The priest who revived faith
French priest speaks about the parish priest of Ars
Fr Martin de La Ronciere
The Year for Priests began on the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Lord Jesus, 19 June 2009, which was also the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. This is a special time during which we are called to deepen the ‘gift and mystery’ of priesthood. The opening of the Year for Priests fell on the 150th anniversary of the death of St John Maria Vianney, the holy parish priest from Ars. This humble French priest living in the 19th century will be announced as the patron of all priests in the world. I dare to make a personal confession. In 1985, when I began seriously asking myself the question whether Lord God wanted me for him, in his service, reflecting on the life of the Parish Priest of Ars had a considerable influence on my positive response to God’s calling. That’ why from the beginning of my priestly way St John Vianney was an example of priest and an example of fulfilling priestly ministry.
What was the Parish Priest of Ars like?
I am going to present some characteristics of St John Maria Vianney that fascinate me. The Holy Priest of Ars was first of all a man of prayer. Before dawn, at 4.00 a.m. he was already at church. His parishioners were still asleep and he interceded for them in the spirit of the Blessed Honorat Kozminski, ‘Before we begin influencing souls to win them for God we should first receive God’s grace for souls.’ The extraordinary zeal to win souls and the tireless pastoral activities of St John Maria Vianney were inspired by his fervent and continuous prayers to which he devoted several hours a day. In his sermons and catechises he always encouraged the faithful to pray, saying, ‘My children, your hearts are small, but prayer enlarges them and renders them capable of loving God. Prayer is a foretaste of heaven, an overflowing of heaven (see the Liturgy of the Hours, 4 August). The Curé d'Ars was a priest of unique piety. He was literary burnt with the desire to see all his parishioners, and even all the people he met, converted and living for Christ. When the Vicar General of Lyon sent him to the small village of Ars he warned him, ‘There is no love for God in this parish’ and as if foreseeing what was to happen he added, ‘You will wake it’. And actually in a short time the inhabitants began going to church. Moreover, huge crowds of believers from the whole of France and from abroad came to Ars to Fr Vianney for confession and advice. In 1858 (one year before his death) ca. 100,000 people were counted there. Like the Servant of God Fr Jerzy Popieluszko about whom it was written, ‘he gave all his time, besides prayer, to others’ (Janusz Kotanski, ‘Jerzy Popieluszko’, Warszawa 2004, p. 75), St John Vianney lived for others. He often repeated, ‘A priest is not for himself but for you.’ The additional feature of the Patron of all parish priests, and now all priests in the world, was his feeling of deep sense of eternity and eternal happiness to which we all are called by the power of Baptism. He warned believers not to waste their lives on entertainment and pleasure, saying, ‘We are in this world but we are not of this world because we pray every day «Our Father who art in heaven». So we should see our reward when we are «at home» – in the Father’s house.’ When the Holy Father John Paul II was in Ars in October 1986, surrounded by thousands of priests from all over France, he emphasised that the Holy Parish Priest was a preacher and tool of the Divine Mercy. It is known that he spent many hours in the confessional booth every day: between 10 and 16 hours! In his sermons he showed how much the Divine Mercy went beyond the biggest human sins, ‘Our sins are like a grain of sand in compared to the mountain of God’s Mercy. The good God will pardon a repentant sinner more quickly than a mother would snatch her child out of the fire.’
Another characteristic of St John Vianney was his love for the Eucharist. He was really a lover of the Blessed Sacrament. All people were impressed by his concentration and deep faith, which was visible when he celebrated Mass. The Eucharist was the centre of his life and the source of his pastoral zeal. He encouraged believers to receive Holy Communion frequently and with great respect, ‘My children, if we understood the value of Holy Communion, we should avoid the least faults, that we might have the happiness of making it oftener.’
View of a French priest
As a French priest working in France I am especially impressed by the fact that the Curé d'Ars lived in the times similar to ours. He was born three years before the big shock, which was for France and the whole Europe the French Revolution of 1789. It is known that this revolution did not only destroy social structures but also the Church and religious life of France. That’s why it is rightly considered to be the ‘mother’ of the October revolution in Russia. When in 1815, one year after Napoleon’s fall, 29-year-old John Maria Vianney was ordained a priest, as the only one ordained in the bishop’s chapel, France was spiritually ruined. All things had to be built anew. The Curé d'Ars was a brilliant representative of these numerous priests, brothers and nuns as well as laity who contributed with patience and great dedication to the wonderful renewal of the Church in France throughout the 19th century. And what abundance of fruit they yielded! Just to mention the event of 1900 when half of all missionaries in the world was French. It is worth knowing that St Therese of the Child Jesus wrote letters to two French missionaries: one of them worked in China and the second one worked in Africa.
Through the intercession of St John Maria Vianney
My generation of priests was born several years before the events of May 1968, which were a big shock, a real cultural revolution, for France and other western countries. Then within several years the religious panorama of France changed deeply: there was a drastic decrease in religious practices, priestly and religious vocations as well as the influence of Christian faith on social life (see the article entitled ‘Kosciol we Francji’ [The Church in France] in ‘Niedziela’, 7 September 2008, pp. 14-15). I think that nowadays, like during the lifetime of St John Maria Vianney, we are living in the period of rebuilding the Church and Christian communities in France. This requires patient, laborious and dedicated pastoral care. Every day I can see many dedicated priests, religious sisters and laity involved in the life of the Church. The example of the Curé d'Ars shows us that by the power of prayer and working with the Holy Spirit it is possible to bring about big changes. One can see that on the example of Ars – this small, pagan village became through the pious Priest one of the most famous sanctuaries in Europe. I trust that following the example of St John Maria Vianney and thanks to his intercession we will see a wonderful spiritual and moral renewal of France in the coming years.