In the Footsteps of the Curé of Ars
Finding enrichment in a visit to the parish of St. John Vianney
The ancient practice of pilgrimages has retained its attraction in modern times, despite challenges like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely limited travel. One can still find advertisements for pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fátima, Rome, the Holy Land, Santiago de Compostela, and so on.
For a priest, one such pilgrimage might include a visit to a tiny village discreetly tucked among the fields of central France: Ars (formally, Ars-sur-Formans, not far from Lyon). During the last 13 years as superior general of the Sulpicians, I have had the privilege of leading several groups of new Sulpicians to this out-of-the-way village where St. John Vianney (1786-1859) famously was pastor. I should point out that this renowned Curé d’Ars had no direct connection to the French school of spirituality in which the Sulpician founder Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-57) was a major figure, although Vianney had studied at a Sulpician seminary.
Our pilgrimages are normally intended to highlight areas of historic importance where Father Olier or his successors evangelized and founded seminaries. Nevertheless, our last stop on these weeklong excursions always ended at Ars. Why? Our Sulpician ministry has always been the initial and ongoing formation of priests and the formation of formators. Since St. John Vianney is the patron of parish priests, it made eminent sense to pay a visit to the area where he lived and ministered for more than 40 years. The place imparts the “flavor” of the man like no other input. He was an ardent evangelizer in his role as a simple parish priest. He thus offers a good example of presbyteral ministry even today. This is why I offer a few observations of what can be gained from such a pilgrimage.
A Taste of Environment
Let me begin with a description of Ars. All my visits there have taken place in the hot, dry days of summer. With soaring temperatures and little or no air conditioning available, the beautiful basilica in the center of the village offers some respite. Its thick walls insulate it from the outside temperatures. The village, though, still gives the impression of a sleepy, rural backwater.
True, there is now a modern hospitality center for visitors where one can peruse the history of the site and its famous pastor, buy souvenirs, use the facilities and seek shade. The village itself is very small, with just a few shops, and largely shuts down for the lunch period and siesta, much like the rhythm of its 19th-century heritage. In addition to the large, handsome basilica, where groups of pilgrims celebrate Mass — carefully timed to permit a large number of groups to do this in their various native languages — the presbytery and garden have been well maintained and restored. The basilica also houses the remains of the Curé — including a wax mask of his distinctive face — in a beautiful metal and glass sarcophagus, covered with a baldacchino ornately painted in gold.
Also preserved in the basilica is the confessional, where, later in his ministry, Vianney would spend up to 16 hours a day hearing the confessions of his parishioners and many others who would come to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation from this kind pastor of souls. Behind the basilica is a small oratory where the incorrupt heart of Vianney is kept.
In late 2018, the Knights of Columbus brought this relic to the United States for veneration during a seven-month tour. It passed through all 48 contiguous states, with visits to many seminaries and religious houses. The heart of this holy man can properly represent his utter dedication in love to his parishioners.
Sulpician founder Father Olier once wrote, “The heart of a priest must be as big as the Church.” Vianney embodied this desire. Despite the many challenges he experienced in his long ministry, he never ceased offering himself wholeheartedly to his flock. He took seriously the demand to follow the Good Shepherd.
While the basilica and modern buildings dominate the village today, one can nevertheless get the flavor of the Curé’s 19th-century environment. The little rectory, where he resided, has been carefully preserved and restored. Visitors can tour it at their own leisure or participate in a guided tour, available in several languages and conducted either by religious women who help maintain the facility or volunteers from the local seminary who sometimes serve as guides. The house imparts the humble and at times severely poor living conditions endured by the holy priest. The garden shows the kind of plants he would have grown and how he got his fresh drinking water from the well. The house contains the simple living quarters, the kitchen, the study and the bedroom of Vianney where he famously wrestled with the devil while fighting off evil temptations. While not all of the artifacts preserved in the house and several display cases are original to Vianney himself, they are authentic period pieces. Some of the clothes, liturgical vestments and instruments are, however, original to the saint.
One of the most startling discoveries on the tour is to see the extensive library that the Curé owned. It is impressive, especially for one whose reputation was to be “academically challenged,” as we might say today. His problem, however, was not lack of intelligence; he was not simple-minded. He was well-read and often loaned out books to fellow presbyters. His problem in the seminary was an inability to master Latin. He is neither the first, nor probably the last, priest to have such a problem.
Bloom Where You Are Planted
When Vianney received his assignment as a parish priest from his bishop, it was to this obscure, out-of-the-way village of some 230 souls. The bishop had warned him that the faith life of this community was in a sorry state with the words: “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there.” Vianney knew that his task would not be easy, but he never seemingly resisted his ministry and, in fact, embraced it with his whole priestly being.
When Pope Benedict XVI declared the Year for Priests (2009-10) to help honor the priesthood and call priests back to their ministerial commitments, he chose John Vianney as the centerpiece for the year. He recalled many aspects of his difficult life as a parish priest and also quoted many passages from Vianney’s reflections on the priesthood.
In one lengthy passage, Vianney’s great love and esteem for the priesthood comes to the fore. He said: “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!”
Perhaps, we might see in such a passage some exaggeration. We priests might be a bit embarrassed by such honorific language if we are not seduced by false modesty. Yet there is much truth in the Curé’s respect for the priesthood. It is all about self-sacrifice and bringing others to the Lord, even when they stubbornly resist.
The response to Vianney’s presence in his humble parish was not always favorable. He met considerable resistance. He also felt that the devil was working as strongly as he could against the pastor’s sincere efforts at parish reform. Yet, he never gave up. Instead, he initiated multiple types of outreach to appeal to his parishioners: visiting the sick, taking up collections for the poor, caring for orphans by establishing an institute called Providence, and urging his parishioners to improve their parish church. It seems that this pastor was never enticed to think of greener pastures. Rather, he stayed where God’s grace had placed him and endeavored to make the most of it.
Reform and Reconciliation
When John Vianney first arrived as the parish priest at Ars, the villagers were curious about their new pastor. His predecessors had not been successful at reforming the parish, and they wondered how this Curé of Ars would be any different. He did not arrive with a preset plan, nor did he take dramatic actions initially. (Modern pastors could learn something from the latter.) He went into the dilapidated church and prayed.
He celebrated the Eucharist and went about town observing, but also condemning, the kinds of frivolities that he felt were destroying the moral fiber of his parishioners, primarily foul language, drunkenness, dancing and not coming to church. He quickly realized that to change the behaviors of his flock, to reform them in the faith, he would need to facilitate their repentance. Enter the sacrament for which he is famous: reconciliation.
While he was personally stern and demanded a firm uprightness of behavior from his parishioners, he nonetheless developed a reputation for being a kind, merciful, patient and compassionate confessor. He brought his parishioners around by both word and deed. He called them to live better, ethically upright lives, but he also facilitated forgiveness, God’s boundless mercy. Thus it was that he developed the habit of long hours in the confessional, shriving his repentant flock who ultimately came to recognize their sinfulness by the Curé’s faithful preaching of the Gospel.
The Call of a Pilgrim
Let’s now return to the image of the pilgrimage. Recent films have highlighted the value of spiritual journeys for those who yearn for a transformation in their lives. Think, for instance, of the 2010 film “The Way,” directed by Emilio Estevez, and starring his famous father, Martin Sheen.
Pilgrimages can help renew and refresh people, give them a new purpose. Already within Vianney’s lifetime, Ars slowly became the focus of pilgrimages. His renowned piety drew people from all walks of life who wanted to come and observe for themselves sanctity in action. It started slowly at first, but in time, and lasting several decades, thousands of people would trek to this little village to glimpse the famous pastor at work and to receive his blessing. Thousands participated in these real pilgrimages.
When Vianney finally died on Aug. 4, 1859, at the age of 73, several hundred priests and some 6,000 people attended his funeral. Pope Pius IX declared him “Venerable” in 1874. Later, Pope Pius XI declared him a saint on May 31, 1925, and three years later named him patron of parish priests.
It is in his role as a simple, parish priest that we Sulpicians engage our own pilgrimages to Ars. We want nothing more than to continue in our humble way to form good priests who have the “heart” of the Master, the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his flock.
One need not take a literal pilgrimage to Ars to benefit from it. In the wake of the worldwide pandemic in 2020, people have had to learn to accomplish some of their most heartfelt desires from a distance. Even a virtual armchair pilgrimage to Ars can be beneficial. There is considerable information on the internet about Ars, St. John Vianney and the priesthood.
Reading his biography, easily available online, is also a way of connecting with this saint. For me, however, I must admit that I harbor wonderful memories of my visits to Ars. To soak in the atmosphere in this little corner of France, to breathe the air where an impressive saint lived and to walk in his footsteps is truly enriching.
SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice and author of many books on Scripture and theology, including “Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood” (Liturgical, 2012) and “Scripture and Tradition in the Letters of Paul” (Paulist, 2021).
The Beauty of the Confessional
“[A] deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led him — by a sole inward movement — from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet 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 16 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 Savior is so filled with love that he seeks us everywhere.’” — Pope Benedict XVI, Letter Proclaiming a Year For Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the ‘Dies Natalis’ of the Curé of Ars