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John Vianney, Saint of the Confessional

The Church commemorates St. John Vianney each year on August 4.

By: Patricia Mitchell

John Vianney, Saint of the Confessional: The Church commemorates St. John Vianney each year on August 4.  by Patricia Mitchell

On a gray and misty late afternoon in February 1818, a thirty-one-year-old priest reached the outskirts of a backwater village north of Lyons, France. Immediately, he knelt down on the roadside and prayed.

Fr. Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, just beginning his first assignment as pastor, was already interceding for a mission that he knew to be beyond his ability. “There is not much love for God in that parish,” the vicar general had told him about the little town of Ars. “You will bring some into it.”

Only God could work this kind of change, the young priest knew. He was also aware that he would never attract others to Jesus unless he himself continued on the road to holiness day after day. Fr. Vianney had been on this path since childhood, but it was at Ars, as he continued to face down his own weaknesses and grow in prayer and self-denial, that this good priest became a holy one.

In time, the Curé of Ars’ life of ongoing conversion had a converting effect on his parishioners. Ars became known as “a little island of holiness,” with thousands of pilgrims flocking there each year. Like a contagious virus, Vianney’s zeal for God was “caught” and ignited a religious revival that brought countless people to Christ.

Long Road to Ordination. Jean-Marie Vianney’s love for God and for prayer, though nurtured early by his mother, seemed to be innate. As a young child, he attended Mass with his family in secret because the churches had closed, a tragic consequence of the French Revolution. Even so, the boy took every opportunity to pray in the meadows while he tended the family’s herds.

When he was sixteen, Jean-Marie told his family he wanted to become a priest. Numerous obstacles arose. His father objected and refused his permission for three years. Then Jean-Marie was drafted. Before his detachment could leave for its assignment, however, he became ill and was left behind. Now considered a deserter, he spent the next year hiding out in a remote village. Finally, in 1811 a general amnesty for deserters was declared, and Vianney entered a seminary to continue his studies.

This, too, was a challenge. Jean-Marie had very little education and did poorly in class. No matter how hard he studied, he couldn’t remember his Latin grammar. Just when all seemed lost, Fr. Charles Balley—a far-seeing pastor who recognized Vianney’s potential—decided to tutor him. Vianney passed the required tests, was ordained in August 1815, and served as Fr. Balley’s assistant for two and a half years, until his assignment to Ars.

“Change Their Hearts, Lord.” Ars was not the easiest place to evangelize. In the wake of the revolution, its two hundred inhabitants were generally ignorant or indifferent about their faith. The town had four bars, where all too many wage-earners squandered the money that their families desperately needed. It also had a reputation for wild parties and dances.

Vianney set to work. Very early each morning and very late each night, he spent hours before the altar in the dilapidated church. Face down on the floor, he begged God—often with tears—to change the people’s hearts. A curious parishioner who once followed him inside was surprised at what his new pastor was praying out loud: “My God, grant me the conversion of my parish. I am willing to suffer all my life… . I am prepared to endure the sharpest pains even for a hundred years. Only let my people be converted.”

This prayer for conversion never left Vianney. It filled his being and defined him. With this continual intercession he combined extreme penance—fasting for days at a time and sleeping on the hard floor with-out heat. For years he lived on one daily meal of boiled potatoes. Over time, he learned to moderate some of his harsher penitential practices, but he was always prepared to endure anything that might help more people turn to Christ.

Grace at Work. But his ministry was not limited to harsh penitential practices. The curé made a point of getting to know the townspeople. He visited their homes and talked with them about their families, their crops, and their faith. As he planned his Sunday sermons, he tried to visualize all these people and their needs.

Some of those sermons were overly harsh at first, wrote his best-known biographer, Fr. François Trochu: “Though he strove to repress it, his caustic, mocking temperament showed itself occasionally.” But as Vianney matured in his own spiritual life, he hit a healthy balance, learning to challenge or console, as the situation required.

At first Vianney’s parishioners were indifferent to his preaching. However, his words were difficult to ignore because of the example he set. His prayer was constant, his life dedicated to God, and his care for them genuine.

In time, the people of Ars began to heed their pastor’s exhortations to stay out of the taverns and come to church, to refrain from work on Sundays, and to end the wild dances. They came to love the religious processions and pilgrimages that Vianney organized to help them know that God was among them. Many learned to pray and grew close to God themselves.

Vianney believed that everyone, even peasants who worked the land all day long, could be holy. He encouraged devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and taught the people to examine their consciences and pray. “The good God looks neither at long nor at beautiful prayers, but at those that come from the bottom of the heart,” he told them. In the evenings, the church bells rang, and people gathered for night prayers.

The collective prayer of the villagers changed the entire atmosphere of Ars, and there were many conversions. “God’s grace was so powerful,” said one villager, “that few could resist it.”

Conversions in the Confessional. Grace was especially at work in Vianney’s confessional. His spiritual gifts, combined with his ability to stir people to repentance, made him a sought-after confessor. At one church mission held in 1823 at a neighboring parish, such a crowd gathered around his confessional that they nearly knocked it over.

As Vianney’s fame grew, pilgrims began showing up—twenty a day at first, then over the next three decades, up to eighty thousand each year. Often they waited for days, crowded together in the church, awaiting their turn in the confessional.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Vianney could read the hearts of those who came to him. One woman from Paris was walking in the village square one day when the curé passed her. “You, madame,” he said, “follow me.” As they walked, he revealed to her the sinful way in which she was living; soon after, she was converted. Another man, a well-known scientist who boasted that only reason guided him, went to Ars out of curiosity. After Mass, Vianney signaled him to follow him into the confessional. Suddenly the man was overcome with tears. “Father,” he said, “I do not believe in anything. Help me.” After nine days with the curé, the man became a fervent believer.

As people confessed, Vianney often wept for them, moving them to deep repentance. “What a pity!” he would say. Said one priest who had visited Vianney’s confessional: “That simple ‘what a pity’ in all its beauty showed what damage sin had done.” The curé was even known to remind his penitents of sins they had forgotten to mention.

Young people flocked to him to help them discern whether they had a religious vocation. The sick came to be prayed over for healing. If there was a physical healing—and there were many—Vianney attributed it to the intercession of his beloved St. Philomena, an early Christian martyr.

His Greatest Challenge. Vianney’s celebrity status took a heavy toll on him. He was a virtual prisoner of the confessional, spending up to eighteen hours a day there. For years, almost to the end of his life, he was haunted by the desire to leave Ars for a monastery where he could “weep over my poor life.” He repeatedly sought his bishop’s permission to do this but was always denied. Several times he actually slipped away from the village, only to return again.

On the face of it, St. Jean Vianney’s desire for a life of solitude with God was admirable. But by pursuing it, he came to realize, he was resisting God’s plan for his life. As one of his friends said, “He admitted that there was something intemperate in this desire and that the devil had made use of it to tempt him. He subdued and resisted it, but all his life he had to fight against the attraction.”

For forty-one years, Vianney persevered as the curé of the little village. At the end of his life, he was at peace with the fact that God would never grant him the time of quiet and retreat he had desired. He died on August 4, 1859, at the age of seventy-three. Already acclaimed a saint by the people, Jean-Marie Vianney was canonized on May 31, 1925, and later named the patron of parish priests.

His life can be summed up by one of his own sayings: “To be loved by God, to be united with God, to live in the presence of God, to live for God. Oh! What a beautiful life and what a beautiful death!”

This account of the life of St. John Vianney by Patricia Mitchell first appeared in The Word Among Us magazine.