St. John Vianney

(1786-1859)

Some saints, like Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Alphonsus Liguori, have been intellectually brilliant. Since ours is a teaching church, we must have some intellectual leaders. But other saints, more like the rest of us, have been far from geniuses. In them, God wants to emphasize that what He most wants from everybody is humility of heart.

That is what attracted thousands to seek out the famous 19th century Cure (pastor) of Ars, France, his earthy simplicity of spirit.

John Vianney, the future Cure, was the son of a poor farmer in east-central France. John was devout and wanted to study for the priesthood. His father couldn’t spare him from the farm work until he was 20. Then he began his preparatory studies with a nearby parish priest. A slow learner by nature, John simply couldn’t master Latin; but after a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. John Francis Regis, he at least got over his discouragement.

Then came another setback. Drafted into the Napoleonic Army in 1809, he accidentally missed the departure of his contingent and thus, technically but contrary to his own intention, he became a “draft-dodger”. The mayor to whom he reported his plight sensibly advised that he go into hiding rather than risk the severe penalties prescribed for deserters. So under a pseudonym, John remained working on a local farm for the next 14 months. In 1811, thanks to an amnesty, he was able to return home a free man.

Now he resumed his seminary studies. Latin remained the bugbear, but his bishop realized that Vianney had great common sense and was a model of goodness; so he ordained him a priest in 1812. Named assistant pastor to the parish of his first priest-instructor, young Father Vianney soon showed particular gifts, as a confessor.

In 1818, John-Mary was named pastor of the run-down rural parish of Ars-en-Dombes. Here he was to spend the rest of his days. Thanks to his diligent efforts, his own holiness and the miracles that he occasioned, he finally succeeded in winning over his listless congregation to grateful obedience and Christian regularity of life. It was not an easy success, so far as Vianney was concerned. He tried three times to run away to a monastery or other more peaceful locale, but he always came back. He was also under constant assault by the devil, who even threatened him physically. At the same time he was the object of enmity on the part of some of his fellow priests. They resented his zeal, which far outstripped their own. But his bishop fully appreciated him.

Jean-Marie Vianney excelled as a confessor. When people began to come to Ars in droves to consult him, he might spend as many as 16 hours a day in the confessional. In this important work he was aided by the spiritual gift of reading peoples’ souls. Sometimes he could remind them to confess old sins that only they knew of. The saint preached, of course; but preachers, like the writers of today’s medical advice columns, can only discuss “diseases” in general. For the particular diagnosis and remedies, one must still see one’s own doctor.

In the year 1858-1859, over 1,000 pilgrims visited Ars. The Cure, now 73, and worn out, took to bed for the last time on July 18, 1859. Even then he summoned several persons to kneel beside his bedstead and finish their confessions. He died on August 5, 1859.

Pope Pius XI canonized Vianney in 1925. Four years later Pius named him the principal patron of all the Catholic parish clergy. The choice of this gentle, self- sacrificing, unlikely shepherd for that heavenly task could not have been more appropriate.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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