Saint John Baptist Mary Vianney

In his century, the Curé of Ars was an example and patron of priests. Surely Providence will continue to send us models to be followed by true Christians, a necessity in these uncertain and calamitous times in which we live.

Newsroom (August 4, 2021 09:44, Gaudium Press) John Baptist Mary Vianney was born in the French village of Dardilly, not far from Ars, on May 8, 1786, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution. His parents were peasants, and as soon as he was old enough he accompanied them on their daily chores.

In his early childhood, there was no lack of early manifestations of deep religiosity, preferring an image of Our Lady over any other toy. When he was only four years old, it was not unusual to find him praying in the barn.

Then came the terrible years of the Terror. Although the Terror did not produce many martyrs in Dardilly, religious objects had to be hidden and the local parish priest was replaced by a sworn priest whose politically motivated sermons eventually drove the villagers away from church attendance.

Deeply religious, the Vianney family used to harbor the unvowed priests who passed through there clandestinely and took advantage of the occasion to attend Mass and go to confession, all in a very discreet manner.

These circumstances made John the Baptist’s desire to be a hero blossom: he wanted to become a priest to defend the faith with his own life, if necessary, like those brave ministers of the Lord.

When he was only seven years old he began to evangelize his little pastoral companions: he taught them the basics of the catechism, with simplicity and without beating around the bush – a characteristic that he would retain all his life – and he taught them to recite the Rosary, to sing hymns and to make processions around the meadow.

Effort: a salient feature of his ministry

When the churches were reopened in 1800, John met Father Charles Balley in Écully, a village near Dardilly, a virtuous man who discerned his priestly vocation and spared no effort to see it blossom, helping him through his years of preparation.

It is said that the young peasant had failed his first exams for ordination, because the studies were too hard for him. So he made countless bodily sacrifices and pilgrimages in order to obtain from Heaven that his mind would expand, foreshadowing what would be one of the most salient features of his ministry: effort.

Whatever the difficulties, he would never stop devoting himself to the preparation of his sermons. And if, after so much work, not much remained in his memory, he received the reward of divine help, as a parishioner of Ars would later testify: “The parish priest was so small, so annihilated in his own eyes, that the Holy Spirit was pleased to fill that emptiness with admirable light”.

Despite his limited intelligence, which was the cause of numerous comments, especially among the clergy, the scarcity of vocations meant that he was finally elevated to the priesthood, with one restriction: he could not hear Confessions, for lack of sufficient study of moral theology.

Wisdom dwelt in his spirit

Having been ordained on August 13, 1815, he was assigned to the parish of Écully, as curate to Father Balley. There, the apostolic zeal he showed in his passionate preaching began to fill the small church with countless people who came to listen to him.

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Many of them asked him for advice, and his experienced teacher, Father Balley, began to instruct him day by day. He proposed to him obscure and delicate cases of conscience, which were solved with confidence by the new priest. Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit was enlightening him: the wisdom that he had not been able to draw from books dwelled admirably in his spirit.

The parish priest and benefactor of Saint John Baptist Mary then asked for him to be allowed to hear Confessions, and as soon as this office was granted, he wanted to be the first to benefit from his gifts at the tribunal of Penance. Providence was preparing the holy curate for his specific mission.

When Fr. Balley died, Fr. John Vianney was sent as parish priest to Ars, perhaps the last and least important village in France. There he goes without delay, taking his few belongings with him, and as soon as he sees the little village he kneels down and invokes the Guardian Angel of the parish to open the souls of all to the beneficial action of grace.

Sent to a small and dissolute parish

Arriving in Ars, he is confronted with a desolating panorama: the Revolution had succeeded in making the inhabitants of that village licentious in their customs and, deprived of all religious formation, they had drifted away from the Faith.

In the first days, the new parish priest personally visited one by one of his parishioners. He wanted to know each name, their activities, their problems. He appeared full of zeal and charity. He did not care about people who remain in the twilight between what is licit and illicit. Does God exist? Then let us honor Him as we should.

In one of his sermons he exhorts: “Christ wept over Jerusalem… I weep over you. How could I not weep? […] You do a mountain of things that are an offense to God. Do you think that God does not see you? But even I see you, my children! You will be treated accordingly. What misery! Hell exists. I beg you to think about it. Do you by any chance think that your parish priest will let you be put there to burn until the end of the centuries? Do you really want to give your parish priest that grief?”

Busy days… troubled nights!

Fr. Vianney’s integrity began to attract crowds. No longer only his parishioners came to church, but the faithful came from all over the country. It is said that if death had not taken him from this world, he would have ended up converting all of France, given the increasing number of people who came to see him. He often spent up to twenty hours in the confessional.

Countless miracles could be recounted here: the conversion of hardened sinners, the lukewarm recovering fervor, people far from religion returning to the Father’s house. Possessing the gift of discernment of spirits, he indicated to the penitents details of the circumstances they lived through, and could know the dispositions of each one. For this reason, he often denied absolution to those who did not really want to make amends.

The fatigue caused by a whole day dedicated to the healing of souls, in addition to fasting and other corporal mortifications, made a peaceful night indispensable to replenish one’s energies. However, God demands the complete holocaust of those He loves the most: noises, frights and all sorts of diabolical manifestations prevented him from sleeping.

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These phenomena began around 1824 and lasted until 1858, that is, thirty-four years. At first they took place every night, then they became less frequent. St. John Vianney grew accustomed to them: the first few times he trembled with fear, but gradually he discovered that it was a sterile hollering of hell, because so many souls were being snatched from its clutches.

It was enough for one night to be very troubled, and the next day, a repentant sinner would appear in church. Knowing of the action of grace through the Saint, the demons screamed in anticipation of their loss. Maybe this is why he called the evil one “grappin”, which means to hook, because this fury indicated that a “big fish” would be hooked to the Lord’s boat.

The infernal forces were going crazy at the success of his apostolate. Numerous possessed people went to see the Holy Curé d’Ars, who no longer feared the devil. “He dominated him from the high plateau of sanctity to which grace has raised him.” Once the cursed one declared his defeat through the mouth of a demoness: “If there were three like you on earth, my kingdom would have been destroyed. You have snatched more than eighty thousand souls from me!”

“A saint we should admire and take as a model”

As his fame grew, the indispositions against him became more intense. The nearby parish priests, although they had nothing to reproach him with, began to feel insecure about the frequent expeditions of their parishioners to the neighboring village. Some went so far as to forbid such pilgrimages, threatening to deny absolution to those who disobeyed.

They agreed to send the bishop a collective protest, with accusations such as: he doesn’t have enough theological knowledge to enter a confessional; the people who come to see him don’t return converted; he wears a bathing gown and farmer’s shoes; and many other such things. The complaint reached the hands of Father Vianney, who added his signature to the end of the list and returned it to the sender…

Nevertheless, God had endowed Bishop Alexander-Raymond Devie, Bishop of Belley at that time, with much wisdom, tact, kindness, penetration, and love for his sheep. Convinced of the virtue of this priest of his, he sent some assistants to Ars just to confirm what he already knew. They “returned giddy with admiration,” leading him to remark about Father Vianney in his answer to the rebels: “Gentlemen, he is a saint, a saint we must admire and take as a model.

The great drama of his life

“You save souls, but you lose yourself”… This short sentence summarizes the great drama that the Holy Curé of Ars faced throughout his life, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subconsciously.

Ever since he was a boy he had sought solitude and felt inclined to contemplation. The desire to remain in prayer, in search of an inner purification that would prepare him for eternal life, was the most hidden desire of his spirit.

With the intense apostolic life he led, however, achieving this form of isolation, indispensable for the soul, seemed impossible to him. And the devil, who longed to take him away from his mission as a parish priest, induced him to think that he was culpably neglecting his obligation to take care of his own soul, and that if things continued like this, he would end up losing it.

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Time and again, the idea that all his activities were useless came to his mind. What if he died suddenly? Where would he find the time for a good examination of conscience if the faithful consumed his entire day? And if the crowds of people seeking him were not enough, wouldn’t the devil also come at night and rob him of the few moments of recollection that he could devote to such a necessary task?

There seemed to be only one solution: to leave the parish secretly. Three times the Holy Curé of Ars fleed from his people, from the bishop, from the curates, from all those who could place an obstacle to that so legitimate aspiration: to take care of his own soul. He thought of taking refuge in La Trappe or in a Carthusian monastery. However, shortly after he bgan his journey he was overcome by remorse: is this the will of God? And he always returned…

Consumed by the priestly mission

At almost sixty years of age, his unreserved dedication to his priestly mission made the fact of his existence a true miracle. A doctor who examined him even stated that, “with the life he led, ‘science cannot explain how he remained alive'”.

He did not even grant himself the most indispensable necessities for survival, and never stopped to give himself a rest. On several occasions, when “going up to the pulpit or down to the confessional, they saw him bowing; he seemed, for a moment, to be losing his substance. But suddenly his mission would lift him up again, grace would fill him to the brim, the priest would resurrect the man. He was still perfectly lucid, so ready with his answers and so sure of his advice.

Before departing for eternity, the Blessed Virgin still granted him one of the greatest joys of his life: celebrating with solemnity the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8, 1854, at which Mass he debuted “a magnificent chasuble ‘of blue velvet adorned with gold’; he went up to the pulpit and spoke. In the evening he himself made a point of ringing the bells calling for the candlelight procession.

A few years later, on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1859, he no longer had the strength to carry the monstrance during the procession. He wanted, however, to take it “at the end, to bless ‘for the last time’ his people”. The time had come for God to end his days on earth and reward his holy life in Heaven.

Weeks later, worn out by fatigue and work, he asked for the last Sacraments. At dawn on August 4, the battle was already won. “Without spasms, without agony, without violence, John Baptist Mary Vianney fell asleep in the Lord” at Lauds, while Father Monnin pronounced at his bedside the words of the soul’s recommendation: “May the Holy Angels of God come to meet him and introduce him into the living city, the heavenly Jerusalem”.

He was entering Paradise, to enjoy the company of the One whose love had sustained him in his exemplary life as a priest.

Text extracted, with minor adaptations, from Heralds of the Gospel Magazine n. 188, August 2017.

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