Today celebrates the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s death. It is this day that prompted Pope Benedict’s Year for Priests. Here are a few things that I find awesome about St. John Vianney, better known as the Curé of Ars:
- He could hardly speak Latin. He failed his entrance exam for the seminary the first time around, and had to take his philsophy class in French (his native tongue). As someone with no ear for foreign language, I totally sympathize with this. (Incidentally, the language I struggled with mightily from first to fourth grade was French, so he’s still ahead of me there, although it being his native tongue, I’m less impressed).
- He accidentally deserted Napoleon’s army after being drafted. He was praying one morning, and the troops left, and he came back to an empty barracks. As someone who is pretty irresonsible at times, I sympathize with this as well.
- He ended up becoming a simple parish priest in a small and irreligious hamlet in France. (This is where the similarities between the two of us stop). The lowly position was due, no doubt, to his mediocre academic performance, but it turns out that God had a plan for him in the town of Ars. At the time, the French Revolution had left the town with virtually nothing of its Catholic heritage. By the time St. John was done, Ars had been restored in the Faith.
- He voluntarily gave up everything he owned.
- He opened an orphanage for girls in Ars, and then more and more throughout France.
- He personally taught the children of Ars, to ensure that they had a proper religious upbringing.
And now for the really amazing stuff:
- He was an extraordinary confessor. Like St. Padre Pio, St. John Vianney was famous (even during his life) for his ability to read souls. He would remind people of sins they’d forgotten to mention, or were ashamed to tell. At one point, he described to a woman an encounter at a dance she’d been to as a younger woman, and explained that the stranger she’d been jealous she didn’t get a chance to dance with was the devil in disguise (apparently, the woman was aware of who he was talking about). On another instance I’m aware of, he corrected a penitent (who he’d never met) on how long it had been since his last confession.
- He healed a woman of blindness and deafness. It was after he blessed her in the confessional.
- He celebrated Mass and heard confessions for crazy-long stretches of time. Like 18 hours straight. Regularly.
- He physically fought the devil (also like St. Padre Pio). He said he knew when a “big fish” was coming into confession, because the devil would try and throw him off his game by physically tormenting him the night before.
- He sometimes predicted the future. Yup. I think that this was related to his role as confessor (that is, when someone came into confession, he would sometimes let them know something which was going to happen to them). This also is like St. Padre Pio, who told a young priest in confession named Karol Józef Wojtyła that he would one day be in “the top spot in the Church” (when Wojtyła became Cardinal, he revealed this, believing it to have been fulfilled… he realized his mistake when he later became Pope John Paul II).
- He slept about two hours a night. He poured himself physically and spiritually into his work with an unrivaled dedication, and people literally waited days to have their confessions heard by him.
- He voluntarily sufferred on behalf of his flock. Modelling himself after Christ (as well as Abraham, and a whole host of other saints), St. John Vianney voluntarily sacrificed and underwent sufferring on behalf of his less-faithful flock. In his own words: “I impose only a small penance on those who confess their sins properly; the rest I perform in their place.” He slept on either a bare mattress or (other times) a pile of wood in the cellar, offerring it up for the sins of Ars. Nevertheless, he was quite clear that the most powerful form of self-denial is fasting (either from food or sleep). And indeed, the Bible seems to agree with this directly (Matthew 4:2, Mark 9:29, Matthew 6:16, Acts 13:2-3, Acts 14:23).
- He usually ate three boiled potatoes a week. I ate about that much for breakfast.
- He was a powerful homilist. As result of his lifestyle, he was often sickly and became increasingly frail. His voice was often barely louder than a whisper in an age before microphones. His homilies were sometimes him crying over the sins of the people, and yet, even these wordless homilies were powerful tools for conversions.
- He was responsible for (at least) hundreds of conversions, particularly remarkable given his seemingly insignificant parish assignment.
Here’s some advice he has for priests:
“If a priest is determined not to lose his soul, so soon as any disorder arises in the parish, he must trample underfoot all human considerations as well as the fear of the contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even were he certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit. A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times. Did not St. Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: ‘I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls, although loving you more, I be loved less.’”
Is it any wonder that Pope Benedict has held him up in this Year for Priests as a model of what the priesthood should strive for? Frankly, I think St. John Vianney lead a life we should all strive to emulate as best we can, no matter our calling in life.