a life of obedience: “Do only what can be offered to the good Lord”.
It is to St. John Vianney that our parish and priest, Father Gideon, is entrusted. May the Curé of Ars' example lead us all to offer that witness of unity with our Bishop and with one another, which today, as ever, is so necessary.
Excerpted From Pope Benedict XVI's Proclamation of The Year of Priests