During the nineteenth century, there lived in France a most extraordinary parish priest. At first he was noted for his lack of academic ability but later he surprised the French nation and further afield with his power of ferreting out the forgotten or hidden sins of those entering his confessional, writes PATRICK P ROWAN
His fame as a confessor spread far and wide so that thousands and thousands sought his help. This man was Saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney or, as he is more commonly known, the Cure of Ars. Jean was born at Dardilly, near Lyons, France on 8 May 1786. He was the fourth of six children. In his early years he received very little education as the country was suffering from the aftereffects of the French Revolution. Nuns from a convent which had been closed during the Revolution gave him religious instruction. In 1806 a parish priest living nearby, Fr Balley, started a school for ecclesiastical students and Jean was admitted. He had great difficulty learning, especially when Latin was involved.
Soon another problem arose. With a France-Spanish war in progress Jean was conscripted. When his regiment was leaving, Jean was left behind as he was in a church praying. An officer sent him rushing after his companions but he was led astray by a man he asked for help and ended up in a place where deserters had gathered. He spent over a year in this place working as a teacher under an assumed name. Eventually he contacted his family. His father was upset that he had deserted but everything was settled by one of his brothers being accepted by the army in his place.
Jean returned to Fr Balley’s academy and in 1812 he was sent to the seminary in Verrieres but failed the entrance examination. Three months later he passed the examination and was admitted. On 15 August, 1815 – the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – he was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Grenoble and was then sent to assist Fr Balley in his parish. Vianney must have been pleased with this placement because it was Fr Balley who had encouraged his vocation and had helped him persist in reaching his goal. He spent a fruitful three years with Fr Balley until the latter died. Subsequently, Vianney was given a parish of his own in a village named Ars, near Lyons, so he set out dragging a small handcart containing his meagre possessions. He lost his way and eventually had to ask directions from two young men. The men accompanied him to Ars. “Thank you for showing the way to me,” he told them. “I will show you the way to Heaven.”
Soon after arriving in his new parish, Fr Vianney set up an orphanage for destitute girls called ‘The Providence’, which became the model for similar homes in other parts of France. He gave religious instruction every day to the girls. These talks became so popular that he had to continue them in the church because of the number of people attending. The people of Ars soon realised that there was something unique about their new parish priest. Penitents were amazed when in the confessional they were told of sins that they had forgotten or, worse still, sins that they were concealing. Fr Jean was able to give penitents a great sense of relief and reassurance. People were so impressed with the priest that word soon spread outside the parish that the new parish priest in Ars was the one to attend for confession. People began to come to him from other parishes, then from other parts of France and even from other countries. Those seeking his advice included bishops, priests, religious men and women, young people wondering about vocations as well as ordinary sinners seeking forgiveness. As he instructed the faithful his faith and love of God shone through his simple words.
Fr Vianney lived very simply. He always restricted his food intake to one meal a day, so much so, his close friends worried about his health. His sleep, or lack of it, was a major problem. Demonic forces made it very difficult for him to get a full night’s sleep. Mysterious loud knocks were to be heard during the night and were heard by others who stayed in the house. These noises stopped when he made the Sign of the Cross but there were also other disturbances. On one occasion, there were violent knocks at the presbytery door and a demon entered his room and started moving the furniture around. Another time his bed became engulfed in flames without any reason. Sometimes, a voice would proclaim: “Vianney! Vianney! We will get you.” Another great worry for him was the persistent thought that, despite what he did in this life, he was destined to spend eternity in hell. Priests and other friends were often sceptical when mention was made of the strange happenings that were said to occur in the priest’s house, but when they stayed in the house with him they were able to confirm that these things occurred. When the house was surrounded by deep snow, these frightening events continued but there were no footprints in the snow to suggest that human beings were at fault. Fr Vianney felt that it was the Devil who was trying to inhibit his work. However, for the last six months of his life all these disturbances stopped.
Fr Vianney was so busy hearing confessions that his bishop told him not to attend the annual retreats for diocesan clergy because of ‘the souls awaiting Him.’ As time went on, he spent sixteen to eighteen hours every day in the confessional. It is estimated that by 1855 twenty thousand people were attending Ars every year for confession.
Various cures, especially of children, were attributed to the priest’s intercession. Money and food for the children in his orphanage appeared after he prayed for them. Despite practising great mortification and working very long hours, he survived until he was over seventy-three years of age. He died on 4 August 1859.
On 3 October, Jean Vianney was proclaimed Venerable by Pope Pius IX and, in 1925, he was canonised by Pope Pius XI. He is regarded as the patron saint of parish priests. His feast day is 4 August.