In this three-part series, I want to focus on a Saint of the New Evangelization who many of you will already have met in the Communion of Saints: St. John Baptist Mary Vianney, more popularly known as “the Curé of Ars.” In this first part, I wish to lead you in mind and heart to that tiny village in the obscurity of the French countryside, to meet this saint, whose witness the great John Paul II declared would never fade in the sight of the Church. In a letter to the priests of the world, John Paul II writes of the Curé: “His example cannot be forgotten. More than ever we need his witness, his intercession, in order to face the situations of our times … Let us not doubt that he still presents to us today the great evangelical challenge ….”[i] So, too, Pope Benedict XVI proposed that every priest in the world should learn from this saint’s pastoral plan. I want to suggest that in our task as catechists we have much to learn from the “new evangelization” of that tiny village of Ars and from its Curé.
I am conscious that a small, rural community in the first decades of the 19th Century might seem to present few parallels to the challenges of the early 21st Century. However, the saints are more than people who were merely ahead of their times; they belong to all times! In the saints we see the Gospel made visible and glimpse the Church at her truest. It is for this reason that the successors of St. Peter have, for more than a century, drawn our attention to the luminous, enduring figure of the Curé of Ars. We must look to what is perennial in his life and witness as we face the challenges of the times uniquely entrusted to us by God. In these articles, I want to point to St. John Vianney’s enduring importance as a catechist.
The Curé of Ars: Life and Times
It was not without some disappointment that on a winter day in 1818 the young John Vianney first caught sight of the village of Ars with its broken down church and some 230 souls. “How small it is,” a man of such greatness of heart would remark with a sigh.[ii] However, in a gesture which St. John Paul II was later to imitate as pope, he knelt down and kissed the ground of the mission entrusted to him. It was then that he said: this place will not be big enough to contain all who will come here. In all the great ambitions of our hearts to serve the Church we, too, must learn first to embrace the specific mission we have received from God, no matter how bleak the human prospects may seem to be. We must be ready to accept that our desire to share the faith with the whole world starts with each person, each soul, one by one. How clearly we recognize this as we read our Lord’s life in the Gospels: so it will be for you and for me, whether we start with 230 people or 23 or 23,000. We need the same supernatural perspective that we find in St. John Vianney, who told the first parishioner he met, a shepherd boy who had guided him through the February mists: “My friend you have shown me the way to Ars, I shall show you the way to Heaven.”[iii]
We can recognize in this tiny village, two centuries removed from our time, so many echoes of the challenges familiar to us so that Ars can offer a pattern for the New Evangelization. Abbe Trochu, the most authoritative biographer of the Curé of Ars, describes the pastoral situation he found in these terms: “Many of the inhabitants were pagans in practice and if all faith had not vanished, very little was left.”[iv] It is true that post-revolutionary Ars no longer saw the club of free thinkers meeting within a desecrated church nor the young pastor who, at the time of the revolution, had publicly renounced his priesthood. However, the enduring state of the people had become one of indifference and profound religious ignorance. They assumed they knew the faith while in reality the Gospel barely shaped any aspect of their lives. In this situation, few families had managed to pass on their Catholic faith to the next generation.
We must never fail to note the resistance to the Curé’s efforts to dispel this all-pervading ignorance. We can attribute many of the harsh and strident phrases that he used in the early years to his desire to shake a wall of complacency. “I shouted,” he later observed “because you were deaf.”[v] His strongest words were directed to the adults whom he declared had allowed the moral dignity of entire generations to be fatally compromised. He observed that “Under the eyes of parents who were either dumb or accomplices things are done which are reminiscent of pagan times.”[vi] His appeals would also be directed to the elderly whom he described as “old, bespectacled villains” who watched the entertainments of the young and added their coarse jokes and blasphemies. Yet on the great feast days, when much of the community still gathered together, this preaching was met by openly affected disinterest, including loud yawning! It was to such a place and at such a moment that this young priest was sent by the Vicar General with less than encouraging words; Vianney would find little love for God in Ars, he told him, at least he would bring some love for God there!
John Vianney had himself grown up amid the turbulence and horrors of the French Revolution. He had assumed from his youth that to be a priest a man needed to be willing to die for his faith. He looked to the example of the priests his own family had sheltered in their clandestine ministry, which, for some, ended in martyrdom by the guillotine. His education had been drastically disrupted during those revolutionary years, which had detrimental effects when he embarked on the higher studies of the seminary. His hopes of becoming a priest had seemed to be altogether extinguished by the Napoleonic wars into which he was swept-up as a reluctant recruit. However, he was assisted to ordination by the tireless efforts of one of those heroic priests who had himself survived the Revolution.
A Spiritual Battle
Amidst all the upheaval of military occupation and even without a bishop in his own diocese, John Vianney was ordained to the Priesthood at Grenoble in the days following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. France being under military occupation, he was twice turned back by Austrian troops literally on his road to ordination. However, St. John Vianney recognized from the outset that the real battle for his people was not to be fought with force and violence. He never doubted the truth of St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “We are not contending with flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). The real struggle had to be fought on a different field. Right from the outset, the people of Ars were never in any doubt where they could find their Curé—in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
In the biographies of St. John Vianney, much is said of the visible manifestations of the devil. Significantly, the Curé himself said little of what he called “the villainous Grappin” except in such telling phrases as, “The devil almost became a companion.”[vii] The task of the Curé, as for you and for me, is to accept the invitation in our mission to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph 6:10). The Apostle describes this as a preparation for the real battle of our lives: “Take the whole armour of God that you will be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph 6:13). I know you will be familiar with that armour St. Paul describes: girded with truth, having the breastplate of righteousness; shod with the Gospel of peace; above all, we are to take up the shield of faith, with the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God; this leads us, as it led the Curé “to pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18). This is precisely how the young Curé of Ars prepared and equipped himself for the real and decisive battle. We can understand that it was with such well-founded confidence that allowed my fellow countryman, St. Edmund Campion, to declare when faced with a humanly impossible mission: “The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun. It is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted, so it must be restored.”[viii] This is the calculation on which we must base our mission too!
Confidence and Nothingness
If we are to understand the mission of the Saint of Ars we must first recognize the foundations of such confidence. Whenever he spoke of his “poor self,” he never wanted us to think he was exaggerating. At the very outset of the conversion of the village of Ars, his brother priests prepared a petition to the bishop declaring him incapable of the ministry entrusted to him, especially of guiding the growing numbers of penitents. When the petition mistakenly fell into hands of the Curé, he famously signed it and personally sent it to the bishop! Later meeting a rather grand Parisian lady who expressed surprise at the sight of this diminutive and slightly shabby figure, he remarked, “Your experience is not that of the Queen of Sheba: she was surprised to find so much; you are surprised to find so little!”[ix] In his last years, when receiving the cape and ornamental hood of a Canon of the Diocese, he remarked, “Nothingness is now dressed-up as pride.” In 1841, a young priest, not without a tinge of jealousy, would write to him: “When a man knows as little theology as you do, he should not go into the confessional.” I think the Curé’s reply could almost have served as the basis for his canonization. His letter began with these words: “Most dear and most venerated confrere, what good reasons I have for loving for you! You are the only person who really knows me.”[x]
St. John Vianney was a Third Order Franciscan; and I believe that appreciating the spirit of the poor man of Assisi is one of the keys to understanding the man who became Patron Saint of Parish Priests. However, in all of his human poverty, like St. Francis, he never doubted the immensity of the treasure that had been entrusted to him. Therefore, we quickly recognize how such a priest would be granted the grace to open up the way of a New Evangelization. A phrase would later be much-repeated: “Ars is no longer Ars!” Enormous numbers came to that tiny village to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. How insightfully Pope Francis has called this “the Sacrament of the New Evangelization,” giving such great impetus to its celebration by the beautiful initiative “24 Hours for the Lord.” The penitents who find their way to our churches through all the hours of the day and the night are surely an image of the pilgrimage of Ars. Estimates vary, but some suggest that between a quarter and a tenth of the then population of France personally went to Confession in Ars. The visitor was met in the summer months with people sleeping out in the meadows and a never ceasing queue of penitents which demanded the Curé punctually began his day at 1:00 am each morning!
Significantly, catechesis took a central place for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, the catechesis that St. John Vianney had given daily and unfailingly from his first week in Ars. There would be a break in confessions at 11 am each day to allow the Curé to give his catechesis. It is a testament to his commitment to the catechetical task, and his sheer perseverance, which began in his first days in Ars with daily catechism for the boys at 6:00 am and for the girls at 11:00 am; he had offered catechism for the adults every Sunday before Vespers in what was initially a largely empty church. In the tradition of catechesis encouraged by the Council of Trent, he knew that his role as a pastor demanded this uncompromisingly of him. Whilst happy to be assisted by co-workers in later years, he nevertheless saw the task of catechizing as a responsibility that could never be entirely delegated. He knew he must, as priest and pastor, give his own witness to the beauty and coherence of the faith. Entering the parish church of Ars today, which remains much as St. John Vianney left it, you will see something unusual: a purpose-built bench and lectern, carefully situated so he would not have his back to the Tabernacle to which he would frequently turn during his catechism classes. It was in this place of catechesis that most of the phrases remembered today were spoken and recorded by his hearers. And the people of Ars would eventually be recognized as being outstanding in their knowledge of the faith.
In part two and three of this series, we will reflect more specifically on the priest’s role as a catechist and on the call to holiness for all catechists.
The Rt. Reverend Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury, in England, and is a member of the International Council for Catechesis.
[i] John Paul II, Letter to All Priests of the Church, Holy Thursday, 1986, no. 2.
[ii] Cf. Abbe Francis Trochu, ‘The Curé D’Ars according to the Acts of the Process of Canonization” 1927, 113.
[iii] Trochu, Chapter 1, Arrival at Ars.
[v] Trochu, Chapter 5, The Conversion of Ars.
[vi] Sermon sur la sanctification du Chretien.
[vii] Trochu, Chapter 11, The Curé D’Ars and the Devil: “Le grappin et moi, nous sommes quasi camarades.”
[viii] Letter to the Privy Council of Elizabeth I, 1580.
[ix] Trochu, Chapter 22, Physical and Moral Portrait.
[x] Trochu, Chapter 13, The Pilgrimage to Ar).
This article appeared on pages 16-18 of the printed edition.