SAINT JOHN VIANNEY – ONE OF MY FAVOURITE SAINTS
(a reflection by Willy Effinger)
Several years ago, while in Germany for my parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary, I had the great privilege of staying for two days in a Convent behind the Chapel where Saint John Vianney's heart is exposed. His uncorrupted body is also displayed in the Basilica nearby. The life, and moreover, the teachings of this great Saint has touched me to the very core of my heart. He lived a life of humility, pouring himself out as a living example of God's mercy upon the pilgrims. I would like to share with you a short history of his life and some of his teachings.
Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney was born at Dardilly near Lyons, France on May 8th of 1786. He grew up on his father's farm herding cattle and sheep along the banks of the River Planches. He was an extremely quiet, well-behaved child who always urged his playmates to play Church rather than to play games. Because of the French Revolution, the Church had to function in secret, underground. It wasn't until he was 13 years old that he was permitted to received his First Holy Communion. From that first encounter with Jesus, he yearned for religious life. Finally, at the age of 18, he approached his father for permission to enter the priesthood. His request was denied because of their poverty and his need to work; for three years, he prayed and begged his father for permission to leave home. At age 21, he got the permission he sought and left for a nearby village to study at a Presbytery School. He quickly found out that studying was not for him – things would not stay in his brain. Latin was particularly difficult for him, so much so that both he and his teacher became discouraged. In order to solve the problem, he made a pilgrimage in the summer of 1806, begging for food and shelter all the way. He traveled on foot for more than 100 kilometres, imploring the mercy of God for assistance. When he returned, the studies were no easier, but the war of discouragement was won once and for all. He was confirmed in 1807, after which the strength he felt helped him to overcome the troubles with Latin.
Because of unfortunate mix-up in paper work, he was drafted for the army in 1809. Both his teacher and his father tried to everything to keep him back, but to no avail. A few days before his expected departure, he became violently sick and therefore was permitted to stay. When a second draft came, it came as a hard reality. On the day of his departure, he went to a nearby Chapel to pray; he lost all track of time and missed his convoy. At the suggestion of the town's Mayor, John Vianney went underground for 14 months, studying Latin and teaching the mayor's children until an amnesty gave him his desired freedom in March of 1810. The next year, he received his tonsure (a monk's haircut) which then enabled him to enter the “petit seminaire” at Verriers. Despite his problems with learning, he continued his studies and was permitted to enter the “grand seminaire” at Lyons in the fall of 1813.
There, he became known as the “most unlearned but most devout seminarian in Lyons.” He not only failed his exam, but also failed his re-write which was to be his second and final chance. In the absence of the Archbishop, his teacher approached the Vicar General who asked: “Is he good?” to which the teacher replied: “He is a model of goodness.” The Vicar General then said: “Very well, then, let him be ordained. The grace of God will do the rest.”
On August 12, 1814 (one month after the Battle of Waterloo), John Vianney was ordained. On that day, the Archbishop said: “The Church needs not only learned priests but, moreover, holy ones.”
In 1818, Reverend Father John Vianney was sent to the tiny village of Ars, where only 230 people lived. On the way, he got lost and asked for directions from a shepherd boy he met. He said to the boy: “You have shown me the way to Ars; I will show you the way to Heaven.” When he arrived, the new priest saw that the villagers were living immoral lives, wasting their talents and ignoring God. He set out to convert the village by visiting every home in Ars. He decided that if his feeble flock, who had fallen to the evil spirits of impurity, drunkenness and dishonesty, would not pray or fast for themselves, then their Pastor would do so for them. For six years, he lived on nothing but potatoes to make up for the people's shortcomings. Throughout these years, he struggled to convince his parishioners of the importance of a holy observance of Sunday.
News of Father Vianney spread far and wide; he became known as a wonderful, pious preacher and confessor. A steady stream of penitents began to flock to him from all over the country. The personal example of this holy man of God eventually changed the people of Ars and the 11 taverns (which John Vianney called “pools of evil and deceit”) were forced to close. As more and more pilgrims flocked to Ars, other local parish Priests, out of jealousy, called the Archbishop to tell him untrue tales of the man they claimed was “mad”. The Archbishop called an assembly of his priests and told them: “Gentlemen, I wish that all my clergy had a small grain of the same madness.”
Every day for thirty-two years, there were more visiting pilgrims in Ars than the population of the town. In the last few years of his life, there were in excess of 110,000 pilgrims each year, so John Vianney would hear Confessions for more than 12 hours a day. Every day, he would give a religious teaching to the pilgrims and invited the believers to partake of the Heavenly Food from which he himself received all his strength.
His love for God was immeasurable. He constantly urged the people of God to follow his example and to love the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Once he said: “What happiness do we not feel in the presence of God when we feel ourselves alone at His feet before the Holy Tabernacle?”
On another occasion, Father Vianney said: “How pleasing to Him is the short quarter of an hour that we steal from something of no use, to come and pray to Him, to visit Him, to console Him for all the outrages He receives.”
There are many volumes of St. John Vianney's writings to be found. I have included excerpts from two of his homilies below:
“Do you see, my little children, except for God, nothing is solid – nothing, nothing! If it is life, it passes away; if it is a fortune, it crumbles away; if it is health, it is destroyed; if it is reputation, it is attacked. We are scattered like the wind! Everything is passing away full speed, everything is going to ruin. O God! O God! How much those are to be pitied, them who set their hearts on all these things!”
“To love God with our whole heart is to loving nothing that is incompatible with the love of God; it is to love nothing that can share our heart with the good God; it is to renounce all our passions, all our ill-regulated desires ... To love God with our whole mind is to make the sacrifice to Him of our knowledge and our reason and to believe all that He has taught, to think of Him often and to make it our principal study to know Him well ... To love God with our whole strength is to employ our possessions, our health and our talents in serving Him and glorifying Him. It is to refer all our actions to Him, as our last end!”
On his deathbed, surrounded by 20 Priests and a Bishop who brought him Communion, Father Vianney said: “It is sad to receive Holy Communion for the last time.” Amidst a brutal thunder and lightning storm, the earthly life of the Cure of Ars came to an end. St. John Vianney was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
Permit me to close with a few short thoughts from St. John Vianney's writings:
“You must accept your cross; if you bear it courageously, it will carry you to Heaven.”
“God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry!”
“Nothing afflicts the heart of Jesus so much as to see all His sufferings of no avail to so many souls.”
SAINT JOHN VIANNEY IS THE PATRON SAINT OF PARISH PRIESTS
PLEASE DO NOT FORGET TO PRAY FOR OUR PRIESTS!