"Do you know how I got here?" he asked me as I was vesting for Mass in the sacristy of the Saint John Fisher Seminary Residence in Stamford.
"No," I replied. "Tell me the story."
"Well," he said, "I met you three years ago in a church in Manhattan where you had come to preach one evening. I told you that I wanted to be a priest but didn't know how to go about it."
He helped me with my chasuble and went on. "You wrote the address of this place on the back of one of your calling cards and gave it to me. So I came here a few days later, met with the rector, and did my year of pre-theology under his guidance. In just two years, with the help of the Lord, you will be ordaining me a priest for the Diocese of Bridgeport."
I walked from the sacristy into the chapel of the seminary residence. There the priests who had been ordained for the diocese a month earlier and twenty-three young men on their way to the priesthood were kneeling in their places. It was August 4th, the Feast of Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests. I suspect that all assumed that my homily would be about him.
In a sense it was. At the beginning I recounted the saint's life in broad strokes. He had been born, the fourth of six children, in 1786 in a town near Lyons in southeastern France, I explained. His parents were peasant farmers who had remained true to the Church throughout the so-called "Terror" of the French Revolution and throughout the persecutions of the Napoleonic era, as well. Thus, their economic and social prospects were limited at best.
John spent most of his youth herding cattle. As a consequence, his formal education was regularly interrupted by farm duties; and his scholastic abilities were generally thought to be rather poor. Nevertheless, at the age of twenty he received the Sacrament of Confirmation and, deeply moved, decided to try to become a parish priest.
In his seminary years he experienced one academic failure after another largely, it is said, because of his difficulty in mastering the Latin language. Still, he refused to abandon what he firmly believed to be a calling from the Lord and in his travail was joined by the one whom I made the central figure of my homily.
His name was Abbé, that is, "Father" Balley. He was John's pastor and in due course became his professor, as well. He tutored the young man throughout his philosophical studies, frequently imploring seminary authorities to allow him to repeat failed examinations. And throughout his theological studies the same was true. The Abbé guided his struggling charge in virtually every seminary course he had to take. Without him it is safe to say that there would never have been a Father John Vianney.
But a Father John Vianney there was. On August 13th, 1815, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Lyons ordained him to the priesthood, with some hesitation but hoping for the best.
As might have been expected, John was not sought after by the pastors of the area. Hence, his first assignment was as a curate to Abbé Balley, from whom he set himself to learning the practical art of pastoring souls. He remained in this position for somewhat less than three years, at the end of which time he was appointed pastor, which is to say, "curé," of a poverty-stricken village of 230 souls by the name of Ars-en-Dombes. It was commonly felt that he could do little damage there.
Certainly, no damage was done. Indeed, even the most anti-clerical commentators of the day conceded that the Curé of Ars worked in his parish what amounted to a miracle. He re-built the ancient parish church. He introduced perpetual adoration to the Lord in the Eucharist. He instituted a program of daily catechetical lessons. He founded an elementary school for girls. And within eight years as many as 20,000 pilgrims were coming to Ars annually to assist at his Mass, to hear him preach, and especially to receive absolution at this hand.
Thus it was that in 1855 Napoleon III named the Curé of Ars to the French Legion of Honor. When the elegant decoration was delivered, it is reported that the honoree chuckled and immediately sold it and the morocco-leather case in which it was contained in order to add bread to the parish pantry for the poor.
In 1859 the Curé of Ars went to the Lord at the age of seventy-three. Sixty-two years later Pope Pius XI proclaimed him both a saint and the universal patron of parish priests.
And Abbé Balley, what became of him?
Frankly, very little is known. As often happens with most devoted servants of the Lord, he seems to have simply slipped from the pages of history. Nonetheless, he is for me, if not the hero of the piece, certainly the most inspiring supporting actor. Never counting the cost and never fearing that he might be laboring in vain, he freely gave his time, his learning, and his love to a child of God who was striving to become a priest of God.
Did the Abbé see in the young Vianney what others missed? Perhaps. More likely, however, he saw a somewhat hapless youth, struggling to give his life to the care of souls and considered such a one more than worthy of days and months and even years of dedication and support.
The Church has a long tradition of choosing patrons for various professions and undertakings. Saint Thomas Aquinas is the patron of theologians. Saint Therese of Lisieux is the patron of missioners. Saint Thomas More is the patron of lawyers. Saint Elizabeth Seton is the patron of educators.
Were it up to me, I announced in my homily, Abbé Balley would be the patron of those who love the priesthood and the religious life and are willing to assist others in the pursuit of those callings even at the cost of great sacrifice to themselves. And we truly need such a patron, I continued. For without a concerted effort of the People of God - clergy, religious, and laity - we are not going to have priests and religious in sufficient numbers to fittingly serve the Lord and His Church.
I returned home after the Mass in Stamford and went directly to my desk. From my wallet I extracted three of the calling cards that were lodged inside. On the back of each I typed:
Father Stephen M. Di Giovanni
Rector and Director of Vocations
Saint John Fisher Seminary Residence
894 Newfield Avenue
Stamford, CT 06905
Telephone: (203) 322-5331
Having replaced the cards in my wallet, I breathed a prayer to Abbé Balley that he help me distribute as many of them as possible over the years to come. I even begged him to inspire Catholics throughout Fairfield County to do the same. On the desk my Breviary lay open to August 4th, the Feast of Saint John Vianney. My eyes were caught by the prayer at the bottom of the page. It was a plea to the Eternal Father that we "win" others to the service of Jesus Christ. I trust that the Curé of Ars will forgive me if I took the words of that prayer as a sign of approval from his zealous pastor and my unofficial patron for all who work and pray and even hand out calling cards to foster priestly and religious vocations.
Saintly Pastor of Ars
and splendid model
of all servants of souls,
you were considered not very bright
but you possessed the wisdom of the Saints.
You were a true pontifex,
between God and his people
as countless penitents
streamed to your confessions.
Inspire all priests
to be dedicated mediators
between God and his people
in our day.