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!”