A saint ‘hard on himself, and gentle with others’

Pope Benedict XVI has sought to encourage the spiritual lives of priests worldwide by honoring them in a special way from June 19, 2009 through June 19, 2010 in what he has proclaimed “The Year of the Priest.” During this jubilee year, it is reported that the pope will name St. John Vianney the patron saint of all priests, in addition to his current place of honor as patron saint of parish priests.

Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859) was born on May 8, 1786 in Dardilly, a small town in turbulent pre-Revolution France. The anti-clerical sentiments which swirled about during the shift in power away from the Ancien Régime mandated that Vianney receive his first Communion in his mother’s home in secret, with the windows drawn and haycarts parked in front of the house to disguise the ceremony. Vianney maintained that this was an emotionally powerful and defining moment for him, and he treasured throughout his life the rosary beads given him for the occasion.

Vianney entered the seminary and was ordained on August 13, 1815, being assigned to a parish in Ecully, France. Within a few years he was named pastor (in French curé) of the church in Ars in the la Dombes region of France near Lyons. Immediately Vianney realized the catechetical disconnect that had arisen as a result of the anti-Catholic elements of the Revolution. He set about re-educating the French citizens of the basic elements of the faith. Never a scholar (he often lamented his poor memory and struggles to learn Latin), Vianney inspired the people by works of austere self-denial and genuine concern for their temporal as well as spiritual well-being. Thus, Pope John XXIII referred to Vianney in his encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia as a model for clergy — “hard on himself, and gentle with others” (SNP 11).

His sermons attracted thousands of people from all over France. In them he extolled the virtues of frequent confession, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and prayers for the intercession of the saints. Concerning the last, Vianney held a special devotion for St. Philomena, an early Greek martyr. The shrine he erected in her honor still stands today.

The evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) formed the foundation of Vianney’s entire life and priestly ministry. Despite his place as a diocesan priest, Vianney was famous for his adherence to St. Francis’ rule of poverty. Such a “detachment from worldly goods enabled him to offer the most devoted and touching care to the poor, especially those in his own parish” (SNP 15). He was able to say with honesty to beggars “I am in living need myself, I am one of you.”

Vianney was also a model of chastity, refusing to be mastered by the false promises that temptation often glitteringly portrays. He lived courageously and virtuously “in the midst of a human society that is infected by a general looseness in morals and a spirit of unbridled lust” (SNP 21). Living chastely, whether in the lay or clerical state, is never an act of sterile confinement and self-negation, but rather an “opening-toward” to give of oneself more perfectly to others, both horizontally (to one’s spouse or parishioners) and vertically (to recognize God’s role in any human relationship). Vianney realized the grace which God provides to those committed to recognizing their sexuality as a gift of great value from God and not one to be squandered lightly.

Lastly, St. John Vianney embodied the spirit of obedience. Despite an introverted and contemplative nature, he accepted the demands placed upon him by church superiors and the men and women of Ars. He always placed the duties of his office and the spiritual labors of his vocation before his own desires. As John XXIII points out, “It is said that St. John Marie Vianney lived in the church in such a way that he worked for it alone, and burned himself up like a piece of straw being consumed on fiery coals. May that flame which comes from the Holy Spirit reach those of us who have been raised to the priesthood of Jesus Christ and consume us too” (SNP 33).

St. John Vianney was beatified by Pius X in 1905 and canonized by Pius XI in 1925. His feast day is Aug. 4. He remains a powerful reminder of how child-like purity, enduring trust in God, and unrequited gift of self constitute essential elements within a Christian life.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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