On this day, August 4th, in 1859, the world witnessed the passing into eternity of a most remarkable man, a simple country priest, who lived and worked at the same parish for 41 years, never taking a holiday, nor much of a break at all. He slept little, and ate even less, totally devoted to his parish and the souls of his parishioners, hearing confessions in the sweltering heat and frigid cold for up to 16 hours a day.
When as a young curate he arrived in the out-of-the-way village of Ars in 1818, he asked a boy to show him the way to the parish, and that if lad did so, he would show him the way to heaven.
Saint Jean-Marie Vianney ended up showing an untold number of souls the ‘way to heaven’. Sacrificing for his flock in a way that seemed well beyond human nature, the ‘Curé d’Ars’, as he came to be known, produced miraculous spiritual fruits: He could read souls, tell people their secret sins, and spoke with God and His Mother like they were right there. The Devil, who appeared to the Curé, often in the form of a big, black toad, especially when a ‘big sinner’ was about to arrive, was enraged, claiming that if there were but a few priests like him, ‘his kingdom would be destroyed tomorrow’.
People flocked from all over France and beyond to seek out the soon-famed priest, with line-ups lasting three days. The government had to put in a train station to handle all the ‘pilgrims’, a sign and fruit of the holiness of the simple and humble Curé. Other priests were envious, and signed a petition for his removal. When the petition arrived at his own parish, Father Vianney added his own name, claiming that he was unworthy of his vocation. He was always tempted to run off to a monastery, but stayed faithful to the end where God had put him. Saint Jean-Marie Vianney died peacefully on this summer day, with a resplendent funeral with thousands in attendance, so universally recognized was he. He could no longer object. To this day, his shrine at Ars, outside Lyons, attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. annually.
There are two ways the sacraments work: Ex opere operato, by the very fact of the sacraments being performed, with all the grace being present as the fruit of Christ’s work. And ex opere operantis, from the devotion of the recipient, who opens himself more or less to this grace.
In the first way, the Cure’s sacraments, his Masses and Confessions, were the same as any other priest, good, bad or indifferent. But in the second way, the holiness of the priest can elicit a great, even a miraculous, devotion in those who receive his sacraments.
Pope John Paul II, himself a holy and zealous pastor, called for such holiness in priests, as the primary hallmark of their vocation, to devote themselves to souls without stint, to form their own souls by prayer, a spirit of sacrifice and performing always without delay and grumbling the duty of the moment. A gift-of-self in the very image of Christ. Saint Jean Vianney fulfilled these so perfectly, was so Christ-like himself, that he has been proclaimed not only the patron saint of parish priests (as he was for a time), but now the patron saint of priests, everywhere, forever and always.
All we need is a few good men to preach God’s kingdom, and help bring about its fulfillment. The Church began that way, and may end the same.
Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, ora pro nobis!