St. Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney (1786-1859) was the parish priest of the village of Ars and is known primarily by that title even in English, “The Cure d’Ars”. Canonized in 1925 St. John Vianney is the patron of parish priests. In many respects he is a thoroughly modern saint.
He was born into the midst of the French Revolution and into a devout rural family who worshiped in secret with outlaw priests who refused to become state functionaries. The upheaval of the revolution closed schools, hospitals, and other institutions. For the first time in human history, the state asserted itself without religion as it destroyed the old Catholic order – the Ancien Regime. The “Goddess of Reason” was enthroned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Priests, nuns, and the Catholic nobility were killed, forced into hiding or exiled.
After the revolution subsided, Napoleon attempted to gain complete control of the Church in France and even took control of the Papal States, removing the Pope from Rome and bringing most of the Cardinals to Paris. In 1812 Napoleon’s fall began with the disastrous retreat from Russia in winter. The Industrial Revolution would follow, ending forever the cultural matrix of European Christianity.
St. John Vianney’s 73 years of life would span the trauma of the ending of the Divine Right of Kings to the rise of the rights of the common man. He would become emblematic of a Catholicism redefining itself, as it was torn from the 1,500 years of prerogatives and burdens of its affiliation with the state dating from the reign of the Emperor Constantine.
St. John Vianney began by re-asserting the centrality of God in his own life and supporting those in the parish who still practiced the faith. It is important to note that his vocation was in itself something of a miracle. Due to the upheaval of the times, he had no formal education until he was 20 and had great difficulty with Latin. To make matters worse, he got drafted by Napoleon and ended up as a deserter in hiding. An unlikely amnesty made it possible for him to return to his studies. If there hadn’t been such a severe shortage of priests, it is possible that he would never have been ordained.
His personal example of holiness in terms of his prayer and his charity to all made a deep impression. Sunday had become just another workday. Taverns were places of dissolution and much of the social order had broken down. “Dances” were part of a wild party scene involving promiscuity and adultery. Orphans and the disabled were exploited and left to fend for themselves. Over several decades, he led a movement to remedy these problems and to encourage religious devotion, while promoting service to others.
When the bishop attempted to assign St. John Vianney to other parishes, the community protested until the bishop relented. By our standards, his personal acts of penance and mortification, his meager diet, and short hours of sleep, appear to be excessive and even harsh. Reports that he was assaulted by the Devil at night strike us as bizarre, maybe even pathological. Yet they were witnessed by men in the parish who came when they heard the commotion.
Interestingly, he was not severe with his parishoners or penitents in the confessional. In fact, he was known for having won over a prominent woman who was a Jansenist and led her from a severe and demanding conception of God.
Not all of his fellow priests agreed with his approach or pastoral style. In fact, we might say that his special gifts in his historical circumstances may have created the ideal of the parish priest as a solitary super hero, like the desert fathers or the anchorites of the early Church. This calling is something one can respond to, but it cannot be fabricated and put on like a suit. Fr. John Cihak, in “St. John Vianney’s Pastoral Plan”, helps us understand how his example can guide parish priests today.
There is one major factor that is alluded to in the wonder of St. John Vianney’s life and ministry, but it is especially important for all of us who are parishioners today. God worked extensively in the life and ministry of St. John Vianney through his family, those who sheltered him as a deserter, and the people of Ars. Whether the pastor is single or married, the position is one of the most exposed and the most lonely. In denominations with a married clergy, and in the case of Eastern Rite Catholic priests and Latin Rite Catholic deacons, the spouses and children of clergy have a special opportunity and burden that only we can support by our prayers, understanding, and kindness toward them.