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THE YEAR OF THE PRIEST
from issue no. 05 - 2009

Jean-Marie Vianney a hundred and fifty years from his death

So far, so near


The Saint Curé d’Ars, a priest who lived between the Revolution and the Restoration in France, heard confessions, celebrated Mass, taught catechism, helped the poor. He didn’t know how to conceive of anything else. Because of this everyone flocked to him. Because he did not dim the work of grace


by Gianni Valente


Young scouts on a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Saint Curé d’Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney (Ars-sur-Formans, Rhône-Alpes region) [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

Young scouts on a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Saint Curé d’Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney (Ars-sur-Formans, Rhône-Alpes region) [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

At Ars time still flows quietly as the water of the Formans, the stream that runs through the town. The few houses grouped together on the curve that encircles the church are still set between fields swollen with winter rains and thickets on the hill where in the early morning blackbirds clamor. The old presbytery turned into a museum, the nun who goes by with a wheelbarrow full of food for the convent, even the mémorial with scenes from his life, reconstructed around thirty-eight wax statues that look real. Everything makes it easy to imagine the ordinary grace that irrigated the days when he was there, Jean-Marie Vianney, the curate patron saint of all parish priests in the world.
At Ars time flows quietly, but it flows. A hundred and fifty years have passed since he closed his eyes serenely, literally consumed by the struggle of confessing day and night his sinner friends who flocked to him from all over France. If he emerged from the presbytery tonight – skinny as a vine stalk, with the large hat under his arm, the old threadbare cassock, the white hair too long even for his time – perhaps he would chance to come across the small group of boys absorbed in doing wheelies with their gleaming Lambrettas in front of his church. Who knows what he would find to say, today, to them also. Who knows whether they know who the Saint Curé d’Ars is. The priest who lived between Revolution and Restoration, a small parish priest solitary in his church land, whom the Church of Rome has once again begun to display to all, having the reliquary containing his heart come to St Peter’s and entrusting to his patronage the beginning of the Year of the Priest, on 19 June. An undertaking not without its uncertainties. One that exposes him to the risk of falling hostage to resurgent clerical neo-conformism. Or to the opposite one of being categorized as testimonial to traditionalist nostalgias. But it also offers the chance to follow him through his days, on the streets of Ars, and so of discovering the secret of his paradoxical immediacy.

The old Sanctuary [© Ciric]

The old Sanctuary [© Ciric]

Another world
The parish register of Dardilly, his birthplace eight kilometers from Lyon, records his birth on 8 May 1786. From then up to 1859, during the 73 years of his life, France experienced the end of the Ancien Régime, the Revolution, the Constitutional Monarchy, the First Republic, the Directorate, the Consulate, the First Empire, the Restoration, the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, Second Empire... Jean-Marie was seven years old in 1793, he was fifteen at the rise of Napoleon and twenty-nine on his fall. He received his priesthood one and a half months after Waterloo.
“The great events of history”, writes Daniel Pezeril, “never cast their shadows better than on the lives of little people”. It is also true for Jean-Marie. In the winter of 1793-94 the army sent by the Paris Convention suffocated in blood the rebellion of Lyons, when the people rose up against the Terror. The church of Dardilly also remained closed, the bell was silent, but, according to reports, the young Vianney continued to recite his prayers at home or in the silence of the fields, when he led his sheep to graze along the Chemin du Pré-Cousin or to Chantemerle. The bells began to ring again only after1895, after the old pastor of the village bowed to the wind of persecution, signing all the oaths imposed by the new revolutionary order that treated priests as officials of the civil administration. The Vianneys, like everyone else, followed him at the beginning. Somewhat later their relatives in nearby Ecully warned them about attending the mass of a priest considered schismatic. Not till mowing time of 1799 could Jean-Marie receive his first communion, after instruction from refractory priests and nuns (that is those who had not sworn loyalty to the Republic) who continued to perform their apostolate clandestinely in Ecully. The ceremony took place in a room of the house of the Count Pingon d’Ecully, after a haywain had been placed in front of the window to block the view of possible agents of the Republic.
Jean-Marie grew as a Christian and followed his vocation to the priesthood in the time and place marked by the first “modern” persecution, and the first ideological attempt at enforced secularization. He was not even grazed by the illusion of mistakenly blessing the New Order as a milestone in the history of salvation. But neither did he feel any urge to organize counter-resistance, any summons to set himself athwart the path of history.
An unnerving uncertainty engulfed Vianney the seminarian in 1809 when summoned to enlist in the army of Napoleon, the invader of the Papal States, whom Pius VII had excommunicated along with “all his followers, supporters and advisers” and whose response had been to deport the successor of Peter to France. The sacrilegious sovereign had declared war on Catholic Spain also. What should the Catholics of France do? Should they not, out of loyalty to the Church, avoid military service? To some who proposed desertion, Jean-Marie responded full of hesitation: “We must also obey the law, my dear nuns”, he told the sisters of Roanne in whose nursing care he then was. In the end, as always, Jean-Marie left it up to circumstances – with just a little calculated dilatoriness. He arrived late to pick up his transit papers to Spain, and “gave in” to a fellow conscript who took him to his village, with the promise that it would not be difficult to hide there and even work. A deserter by chance, almost due to shamming, from Napoleon’s army, he too was as a seminarian also to enjoy indirectly the concessions made to Cardinal Fesch, uncle of Napoleon Bonaparte, by his imperial nephew, precisely at a critical juncture when the nephew abolished all the minor seminaries as punishment for insubordinate bishops, thereby rekindling the pro-monarchic feelings of many of the clergy. Many years later, when the political scene had much changed, by a decree of 11 August 1855 another Napoleon, another Emperor of the French, was to promote the Abbé Vianney “to the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honor, with the rank of knight”. An honor that takes on an inevitable humorous twist, on the bony and fragile shoulders of the curate who had immediately sold – to have money for the poor – the cape they had buckled on him when he became canon. When, to favor its own interests, power changed course and attitudes towards him and the Church, Vianney thanked Heaven. All his life he gratefully accepted favors and donations from noble and powerful benefactors, always spent to beautify the church or on the home for orphans in La Providence. But he did not bother to give his blessing in his sermons to the different structures of temporal power that succeeded each other. In his own small way, he realized that Christian hope is not diminished by external conditions, including those of persecution. Hope that can flourish in unreceptive soil, God willing.

A portrait of the saint

A portrait of the saint

Debilissimus
Moreover, to play the role of charismatic leader, man of God and power, the former peasant destined to become the patron of all parish priests lacked, so to speak, le physique du rôle.
Don Balley, the priest from Ecully to whom he was assigned for his initial training, found himself faced with an almost illiterate twenty year-old, inexperienced, more suited to cope with the handles of the plow than to climb the steps of the priesthood. Who from the beginning he entrusted to prayer as his only chance of climbing the wall that reared in front of his ignorance. The courses given in Latin in the seminary of Saint Irénée in Lyons remained impenetrable to him. Debilissimus, is the devastating critique with which he was stigmatized in the first test: “Sent back to his parish priest”, the directors of the seminary noted on the register next to his name. In fact many thought that it would be better to return him to his relatives and to farmwork. He only went forward thanks to the goodwill of Balley, who took upon himself the burden “of making accessible to his student the theology that the obscure Latin manual of the seminary made incomprehensible also to many others” (René Fourrey). In his early years as a curate the effort to circumvent the lacunae that made him an inferior and awkward preacher cost him dearly. Preparing his poor sermons took hours of the day and night. He wrote them down in his little notebooks and learned them by heart, limiting himself to a potpourri of phrases and quotes taken from the preaching manuals of the time, without adding anything of his own except some reference to the situation of his parishioners. More than once he left his sermons hanging in midair, overcome by a lapse of memory. The rigorist vein of many of his early sermons, in which the young curate took upon himself the role of scourge of lukewarm Christians, can largely be attributed to the manuals he used for his hotchpotch sermons. Even when the curate’s reputation for holiness began to spread from mouth to mouth through France, his ignorance and lack of resource remained an easy butt for the clerics envious of the poor wretch treated as a father of the Church by his penitents. His fellow priest Jean-Louis Borjon once wrote him that an ignoramus like himself, who knew nothing of the history of the Church, who delivered badly copied sermons in which the Council of Trent became “council of thirty”, should never have sat in a confessional.
Henri-Dominique Lacordaire did not think the same way. A greatly acclaimed preacher, an apostle of an ultramontane and at the same time liberal Catholicism, who had filled Notre-Dame de Paris with his Lenten sermons and refounded in France the Dominican Order, went to Ars in 1845 to attend a missa cantata where the curate preached on the Holy Spirit. He was amazed. “I would like to preach like him”, he said. He added that in Notre- Dame he had seen the huge crowd climb even on top of confessionals to hear his brilliant sermons. Whereas those who went to the curate, after having seen and heard his stuttered words, went to the confessionals to kneel.

Young people in prayer at the tomb of the Curé d’Ars [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

Young people in prayer at the tomb of the Curé d’Ars [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

From rigor to the love of God
When Lacordaire visited Ars it had already become a place of pilgrimage that drew the crowds on a national scale. There the young Vianney had come twenty-seven years earlier. A seminary reject sent to a hole of a village, inhabited by peasants like him, less than four hundred souls who according to his predecessor made any apostolic effort difficult and frustrating “given the stupidity and incapacity of these beings, most of whom have only baptism to distinguish them from the beasts”.
Faced with what he found, the young curate was unable to think up anything. He repeated basic actions and practices, the things that any priest could do by statute. Prayers, sacraments, catechism, corporal and spiritual works of mercy for the poor and the afflicted. He visited the houses of parishioners quickly, never accepting invitations to lunch. He walked in the fields to say hallo and have a chat with the workers. He recited the rosary with the pious women. And he spent hours and hours in the church praying before the tabernacle, or shut himself in the confessional from the first hours after midnight. The secret of the “prodigy” of Ars lies there. And the children were the first to notice. From the beginning the primary thing he was concerned with was catechising the young, soon attracting the parents who accompanied them and remained at the back of the room.
Thus, for over forty years, in the same place, always doing the same things, an ever thickening fabric of healed life wove itself around him. Life forgiven. Where what happens in the folds of the days made it easier for his heart and his gaze to embrace all. In the beginning, on his arrival, the young Jean-Marie seemed to require even from the least fervent an ascesis and warmth equal to his own aspiration. Out of his generosity he wanted to make his village a land of heroic sanctity. But his good intentions often came out as threatening reproofs, obsessive tirades against hostelries – places of destruction – and the spreading fashion of dancing. “Trained in the most severe discipline”, wrote his biographer Fourrey, “he didn’t immediately realize the exact extent of the frailty of the lukewarm Christians who constitute the mass of the baptized. Strictly subjected to moral rules of an austere Jansenist tendency he always went to extremes”. Over the years, things change. As Catherine Lassagne, his lifelong collaborator, wrote “the love he had for God seemed to grow as his life lengthened and his strength diminished. Almost at the end of life, his teachings and his catechisms nearly always revolved around the love of God. Sometimes he began with another subject, but always returned later on to love, especially the goodness and love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, His goodness to mankind”. As time passed the castigator of the early days grew milder. With all his limitations, which he always had before him, a continuous martyrdom of mortification, he always more clearly recognized that the most appropriate thing for him to do was to offer prayers and penances for the benefit of the ungrateful who did not take advantage of the gifts of grace. “I remember very well”, Catherine Lassagne said in her testimony, “that after the Jubilee, some people not having profited from it, he implored them strongly in a lesson in the church to approach the sacraments, and said: ‘If they want to come, I will take it upon myself to do penance for them’.”
Thus, Ars becomes the place of salvation promised and enjoyed, where the wretched from all over France hastened. Anguished souls, dulled hearts, sufferers from every kind of misfortune, rich and poor, beggars and great lords, educated and ignorant, troubled and failed, bodies bent by sicknesses. He was overwhelmed by the importunate mass of pilgrims who beset him by day and night, without allowing him to breathe. To feed and lodge them the hostelries reopened.

The front door of the house [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

The front door of the house [© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

Between anguish and hope
It would be something to feel proud of, to get up on a pedestal or, at least, allow oneself some small sip of moderate and blessed satisfaction. But to the end of his days only convinced statements of his own ineptitude emerged from the mouth of the curate. “I think”, he repeated to Lassagne, “that the good Lord couldn’t find man weaker than me to put in my place and do a lot of good. Ordinarily He uses what’s less to do great good, because it is He who does everything”. Pope Paul VI recalled: “When toward the end of his life, a priest was given to the Saint Curé to help him, he would say to his helper: ‘Oh, when you are present, something still gets done here. But when I’m alone, I’m worth nothing! I’m like the zeros that are worthless, if not next to other figures’”.
The Curé did not act the part of the humble person. For him, “the most fearful temptations that lead to destruction of many more souls than we can imagine are those little thoughts of self-love, those thoughts of self-esteem, those little applauses for all we do, for all that is said about us”.
Frail and really humble he was indeed, in constitution also. And the constant spectacle of his own wretchedness was for a good part of his life reason for anguish. “If I look at myself, I don’t find anything there other than my poor sins. The good Lord still allows me not to see them all and not to know myself completely. The sight would make me fall into despair”. He was especially tormented by the idea that someone might fall into eternal damnation through his fault and his unworthiness as a priest. Perhaps because his sermons as an ignorant man didn’t touch the hearts of a people overwhelmed by its own instinctive materialism. And when outsiders also started to come and pen him in the confessional, shame assailed him and mortification became even more pressing. His temptation was not to climb on the pedestal but the opposite one of fleeing the unbearable anguish by retreating from the fame and the crowd that admired him as a saint. He wanted to remain no longer, “believing himself too little educated to guide others and fearing shipwreck with those he had to lead”, recalled Catherine Lassagne. His laughable attempts at escape from Ars were always sabotaged by parishioners and collaborators. Even the pilgrims blocked him at the door of the presbytery, “Father Curate, if we’ve caused you some displeasure, say so: we’ll do anything you want to please you”.

Faithful during the Mass at the Sanctuary of Ars <BR>[© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

Faithful during the Mass at the Sanctuary of Ars
[© Romano Siciliani/Alessio Petrucci]

The best way to love God
It was not the miseries of penitents that caused the curate endless anguish. He wrote to Abbé Camelet, superior of the Missionaries of Pont-d’Ain: “I want only to go and hide myself in a corner and cry about my poor life, to seek God’s forgiveness for my ignorance, my hypocrisy and my gluttony... Pray that I be not damned!”. To his bishop, who asked him if he had ever had any prideful thoughts, he answered without hesitation: “I experience more torment defending myself from the temptation of despair than that of pride”.
Hope like that of the curate, who lived miraculously on the verge of despair, is connatural to the heart of people living today. The skinny priest of Ars was not the rock-like master of eternal certainties. Enough to look at him to understand that he wouldn’t have been able to withstand by himself. That the faith, hope and love transparent in him were not the result of his own capacities. The stuff of well-shaped souls. Unworthily he presented the gifts of grace with the hesitant and unsteady hand of those asking alms. So that he could say, “Humility is the best way to love God”. “He was a poor saint,” says Jean-Philippe Nault, current rector of the Sanctuary of Ars, “and meeting a poor man causes no fear. Like Little Theresa. Like Bernadette. They say to us: If you’re poor, I am more so than you. We’re all poor together, before the Lord.” Maybe today also it would be easy to listen to such a one, and even feel one’s heart throbbing in one’s chest, when he asserts that God, beggar of the heart of man, never denies his grace to sinners. And the biggest blasphemy is “to set limits on the mercy of God” that never ends. So much so that “if it were possible to pray in hell, hell would no longer exist”.


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