“…so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Cor 9:27
Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was a religious personality of unusual force. To the incomparable exclusion of everything else he addressed himself to the greater honor and glory of God and the salvation of souls. He accepted his obligation to holiness at an early age, and it took complete possession of him. Every word he uttered was spoken out of the world of religiousness. He brought to a conclusion an achievement which it would be hard for anyone to imitate. From this man there emanated an influence which cannot be overlooked, and the results of which cannot be contested.
“I owe a debt to my mother,” he said, and added, “virtues go easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done.”
In his assignment as parish priest of Ars, St. John achieved something which many priests would like to have done, but which is scarcely granted to any. Not over night, but little by little, the tiny hamlet underwent a change.
The people of Ars were unable to remain aloof for long from the grace which radiated from the remarkable personality of their priest. When a man attacks inveterate disorders and popular vices, he challenges opposition. St. John was not unprepared – he knew the enemy would raise his head. “If a priest is determined not to lose his soul,” he exclaimed, “so soon as any disorder arises in the parish, he must trample underfoot all human considerations as well as the fear of the contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even were he certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit. A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times. Did not St. Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: ‘I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls, although loving you more, I be loved less.’”
Saint John Marie would never consider Ars converted until all of the 200 villagers were living up to the ten commandments of God and the fulfillment of their duties in life.
It took St. John Vianney ten whole years to renew Ars, but the community changed so noticeably and to such an extent that it was observed even by outsiders. There was no more working on Sundays, the church was filled more and more every year, and drunkenness fell off. In the end the taverns had to close their doors since they had no more customers; and even domestic squabbles abated. Honesty became the principal characteristic. “Ars is no longer Ars,” as St. John Vianney himself wrote; for it had undergone a fundamental change. Under his guidance the little village became a community of pious people, to whom all his labors were directed.
He delighted in teaching the children their catechism and he did this daily. After a while the grown-ups came too and he found that those who were children during the French Revolution were in complete ignorance of their religious duties. He taught the people love for the rosary and wanted everyone to carry one around at all times. It is truly astounding to reflect upon what St. John Vianney, with a staff of trained assistants, was able to achieve in the village in the space of a few years. What an immense amount of endeavor underlay his work will best be appreciated by anyone who has had to convert only a few drunkards to sanity.
Jean-Marie sanctified himself while at work in the field or in the house. The supernatural world was ever present to him, but for all that he was neither a slacker nor a dreamer, his being a healthy and active temperament. “O what a beautiful thing it is to do all things in union with the good God!” he would say. “Courage, my soul, if you work with God, you shall, indeed, do the work, but He will bless it. You shall walk and He will bless your steps. Everything shall be taken account of – the forgoing of a look, of some gratification – all shall be recorded. There are people who make capital out of everything, even the winter. If it is cold they offer their little sufferings to God. Oh! What a beautiful thing it is to offer oneself, each morning, as a victim to God!”
In letters of consolation to a cousin, Frère Chalovet, whom obedience had sent to the Hotel-Dieu of Lyons and who was greatly tempted, he wrote: “My good friend, I write these lines in haste to tell you not to leave, in spite of all the trials that the good God wishes you to endure. Take courage! Heaven is rich enough to reward you. Remember that the evils of this world are the lot of good Christians. You are going through a kind of martyrdom. But what a happiness for you to be a martyr of charity! Do not lose so beautiful a crown. ‘Blessed are they that suffer persecution for my sake,’ says Jesus Christ, our model. Farewell, my most dear friend. Persevere along the way on which you have so happily entered and we shall see each other again in heaven…” “Courage my good cousin! Soon we shall see it, our beautiful heaven. Soon there will be no more cross for us! What divine bliss! To see that good Jesus Who has loved us so much and Who will make us so happy!”
Often when the Curé was returning to Ars from missionary expeditions, Mayor Mandy, who was anxious about the safety of his holy pastor, would send his son Antoine to accompany him on his journey home. “Even amid the snows and cold of winter,” Antoine afterwards related, “we rarely took the shortest and best road. M. le Curé had invariably to visit some sick person. Yet the tramp never seemed really long, for the servant of God well knew how to shorten it by relating most interesting episodes from the lives of the saints.
If I happened to make some remark about the sharpness of the cold or the ruggedness of the roads, he was always ready with an answer: ‘My friend, the saints have suffered far more; let us offer it all to the good God.’ When he ceased from speaking of holy things we began the Rosary. Even today I still cherish the memory of those holy conversations.”
St. John Vianney had loved Mary from the cradle. As a priest he had exerted all his energy in spreading her glory. To convince themselves of it, the pilgrims had but to look at the small statues of her that adorned the front of every house in the village. In each home there was also a colored picture of the Mother of God, presented and signed by M. le Curé. In 1814 he had erected a large statue of Mary Immaculate on the pediment of his church. Eight years earlier, on May 1, 1836, he had dedicated his parish to Mary Conceived Without Sin.
The picture which perpetuates this consecration, says Catherine Lassagne, is placed at the entrance to our Lady’s Chapel. Shortly afterwards he ordered a heart to be made, in vermeil (color), which is, even to this day, suspended from the neck of the miraculous Virgin. This heart contains the names of all the parishioners of Ars, written on a white silk ribbon. On the feasts of Our Lady, Communions were numerous, and the church was never empty. On the evenings of those festivals the nave and the side chapels could barely contain the congregation, for no one wished to miss M. Vianney’s homily in honor of Our Blessed Lady. The hearers were enthralled by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of the holiness, the power, and the love of the Mother of God.
The explanation of this mysterious transformation of the village of Ars can only be grasped in the remarkable manner that this simple priest realized that a man must always begin with himself, and that even the rebirth of a community can only be achieved by its renewing itself. We must expect nothing of men which is not already embodied within them.
On the basis of this perception St. John Vianney set to work, in the first place, upon himself, so that he could attain the ideal which he demanded of his parishioners in his own person. He took his own religious obligations with the greatest seriousness, and did not care whether the people noticed this or not. And finally the inhabitants of Ars said to each other: “Our priest always does what he says himself; he practices what he preaches. Never have we seen him allow himself any form of relaxation.”
St. John Vianney read much and often the lives of the saints, and became so impressed by their holy lives that he wanted for himself and others to follow their wonderful examples. The ideal of holiness enchanted him.
He placed himself in that great tradition which leads the way to holiness through personal sacrifice. “If we are not now saints, it is a great misfortune for us: therefore we must be so. As long as we have no love in our hearts, we shall never be Saints.”
The Saint, to him, was not an exceptional man before whom we should marvel, but a possibility which was open to all Catholics. Unmistakably did he declare in his sermons that “to be a Christian and to live in sin is a monstrous contradiction. A Christian must be holy.” With his Christian simplicity he had clearly thought much on these things and understood them by divine inspiration, while they are usually denied to the understanding of educated men.
The conversion of the whole parish was too unusual an occurrence for it to remain unknown. From the year 1827, there began the famous stream of pilgrims to Ars. People went to Ars from all parts of France, from Belgium, from England and even from America. The principal motive which led all these crowds of pilgrims to the priest of Ars was purely the desire for him to hear their confession and to receive spiritual counsel from him. They were driven to his thronged confessional by the longing to meet once and for all the priest who knew all about the reality of the soul.
The priest of Ars possessed the ability to see the human soul in its nakedness, freed of its body. Like St. Francis de Sales, he had the gift of “seeing everything and not looking at anyone.”
In confessing people this holy man, who had a fundamental knowledge of sin, strove after one thing only – to save souls. This great saint heard confessions from 13 to 17 hours a day, and could tell a penitent’s sins even when they were withheld.
In order to save souls one must be possessed of that holy love of men which consumed the priest of Ars. He would often weep in the confessional and when he was asked why he wept, he would reply: “My friend, I weep because you do not weep.”
“The great miracle of the Curé d’Ars,” someone has said, “was his confessional, besieged day and night.” It might be said with equal truth that his greatest miracle was the conversion of sinners: “I have seen numerous and remarkable ones,” the Abbé Raymond assures us, “and they form the most beautiful chapter of the life of the Curé d’Ars. ‘Oh, my friend,’ he often told me, ‘only at the last judgment will it become known how many souls have here found their salvation.’”
“In reality,” Jeanne-Marie Chanay writes, “he made but small account of miraculous cures. ‘The body is so very little,’ he used to repeat. That which truly filled him with joy was the return of souls to God.” How many occasions he had for such joy! M. Prosper des Garets relates: “I asked him one day how many big sinners he had converted in the course of the year. ‘Over seven hundred,’ was his reply.” Hence it is easy to understand the wish expressed by a Curé who made the pilgrimage to Ars: “Those of my parishioners who go to M. Vianney become models. I wish I could take my whole parish to him.”
One day, under the pretext of sending him on an errand, the Baronne de Belvey dispatched to M. Vianney a hardened sinner, who only set foot in the church at Christmas and Easter. It would seem that he had not been to confession since his first Communion. “How long is it since you were last at Confession?”, M. le Curé asked. “Oh, forty years.” “Forty-four,” the saint replied. The man took a pencil and made a hasty calculation on the plastering of the wall. “Yes, it is quite true,” he admitted, overcome with amazement. The sinner was converted and died a good death.
St. John Vianney possessed the gift of being able to understand the soul of a man in an instant, and, without any lengthy explanations, to feel at once what spiritual trouble was afflicting it.
He had a clear sighted vision which often enabled him to foretell to a man what would happen to him in the future. This gift of God overpowered the people who visited his confessional, and to whom he granted a word of pardon. The words and advice of the Curé were like darts; they penetrated deeply. He said little, but his little was enough.
On Aug. 4, 1859, Fr. John Vianney gave up his soul to God. He had been parish priest of Ars for 41 years. In 1925, he received the highest honor of the Church by being canonized and placed in the index of the Saints. Today over 500,000 people visit every year this simple farming town where they come to see the incorrupt body of one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. The life of St. John Vianney is the story of a humble and holy man who barely succeeded in becoming a priest, but who converted thousands of sinners.
“My children, we are in reality only what we are in the eyes of God, and nothing more.” -St. John Vianney
“God has created my heart only for Himself. He asks me to give it to Him that He may make it happy.” –St. John Vianney
“Let us go often to the foot of the cross…we shall learn there what God has done for us, and what we ought to do for Him.” -St. John Vianney
“I throw myself at the foot of the Tabernacle like a dog at the foot of his Master.” -St. John Vianney
“Let us open the door of the Sacred Heart, and shut ourselves in for a moment amidst its divine flames; we shall then realize what God’s love means.” -St. John Vianney
“God looks neither at long nor beautiful prayers, but at those that come from the heart.” -St. John Vianney
“The happiness of man on earth, my children, is to be very good… We are in this world for no other end than to serve and love the good God.” -St. John Vianney
“We have only to turn to the Blessed Virgin to be heard. Her heart is all love.” -St. John Vianney
“The Saints were so completely dead to themselves that they cared very little whether others agreed with them or not.” -St John Vianney, Patron of the Year of Priests
“Man has a beautiful office, that of praying and loving. You pray, you love – that is the happiness of man upon the earth. Prayer is nothing else than union with God. When our heart is pure and united to God, we feel within ourselves a joy, a sweetness that inebriates, a light that dazzles us.” –St. John Vianney
“He who, when tempted, makes the Sign of the Cross with devotion, makes hell tremble and heaven rejoice.” -St. John Vianney
“Happy is he that lives to love, receive, and serve God!” -St. John Vianney
“You don’t need to wallow in guilt. Wallow in the mercy of God.” -St. John Vianney
“When we are walking on the street, let us fix our eyes on our Lord bearing his cross; on the Blessed Virgin who is looking at us; on our guardian angel who is by our side.” -St. John Vianney
“In the soul which is united to God, it is always spring.” –St. John Vianney
“My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates (the Mass) as if he were engaged in something ordinary.” -St John Mary Vianney
“The first thing about the angels we ought to imitate is their consciousness of the presence of God.” -St. John Vianney
“Put all the good works in the history of the world next to one Mass, and it will be like a grain of sand next to a mountain.” -St John Vianney
“Listen well to this, my children. When I first came to Ars, there was a man who never passed the church without going in. In the morning on his way to work, and in the evening on his way home, he left his spade and pick-axe in the porch, and he spent a long time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Oh! how I loved to see that! I asked him once what he said to Our Lord during the long visits he made Him. Do you know what he told me? ‘Eh, Monsieur le Curé I say nothing to Him, I look at Him and He looks at me!’ How beautiful, my children, how beautiful!” -Saint John Vianney
Prayer of St John Vianney
I love You, O my God, and my only desire is to love You until the last breath of my life.
I love You, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving You, than live without loving You.
I love You, Lord and the only grace I ask is to love You eternally…
My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love You, I want my heart to repeat it to You as often as I draw breath.