St John Vianney a model priest

Greg Daly considers what we can learn from the Curé d’Ars

“St John Vianney shows us that any priest could do what he did in Ars by simply, completely being a priest,” Shrewsbury’s Bishop Mark Davies said in July 2012 when welcoming the saint’s preserved heart to his diocese, continuing, “there is no other secret”.

One wonders if similar thoughts were in the mind of Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin as he celebrated Mass in Artane’s church of St John Vianney on Tuesday, launching a novena to culminate with a Mass on Thursday, August 13, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the saint’s ordination to the priesthood.

Certainly, one might wonder whether the fabled Curé d’Ars might be able to suggest a way to the renewal of the Church in the country’s largest archdiocese. 

Born near Lyons on May 8, 1786, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was raised in the clandestine Church of revolutionary France and received his first Communion in secret. Some years after the reestablishment of the Church, the future saint began training for the priesthood, being ordained a deacon in June 1815 and a priest two months later.

Religious practice

Three years later he was appointed parish priest of Ars, a village of 230 people, where – his bishop warned him – he would find religious practice in a poor state. “There is little love of God in that parish,” he was told, “you will be the one to put it there”.

Profoundly aware of the scale of the challenge before him, he entered into his mission with the prayer “Grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life”.

Launching the Year of Priests in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of the saint’s death, Pope Benedict XVI said “the Curé devoted himself completely to his parish’s conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care”. He called on his fellow clergy to pray for the grace “to learn for ourselves something of the pastoral plan of Saint John Mary Vianney”.

The first thing priests should learn from the saint, the then Pope said, was the complete identification of the man with his ministry: while the holiness of the sacraments is never in doubt, neither should we overlook what can happen when the subjective holiness of a minister is in harmony with the objective holiness of his ministry.

“St John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life,” Pope Benedict explained, saying “it was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.” 

Convinced that a priest’s passion for ministry depended wholly upon the Mass, the Curé d’Ars said: “The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!”

Urging his parishioners to open their hearts to Jesus and rejoice before the Sacrament, St John Vianney called upon them to come to Communion, while pressing upon them the need to grasp that the Eucharist wasn’t something to which they were simply entitled. 

On the contrary, the new parish priest refused his parishioners permission to work on Sundays, and likewise used holy days of obligation to remind his flock of the need to centre their lives on God. He was ruthless in his campaigns against those taverns in which sins thrived and livelihoods were squandered, and even campaigned against dances which he felt dulled his parishioners’ sensitivity to spiritual realities and knew to be occasions for a host of sins, going so far as to refuse absolution to those who would not abandon dances. 

Not content with uprooting vice, however, he set about encouraging frequent communion and prayer, and bolstering various confraternities and other groups who prayed together and worked to help the poor of the parish. 

In Ireland nowadays there is occasionally talk of how, in a time when people are hearing – or heeding – fewer and fewer calls to priesthood, the country is facing a “Eucharistic famine”, but little is ever said about a parallel “Confessional famine”. For the Curé d’Ars the two were bound together, however, in what Pope Benedict called “a ‘virtuous’ circle”. 

“Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament,” Pope Benedict asserted in his 2009 proclamation, pointing out that Confession was no easier in post-revolutionary France than today, but that St John Vianney strove to help his parishioners rediscover “the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence”. 

It is perhaps as a confessor that the saint is best known, and through the promotion of Confession that he transformed his parish and drew penitents from all across France, turning Ars, in the words of one biographer of the saint, into “a great hospital of souls”.

In this he led by example, Pope Benedict explained, linking the Sacraments through his many hours in the parish church. “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,” the then Pope explained, continuing, “Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day.”

All evidence indicates that the Curé was a remarkably gifted confessor, one who would have understood Pope Francis’ observations that Confession is the sacrament of mercy, with neither excessive rigour nor excessive laxity taking proper care for the souls of penitents. By the end of his life, roughly 20,000 pilgrims travelled to Ars each year so their confessions could be heard. 

When he died in 1859, a year after the apparitions at Lourdes, the love of God was abloom in Ars, a parish that once had looked a hopeless case. Recognising the many miracles attributed to him, a succession of Popes have honoured him in death, Pope Pius IX declaring him venerable in 1874, Pope Pius X beatifying him in 1905, and Pope Pius XI canonising him in 1925.

Hailed as patron of parish priests in 1929, he was lauded by Pope John XXIII in his 1959 encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, which said the saint “attracts and practically pushes all of us to these heights of the priestly life”, and 50 years later Pope Benedict expressed a wish to proclaim the Curé d’Ars the patron saint of all the world’s priests.

It may well be, as the then pontiff observed in 2009, that “the pastoral methods of St John Mary Vianney might hardly appear suited to the social and cultural conditions of the present day”, but it seems equally clear that he still has lessons to teach us.