Today is the memorial of Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars. He was born into a world in 1786 where the Church was soon under attack by the first of the totalitarian regimes, Revolutionary France. His family remained loyal to the Faith, and helped priests on the run from the State. Young John saw these brave men as heroes as well as priests, and soon wished to join their ranks. He was hampered by his ill education and the fact that he simply wasn’t a very good student, no matter how hard he tried. He was ordained more as an act of Christian charity, and a recognition that he had a good heart and would try his best to be a good priest, than because of any success in his studies.
He was assigned to be the cure of the village of Ars, a town of only 230 people. The church was almost deserted, with most of the population of the town consisting of fallen away Catholics. He immediately began doing acts of reparation for the sins of his parishioners, and eventually won them back to the Faith through the example he set, his manifest goodness and his own invincible faith in God.
Each day he spent 11-16 hours in the confessional. He had the charism of often knowing the sins of his penitents before they spoke and giving them spiritual counsel that went directly to their souls. People began to flock to confess to him from the regions around Ars, then from the rest of France, and eventually the world. He could sometimes heal the sick and especially children, to whom he always gave kind attention.
The fame he won was completely unwanted by him. Four times he ran away from his parish, attempting to become a monk. Each time he came back because his people cried out for him. Jealous priests in his diocese on one occasion sent a petition around to other priests requesting that the Bishop remove Saint John on the grounds that he was too ignorant to be a pastor. The petition was sent to Ars by mistake, and Saint John unhesitatingly signed it and sent it on. One of the priests who started the petition came to him to beg his forgiveness. He said that there was nothing to forgive. He knew that he was too ignorant, and that he hoped the Bishop would send a better man to replace him.
By the time he died on August 4, 1859, Saint John had transformed Ars and the region around the village into an area filled with fervent Catholics. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and in 1929 he was made patron saint of parish priests. In his proclamation of the year of the priests, which may be read here, Pope Benedict wrote of Saint John Vianney that he taught his parishioners primarily by the example of his own life. A priest who leads a life dedicated to charity and sacrifice will never fail to be a successful fisher of men.
“All our religion is but a false religion, and all our virtues are mere illusions and we ourselves are only hypocrites in the sight of God, if we have not that universal charity for everyone – for the good, and for the bad, for the poor and for the rich, and for all those who do us harm as much as those who do us good. ”