Talk on St. John Vianney “The Priesthood is the Love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus”
(I gave this talk at my parish, at a special Holy Hour in honor of the Year of the Priesthood this evening)
Fifty years ago, when the Church was celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Death of St. John Vianney, Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote an Encyclical devoted entirely to the Cure of Ars called Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia (“From the Start of our Priesthood”).
There’s a passage in that Encyclical where John XXIII marvels at how, at the end of his life, St. John Vianney could convert souls even without saying any words.
(The Pope says in the Encyclical) “towards the end of his life on earth, (Fr. Vianney’s) voice was too weak to carry to his listeners(. However,) the sparkle and gleam of his eyes, his tears, his sighs of divine love, the bitter sorrow he evidenced when the mere concept of sin came to his mind, were enough to convert to a better way of life the faithful who surrounded his pulpit. ”
People couldn’t understand St. John Vianney’s words at the end of his life, but it didn’t matter, because they could understand his Love, and that was all that was really needed to convert the hardest of hearts.
St. John Marie Vianney’s life and ministry won’t make any sense unless we view it from the vantage point of Divine Love.
His preaching, his extreme penances, his intense labours and prayer life were that of a man on fire with the Love of Jesus.
And based on his own testimony, the Zeal and Love that John Vianney showed was a response to the great gift of the Priesthood which God had bestowed on him.
For he would frequently say throughout his life “The Priesthood is the Love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
He would also say “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, or were we to fully realize what a priest is, we would die: not of fright, but of love.”
It was John Vianney’s awareness of the greatness of this Sacrament of Priesthood given to him, and his response to this great gift and mystery of the Priesthood, that really enabled him to become the Saint we venerate today.
In this talk tonight I’d like to reflect on the life and ministry of John Vianney, seeing it as an outpouring of the Love of the Heart of Jesus.
St. John Marie Vianney was born May 8, 1786 into a devout Catholic family living on a farm in the countryside several miles outside of Lyons France.
The end of the 18th Century was a difficult time in France to practice the Faith; by the time Vianney was 7 years old, the Revolution had set up a state run Church and priests faithful to the Pope risked death by the guillotine.
While some loyal priests fled the country, many went underground, staying in France and keeping one step ahead of the law.
One priest who lived in a nearby village disguised himself as a carpenter and another as a cook. These two priests and others would frequently come in the dark of night to say Mass at Vianney’s house under peril of their lives. Year’s later, the Carpenter priest, Fr. Balley, would be the Pastor at Fr. Vianney’s first priestly assignment.
Certainly as a child, John Vianney was influenced by the love and respect that his parents had for priests in risking imprisonment for harboring them, and the love these heroic priests themselves showed in risking their lives to bring Jesus to the faithful remnant in France.
It was probably then that he said “I want to have the love for Jesus that these men have” and felt the call to the priesthood.
And so from a very young age, John Vianney began to nourish that love for Jesus with a steady diet of prayer, penance, and reading the lives of the Saints (which he did every night before he went to bed throughout his life).
St. Paul says “The Love of Christ urges us on” and this Love of Christ made Vianney persevere and not despair in achieving his desire to become a priest despite many obstacles that stood in his way.
It was if the devil realized back then that if this guy became a priest it would be bad news. First he had to win over his father to the idea, which took two years.
Then when he did enter seminary, he struggled greatly with his studies. It wasn’t that he was unintelligent, it was more that he had a bad memory. “I could not lodge a thing in my bad head” he once said.
At one point, he decided to call it quits, but Fr. Balley his spiritual director encouraged him to take a pilgrimage to the shrine of Jesuit St. John Francis Regis, which ended up being a turning point in his life.
The next great trial on the road to priesthood was in his third year of minor seminary, when the 23 year old Vianney was drafted into Napoleon’s Army by a bureaucratic mixup. His name should have been on the list of exempt seminarians, but it wasn’t, and the army wouldn’t make any exceptions.
Almost immediately after going to the barracks, he took very sick and was sent to the hospital. Several months later he left the hospital and his troop had left without him. As he set out on foot in the middle of winter to catch up, he again took sick and entered a village to recover.
Once he recovered, there was no way to catch up, and Vianney was considered a deserter in the army, which was a common thing in those days. The sympathetic mayor of the village sheltered him, and for several months he lived in the village as a school teacher under the alias Jerome Vincent. Finally, an imperial decree granted amnesty to all deserters, and Vianney was able to resume Seminary training.
The final trial on the road to priesthood came when after a year of major seminary he was kicked out for poor grades due to not being able to understand the Latin that the classes were taught in. His mentor Fr. Balley got permission from the Bishop to privately teach him, but even then he failed the final exam the first time and barely passed it the second.
Deciding that his great holiness outweighed any intellectual deficiencies, the Bishop of Lyons ordained 29 year old John Vianney a diocesan priest on August 13, 1815.
But due to the low score on his final exam, the Bishop didn’t think Fr. Vianney would be competent enough to hear confessions, so he forbid him the faculties to do this, and it was a few months into his priesthood before Fr. Balley was able to again come to the rescue and twist the Bishops arm to allow him to hear confessions, ironic as that is!
John Vianney spent the first two years of his priesthood working under Fr. Balley, who was a mentor and father-figure to him.
But then Fr. Balley died, and the priestly honeymoon was over. It seems as if Vianney’s new pastor didn’t get along with him, and asked the Bishop to transfer Fr. Vianney to another parish.
And so the Vicar General assigned Vianney to be the administrator of a run down Church that had seen better days, in a tiny little village of 230 souls called Ars, in a far flung part of the diocese that most priests of the day considered to be Siberia, a place where the Bishop sends the least promising priests he doesn’t know what else to do with.
The Vicar General said to Fr. Vianney “There’s not much love for God in that parish, you will bring some into it.”
Fr. Vianney arrived at Ars in the middle of the Winter, and found the people’s love for God even colder than the weather was.
Very few attended Sunday Mass, and there was widespread ignorance about the Catholic Faith. Sunday was just another work day, while Sunday night was drinking and dancing night; the partying began in the afternoon and went on until late in the evening.
It must have been a great temptation that first year for John Vianney to want to shake the dust off his feet and ask for a new assignment.
But the burning love of Jesus kept his heart warm those first few years, and inspired him to take 5 Pastoral Initiatives that turned his whole parish around.
First, in the early years, John Vianney would walk all around his parish and visit with his parishioners both at home and as they were working in the fields. He got to know each of them personally, and this made his preaching and ministering to them most effective.
(Preaching, by the way, never came easy to John Vianney. In the early years, he would stay stay up all night Saturday evening working on his homily; and on a number of occasions he would freeze up in the middle of the homily and say “It’s no use, this is awful” and walk off the pulpit.)
Secondly, St. John Vianney set out right away to renovate his Church, using only his own money. He would only buy the most beautiful and most expensive vestments and chalices.
His rectory was poor and unfurnished, his cassock was thread bare, but he spared no expense when it came to the Liturgy.
The Third Pastoral Initiative was to foster devotion to Mary and the Saints. Early on, he bought a beautiful large Gold Statue of The Immaculate Heart of Mary and placed it at the entrance of the Church. Inside her heart he placed all the names of all the parishioners, and consecrated the parish to Mary’s Immaculate Heart.
(Years later in 1854, when Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, he told the people they must light up their houses and celebrate that evening with a feast, and he had the church bells rung all throughout the night. People in the nearby villages saw the light and heard the bells and thought that Ars was on fire, and sent fire trucks to put out the blaze!)
He also had a great devotion to John the Baptist, and to a Virgin Martyr named St. Philomena, he built side altars to both these saints in his church. One author says of St. Philomena “There can be no doubt that he used the Saint as a kind of screen for his own humility, for he attributed to the Martyr the miracles he himself performed. In his wonderful single-mindedness he imagined that the world would be as simple as himself and would not see through this pretty device of his modesty.”
The fourth and fifth pastoral initiative dealt with St. John Vianney’s priestly care and concern for children. To combat the illiteracy of the children and to provide shelter for orphans, he started a free school for girls called “The Providence” which for 20 years he financially supported and visited on a daily basis. On at least two occasions, God miraculously multiplied grain and bread dough to feed the children according to eyewitness testimony at the canonization process.
His priestly care for children also showed itself in the Catechism Lessons he gave the children of Ars every day in the Church at 11 a.m. for all 41 years of his time there. Supposedly adults would get just as much out of these talks as the children did!
Within 2 ½ years, John Vianney wrote to his sister that he had transformed his parish. Mass attendance was close to 100%, children and their parents knew their prayers and their catechism, the poor were being ministered to.
The five taverns in his town went out of business because no one was going to them anymore. Instead of dancing and drinking on Sunday evenings, young and old alike went to a Sunday Vespers prayer service.
While the pastoral initiatives just mentioned were a big part of this transformation, John Vianney attributed his success more to the prayers and penances that the love of the heart of Jesus inspired him to perform.
Just as natural love can drive a man to do seemingly unreasonable things, such as work 60-80 hours a week to support a family; So supernatural love drove St. John Vianney to do two seemingly unreasonable things:
1)it drove him to do extreme penances for the conversion of sinners, and
2) it drove him to spend long hours on end imprisoned in the confessional, for most of his years as a priest.
His penances are definitely of the “don’t try this at home” type.
Each Monday he would boil up a pot of seven potatoes, one for each day of the week. That was about the extent of his diet for the first 9 years at Ars. By the end of the week, they would be mouldy, but he would eat them anyway.
Each evening Vianney would use a device called the discipline, a kind of whip used to whip oneself on the back. He tied sharp bones to the end of his so that it would make his skin bleed. The blood can still be seen on his curtains in the Rectory.
(The saint in his old age later confessed that he went overboard in doing penances; He would call it his “youthful follies”.)
But even in his later years when he began under order of the Bishop to put away the discipline, to eat a little more and to sleep on a bed instead of on the floor with a log as a pillow, he still went to bed (not necessarily to sleep) at 11 p.m. each night, and rose three hours later at 1 a.m. to start hearing the lines of confessions waiting at that wee hour of the morning.
About ten years into his assignment, pilgrims began to journey to Ars to go to confession to John Vianney.
For the last 30 years of his life, he was unable to get a day off. By 1845, 300 pilgrims a day were arriving in Ars. A round trip train ticket from Lyons was good for 8 days, as that was how long it took from the time you took a number to the time you got into the confessional.
And so in the cold of winter and in the scorching heat of summer, John Vianney spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the unheated, non-air conditioned confessional box.
After his death, dozens of penitents testified during the canonization process that he read their souls in the confessional, he knew what sins they had before they even confessed them, that he even would say “aren’t you neglecting to tell me about such and such a sin?”
Again, only from the vantage point of the love of the heart of Jesus can we make sense of why and how John Vianney would endure such penances and long hours in the confessional. The Love of Christ urged him on, it kept him from giving into the temptation to flee Parish life and enter a monastery.
And finally, the love of the heart of Jesus was what gave St. John Vianney the strength to endure 21 years of demonic infestation.
About 3 years into his parish assignment at Ars, just after he had succeeded in converting the whole parish, the Devil (who John Vianney nicknamed the Grappin) began to harass him on an almost nightly basis.
Here’s an account of one of the earliest attacks:
In the stillness of a frosty winter night in 1824, terrific blows were struck against the presbytery door and wild shouting could be heard coming, so it seemed, from the little yard in front of the house. For a moment the Cure suspected the presence of burglars so that he asked the village wheelwright, one Andre Verchere, to spend the following night at the Rectory. It proved an exciting night . . . . Shortly after midnight there suddenly came a fearful rattling and battering of the front door whilst within the house a noise was heard as if several heavy carts were being driven through the rooms. Andre seized his gun, looked out of the window but saw nothing except the pale light of the moon: “For a whole quarter of an hour the house shook—and so did my legs,” the would-be defender subsequently confessed. The following evening he received another invitation to spend the night at the Rectory but Andre had had enough.
The devil’s attacks ranged from making annoying noises all night to keep Vianney from getting any sleep, to dragging him or his bed around the room and on one occasion setting his bed on fire (he wasn’t in it at the time, Vianney commented “He can’t catch the bird so he burns the cage”)
Fr. Vianney started to realize that the devil harassed him most the night before the conversion of a big sinner was about to take place. He would tell people “I’m going to catch a big fish today in the confessional, the Grappin was very hard on me last night.”
Ultimately, the Devil gave up trying to demoralize Father Vianney, realizing it was a hopeless cause, and for the last 14 years of his life John Vianney was able to get a peaceful three hours of sleep each night, all the rest he needed to hear 16 hours of confessions and do all his other priestly duties, a schedule he kept up until a week before he died.
Towards the end of his life, people were coming from all over the world to go to confession to this humble priest, who refused any honors given to him and who’s one desire in life was to retire to a monastery to prepare his soul for eternal life.
On August 4th , 1859, John Vianney died during a violent thunderstorm at age 73, having for 41 years witnessed to the Love of the Heart of Jesus in service to the parishioners and pilgrims of his little parish of Ars.
May this celebration of the 150th Anniversary of his death, and this entire Year of the Priesthood, renew all priests in their ministry, that they may show the Love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to all they minister to, as St. John Vianney did so well in his life.