St John Vianney (1786-1859) is regaining popularity among diocesan seminarians in the United States. After a generation of being ignored, if not ridiculed, the patron saint of parish priests is once again finding his way into the hearts and minds of seminarians and priests.
The Church names him as patron because this humble priest, assigned to the backwaters of south-eastern, post-revolutionary France, reveals things perennial about the priesthood and priestly ministry. The pioneering Pope Blessed John XXIII even wrote an encyclical letter on St John Vianney recommending him as a model for diocesan priests to follow. This article is the summary of a discussion I had with a group of transitional deacons on the cusp of ordination to the priesthood.
Their assignment was to examine the beginning years of St John Vianney's ministry in Ars through the lens of two questions: 1) What was the cultural landscape of his time? 2) What are the basic contours of his pastoral plan? How was it that within eight years of the Cure's arrival in Ars many of the people who were living indifferent and nominally Christian lives became fervent and committed believers?
The group discovered that St John Vianney's ministry gives parish priests a fundamental blueprint for a pastoral plan for any place and time.
Father Vianney arrived at his parish a generation after unparalleled cultural and political upheaval in France. The Revolution and subsequent Terror, the hardships under Napoleonic rule, the widespread devastation of churches, religious communities and practices, and the outright attack on the Church in France herself, were still fresh in the minds of many. The Revolution's spawn of secularism had permeated much of French society, with even the smaller villages feeling its reverberations. God and the Church were relegated more and more to the margins of French life.
Upheaval was also felt within the Church in France. The State had sought to subsume the Church, going so far as to force the clergy to take an oath to the State, effectively making the priest more of a State employee than a servant of the Gospel. The faithful, moreover, were scandalised when many priests succumbed to this pressure, including the then pastor of Ars, Father Saunier. Educated at the Sorbonne, Ars' pastor took the oath in 1791 and the spiritual unraveling of the parish in Ars began.
The next year the parish church was looted and Father Saunier left the priesthood. The sanctuary of the parish church was converted into a club where the "free-thinkers" of the area held meetings. Though restoration of the Church in France began in 1801, tension and confusion about the clergy still existed. Which priests could one trust? What of the priests who took the oath, some of whom had married? What about those priests who refused and suffered or were even killed? France in the 19th century also was experiencing a priest shortage.
The religious ignorance and indifference spawned by the Revolution had their effect on the life of Ars. People frequently missed Sunday Mass, and work dominated the lives of most. The tiny settlement boasted of four taverns where the livelihoods of many families were squandered. The very people who could not find time for Sunday Mass spent themselves in festivities, lasting far into the night and ending in the usual evils.
Religious ignorance was rampant in both children and adults, although remnants of faith and morals were still found scattered about among some of the families. The faith and the priesthood were not despised, just ignored. The impact of the Revolution and Terror, and the poor example or lack of stable clergy left the parish unsettled, ignorant, confused and at best lukewarm.
Into this cultural milieu stepped the little priest from the village of Ecully, and he gave the people of Ars something they had never seen before. How did he do it? There were eight basic features to his pastoral plan: 1) the conversion of his own life as a priest; 2) manifesting an approachable and available demeanour; 3) prayer and ascetical living; 4) channeling initial energy into those families already faithful; 5) giving special attention to the liturgy, preaching and catechesis; 6) addressing problems at their roots and not in their symptoms; 7) planting good habits of prayer and works of mercy; and 8) doing it all with a strong priestly identity.
When we hear about pastoral plans, we often think first of implementing some packaged program motivating parishioners to "get involved." St John Vianney's plan did not begin with the parishioners in what they needed to do, nor did it begin with what he needed to implement for them. He began with what he needed to do within his own life.
He first of all set out to save his own soul, and by example drew others into this path of holiness. In this he followed the spiritual maxim from the Desert Fathers and from the Lord himself: If you want to sanctify others, begin with yourself. Vianney's conversion of the parish started with his own, and his deepened along with theirs. He did not arrive in Ars already a saint. He became one at Ars by being a priest for his flock, and gained sanctity over time through much grace and struggle.
This indispensable foundation in his own conversion as a man and priest blossomed into action. He soon established the habit of making rounds in his parish at the time he knew most people would be in. Even though his presence was not universally welcomed, the villagers judged their new curé "to be full of kindness, cheerfulness, and affability". The Curé d'Ars was an approachable and likeable man.
In his approachability, Father Vianney exemplified what the late Pope John Paul II has written in our time: "It is important that the priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 43).
Coming upon the boundary of his new parish for the first time, Father Vianney knelt down and prayed. He was acutely aware that the mission given him was completely beyond his ability. If his priestly ministry was to be fruitful, it would come from Jesus working through him. For this reason we find him face down on the floor of his church early in the morning and late at night begging, even crying, for the grace of conversion for his parish.
The primacy of prayer in ministry, which is so evident in the Curé d'Ars, is an important lesson for parish priests. The cancer of Pelagianism among us is more prevalent than we like to admit. We are deceived into thinking that we can accomplish our priestly mission by relying on our gifts, our creativity and our activity.
Especially among us younger priests, we are easily fooled into thinking that we need to jump into activity without realising that only prayer and penance usher in the grace that will make it fruitful. Vianney reminds parish priests that the offering of daily Mass, constancy in the Liturgy of the Hours, fidelity to a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, making an annual retreat, and practising self-denial are the necessary foundation for the priest's mission of preaching, sanctifying and governing.
The Curé first focused on the families that were already strong in their faith and had resisted the waves of worldliness and indifference. This approach may seem counter-intuitive. Why expend energy on people he already had? His answer is that they would become the fiery coals, which would dry out the damp wood of the rest of the parish and help set it ablaze. His work had a ripple effect expanding outward from these initial families to more and more of the village and surrounding area.
Since people were not coming to Mass on Sundays, he began to beautify the parish church, making it attractive to people. The place of the Eucharist was to be a place of beauty. He even used his own money to purchase a new altar and statuary. He spared no expense in acquiring sumptuous vestments for the liturgy though he himself wore a threadbare cassock. He who was not finicky at what he ate was quite picky about the quality of materials that went into the parish church.
Some may criticise this practice in that the money could be spent on the poor; however, we find the Curé just as generous with the poor.
His manner of celebrating the Divine Mysteries was radiant. His love of the Mass could be read on his face. He was authentic, allowing himself to smile or weep however the mysteries moved him. He was reverent and precise. He did not strive after relevant liturgies; he strove for beautiful ones.
His preaching was clear and focused on the central mysteries of the faith. He worked hard weaving his sermons through hours of study and it was not uncommon early on in his ministry for him to spend several hours per week preparing the Sunday sermon.
Along with beautifying the liturgy and working hard in preaching, he set about developing an organised approach to catechise the youth. Unfortunately First Communion had become a mere formality, a passing event in children's lives. He used the wise tactics of a pastor to get them to come initially: "He who arrives first in church shall have a [holy] picture". He challenged parents to take responsibility for the spiritual life of their children, and did all the catechising personally until an assistant was given to him some twenty- seven years later.
Obviously the small size of his parish allowed him to do it. After only a few years, it was known that the children of Ars knew their catechism better than any in the surrounding district.
Every parish priest who strives to be faithful to the Lord and the Church knows how difficult it is to follow through on changes in the face of criticism. We tend to feel hurt by what others say about us, and are tempted to water down the message or to back down from what needs to be done.
Tavern life in Ars was symptomatic of the spiritual problem. Great effort was exerted for work and pleasure, but not for God. This habit was shared by peasant and gentry alike. The taverns were places where the Lord's name was blasphemed, where habits of cursing and swearing festered, and where livelihoods were squandered.
The Curé set about closing them. In the words of his biographer, Father Vianney was "ruthless" in his invective against them. However, he still cared for the welfare of the owners. When one complained to him that his preaching kept people away and was causing his financial ruin, the Curé gave the man enough money to close the tavern. One by one each owner closed his tavern and took up another occupation.
The rebuilding of respect for the Lord's Day and the closing of the taverns took eight years of ceaseless effort, and even so was not completely successful. Nevertheless, a majority did re-centre their lives on the Lord, and destitution largely disappeared.
Vianney's vigorous uprooting of evil had a purpose. He uprooted it in order to cultivate something much better: the life of the Kingdom.
Family prayer had all but died out in the village, and Vianney realised that most farmers and workers could not attend daily Mass in the morning. He introduced praying a rosary at the church in the evenings. In the parishioners' personal lives, he taught them to make a daily examination of conscience, do short spiritual reading, practise meditation, and make an offering of their daily sufferings. He joined together with his neighbouring priests to organise missions and confessions at each others' parishes. It was at these missions that the Curé d'Ars' gift as a confessor was discovered.
He complemented his efforts at prayer with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. When he arrived in Ars, there was no real school. He recruited two young women of the parish and sent them, at his own expense, to be trained as school teachers. He then turned his attention to the orphans and street children of the area who were usually reduced to begging, and opened an orphanage.
In the span of eight years, by the grace of God and his efforts, the Curé d'Ars had instilled in the people the primacy of God in their lives, and cultivated in them dedication to prayer and the care of the poor.
In short, to convert the people of Ars, he did not need to become a psychologist, a bureaucrat, or a social worker. The effectiveness of his plan also did not come from his charisma or "cult of personality." He was simply their priest, the Curé d'Ars. All that was required was that he strive to become the man and priest Jesus had made him to be.
Fr John Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. He was previously Director of Human Formation and Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary, Oregon, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. This is a shortened version of his article which first appeared in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'.