Saint John Mary Vianney, Priest – Readings

Commentary on Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 116; Matthew 9:35-10:1

The Gospel reading describes the mission work of Jesus. It tells us that Jesus moved from town to town, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the coming of the Reign of God in his person and, as a sign of that Reign, the healing of all kinds of diseases and sicknesses.

Crowds gathered to listen to him and to be touched by his healing powers. Jesus, for his part, was moved to the depths of his Heart with compassion for them. The word ‘compassion’ means to share in the feelings and sufferings of others. Not just to feel sorry for them, but to show that he knows what they are experiencing in himself. He saw them as lost sheep needing the guidance and support of a shepherd. Jesus, of course, is that shepherd. He is, in his own words, the Good Shepherd.

He then turned to his disciples, inviting them to take part in this work and, after he has left them, to continue it. The harvest, the numbers of people in need, are huge. Not only were his disciples to take part in the work of Jesus, they were to pray for others to join them in this work. He then called them together and passed on to them the power to drive out evil forces and to heal every kind of disease.

One of those who clearly aligned himself with the work of the Good Shepherd was John Vianney. Truly he was an extraordinarily devoted shepherd, not only to the people in his own parish but literally to thousands of others who came to him, in search of healing of body and spirit. His life was one of total commitment in the service of others. A life of utter simplicity with long hours spent in prayer.

The First Reading is a passage from the prophet Ezekiel and was apparently inserted at this point in the text by a later editor, but points out one of the prophet’s most characteristic qualities. It is a passage which is both a warning and a reassurance, and its relevance to today’s feast is very clear.

Yahweh is presented as speaking to Ezekiel, his prophet and messenger. Ezekiel’s responsibility is to hand on the word of God as he has received it. So, if the prophet fails to pass on God’s warnings to the wicked person and dissuade him from his behaviour, that person will die in his sin, but Ezekiel will be held responsible for his fate. On the other hand, if the wicked person, in spite of being given clear warnings about God’s will, perseveres in his evil behaviour, he will be punished, but the prophet will not be held responsible.

And if a good person yields to a temptation to do something evil, that person, too, will die in sin. His former good deeds will not be remembered but, if the prophet had failed to give warning, then the prophet will be held responsible for the person’s death. But, if a good person has been given warning about not falling into sin and does not sin, he will live, and the prophet too will have saved his own life.

This passage tells us something important. Namely, that God sees us as we are here and now and does not really take our past into account. God is not an accountant. There is not a book with a list of our good deeds in black and our sins in red which, at the end, are totted up. If we are in the ‘black’, well and good; if we are in the ‘red’, too bad. Again and again in the Gospel we see Jesus bringing forgiveness and reconciliation into the lives of people who had seriously sinned. The two most striking examples are the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7) or the criminal who died on the cross with Jesus (“this day you will be with me in Paradise” – Luke 23:43). We might remember, too, that the Sacrament of Penance is less concerned with our past (about which we can do little) than with the new directions in which God wants our lives to go.

The passage is very relevant to John Vianney. We know he spent hours every day – sometimes as many as 16 hours – reconciling people to God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He had a very deep horror of sin, and expressed it clearly. Hearing these confessions deeply pained him, but there was also in him the compassion of Jesus for people to change their ways and be reconciled. The vast numbers of outsiders who made the journey to Ars just for John to hear their expressions of repentance speaks volumes for the comfort and consolation they must have received from their experience with him.

It is not surprising that John Vianney should be the patron of diocesan priests, but the whole pattern of his life carries a message for all priests and religious and indeed for every single person.

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