Sandy, my older brother, and I both went to St. John Vianney High School in Los Angeles, staffed by Dominican friars. It engendered a great fondness in us for this great cleric, who is the patron saint of parish priests.
In the 18th century, with the battered Church in France brought to her knees by revolu-tion, God raised up an unexpectedly gentle champion of the faith. Born on May 8, 1786, at Dardilly, a town near Lyons, Jean-Baptiste Marie, the fourth of six children born to farmers Matthieu and Marie Vianney, was only three years old when the Estates General abolished the Ancien Régime to proclaim the First French Republic on May 5, 1789.
Very early in life Jean-Baptiste determined to become a priest. During the dark days of the Reign of Terror, the boys would hide themselves in meadows and clearings and pretended to celebrate Mass since priests, disguised and hunted, appeared so infrequently.
By 1806 governmental anticlericalism receded and laws hampering religious studies were lifted, Abbé Charles Balley, pastor of the church at Écully, a small town near Dardilly, a family friend and mentor, opened a school for ecclesiastical students, a kind of junior seminary. Aware of the 20 year-old’s priestly aspirations, the abbe invited him to study there. In 1812, Jean-Baptiste was sent to the major seminary at Verrières.
Known for his undoubted spirituality and greatness of soul, Jean-Baptiste still wrestled with Latin, almost failing his final exams. The bishop agreed “out of compassion” to ordain him in 1815. Father Vianney’s first post was at Écully to assist his friend, Abbé Balley.
The abbe died in 1817 and Father Vianney was given a new assignment. As Dom Ernest Graf wrote in 1952:
“Less than a century ago, a tiny village of provincial France was for many years the hub of the religious life of the whole country. Between 18I8 and 1859 its name was upon the lips of countless thousands and so great was the affluence of pilgrims that the railway company serving the district had to open a special booking office at Lyons to deal with the traffic between that great city and the little hamlet of Ars.”
Ars lies near the Rhone River. Elms, willows and birch trees line the gently rolling hills. Vineyards dot the Beaujolais wine region. Father Vianney traveled there by foot all the way from Lyons, followed a rickety pushcart filled with a meager number of personal items including a wooden bedstead.
Arriving as administrator, not pastor, the young priest noticed how one of the arms of the cross on the church’s small steeple had broken off. He took it as a sign of the inhabitants of Ars — broken, hurting thoroughly unchurched members of the Mystical Body of Christ. It was soon observed that the young priest was found within the church, at all hours, deeply in prayer before the Eucharistic Jesus in the tabernacle. Food left for his meals remained untouched.
Father Vianney celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with an intensity of love. On occasion, in the pulpit, in the midst of a sermon, he became so overwhelmed with the presence of Jesus, he’d stop, gesture toward the tabernacle, and call out, “See! He is there! He who loves us so much!” and then resume the sermon.
Mass attendance began to climb. Hearing of the beauty of Father Vianney’s celebrations, people arrived from surrounding districts. The cross on the steeple was repaired.
All this was certainly true. Yet in the pages of L’Osservatore Romano, writer Paolo Risso tells a rueful tale about Father Vianney: “Not everyone appreciated him. Several women had him say Mass for a ‘special intention’ for some 14 years. Their unmentioned intention was that he be transferred to a different parish.”
Next month: We shall see more of Father Vianney’s attempt to build an orphanage, how he gained a worldwide reputation as a confessor, his bouts with demons attempting to stop him from saving souls, and the praise of popes across the decades.
(Sean M. Wright, MA, is an Emmy nominated television writer, a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and is a member of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, California. He responds to comments sent to Locksley69@aol.com.)