St. Jean Vianney and the Parish Priest

I have a friend, who will remain very, very nameless, who once visited Ars, in France, the home of St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859).  So taken was my friend with the saint’s life and example that upon his return to the States he began reading a dusty old biography of the man known as the Curé of Ars.  But to my friend’s dismay, St. Jean’s 19th-century French piety turned him off.  He found the saint a tad, um, stern.  Disliked dancing, partying, merry-making, that kind of thing, in his village.  To say that he “frowned upon it” would be an understatement.  Of the local tavern Fr. Vianney said that it was “the devil's own shop, the market where souls are bartered, where the harmony of families is broken up, where quarrels start and murders are done."  And it probably was.  

John Jay Hughes, the noted church historian, writes this about the curé in the Western Australia Catholic newspaper The Record, “The content of his sermons was heavily hortatory and moralistic: condemnations of drinking and dancing. When, after five years in the parish, he was able to add to the church a chapel to St. John the Baptist, it displayed a sign saying: ‘His head was the prize for a dance.’ In his early years in Ars, Vianney's small flock heard far more stern warnings than good news. He started catechism lessons for children and postponed First Communion for those who would not learn. Adults who continued to drink and dance despite his warnings were refused absolution.”

Fr. Vianney was très strict.  Then again, like all the saints, Jean was a creature of his time.  The strictness that he enjoined on those in his parish was a reflection of his upbringing and the prevailing Catholic piety of the day.  But despite his severe condemnations, Fr. Vianney was much beloved in Ars.  Most famously, he spent upwards of 12 to 13 hours a day in the confessional.  I once mentioned that in a lecture in a large parish and one young man immediately raised his hand and said, “Why, what did he do?”  No, I laughed, he was hearing confession.  People flocked to him.  In Lourdes, outside a building given over to nothing but confessions—heard in a dozen languages--there is a statue not of Mary but of St. Jean Vianney.


Today marks the 150 anniversary of the death of the famous curate, the man who became the patron of parish priests, and about whom Pope Benedict XVI spoke so glowingly in his inauguration of the “Year for the Priest.”  So I thought I would share two of his “little catechisms,” his far more gentle teachings, which he would offer to the common folk of the day.  (Thanks to Living with Christ for including them in their commentary on St. Jean here.)

“We ought to do like shepherds who are in the fields in winter--life is indeed a long winter.  They kindle a fire, but from time to time they run about in all directions to look for wood to keep it up.  If we, like the shepherds, were always to keep the fire of the love of God in our hearts by prayers and good works, it would never go out.”

“The more we pray the more we wish to pray.  Like a fish which at first swims on the surface of the water, and afterwards plunges down, and is always going deeper, the soul plunges, dives, and loses itself in the sweetness of conversing with God….The fish swimming in a little rivulet is well off, because it is in its element; but it is still better in the sea.  When we pray, we should open our heart to God, like a fish when it sees the wave coming.”

This is also as good a time as any say this: As I travel around giving talks and lectures, I'm often hosted for dinners in rectories by parish priests: both pastors and curates.  And as I listen to them talk candidly about their lives, their vocations and their ministries--which, like anyone else's are a full measure of joys and sorrows, hopes and anxieties--I'm consistently reminded of how hard they work--baptisms, marriages, funerals, confessions, daily Masses, Sunday Masses, hospital visits, confirmation and first communion preps, evening meetings, counseling sessions; not to mention working with parish councils, dealing with parish finances, often overseeing schools and celebrating Masses for women's religious communities; and on and on and on.  And the best of them do it with a great sense of humor.  They are a wonder.

St. Jean Vianney, their patron, is prominent in the Litany of the Saints, especially at priestly ordination Masses.  So we join with that prayer and join in praying for all parish priests today, in their remarkable service to God's people, and say, “St. Jean Vianney, pray for us!”

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9 years 5 months ago
Thanks for a great profile of a great saint, Father!
9 years 5 months ago

I was just wondering who St. Vianney was, as he is pictured and named in the lovely artwork behind the altar at my church. 
So this article is greatly appreciated by someone who was curious but didn't bother to follow up!  Thank you!

9 years 5 months ago
Two things. The first is that my impression of St. John Vianney gathered from snitches here and there is that he was a sort of reluctant priest. I seem to recall he tried to escape and in fact did run away a couple of times but was found and convinced against his better judgment to return to his parish. Part of his reluctance was his feeling of unworthiness, part was temptation by the devil; maybe my impression is wrong but without peeking at a book of saint, this is what I recall. Another thing along this same line - wasn't he a man of prayer? That is he spent much time in prayer. What I recall is not that he was in the confessional all day like Padre Pio but that he was in prayer often; not that he was a hard strict priest, but that he was benevolent. Funny how different my uneducated view is.
The second thing is my observation that hard work is overrated. I too have known many priests who are real workhorses. Always busy, always involved, always doing something. I admire the ones who take time for themselves and for prayer. I admire the hard workers too, but sometimes they need to share the work; lots of good laypeople out there are willing and available. I hate seeing the image of the super-busy priest being touted around; sometimes there is something self-destructive in this super activity.
9 years 5 months ago

I know it is the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney that occasioned the 'year of the priest'. However, I am somewhat diappointed that he is the only model of priest proposed for immitation or inspiration to the modern-day priest. As the article correctly says, he was a man ministering in a very different time of austere piety, dualistic spirituality and intense moralistic interpretation of Christian life. Despite his simplicity and poverty he still saw himself as the moral guardian and sole interpreter of the things of faith and more.
Coluld he not be accompanied in the 'year of the priest' by others who resonate more with the demands of a priest (or pastoral worker) in a modern-day parish? Someone who reflects the stresses and strains of presiding over a community of faith whose needs are for welcome, inclusion, being heard, participating, led in prayer, challenged in faith and confirmed in love. The contemporary priest needs to gather and not scatter. One who can identify resourceful people and bring them into ministry. One who can delegate, even empower, others to take responsibility to complete what may be missing in the Parish community.
We are still struggling with the questions that have been with us since the Council (Vatican II); what model of Parish? what model of priest? what model of church?
I feel emulating only St. John Vianney has been a lost opportunity for renewal of Parish life.

9 years 5 months ago

The world of St. Jean-Marie Vianney is not all too distant from what some experience here in wesern Honduras. The church often speaks against drinking and has been involved in some efforts to promote "dry" municipalities. This needs to be seen in light of the devastating effects of alcohol on lives and families here, as some poor spend money on alcohol rather than basic needs. In some places in Latin America, the church has promoted Alcoholics Anonymous. I have also heard of some Catholic communities in remote Honduran villages who look down on dancing - because of the dangers of sexual license.
Here there is also a deep piety - with great respect for the Eucharist and for Mary. The priests are looked upon very highly - some might say uncritically.

But this is also a diocese where piety and social justice are combined. At Mass on August 4 the bishop told his priests that the church needs priests and bishops who take a preferential option for the poor.

And so, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, ruega por nosotros!

9 years 5 months ago
Speaking of being a product of your time.  Fr. Stepen Badin, the FIRST priest ordained in the United States was aid to make penitents dig shallow graves and lay in then for a number of hours as penance.
I heard your interview on "American Catholic Radio"'s podcast and I appreciated your comments on current day parish priests.
As usual, well done Fr. Jim!
9 years 5 months ago
I agree with John Stangle's post.  While I always have had a devotion to St. John Vianney, in fact one to any of the saints named John, I find the manner in which he viewed compliance with the church somewhat upsetting.  I realize that he was a product of his times, but my fear is that the message here is that the current atmosphere of the Roman church is pull us back to those times. 
I grew up in the 1950's and 60's when the church was not too far from the one described by Fr. Martin.   It was not a pleasant place to be, nor a very spiritual one for that matter.  As children we learned little of the love of God, and more of His justice.  Emphasis was placed on Jesus' suffering and little on His resurrection.  I remember living in fear.  Even life in the high school I attended in Philadelphia was permeated by rules and regulations.  Every move one took had the sense of being in disfavor with the powers that be.  There were 6,000 students in my school and mostly priests and nuns.  Rarely did we speak of God.  Mostly, we spoke of rules and regulations.
In spite of all of that I entered a religious community when I graduated from high school.  I believed that God had called me (perhaps to atone for my sins and those of all my friends).  I really did want to be a priest and teacher, and had by that time developed my own internal prayer life in spite of what wasn't taught in school.
The greatest joy for me came the autumn of my first year as a postulant.  One Sunday we entered the chapel for Sunday Mass (now that I think of it, it was the first Sunday of Advent, 1964), and a makeshift altar was facing us.  Everything was in English and the hymns were lively and life affirming.  Suddenly, we were standing in a place of joy, excitement, and hope.  The windows had been opened and the fresh air came in.  It was clear that the church I grew up with would never be the same.  When is the year of the laity and when will these saints be honored?


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