The Priestly Heart of St. John Vianney
The Curé of Ars stands as a model for all priests
In April 1929, Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-39) declared St. John Vianney as the patron saint of parish priests. No other priest who spent his entire life carrying out the vocation of a parish pastor has been canonized by the Church. What makes this uneducated man, from a small parish in Ars, France, who did poorly in the seminary, so different? Why is he the one pastor singled out for sainthood? Like thousands and thousands of parish priests before and after him, St. John Vianney (1786-1859) celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, gave the sacraments, heard confessions, prayed, catechized the faithful and carried out scores of other priestly duties; so as we celebrate his feast day on Aug. 4, we ponder why the Church has chosen him to be the model for others?
In 1818, the farming village of Ars was inhabited by some 230 souls living in 40 or so houses, with another 20 families nearby. There were few streets, one church, one cemetery and four taverns. The village was situated in an out-of-the-way location about 20 miles north of Lyons and not a place people frequently visited. The assigned priest had only been at Ars for a few weeks when he died in January 1818. Before him the village often had been without a full-time pastor. Many of the people, much like those in other French towns of that era, had fallen away from the Church, were lukewarm and were not receiving the sacraments.
The situation in Ars, like other villages, in many ways was the product of the French Revolution of 1789-99 and the 15 years thereafter. During the revolution, Catholicism was attacked; many Catholics denied their faith in favor of national or state religion. Monasteries were closed; priests were jailed, some beheaded. Ordination, if done, was accomplished in a covert manner. Church property was confiscated. This upheaval continued through the early 19th century, and the effects were still evident when Father Vianney was assigned to Ars at the beginning of Lent in 1818.
When a priest arrives at a different parish, he typically doesn’t begin making changes immediately. He gets to know the people, walks the ground for a while before putting his thumbprint on the parish. Such was not the approach of John Vianney when he arrived at Ars. He quickly recognized that his new flock was indifferent to — and had fallen away from — religion, from the Church, from God. The vicar general of the diocese warned Father Vianney about Ars: “There is little love for God in that parish.” Since the majority of the population was not coming to Mass, not receiving the sacraments, Father Vianney decided to go to them. He went to their homes, always planning his arrival near mealtime, when he knew the whole family would likely be there. He spent time getting to know the people and letting them get to know him. Moreover, he was a French farm boy who had herded sheep and could relate to their everyday life, their sufferings and happiness. Their new pastor understood about hard work, about droughts and poor crops.
While not necessarily bad people, the townsfolk in Ars had lost their way — lost their connection with most things holy. They were avoiding Mass, unnecessarily working on Sunday, squandering their money in the taverns, addicted to dancing and to drink. A major concern was the children whose religious training was, at best, part-time. “At an early age, evil associations and ignorance of religion caused them to contact bad habits. Thus degraded and unable to lift their heads toward heaven, a great many of these poor children lived and grew up as if they had no immortal soul” (Francois Trochu, “The Curé d’Ars,” 1927).
Reversion in Ars
Father Vianney convincingly encouraged the people of Ars to return to the Mass and to God. The saint’s faith, reverence and love of God, along with his holy and humble manner, were impossible to ignore. A slow transformation in the village began to take place. This did not happen overnight but over a period of years, as some people, despite the charisma of their new priest, had a tough time giving up worldly pleasures.
Those who returned to the Mass found Father Vianney’s sermons passionately delivered, and he minced no words in his criticisms of the villagers. The Curé of Ars, as he became known, used his homilies to denounce the way they were living, lamented the fact that they were ignoring religion, that they were doing unnecessary work on Sunday and frequenting the taverns; he especially preached against dancing. Not a polished orator, his homilies were often 45 minutes long; he mostly spoke loudly and, when asked why, he said, to make sure the deaf heard him and no one fell asleep. No matter his delivery or lack of spontaneity, his homilies were heartfelt.
At first his words stung, and many said he was too critical, but the inspired delivery at Mass after Mass soon made the hearts of his congregation burn with love. They could see the heart of their priest also was on fire for the love of Christ. “With his heart glowing with love, and speaking as only saints can speak, he preached on God, death, heaven, hell and on the Blessed Sacrament so moving that, from eyes which on like occasions had never wept, there welled up fountains of tears” (Father Constantine Kempf, SJ, “The Holiness of the Church In the 19th Century,” 1916).
Throughout the first 27 years as pastor of Ars, John Vianney personally catechized the children of his parish; he only ceased when a priest was assigned as his assistant.
Soon the parishioners began to recognize a newfound certainty, not only in their religious life, but in their everyday life as well. He was their priest, and they knew he was there for them. They also knew where to find him; when not at Mass, he was in the confessional or in the church, praying. Father Vianney had a holy countenance and special presence about him — a pious demeanor, complete devotion to Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the holy Catholic Church. His concern for the congregation and their souls was authentic; they knew he wanted to lead them to heaven. Their affection for him grew, and some called him “our saint.”
Treasures in Ars
Ars-sur-Formans, the village in east-central France made famous by St. John Vianney, where thousands flocked to hear his homilies and have him hear their confessions, continues to welcome devotees to the 19th-century saint.
Two churches are located in the town: the 12th-century building, where the saint preached and heard confessions, and a new basilica that houses his body entombed in a glass case for visitors to see. The saint’s heart is enshrined in a separate building, known as the Shrine of the Curé’s Heart.
At the saint’s shrine, pilgrims also can visit St. John Vianney’s home, which has been preserved since his death in 1859. Along with his rosary, breviary and other personal items, it houses the bed allegedly set on fire during one of the saint’s many battles with the devil.
In the confessional, many believed that he could read their hearts, addressing their sins before they confessed them. His holiness and the transformation that took place among the now-revived parishioners spread outside the village, to the countryside and then throughout France. Pilgrims began to come to Ars to see, hear and confess their sins to this holy man. The crowds came slowly, with 20 or 30 a month coming at first, but the numbers grew to hundreds and thousands each month, with many standing in the confessional line throughout the night and into the next day.
The number of pilgrims — coupled with his own parishioners — seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation caused Father Vianney to spend an extreme amount of time in the confessional. Some stories recount him being in the confessional for more than 14 hours, some days hearing as many as 300 confessions. The count of pilgrims traveling to Ars rose to more than 20,000 a year. Given his time in the confessional, how could he meet the needs of his own congregation? Simply, he made no time for himself.
He would begin his day hearing confessions at 1 a.m. and continued until time for daily Mass at 6 a.m. Prayers, the Breviary and catechetical teaching took up the rest of the morning. After lunch, which often consisted of two boiled potatoes, he spent time visiting the sick. Normally, everywhere he went he was followed by a crowd. In the early afternoon, he returned to the confessional, where he remained until 8 p.m.; then you could find him in the church reciting night prayers. At that point in the day, he met with missionaries, brothers, priests and laymen seeking his council. Finally, he went to the rectory, said night prayer and read the lives of the saints. He then slept no more than about three hours.
The living quarters for Father Vianney were sparse. He gave almost all the furniture away, including his mattress. The Curé of Ars argued against the idea of a housekeeper; there was no full-time cook, and no one lived with him. The way he organized the rectory, it was more like a cell than a house. It was austere living, and that is how he wanted it. He spent 41 years in that environment. Three times during his years at Ars he asked the bishop to allow him to go spend his days in the solitary of a monastery, and each time members of his flock found a way to keep him in their parish.
He never wore extravagant vestments, nor pretended to be anything but a servant of God and the people. He did not see himself as an entertainer, yet throngs of people came to hear him, to participate in the Mass with him, and they hung on his every word. He was humble, meek, approachable and in love with God. In his humility, he saw himself as an apostle for Jesus, as one of the Twelve asked to go spread the Good News. His goal was to save souls. He wanted to be a good parish priest, but he went on to become the example for all priests who get up every day to serve their God and their flock. He received the highest honor the Church can bestow: sainthood. Even that honor was capped with the title, “patron of parish priests.” If asked if he wanted any of those decorations, he likely would have rejected everything for the simple title of “parish priest.”
John Vianney was endowed with and practiced all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Everything he did, every decision conformed to the will of God. He was devoted to the people of Ars, giving them every day of his life. His charity was obvious to all who knew him. He founded the Providence, a home for orphans, mostly homeless girls. At one time the orphanage housed 60 girls. Funding for the facility came from John Vianney’s inheritance and any stipends or cash donations he received.
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It is not for debate whether the priest today can attain the magnitude — the merits — of this holy man, but each pastor can keep the example of John Vianney always before him. In his book, “The Spirit of the Curé of Ars” (1865), Alfred Monnin quotes the saint’s Catechism on the Priesthood: “Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love.” Clearly, the beloved saint did understand.
He goes on to say, “The other benefits of God would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold if you had nobody to open the door? The priest has the key of the heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of his wealth.”
John Vianney’s life reflected that the “priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and is a longtime contributor to OSV publications.