A sure guide
During the ‘Year for Priests’ (2009-2010) we have witnessed a time of grace, deepened understanding and increased prayer for priests and priestly vocations which, among the many pastoral initiatives of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, we will always be thankful. In this year now passed, with his predecessors throughout the twentieth century, Pope Benedict wished to raise up in our sight the priestly figure of St. John Mary Vianney. Father Julian Green and others have, in recent editions of The Sower, provided us with excellent articles on the perennial importance of the Curé of Ars as a guide, in the Holy Father’s words, to a ‘renewed appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of the priestly ministry’.[i] In these Bishop’s Notes I wish to draw attention to what we might call ‘echoes from Ars’ which continue to resonate for all of us engaged in pastoral work and catechesis and here to trace something of what we might call the pastoral plan of this Parish Priest whose example does not fade.
A familiar scene
On that winter day in 1818, as the young John Mary Vianney struggled to find the tiny village of Ars, both the person and the place would have seemed obscure even to the world of his time - but not, we remind ourselves, in the sight of Heaven.
Like all the Saints before him St. John Vianney lived in that moment of time given to him which is, of course, in many ways different from our own. We should not, however, be misled into mistaking the pastoral situation he addressed as one of an uncomplicated, rural idyll. For the parish of Ars in which the Vicar General noted the new pastor would find very little love for God, was part of a society emerging from the upheaval of the French Revolution.
In that now distant place and time we can glimpse so many of the features of the pastoral landscape which have become familiar to us where religious practice had dramatically fallen away, leading to a more general indifference which at first seemed impervious to preaching and catechesis alike; where practical difficulties were immediately to be faced in maintaining a church building deteriorating in its fabric and beauty; and where a weakening of moral standards was manifest in entertainments which influenced particularly the young, and from which many social problems flowed.
It strikes me that, today, the parish of Ars might appear on many diocesan closure lists - but the crucial difference was that the Bishop had such a priest to send to this small, diminished community. And while St. John Vianney never felt he was exaggerating when he spoke of his ‘poor self,’ he never doubted the vital importance of the priest because of the centrality of Christ Himself. ‘The ecclesial community has an absolute need for the ministerial priesthood to have Christ the Head and Shepherd present in her.’[ii]
In this there was nothing of the caricature of clericalism but always that clear understanding of what a priest is called to be. ‘The priest,’ he would say, ‘is not for himself, he is for you.’ Any pastoral planning worthy of the name must take account of the priest in his true role and identity. For we can glimpse in Ars how the dignity and high calling of all the baptised was both realised and profoundly recognised by a priest so true to his calling. As the Curé of Ars would say, the priest is for you.
From the example of this priest, at once so close to his people and living his vocation fully for them, and amid what Leon Christiani described as nothing short of ‘a battle’ which developed in the parish of Ars, we can glimpse a strategy. As the Holy Father proposed in his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, ‘let us ask the Lord Jesus for the grace to learn for ourselves something of the pastoral plan of St. John Mary Vianney’ (19th June 2009).
In this, as the Venerable John Paul II reminded us at the beginning of the new millennium,
‘It is not a matter of inventing a new programme. The programme already exists: it is a plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem.’[iii]
For St. John Vianney that pastoral programme, as the Second Vatican Council would remind us in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, always flows from and to the Altar, to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. ‘Holy Communion and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are the two most efficacious actions,’ he would say, ‘for obtaining the conversion of hearts.’
This prayer would be always be prolonged in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, for here the battle would begin on his knees. Picturing the Curé of Ars’ persevering prayer at the foot of the Tabernacle will always remind us of where our own pastoral and catechetical initiatives must begin, conscious of the primacy of grace, for ‘we are beggars,’ he would say, ‘who must ask God for everything.’
To this prayer St. John Vianney united his daily penances to a most remarkable degree, knowing that by the mysterious exchange of merits within the communion of saints he could do penance for those who would not, and love God for those who do not love Him. In those smaller sacrifices and penances which present themselves to us each day we can find this same spiritual fruitfulness which is often lacking in our merely external efforts.
From this prayer and penance flowed a remarkable patience and perseverance manifest in what Pope Benedict called his living ‘actively’ within the entire territory of the parish which began by visiting his lukewarm parishioners and is particularly evident in the constancy of his preaching and catechesis which he often laboured late into the night to prepare seeing, at first, so few results. How easy in such a situation it might have been to neglect or downplay this essential task, placed by the Second Vatican Council in the first rank of the functions of a priest, but St. John Vianney would go as far as to say, ‘Our Lord, who is truth itself, considers his word no less important than his body.’ This teaching and preaching was to predispose people to that faith and conversion which led into what Pope Benedict describes as, ‘a virtuous circle,’ that is, the rediscovery of the Eucharistic Presence and the beauty and meaning of the Sacrament of Penance. We have no less a task in our own time. It is a perennial task.
The fountain of life
While St. John Vianney would ‘tax his ingenuity,’ in Pope John Paul II’s phrase, to devise initiatives adapted to his time and responding to his parishioners’ spiritual, moral and social needs all was ultimately centred upon the Holy Eucharist, the availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and a constant catechesis. From my own pastoral experience I have learnt that this same clear focus brings life to the sometimes arid pastoral landscape we face today.
For wherever a continuous and faithful catechesis with the Scriptures is offered together with good liturgical practice leading towards a discovery of the reality of the Eucharist, the devotional centrality of the Blessed Sacrament and the very means of grace and conversion given us in the Sacrament of Penance, there is always renewed life. This should not surprise us. For while we may labour in making leaky cisterns of our own here is found the very fountain of the Church’s life.
As St. John Vianney would insist: ‘He is here, he is here, the One who loves us so much, he is here!’ At the end of his own life and labours, when physical strength failed and his voice became inaudible, his biographers record he would simply point towards the Tabernacle as if there were no more to be said, once that greatest gift is found. In all our efforts in pastoral planning and catechesis may the same be true for us.
St. John Vianney, continue to pray for us!
[i] Homily for the Closing of the Year for Priests.
[ii] Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community, 2002.
[iii] Novo Millennio Ineunte 29.
This article is originally found on pages 11-12 of the printed edition.