On this day, August 4th, in 1859, the world witnessed the quiet passing into eternity of a most remarkable man, a simple country priest, who lived and worked at the same parish of Ars, in northeastern France, 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 in a small wooden box, with a hard wooden seat, 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. Just what a priest should do, Pere 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 three priests like him, ‘his kingdom would be destroyed tomorrow’.
He had an inauspicious beginning – he felt a call to the priesthood from his earliest days, but as an impecunious family who had to help out on the farm, with little proclivity to academia, he seemed to have little hope. He eventually made his way to the seminary, older than his confreres, but by that point could not handle the Latin, so was asked to go. A brief stint conscripted into Napoleon’s vast army ended up in an unwitting ‘desertion’, with a family hiding him, after which a friendly priest, Abbe Balley offered to tutor him, in French, and Jean-Marie then took more to his studies, but far more to his prayer – he was never what an ‘intellectual’, but probably for the better. The Vicar General said that his piety would make up for his ignorance.
Pere Vianney was not so ignorant as people surmised – he had a solid grasp of moral theology to match even the ‘academics’ – and lived its truths far more than they, or than most. Sent to the backwater village of Ars, where the Faith was also ignored, the young priest soon reformed his parish, by prayer, fasting, and an utter devotion to duty – his devotion at Mass soon had people coming just to see him, his preaching, rather ordinary, but his holiness made people reflect and repent, and there he was, waiting in the confessional…
Soon, 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 to ‘weep for his sins’ – which should give us all of us pause – 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.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, themselves holy and zealous pastors, both in their own way 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.
He gave until the day he died, still hearing confessions until the very end, entering eternity in great joy at the age o 73, worn out in body and soul. His funeral, said by the bishop, had 300 priests, along with 6000 of the faithful.
Saint Jean-Vianney, the humble Curé d’Ars, was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, declared the patrons saint of parish priests in 1929. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated a Year for Priests under his patronage, describing him as a true example of a pastor at the service of Christ’s flock.
If the Marines get by with a few good men, look at what God can do with one. What might happen if just a few more followed the example of this hidden priest, whose only desire was to serve the God he loved so much?
Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, ora pro nobis!