Saint John Mary Vianney, Priest

John Baptist (Jean-Baptiste) Vianney was born at Dardilly, near Lyons, in 1786. He was the son of a farmer, and spent his early life as a shepherd boy. He got little formal schooling. The anti-religious violence of the French Revolution, with the outlawing of priests who remained faithful to their calling, also may have affected his opportunities for education. At the age of 20 he did begin studies for the priesthood, but they were interrupted by his being conscripted for military service.

However, like many others, he soon became a deserter and continued his seminary studies in secret until there was an amnesty in 1810. At this time he received the tonsure, the first step in becoming a cleric, and was accepted by the seminary at Verrieres. After three years he transferred to the seminary at Lyons in 1813. Studies did not come easily to him, especially the mastery of Latin which would have been the medium of instruction in philosophy and theology. He failed in his final oral examination, but was admitted to major orders (subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood) in 1815.

Although he had the reputation of being the least capable student at Lyons, he was also regarded as the most devout. In accepting him for the priesthood, the vicar general said that the diocese needed not only learned priests but also holy ones. For his first appointment, he became curate at Ecully for two years until his parish priest, who was very austere and deeply appreciative of Vianney, died in 1817.

Vianney was then appointed parish priest of Ars-en-Dombes, a remote and insignificant village with only about 250 inhabitants. From now on he would be known as the Cure d’Ars (the pastor of Ars). This would be his home for the rest of his life. He lived a very austere and penitential life, living mainly on potatoes. He strongly attacked all blasphemous language and obscenities. He was the cause of village inns closing down because of a lack of custom. He attacked all forms of sexual abuse, dancing and immodesty. But all was not negative.

He excelled at preaching and spiritual direction, both inside and outside the confessional. He seems to have had supernatural gifts of looking into people’s hearts, of knowing of events which had taken place far away and an ability to see into the future. There is well-established evidence that he was persecuted by poltergeists, which he attributed to Satan. These included loud noises, personal violence and even the burning of his bed.

More positively, he was responsible for the unexplained multiplication of food, especially for the orphanage which he had founded. His fame began to spread. Vianney himself attributed these happenings to St Philomena, to whom he had a special devotion and for whom he set up a shrine. But the people believed that Vianney himself was the source of all that happened. Between 1830 and 1845, as many as 300 people a day arrived by train from Lyons to see him. A special booking office had to be opened in Ars to deal with them.

Every day at 11 o’clock he preached at Mass and then spent long hours in the confessional. He could spend up to 12 hours a day hearing confessions and, in the years preceding his death, when the number of visitors reached 20,000 a year, he sometimes spent as many as 16 hours a day in the confessional. With the passing of the years and his deepening and more compassionate understanding of people, he became less severe and more understanding of human weaknesses, although listening to lists of sinful behaviour pained him deeply. He also began to insist more and more on the love of God and the power of the Church’s liturgical prayer.

Three times he left Ars with the intention of entering monastic life but each time he returned to his parish. He turned down all ecclesiastical promotions but, with reluctance, accepted his being made a canon. But the canon’s robes he sold and gave the money to the poor. A rather surprising honour was the government recognising his work by the conferring of the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honour. However, he declined to attend the investiture and never wore the decoration.

Worn out by the austerity of his life and the endless numbers of people coming to him for direction, he finally succumbed on 4 August 1859 at the age of 73. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 31 May, 1925, and named patron of diocesan priests.

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