A French seminary under the leadership of Bishop Guy Bagnard of the Diocese of Balley, that has put the priestly model of the Curé of Ars at the centre of its training program, has been enjoying unusual success.
John Mary Vianney - later to be better known as the Curé of Ars - was born in 1786 in Dardilly, near Lyon. His childhood coincided with the French Revolution; this deprived him for years of the chance to go to school. The resultant lack of basic education made study difficult for John as he prepared for the priesthood. However, his trust in God and the unfailing support of his mentor, Fr Balley, sustained him, and he was ordained on 13 August 1815.
After three years as curate, Fr Vianney was sent to Ars, a small parish with a dilapidated church and parishioners who were ignorant and indifferent as regards religion. It soon became a model parish through the new priest's hard work, fasting and prayer. However, it was as a confessor that he was most renowned; he used to spend up to sixteen hours daily in the confessional.
Fr John Vianney died on 4 August 1859. Declared Venerable in 1872, he was beatified in 1905 and canonised in 1925. Four years later Pope Pius XI declared him "heavenly patron of all parish priests or those having the care of souls throughout the whole world."
Because of St John Vianney, Ars became a major shrine of France, visited by thousands. Among them was the young Polish priest, Fr Karol Wojtyla, who came there on pilgrimage in 1947. He came again in 1986, this time as Pope John Paul II. Before the Pope's visit, a group of French clergy petitioned him not to go to Ars, alleging that John Vianney's concept of the priesthood was wrong, and unfit for the present day. The Pope's response was to proceed according to plan. He gave a three-part meditation and a homily in Ars, and proclaimed in the clearest terms the essential role of the priest as the one who makes the work of salvation present everywhere in the world.
By his visit to Ars and by what he said there, Pope John Paul stressed that John Vianney's life and teaching were as relevant and as necessary for the world's priests and seminarians today as they were when Pope Pius XI made him their patron in 1929. This also underlined the universal importance of Ars as the heartland of the priesthood.
A year after the Pope's visit to Ars, the local diocese of Belley was given a new bishop. Until his appointment, Bishop Guy Bagnard had been rector of a seminary at Paray-le-Monial. His experience in seminary formation had shown him that God is still calling men to the priesthood, and that, given the right circumstances, many are willing to answer that call. However, unlike most clerics of former years, today's seminarians are older, with a great variety of home backgrounds and personal experiences. Many have given up lucrative professions in order to study for the priesthood; they come with high ideals and expect high standards. Therefore, a new approach to formation is needed.
Bishop Bagnard was acutely aware of the loneliness which affects many priests who live alone; as the local bishop he was very conscious of his duty to guard the charism of St John Vianney on behalf of the whole Church. He took care of both concerns by founding the Society of John Mary Vianney, an association of priests who wish to live their priesthood under the patronage and guidance of the Curé of Ars. Grouped in small fraternities, the Society aims to provide the spiritual and human support necessary for the diocesan priest today.
Bishop Bagnard gave an important task to the Society of John Mary Vianney when he asked it to take charge of the seminary which he opened at Ars in 1988. It began with six candidates; today there are one hundred and twenty men preparing for the priesthood there. About eighty are from France; the rest represent various countries and continents.
The formation begins with a year of discernment; during this year the candidates receive a basic spiritual and doctrinal training. Then follows a two-year course in philosophy and three years of theology.
The seminarians live in groups of about fifteen in various houses in Ars. Each house has an oratory, and one or two resident priests. One of the seminarians is responsible for the day-to-day running of the house. The mid-day meal is taken in the seminary, where the lectures, apart from those in theology, are given.
A happy, friendly atmosphere prevails. The seminarians are loud in their praise of the seminary and the formation which they receive. All professors are required by the statutes to "adhere without reserve to the magisterium ... since they teach in the name of the Church." This is a major contributory factor in the success of the seminary.
One seminarian summed it up as follows: "The crisis in so many seminaries today is due to the lack of proper teaching and formation rather than to the lack of vocations."
Thus the flame lit by St John Mary Vianney and fuelled by Pope John Paul Il and Bishop Bagnard is beginning to radiate through France and beyond.
With acknowledgement to 'The Irish Catholic.'