1786 – 1859
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
A farmer learns wisdom by closeness to God, not books, and becomes a holy priest
“Is Mr. Vianney good?” the Vicar General asked. “He is a model of goodness,” the seminary official responded. “Very well. Then let him be ordained.” And thus the last obstacle was removed from the long and winding path to Holy Orders of John Marie Vianney. Young John had difficulty learning Latin, and all seminary courses were in Latin. He had difficulty, in fact, learning anything. He had received almost no primary school education. His father needed John’s rough hands on the plow to run furrows in the soil of the family farm. Education was a luxury, and poor families had no such luxuries. Schooling was for others. After deciding to enter the seminary, John had to be privately tutored, was almost compelled to transfer to a less demanding diocese, was in and out of different seminaries, and finally personally interviewed to determine if his simplicity disqualified him from ordination. A man hears a call, but it’s the Church that responds “Yes” or “No.” The Vicar General—courageously, wisely, and correctly—answered, “Yes.” Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was ordained in 1815.
After a brief assignment as Vicar in the parish of a mentor, Father Vianney was made pastor of the parish in Ars, a small, dead-end village of farmers, seemingly dropped in the middle of a remote countryside. It was so tiny that on his first visit, the new priest couldn’t find it without local help. When he first stepped foot in the parish, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. Father Vianney’s humble, servile gesture was known to Pope Saint John Paul II, who emulated it on every first visit he made to a country as Pope.
Father Vianney would spend the rest of his life, forty plus years, in Ars, burning his candle at both ends until there was nothing left to be consumed. His big heart enfolded the small town within itself. Father Vianney had a simple pastoral plan. His goal was that every single person in Ars go to Mass every single Sunday. Every. Single. Person. Every. Single. Sunday. To implement his plan, he acquainted himself with everyone, fasted and prayed, taught, and heard multiple hours of confessions every day. And he preached, unremittingly, about the fires of hell. If anyone thought there was no hell, then his sermons would have made no sense, because hell was his constant theme. His personality was not for everyone. He could seem fanatical, rough, and just a bit beyond zealous. But his total commitment, purity of life, and moral strictness were obvious. There was also that special something which only a saint has. Father Vianney had it. Like body language, which everyone can read but no one can explain, holiness surrounded him like an aura.
Crowds of people started coming to Ars just ten years into his time there. The nearest large city, Lyon, added trains to and from Ars to accommodate the crowds. Father Vianney himself was the destination of these pilgrimages, not Ars. Unusual spiritual phenomena added to the mystery. People were physically healed, and Father Vianney could read souls, see into the future, and prophecy. But his greatest gift was his own example of holiness. His pithy wisdom in the confessional was so sought after, the lines seeking his counsel so long, that he was made a prisoner of that sacramental box. Near the end of his life, people grabbed at his cassock to obtain a relic. And the night he finally succumbed to his pastoral burdens and died, the simple faithful stripped the bark from the trees in front of his rectory just to have a small chunk of something he had looked at, or which his shadow had darkened. Father Vianney converted his parish one soul at a time using the tools of all time: prayer, the sacraments, and preaching.
Saint John Vianney, may your example of dedication to prayer and the sacraments provide an example of holiness to all parish priests, so that they may embody for their parishioners the fundamental spiritual truths of our faith.