JOHN VIANNEY, The Curé d' Ars, 1786-1859. Although all the saints belong to the universal church there is a sense in which they have a special local significance. John Vianney is known throughout the world as the `Curé d' Ars'; that title with its undertone of affection is sufficient description of his special mission, which was in the first place to give an example to the priests of France immediately after the horrors and persecution of the revolution, when, despite many who were fervent, many others had fallen by the wayside or regarded themselves as merely functionaries. His work of transformation in the almost godless village of Ars was therefore an example for all France, but his work for individual souls was to spread his fame throughout the world.
John Mary Vianney was born at Dardilly, some eight miles north-west of Lyons, in 1786. His peasant parents were among those who remained faithful Catholics during the revolution, giving hospitality to visiting priests. John Vianney was present at Mass said in secret in the woods or in a barn. After his first communion (at the age of thirteen) he made up his mind to be a priest, but it was only at the age of seventeen that he felt that he could tell his father. He obtained his consent two years later. His education was rudimentary; he had no Latin. Abbé Balley, of Ecully, received him among the pupils taught at the presbytery but found considerable difficulty in teaching him anything. Meanwhile owing to an error he was called up for service in Napoleon's army in 1809. Another misunderstanding caused him to be posted as a deserter until in 1810 a general amnesty allowed him to return home.
A year at Verrières for his philosophy proved him a model seminarian but with no aptitude for learning, and the seminary at Lyons where he went for his theology was obliged to send him away because he could derive no profit from the lessons delivered in Latin. Abbé Balley took him in once more, taught him sufficient theology from a French manual and presented him for ordination in 1815. He was accepted principally on account of his devout life.
Such was his preparation for a life's work which, after a short period as curate to his tutor in Ecully, was wholly given up to the evangelization of the parish of Ars and to dealing with the many who soon came to seek his help. The basis of his personal approach to his work consisted in the two means taught by our Lord-prayer and fasting. Whenever no duty required his presence elsewhere he was to be found in church; his meals and sleep were reduced to a minimum. His sermons at first were preached to a few old women, but gradually as his influence was felt, drunkenness, Sunday work, the dancing, which kept people from church, all disappeared. None of this was accomplished without great cost to the parish priest: calumny of his good name was circulated in the neighborhood, his colleagues criticized him, he was denounced to the bishop, Monsignor Devie, who having made inquiry about his life and conduct offered him as an example to his colleagues.
John Vianney had to endure too those preternatural manifestations sometimes ascribed to poltergeists: rapping, moving of furniture, voices, his bed catching alight and other characteristic phenomena rendered his presbytery almost uninhabitable. He bore it all calmly enough and after a time was troubled no more in this way. By this time the pilgrims were already beginning to crowd into Ars. At first a few notable sinners from the surrounding countryside were converted by the fame and example of the parish priest of this little village. Then others came from further afield. Soon a special booking-office in the station at Lyons was issuing tickets for pilgrims--they were eight-day tickets, because it was impossible to be certain of seeing the parish priest and return home in less time than that. A regular coach service connected Ars with the nearest station for Paris. For years John Vianney worked a twenty-hour day, the greater part of which was passed hearing confessions.
About one in the morning he would walk the thirty yards from his presbytery to the church, and ring the angelus, thereby announcing that he was ready for the penitents. He was busy with them until he said mass at seven; after his thanksgiving he returned to the confessional, and there for the greater part of the day he remained, emerging only at eleven to give a catechism lesson and then go to his dinner (which took only a quarter of an hour); after a visit to the sick he was back in the confessional, coming out again only in the evening for night prayers. He then retired to the presbytery and shut himself up in his room for his short night of three hours or so--how much of it was spent in sleep we shall never know.
Such a life, endured for thirty years, was one of the greatest miracles of Ars; there were others in abundance, all ascribed by John Vianney to the prayers of St. Philomena. Sinners were converted, the sick healed, vocations settled, men and women set on the straight path to holiness, with a sentence or two from that tired quiet voice behind the grille. He could read people at a glance and often foretold their future with startling accuracy.
Three times he tried to resign his post and retire to a monastery; he was prevented on each occasion by his bishop or his parishioners. He was haunted by the notion that he must prepare himself for death far from the crowds that thronged round him, clipping pieces off his cassock, his white hair, pulling his breviary from under his arm in their desire for relics, importuning him for his blessing, for a cure, for a conversion of friend or relative. He was torn in two between his desire for a contemplative life and his zeal for the conversion of souls; it was no question of personal preference but the desire merely for the better service of God. But he died in harness on August 4th, 1859 at the age of seventy-three. Reputed a saint in his lifetime, he was canonized by Pius XI in 1925 and given to the pastoral clergy of the world as their patron in heaven. August 9th (John Coulson (editor). The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary, New York: Hawthorn Books, 1958 pp 256-273.)
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