“MY young friend,” said Mgr Courbon, the vicar-general, “we are appointing you Curé of Ars. It’s a small parish, where there’s not much love of God. You will make it grow there.”
Neither Courbon nor the new Curé could then foresee how marvellously this prophesy would be fulfilled; how the love of God enkindled in an obscure French village by a humble parish priest would soon burn so brightly as to attract people not only from every part of France but from countries across the world. Ten years after he arrived there, the pilgrimages, of about 400 people a day, began; and before his death 40 years later, thousands of pilgrims of all kinds were coming. So many that a special booking-office had to be built at Lyons railway station to cope with them. In one year alone, 40 bishops and 6,000 priests from many countries knelt by the body of this great priest, who died 150 years ago, on 4 August 1859.
During his life they came to see “the saint”, to see a priest truly in love with God, to hear his words and watch his face light up as he spoke of Christ; if possible, to touch his threadbare cassock and kneel before him to confess their sins and receive his advice to help them on their way through life to God.
They still come to this village, now a small town, near Lyons in eastern France. When Fr Vianney arrived there it had about 250 people, but even today it is still not marked on most maps or travel agencies’ brochures. “Ars varies between sheer ugliness and sheer plainness,” wrote Henri Gheon in his excellent work, The Secret of the Curé d’Ars. “The little town is built of clay of a uniform greyish-yellow. Its straggling lines of roofs overhang a few streets which meet at a piece of rising ground. Here is perched the church, a basilica beside it and the cemetery. Not to be overlooked are several cabarets. And that is everything.”
The Curé left us his own impressions of the place. “When I saw Ars for the first time, I said to myself. How small it is! Then quite suddenly the idea occurred to me: There will come a time when this parish will not be able to hold the crowds who will visit it.” This idea might seem inspired by a sense of pride. “But a saint,” said Gheon, “knows himself called to bring about great things and says so without boastfulness. At any rate, this was Fr Vianney’s prophecy.”
When a pilgrim kneels at the shrine of a saint or retraces his or her footsteps, you are aware that a holy person has passed this way. So when one recalls that the saintly Curé worked in this obscure little place for more than 40 years, it is hardly surprising that the indescribable sense of his presence should still linger there. Wherever you go in Ars, you feel he is near you: in the church where he lived and ministered to souls; in the presbytery to which he retired each night to rest for an hour or two; in the streets he walked when visiting his people. Gheon described the feeling: “He is always there; some influence of him has passed into all the objects before which he prayed: that sanctity does not pass like the glory of the world.”
One can also still see the farmhouse beside the little town of Dardilly, north of Lyons, where he was born on 8 May 1786. He was the fourth of Mathieu and Marie Vianney’s six children, some of whom died quite young, though Marguerite, one of their two girls, lived to be 91. St John was brought up in a Catholic home by pious parents, who prayed with their children every evening after their hard ork on the farm. He was taught prayers and the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life by his mother, who often brought him to early Mass on weekdays. Years later whenever people asked the Curé about his love of prayer, he always replied, “After God, I owe it to my good mother; virtue asses easily from a mother’s heart into those of her children.”
And from his father he learned his great love of the poor. As a boy he saw many beggars fed at his father’s table and given shelter for the night. One of them was the Beggar Saint, Benedict Labre.
He was only three when the French Revolution began in 1789. It was directed as much against the Catholic Church as the monarchy. Among its complex causes were the new anti-Christian movement, led by intellectuals like Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as the scandalous lives of the Church’s leaders. Only five of the country’s 160 bishops were not aristocrats and some of these 155, often the least intelligent, moved into their episcopal sees before the age of 30. Many enjoyed enormous incomes from the poor people on their vast estates, lived like worldly princes in their Paris mansions and country chateaux, seldom even visited their dioceses and some never did so at all.
Instead of giving leadership to the French Church in its hour of need, they gave scandal by their licentious lives in Paris salons. Of Cardinal Dubois, who became Prime Minister for some time, Saint-Simon wrote in his memoirs: “All the vices – perfidy, avarice, debauchery, ambition – fought within him for mastery.” And when, in 1785, it was proposed to transfer Cardinal de Brienne of Toulouse to Paris, even the timid King Louis XV1 objected, “No, the Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God.”
On the other hand, many of the diocesan priests were very poor. They all came from the ordinary people and kept in close contact with them. Hundreds of priests protested against the abuses in the Church and supported the revolutionaries at first. The vast majority of French nuns also remained loyal to their vocation and served the poor with great fidelity. The Revolution’s violence reached its peak in 1792, when during the 5-day September Massacres about 1,000 men and women, including 400 priests, were guillotined. Before this, the Revolutionaries’ new Constitutional Church took the control of the Church from Rome and gave it to the new regime. All bishops and priests were obliged by oath to accept the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy, whereby all clergy were now employed by the state - and all religious orders were suppressed. Seven bishops took the oath, but 128 of them deserted their flocks and fled abroad – 30 to London alone and the rest to neighbouring countries. Of the priests who took the oath, 85 were later consecrated bishops by the apostate Bishop Talleyrand, who became leader of this schismatic church; and of these 85 bishops, 47 later left the priesthood and had themselves de-christianized.
These apostates, led by Fouche, an ex-priest who now became Minister of Police, started a de-Christianization campaign, the first in Europe since Julian the Apostate’s in the fourth century. Thousands of priests, brothers and sisters were imprisoned and some martyred. Many churches were closed and converted into stables. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was turned into a Temple of Reason in a ceremony enthroning a naked actress on its high altar. A new pagan calendar abolished Sundays and Catholic feastdays.
Working as a boy on his family’s farm, young Vianney saw all round him the results of the persecution. His parish church was closed and Mass was only celebrated occasionally and secretly by a “loyal” priest in hiding. There was so much religious ignorance, indifference and vice that John decided to become a priest “to gain many souls for God”. But 12 years passed before he was ordained, for he had little formal education and struggled to master Latin and theology. He was often tempted to return home, but his tutor and friend Abbé Balley encouraged him. In 1815 his teachers were doubtful if he was suitable to become a deacon. “Is Vianney pious?” asked Mgr Courbon, the vicargeneral. “Has he devotion to Our Lady? Does he know how to say the rosary?” The teachers replied, “Yes, he is a model of piety.” So Mgr Courbon decided to have him ordained, saying, “The grace of God will do the rest. The Church needs holy priests as much as learned ones.”
Courbon was in charge of the Lyons diocese for many years in the absence of its bishop, Cardinal Fesch, who spent only a few days there. Son of a Swiss army officer, Fesch was, like his nephew Napoleon, born in Corsica. Only six years older than Bonaparte, they grew up together. Ordained at 22, he joined the new French Constitutional Church, but later renounced his priesthood and was a successful businessman. When Napoleon became dictator and reestablished, to some extent, the Church in France, “Uncle” Fesch, as he was nicknamed, re-entered the priesthood and was made Archbishop of Lyons by his nephew in 1802. Created a Cardinal a year later, he persuaded Pope Pius V11 to go to Paris for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor in 1804. After Waterloo he fled to Rome, where he spent his last 25 years.
What a contrast between the lives of the worldly Cardinal Fesch and the saintly Fr Vianney! He was conscripted into the army, but after a short time he deserted, like many others, went into hiding and continued his studies in secret until the 1810 amnesty. Ordained a priest, aged 29, at Grenoble in 1815, his first appointment was as curate to his old friend Curé Balley of Ecully.
Then, three years later on a cold winter evening, with a few sticks of old furniture on a cart, he arrived in Ars and its dilapidated parish church. Wasting no time, he began, like his Divine Master, “to do and to teach”. His plan of campaign was radical. For himself, prayer and mortification; for the people, visiting them in their homes, instructions in the church and catechism classes for the children. His prayer: especially in the early years before the pilgrimpenitents claimed his time – long hours before the tabernacle. His mortification: rigorous fasting – a cold potato or a slice of dry brown bread once a day.
For the first ten years he belonged to Ars, then to the world. From 1830 until his death in 1859, people queued for days for confession. When the Curé was ordained, the reservation was made that, due to his lack of education, he would not receive faculties for hearing confessions until his superiors decided otherwise some time later. Now, ironically, he was to spend most of his life in the confessional. He also rebuked the people of Ars for drunkenness, immorality, obscenity and working on Sundays. In a few years he completely reformed them.
Among the thousands who came to confess their sins to him was the great Benedictine Archbishop Ullathorne of Birmingham. He wrote an account of his visit to Ars in May 1854. “I reached Ars just before 11 am and the Curé’s curate led me by a side door into the church. The first object on which my eyes fell was the head, face and shrunken figure of the Curé himself, straight before me, a figure not easily forgotten. His face was small, wasted and sallow; his thin hair white as snow, his expansive forehead pale and smooth, his eyes remarkably deep. He was saying his office, but soon began to preach his daily instruction for 20 minutes. His voice was soft yet shrill, but owing to the loss of his teeth it was not easy to make out his words. He spoke of God, so good and loving….Later the curate brought me to the presbytery. There was scarcely anything there besides the poor furniture in the Curé’s own room and his little bed. When the Curé arrived I asked him to hear my confession. The advice he gave me, in French, was precise and clear.”
Archbishop Ullathorne went on to describe St John’s routine. “He never begins his work in the confessional later than 2 am in the morning, and when there are great numbers of people waiting, at midnight. Except while he says Mass, gives instructions, prays the rosary, or for the very short time he takes for his scanty food, he lives almost entirely in the confessional. From midnight or early morning he is there until 9 pm at night. Then he retires to his presbytery for praying and spiritual reading and two hours at the very most for sleep.”
Such was his routine for over 30 years, during which an average of 400 pilgrim-penitents daily waited for two or three days, many sleeping in the open, to take their turn for confession. It is estimated that during those 30 years he spent 18 of them in the confessional! Then one extremely hot night, 29 July 1859, exhausted after 17 hours there, he said, “I can do no more.” On 3 August, a lawyer came to his little bedroom and asked, “Where do you wish to be buried?” The Curé managed to gasp, “My body is of no importance.” A little later the Bishop of Belley arrived, but the dying priest was then unable to speak. Early the following morning, 4 August 1859, he died, aged 73.
He was canonized in 1925 and proclaimed patron of parish priests in 1929. Last March Pope Benedict XV1 announced a jubilee “Year for Priests” to mark this 150th anniversary of the Curé’s death, “to foster spiritual perfection in the clergy and a greater awareness among the laity of the need for priests”. It will end in June 2010 with a “World Meeting of Priests” in Rome and the proclamation of St John Vianney as “patron of all the world’s priests”.
A beautiful Monument of the Meeting now stands at the place where the Curé lost his way on the road to Ars on that foggy February evening in 1818 and asked Antoine Givre, a little shepherd boy, for directions. Thanking him, he said, “You have shown me the way to Ars. Now I will show you the way to Heaven.” If we ask him, he will also show all of us, not only priests, the way there too.