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“St. John Vianney’s ministry gives parish priests a fundamental blueprint
for a pastoral plan for any place and time.”
St. John Vianney (1786 1859) is regaining popularity among diocesan seminarians. After a generation of being ignored, if not ridiculed, the patron saint of parish priests is once again finding his way into the hearts and minds of seminarians and priests. The Church names him as patron because this humble priest, assigned to the backwaters of southeastern, post revolutionary France, reveals things perennial about the priesthood and priestly ministry. The pioneering Pope Blessed John XXIII even wrote an encyclical letter on St. John Vianney recommending him as a model for diocesan priests to follow. The new generation of American priests is not discovering St. John Vianney because it simply has nostalgia for what is old, rather because it has a hunger for what perdures. This article is the fruit of this search and the summary of a discussion I had with a group of transitional deacons on the cusp of ordination. By the time this article is published, these men will already be priests.
Their assignment was to examine the beginning years of St. John Vianney’s ministry in Ars through the lens of two questions: 1) What was the cultural landscape of his time? 2) What are the basic contours of his pastoral plan? How was it that within eight years of the Curé’s arrival to Ars many of the people who were living indifferent and nominally Christian lives became fervent and committed believers? The biography used was Father Francis Trochu’s The Curé D’Ars, whose research was based on the Curé’s process of canonization. Notwithstanding the literary style of his time, the work is still the most comprehensive treatment of his life in English, and fortunately still in print [Trochu, Francis. The Curé D’Ars, tr. Ernest Graf (Rockville, IL: TAN, 1977)].
The group discovered that St. John Vianney’s ministry gives parish priests a fundamental blueprint for a pastoral plan for any place and time. This assertion may strike some readers as naive, but I invite them to risk reading what follows. After all, if we are honest with ourselves and the current spiritual state of our parishes, we know that the various approaches of the last forty years have not borne much fruit, and we often feel that we are grasping at straws in knowing what to do. Perhaps we have settled into mediocrity and have allowed ourselves and our people to drift into lukewarm waters which deep down we know have drastic consequences (cf. Rev. 2:15 16).
Similar Cultural Landscapes
Although separated by thousands of miles, the topography around Ars is quite similar to that of mid Willamette Valley, Oregon where Mount Angel Seminary is situated. Both areas are largely agricultural, green with trees and fields spread over rolling hills and dotted with small towns. Even today, Ars is little more than a crossroads among farms.
Though separated by nearly two hundred years, the cultural landscape between 19th century France and 21st century America is also similar. Mentioned here are the relevant contours of 19th century France; the thoughtful reader can make the connections with present day America. Father Vianney arrived at his parish a generation after unparalleled cultural and political upheaval in France. The Revolution and subsequent Terror, the hardships under Napoleonic rule, the widespread devastation of churches, religious communities and practices, and the outright attack on the Church in France herself, were still fresh in the minds of many. The Revolution’s spawn of secularism had permeated much of French society, with even the smaller villages feeling its reverberations. God and the Church were relegated more and more to the margins of French life.
Upheaval was also felt within the Church in France. In the wake of the Revolution, the faithful were often confused about the relationship between faithfulness to the Church and allegiance to the State. The State had sought to subsume the Church, going so far as to force the clergy to take an oath to the State, effectively making the priest more of an employee of the State than a servant of the Gospel. The faithful, moreover, were scandalized when many priests succumbed to this pressure, including the then pastor of Ars, Father Saunier. Educated at the Sorbonne, Ars’s pastor took the oath in 1791 and the spiritual unraveling of the parish in Ars began. The next year the parish church was looted and Father Saunier left the priesthood. The sanctuary of the parish church was converted into a club where the “free thinkers” of the area held their meetings. Though restoration of the Church in France began in 1801, tension and confusion about the clergy still existed. Which priests could one trust? What of the priests who took the oath? What about those priests who refused and suffered or were even killed? France in the 19th century also was experiencing a priest shortage.
The religious ignorance and indifference spawned by the Revolution had their effect on the life of Ars. People frequently missed Sunday Mass, and work dominated the lives of most. The tiny settlement boasted of four taverns where the livelihoods of many families were squandered. The very people who could not find time for Sunday Mass spent themselves in festivities, lasting far into the night and ending in the usual evils. Religious ignorance was rampant in both children and adults. Ironically the efforts of the Revolution to replace worship of the living God with the goddess “Reason” reaped the fruit of widespread illiteracy, and only a minority in Ars could read. Ars, however, was no better or worse off than the other villages in France. Remnants of faith and morals were still found scattered about among some of the families. The faith and the priesthood were not despised, just ignored. The impact of the Revolution and Terror, and the poor example or lack of stable clergy left the parish unsettled, ignorant, confused and at best lukewarm.
Despite the many similarities to our own time, four primary differences exist between St. John Vianney’s time and our own. One obvious difference is that Jansenism, with its harshness, scrupulosity and anxiety, was still felt within the faithful. The heresy had been put down, but its bitterness could still be tasted in the spiritual groundwater. A second difference was respect for priests, and their authority, still existed in the culture. A third difference was the local government, embodied in the mayor and municipal counselor, who supported his efforts in the religious and moral regeneration of the village because it promoted the common good. Fourthly, differences existed within the Church between then and now. For example, today’s “culture of dissent” among some Catholic quarters and the problem of liturgical abuse were not so much part of Vianney’s time.
Into this cultural milieu stepped the little priest from the village of Ecully, and he gave the people of Ars something they had never seen before. How did he do it? Our group detected eight basic features to his pastoral plan: 1) the conversion of his own life as a priest; 2) manifesting an approachable and available demeanor; 3) prayer and ascetical living; 4) channeling initial energy into those families already faithful; 5) giving special attention to the liturgy, preaching and catechesis; 6) addressing problems at their roots and not in their symptoms; 7) planting good habits of prayer and the works of mercy; and 8) doing it all with a strong priestly identity.
When we hear about pastoral plans, we often think first of implementing some packaged program motivating parishioners to “get involved.” St. John Vianney’s plan did not begin with the parishioners in what they needed to do, nor did it begin with what he needed to implement for them. He began with what he needed to do within his own life.
St. John Vianney did not come down from Mount Olympus to reform and save the poor parishioners of Ars. He first of all set out to save his own soul, and by example drew others into this path of holiness. In this he followed the spiritual maxim from the Desert Fathers and from the Lord himself: If you want to sanctify others, begin with yourself. Vianney’s conversion of the parish started with his own, and his deepened along with theirs. One deacon in the group observed that early on, the Curé of Ars made the conscious decision to become a saint. Yet he did not arrive in Ars already a saint. He became one at Ars by being a priest for his flock, and gained sanctity over time through much grace and struggle.
The matter and form of his path to holiness came from his vocation as a priest. He did not go looking for “his spirituality.” All he needed was found within the priesthood Christ had given him. He practiced chastity, obedience and simplicity of life, the same qualities that the Bishops of the United States list as necessary before a candidate can be recommended for ordination (cf. Program of Priestly Formation, nn. 544 545). Vianney’s biographer focuses primarily on his simplicity of life. When the Curé arrived to his parish he brought with him “a few clothes, a wooden bedstead, and the books left to him by M. Balley [his mentor]” (p. 106)…. “His cassock was made of coarse material, and his shoes were such as were worn by the peasantry” (p. 115). It was well known among the poor that beggars received “bountiful alms” from the new parish priest of Ars. It is thought that millions of francs passed through Father Vianney’s hands, of which very little was spent on himself.
Approachable, Available and Real
This indispensable foundation in his own conversion as a man and priest blossomed into action. He soon established the habit of making rounds in his parish at the time he knew most people would be in. Even though his presence was not universally welcomed, the villagers judged their new Curé “to be full of kindness, cheerfulness, and affability” (p. 117). The Curé of Ars was an approachable and likeable man. In his approachability, Father Vianney exemplifies what Pope John Paul II has written in our time: “It is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 43). The Curé of Ars did not wait for people to come to him; he was to be found mingling with his people. He exhibited a spirit of joy and energy in what he did. He loved being a priest. People generally knew where to find him, and he made it a point to be seen walking, often praying his breviary or his rosary. Though he loved solitude and quiet, he had no trouble exchanging words with the workers he passed.
When visiting his parishioners on their turf he began the conversation with ordinary things of interest to farmers and workmen: crops, weather, the work in progress, etc. But he obtained deeper information in these informal chats such as the number and ages of the children, the state of the relationships among family members, and the connection between the different families in Ars. He ended his visit with some questions about the faith whereby he could gauge how well they had been catechized and identify the primary spiritual problems. What he discovered in his visits may sound similar to what a parish priest today may discover: most parishioners knew little, and cared little, about their faith, especially the younger generation who were born during and after the Revolution. Vianney’s approach was not to treat his parish in the abstract, and he did not pretend to convert the world. His priestly mission was not to the abstract “world” or “parish,” Put the concrete reality of the people and place of Ars. All his priestly energy was directed uniquely to them.
Prayer and Penance
Coming upon the boundary of his new parish for the first time, Father Vianney knelt down and prayed. He was acutely aware that the mission given him was completely beyond his ability. If his priestly ministry was to be fruitful, it would come from Jesus working through him. For this reason we find him face down on the floor of his church early in the morning and late at night begging, even crying, for the grace of conversion for his parish. “My God,” he was heard to pray before the tabernacle, “grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please thee to lay upon me; yes, even for a hundred years am I prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted” (p. 118). Only a priest who understood himself as a true father, and not a hireling could utter such a prayer. A hireling easily finds a way to avoid responsibility while a father takes responsibility. If the people were not holy, it was his responsibility to do something about it.
The primacy of prayer in ministry, which is so evident in the Curé of Ars, is an important lesson for parish priests. The cancer of Pelagianism among us is more prevalent than we like to admit. We are deceived into thinking that we can accomplish our priestly mission by relying on our gifts, our creativity and our activity. Especially among us younger priests, we are easily fooled into thinking that we need to jump into activity without realizing that only prayer and penance usher in the grace that will make it fruitful. Vianney reminds parish priests that the offering of daily Mass, constancy in the Liturgy of the Hours, fidelity to a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, making an annual retreat, and practicing self denial are the necessary foundation for the priest’s mission of preaching, sanctifying and governing.
To his prayer, St. John Vianney joined penance. While maintaining the absolute necessity of asceticism in a priest’s life, we are compelled to view the Curé of Ars’ asesis through the lens of his time, his own personal temperament, and the tremendous graces given him. Too easily we hear about his excessive use of the discipline and dismiss his asceticism, while failing to learn its valuable lesson. Though we may sift through the details of his asceticism, we must agree about the fact of living ascetically. As the years passed, he moderated some of his harsher practices.
Father Vianney’s example teaches that prayer and penance was the most, not the least, a priest could do for his people. He knew that the fruitfulness of his priesthood lay not in clever preaching, creative ideas or building team spirit, but first of all offering himself daily in love as a living oblation for his people. An effective pastoral plan would begin here or not at all.
To Build a Fire, Fan the Coal
When a priest first arrives to a parish, especially in today’s megaparishes, he is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and needs. Father Vianney’s plan helps the parish priest to focus his energies. The Curé first focused on the families that were already strong in their faith and had resisted the waves of worldliness and indifference. This approach may seem counter intuitive. Why expend energy on people he already had? His answer is that they would become the fiery coals, which would dry out the damp the wood of the rest of the parish and help set it ablaze. His work had a ripple effect expanding outward from these initial families to more and more of the village and surrounding area.
In his efforts to galvanize the faithful, strong families also met a deep human need in the Curé of Ars: the need for support. He did not simply depend on himself, but needed people who would assist him in his efforts to convert the village, especially since his initial efforts elicited ridicule and criticism. These families would be there for him, speak well of him and begin setting the example for the rest of the parish to follow. This support was not a “cult of personality” around Vianney or because they were best friends rather their support came from the fact that he was their Curé and they both shared the Church’s vision for the parish.
Back to Basics: Liturgy, Preaching and Catechesis
In the face of religious ignorance and lukewarm faith, Father Vianney dedicated himself to “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, n. 11), and began enhancing the worship of God on Sundays. He identified the lack of a God ward orientation in the people as the primary problem. Thus he set about to sanctify the Lord’s Day to help the people reorder their priorities. Since people were not coming to Mass on Sundays, he began to beautify the parish church, making it attractive to people. The place of the Eucharist was to be a place of the beautiful. He even used his own money to purchase a new altar and statuary. He spared no expense in acquiring sumptuous vestments for the liturgy though he himself wore a threadbare cassock. He who was not finicky at what he ate was quite picky about the quality of materials that went into the parish church. Some may criticize this practice in that the money could be spent on the poor; however, we find the Curé just as generous with the poor. He would find it strange that we parish priests would lament the cost of marble for the sanctuary, and then vote pay increases for ourselves at presbyteral council meetings.
His manner of celebrating the Divine Mysteries was radiant. His love of the Mass could be read on his face. He was authentic, allowing himself to smile or weep however the mysteries moved him. He was reverent and precise. He did not strive after relevant liturgies; he strove for beautiful ones. Following the teaching of the Council of Trent, he strove to instill in his congregation a love and understanding of the liturgy and other sacred rites through his manner of celebrating and his preaching.
His preaching was clear and focused on the central mysteries of the faith. Most of the deacons in the discussion group mentioned that the Curé did not mince words in his preaching or teaching. He worked hard weaving his sermons through hours of study and it was not uncommon early on in his ministry for him to spend several hours per week preparing the Sunday sermon. After writing it out on the vestment table in the sacristy, he then struggled to commit it to memory. He used stories and images familiar to his people, especially agrarian ones, to illustrate his points. He spoke their language and used the colloquial expressions of his times.
Father Vianney’s passion and personality also shone in his preaching. The personal intensity of his preaching was so great that it was not uncommon to see tears fall from his eyes or to hear him lose his voice. Depending on the need, his words came across as challenging or consoling. Once he was asked, “Monsieur le Curé why is it that you speak so softly when you pray and so loudly when you preach?” He replied, “Oh, the reason is that when I preach I speak to people who are either deaf or asleep, but when I pray, I speak to the good God who is not deaf’ (p. 132). The pulpit also provided Father Vianney many opportunities for humility. Sometimes he got so lost in his delivery that he would simply stop and come down from the pulpit without finishing.
A common error has been spread about Vianney, which confuses his intellectual struggles with an anti-intellectual bent about him. It is true that Vianney struggled with Latin. Yet his Latin was undoubtedly better than most of ours today. Another reason for his academic struggles was that he did not go to the seminary until his mid twenties. As we know, it is easier to learn when we are young. Though he struggled academically, he was an intelligent man. During his ministry, Vianney maintained the habit of reading and studying until the demands of the confessional consumed the bulk of his waking time. When he died, he had over 300 books in his personal library—hardly evidence of an anti intellectual.
Along with beautifying the liturgy and working hard in preaching, he set about developing an organized approach to catechize the youth. Unfortunately First Communion had become but a formality and passing event in their lives. He used the wise tactics of a pastor to get them to come initially: “He who arrives first in church shall have a [holy] picture” (p. 128). He challenged parents to take responsibility for the spiritual life of their children, and did all the catechizing personally until an assistant was given to him some twenty seven years later. Obviously the small size of his parish allowed him to do it. After only a few years, it was known that the children of Ars knew their catechism better than any in the surrounding district.
Strike Problems at Their Root Causes
At first glance, the social problems in Ars were obvious: destitution, indifference, lack of charity, everyday life consumed by work, etc. The Curé of Ars, whether consciously or intuitively, understood these as symptoms of a much deeper cause. Social woes had their roots in a spiritual problem: the Lord was not the center of their lives.
St. John Vianney seemed to have a good grasp of the prophetic aspect of the priest’s ministry. When he went about challenging the status quo of the village, he had the courage and fortitude to see it through because his life was first immersed in Christ through his own conversion, prayer and asceticism. As a result, the initial criticism and resistance that met him, though discouraging, did not sway him. Here one can see how his pastoral plan builds on itself: effective renewal in the parish is built upon the priest’s inner life with Christ. Every parish priest who strives to be faithful to the Lord and the Church knows how difficult it is to follow through on changes in the face of criticism. We tend to feel hurt by what others say about us, and are tempted to water down the message or to back down from what needs to be done.
In a farming community such as Ars, Sunday had become a workday. The ringing of the church bell on Sunday morning was met with the rumbling of carts and the hammering of the anvil. The Curé took a colossal leap of faith and refused to give parishioners permission to work on Sunday, even during harvest time. The Lord even intervened for him in miraculous ways by bringing rain, or preventing it, while the people were in church. Another approach he used was making more of the Holy Days of obligation. The Holy Days can be especially effective in inculcating the God ward orientation when the regular workday is interrupted for worship.
Not only excessive work, but also tavern life was symptomatic of the spiritual problem. Great effort was exerted for work and pleasure, but not for God. This habit was shared by peasant and gentry alike. The taverns were places where the Lord’s name was blasphemed, where habits of cursing and swearing festered, and where livelihoods were squandered. Perhaps in our own day the proliferation of porn shops and casinos would compare to tavern life in Ars. The Curé set about to close them. In the words of his biographer, Father Vianney was “ruthless” in his invective against them. However, he still cared for the welfare of the owners. When one complained to him that his preaching kept people away and was causing his financial ruin, the Curé gave the man enough money to close the tavern. One by one each owner closed his tavern and took up another occupation.
Father Vianney’s efforts at closing the taverns had the consequence of eliminating the primary cause for poverty and destitution in Ars. When the people began living their lives centered on God and not on work and pleasure, the symptoms of destitution and loose living began to disappear. One deacon related that Vianney did not begin by saying, “I’m going to end poverty in Ars.” Rather he began with a campaign to honor the Lord’s Day. This point does not insinuate that it is “either or” solution: either focus on Sunday or act in a more direct manner to alleviate society’s problems, but the solution is “both and.” Without the primacy of orienting one’s life toward God, however, the other efforts at societal reform, though noble, will not ultimately succeed. It should also be noted that his efforts required much time and patience. The rebuilding of respect for the Lord’s Day and the closing of the taverns took eight years of ceaseless effort, and even so was not completely successful. Nevertheless, a majority did re center their lives on the Lord, and destitution largely disappeared.
After addressing excessive work and tavern life, Vianney began a campaign against dancing. Why dancing? Is Vianney simply revealing himself as prudish? Here again it is important to view his efforts through the lens of his time. He saw dancing as a symptom of a root problem. He saw that one enamored with dancing was unable to relish pure and simple pleasures, and dulled one’s sense for spiritual realities. Immersion in video games, Internet and television in our times render the human spirit dull before the real and simple pleasures of human life. The issue, moreover, was not simply dancing, but the “party scene” that accompanied it. The dances in Ars were occasions for serious sin against chastity in which people used each other for pleasure, not love. Perhaps events like MTV’s Spring Break, contraception or cohabitation may be dancing’s correlative in our day. “There is not a commandment of God,” he preached, “which dancing does not cause men to break” (p. 146). He took action as well. One day he met the fiddler as he was arriving at Ars to play for a dance. The Curé of Ars asked him what he was usually paid. Vianney gave him double so that the man went away satisfied, and the dance did not occur. Like his efforts against excessive work and tavern life, ending the dances took time and patience—25 years.
Plant the Good: Prayer and the Works of Mercy
Vianney’s vigorous uprooting of evil had a purpose. He uprooted it in order to cultivate something much better: the life of the Kingdom. By degrees he led Mlle. d’Ars, the leading woman of the town, out of her Jansenistic tendencies, and she became a model Christian who was seen at daily Mass and serving the poor. Others began to follow her example, and before long, the Curé of Ars had a women’s group called “the workers of the first hour.” Younger girls began to join them and Father Vianney organized them into the “Confraternity of the Rosary.” These women devoted themselves to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and works of charity in the town.
A few devout men also began to follow suit, and under Vianney’s guidance they revived in the parish the ancient “Guild of the Blessed Sacrament.” His biographer writes, “M. Vianney was rightly convinced that his people would not take up seriously the practice of religion until the day when he should have won over the youths and the men of the village” (p. 184). Although their daily work often prevented them from making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament each day, they became regular Sunday worshippers and often spent an hour in adoration after Vespers on Sunday.
Family prayer had all but died out in the village, and Vianney realized that most farmers and workers could not attend daily Mass in the morning. He introduced praying a rosary at the church in the evenings. In the parishioners’ personal lives, he taught them to make a daily examination of conscience, do short spiritual reading, practice meditation, and make an offering of their daily sufferings. Father Vianney joined together with his neighboring priests to organize missions and confessions at each other’s parishes. It was at these missions that the Curé of Ars’ gift as a confessor was discovered.
The Curé of Ars complemented his efforts at prayer with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. When St. John Vianney arrived in Ars, there was no real school. He recruited two young women of the parish and sent them, at his own expense, to be trained as schoolmistresses. He raised money himself to purchase a house, which would serve as a free school for girls. Vianney then turned his attention to the orphans and street children of the area who were usually reduced to begging, and opened an orphanage in the same home. The house soon needed to be expanded to keep up with demand. A true pastor, he bought some adjacent land, drew up construction plans himself, and even assisted the masons and carpenters. Over the years, many a young girl, arriving “often …only half clad and covered with vermin,” found safety, an education, virtue, faith, a spiritual mother in Catherine and a true spiritual father in their Curé” (p. 198). By 1841, this home accommodated between fifty to sixty girls.
Always a Priest
In this time of planting the good seed in ground where unnecessary labor, tavern life and dancing had once festered, the personal dedication and energy of the pastor of Ars never flagged. His biographer writes that “he never refused except when a thing was obviously impossible; all his life he spent himself for others, without ever counting the cost. A woman of Fareins, who was stricken with cancer, wished …to behold once more the Curé d’Ars …. He set out at once, however, but lost his way, so that when he eventually reached Fareins he was covered with mud and worn out with fatigue. He would not consent to take anything, not even a glass of water…. After blessing and comforting the poor dying woman, the lowly priest made haste to return to his parish” (p. 193).
In the span of eight years, by the grace of God and his efforts, the Curé of Ars had instilled in the people the primacy of God in their lives, and cultivated in them dedication to prayer and the care of the poor. It is important to remember that in this pastoral plan, St. John Vianney was not unaffected. A true saint, he was not above it all. He suffered much in this plan, not only the physical suffering of his penances and sicknesses, the spiritual agony of temptations and preternatural harassment by the Devil, but also the anguish of heart and the weight of burden that only a pastor can feel. He also suffered much from the criticisms, denunciations and sometimes outright calumny of his brother priests.
Our group found no temerity in Vianney’s priestly identity. He was singularly unapologetic about both his priesthood and his manhood. To convert the people of Ars, Vianney did not have to become a psychologist, a bureaucrat, or a social worker. The effectiveness of his plan also did not come from his charisma or “cult of personality.” He was simply their priest, the Curé of Ars. All that was required was that he strive to become the man and priest Jesus had made him to be. Much more can be said about St. John Vianney’s life and ministry. This article is intended simply to shed light on one small aspect of it as seen by a group of priests to be. For the priest who has the courage to implement it with the necessary adjustments to the present day, the plan has proven to produce much good fruit.
Reverend John Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. His previous assignment was Director of Human Formation and Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary, Oregon. He earned the S.T.L. degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Currently he is pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome writing his dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar. This article was originally published by Homiletic and Pastoral Review and is reproduced here by permission of the author./em>