A Priest for All Seasons
The last decade or so has not been easy for priests. The egregious misbehavior of a few has tarnished the dedication and service of the vast majority of priests. Moreover, in many places, the shortage of priests is severe. Fewer priests are called upon to meet growing demands. As the rector of a prominent seminary recently said, "The priests, especially in this country, need a shot in the arm, both spiritually and emotionally. We've taken it on the chin for a number of years and it's time we spend the year reinvigorating ourselves spiritually and re-energizing ourselves to be proud of who and what we are."
Saint John Vianney
That is a good description of what the "Year for Priests" is all about. It was proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in June to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), the patron of parish priests. The Holy Father declared the Year for Priests out of his love and respect for priests and out of a desire to offer us priests, not simply a pat on the back, but rather an authentic way of being renewed in our vocation.
In a letter which Pope Benedict wrote to priests throughout the world, he calls our attention to the saintly Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, whose ministry had such a profound impact on his own parishioners and, indeed, on the worldwide Church. It is in the holiness and pastoral zeal of Saint John Vianney that we priests can rediscover the importance, beauty, and grandeur of our vocation. Those very qualities, priestly holiness and zeal, also inspire the People of God to embrace their call to holiness coupled with their call to serve others in and through the communion of the Church.
So, in this week after the celebration of Saint John Vianney's feast day on August 4, let's spend a few minutes thinking about his life and example.
John Mary Vianney was born May 8, 1786, in the French village of Dardilly, near Lyon. His native country was about to be convulsed by the French Revolution which both devastated the Church in France yet also set the stage for her renewal. Many clergy and faithful Catholics died in the bloodletting. Numerous Church institutions were destroyed. Amid all the confusion and terror, many Catholics simply stopped practicing their faith. Indeed, the Revolution cast a very long shadow over the Catholic culture of France.
It was in this context that John Vianney answered God's call to become a priest. He did so after serving briefly in Napoleon's army and after a stint as surveyor. Evidently, the Lord wanted to recruit John Vianney for His forces and called him to survey His vineyard.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's first look at his path to the priesthood.
It wasn't particularly easy for John Vianney to answer the Lord's call. He was older than other seminarians. He also struggled with the Latin language, and that struggle was significant. In those days, seminary courses in philosophy and theology were taught in Latin. The Mass was always celebrated in Latin. While knowledge of the Latin language remains important for priests, it was crucial in John Vianney's time.
However, his difficulty with Latin should not be exaggerated. It did not mean that he lacked intelligence or was anti-intellectual. His later preaching and writing indicate otherwise. It probably was the case that he didn't test well. Any smart student who studies hard but doesn't test well might find some comfort in his situation.
In any case, John Vianney was ordained in 1815 and sent to be the parish priest (Curé) at the village of Ars. It was not an easy assignment. The parish numbered only 230 parishioners and was in a shambles both spiritually and physically. Few went to Mass on Sunday. Ars was a farming community, and most of the farmers regarded Sunday as just another day for work. Almost no one went to Confession, for both a sense of sin and a sense of God's mercy had long since disappeared in the lives of those parishioners.
Not surprisingly, the parish produced no vocations to the priesthood or religious life. Nor did it reach out to those who were in need. Indeed, for all practical purposes, it was spiritually dead. In assigning him to the parish at Ars, the bishop said to Father John Vianney, "There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there."
In many ways, that sums up the rest of John Vianney's life and activity. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the conversion and the Christian education of his parish.
But where would he begin? The answer is not where we usually begin, with talks, meetings, plans, and other types of activity. No, Saint John Vianney first tended to his own soul. He prayed and prayed deeply. It was not that he was overly focused on himself, nor did he succumb to the paralysis of endless self-analysis. But this future saint knew that Job #1 was his own holiness. He prayed deeply because he was keenly aware that the priest was a great gift to the people, a shepherd who embodied Christ's gift of self. Far from taking his priesthood for granted, he often meditated on the sublime role of the priest in bringing Christ to others by preaching the Word of God, by celebrating Holy Mass, and by forgiving sins in the Sacrament of Penance. His esteem for the vocation to which God had called him did not make him puffed up or arrogant. On the contrary, it drove him to acquire a personal holiness commensurate with the objective holiness of his high calling to be a priest.
As a result, it could be said that Saint John Vianney almost "lived" in the parish church. He spent long hours praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Yet he offered no sophisticated tips for praying. He simply urged himself and his parishioners to open their hearts to the Lord.
"One need not say much to pray well," he used to say.
The Curé of Ars also lived a penitential life. As a diocesan priest, he did not profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, as do religious women and men. Yet he lived those counsels in a manner appropriate for a parish priest. He was utterly faithful to the vow of chaste celibacy by which he truly became the spiritual father of his family of faith. He had few possessions and ate sparingly.
Later, in service at Ars, he received abundant donations. He used those donations for the poor, to open a school, and to repair and adorn the parish church. And he was obedient to the Lord and to the Church. His bishop asked John Vianney to bring the love of God to a forlorn parish. He did so in ways that exceeded the bishop's fondest expectations.
Saint John Vianney's holiness resulted in overflowing pastoral love. While he spent many hours in prayer, he was utterly available to his people. He visited their homes. He cared for their sick and dying. He instructed the young. And he won their trust, not for his own sake, but rather so that he could lead them to Christ and deepen their faith.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the confessional. People started flocking to this holy priest to have their Confessions heard. Through his ministry, they opened their hearts to the Lord and to His mercy.
Soon, John Vianney's reputation as a confessor spread far beyond Ars. People come from near and far to go to Confession to him, just as later generations would seek out Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. They came not because he told them what they wanted to hear, but because he spoke the truth in love and offered them transforming mercy and forgiveness in the words of absolution. Eventually he would spend as much as 16 hours a day in the confessional.
Today, of course, we can't replicate the conditions that prevailed in the nineteenth century. But we priests can embrace the truths and ideals of the priesthood as they were exemplified by Saint John Vianney. He remains a reference point for our priestly lives as well as a powerful intercessor for us priests as we seek that holiness of life which makes our ministries fruitful and brings us authentic and lasting joy.
As this Year for Priests unfolds, may I ask parishioners who read this column to pray for us, your priests, and to encourage us to be men of deep holiness and genuine pastoral love. Please thank your priests for answering and living their vocation. Pray also for vocations and for our seminarians. Ask the Lord to send us those shepherds who will help us all grow in holiness and zeal for the Gospel.
Saint John Vianney, pray for us!