The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

St. John Vianney – A Saint of the New Evangelization, Part 3: The Holiness of the Catechist

Authored by Bishop Mark Davies in Issue #4.1 of Catechetical Review

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In this final installment, we reflect on the most essential characteristic of an effective catechist for the new evangelization: allowing Christ to transform us through holiness of life. Among all of the words spoken during the pontificate of Blessed Paul VI, there is one phrase most often repeated today that came to prominence in one of his last letters, Evangelli Nuntiandi. It was his observation that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (41). This phrase might mistakenly be used to suggest that the objective teaching of doctrine is to give way to the subjectivity of personal witness. In reality, in this striking passage, Pope Paul was stressing that we cannot effectively communicate the faith and doctrine of the Church apart from (in his own words) “the witness of sanctity.” In the catechist, whether priest or laity, the path towards holiness must be walked alongside the work of catechesis. We should recall that people were first drawn to Ars in the hope of glimpsing holiness. If you and I think back to the priests and teachers who had the most impact our own catechesis, it was those in whom we saw that same struggle for holiness. Our best efforts as catechists can never be divorced from this same striving for holiness in our own lives. This is the lesson of Ars! In his remarkable little book, The Soul of the Apostolate, Don Jean-Baptiste Chautard reminds how the true spiritual fruitfulness of all our apostolic efforts, whether seen or unseen, is entirely bound-up with our union with Christ. Blessed Paul VI said that the key to the teaching and the whole renewal sought by the Second Vatican Council would be found in the universal call to holiness, proposed in Lumen Gentium (Chapter 5). This holiness of life was precisely the attraction that eventually brought hundreds of thousands from across Europe to listen to the catechesis of the Curé of Ars. And we should note how St. John Vianney always took care to point away from himself, re-focusing the attention of every visitor he met towards the Altar and the Tabernacle saying: “He is here! He is here! The One who loves us so much: He is here!”  St. John Vianney did not write a best-selling book or leave us a manual describing how to convert a parish or be a successful catechist. It is perhaps the most terrifying thing about his witness that he was fully convinced that the same grace of conversion, the same New Evangelization, could be brought about in every parish of the world. Indeed, he sincerely believed that any other priest or catechist, more able than he, could have brought about greater things! When asked how the conversion of Ars was accomplished, he always pointed to the place where he knelt before the Tabernacle. Priests who asked him why their own parishes remained steadfastly unconverted, received his innocent enquiries as to what mortifications they had undertaken, what vigils of prayer had these priests maintained?  In so many ways, we each have to learn the lesson I tried to express in my episcopal motto: “Nihil sine Christo” (Nothing without Christ). They are words taken from the Gospel of Saint John where we hear Our Lord say to us, “Without me you can do nothing” (15:5). Notice that Christ does not say, “Without me you will be able to do some things.” No, he tells us emphatically we can do nothing. I love the story of the 20th Century Saint Josemaria who, walking through the financial center of London in 1958, had felt suddenly overwhelmed by the task he had been given and interiorly heard these words: “You can’t, I can” more literally, “You, no! I, yes!”[1]  How often you and I must hear those same words!

Persevering in Holiness: Love for the Cross   

The Curé of Ars teaches us not to seek easy, instantaneous results but to choose the path of perseverance in the New Evangelization. He refused to allow the 230 souls entrusted to his care to be left in the misery of their sins and not recognize the greatness to which they were called. The Second Vatican Council reminds us of this very goal: nothing less than the fullness of the Christian life, the perfection of charity.[2] St. John Vianney’s biographers tell us how it took him more than eight years in his parish to re-claim some semblance of Sunday as the Day of the Lord; it took at least 25 years to overcome the night dancing, which had become the major source of moral disorder amongst young and old alike; and for 27 years the Curé laboured single-handedly to overcome religious ignorance by daily catechesis. Pope Benedict XVI observed how the Curé “devoted himself completely to his parish’s conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the people in his care.”[3] He continued this catechetical task until the very last week of his life. The process of beatification and canonization highlighted the fact that John Marie Vianney had lived the virtue of patience to an heroic degree. It is helpful for us to dispel any romantic illusions about the New Evangelization. St. John Vianney had said, “if on my arrival in Ars I had foreseen all I was to suffer there, I would have died on the spot!”[4] The complaints, the criticisms, the false allegations, the threats are all so well-documented in his biographies that we can understand his comment in 1843, “I thought a time would come when people would rout me out of Ars with sticks …”[5] However, in these very circumstances he described as grievous calumny and contradiction he discovered “to suffer lovingly is to suffer no longer. To flee the cross is to be crushed beneath its weight … Oh I did have crosses, almost more than I could bear. Then I started praying for love of crosses and I felt happy. I said to myself: ‘truly there is no happiness but in the cross.’”[6] This was the key to his mission; he turned the contradictions to which he might have reacted with anger into a cross he was ready to embrace. Sometimes we can be tempted to rebel against the crosses and contradictions that inevitably become part of our own mission. However, they too must be turned into the means of accomplishing our mission. St. John Vianney said, Surely it is the cross which bestows inward peace on our hearts. All our miseries come from not loving it.”[7]

Remaining Patient

We are called to walk alongside him in this path of patience and perseverance in the New Evangelization. I cannot forget the advice of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who counselled patience to the first missionaries to the English people in these words: “It is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke, and whoever wishes to climb to a mountain top climbs gradually step by step, and not in one leap.”[8] Part of that “sweetness of the cross” the Curé used in seeking the conversion of Ars was to spiritually embrace its people, the souls who were entrusted to his care and especially the most difficult of his people. Reading the accounts of the pastoral state of Ars, we might suspect most of those people were difficult! In Pope Benedict XVI’s words: he was “actively present” to the people he was sent to serve.[9]  In this, St. John Vianney shows that you and I must never give way to first impressions of people but rather keep sight of the supernatural goal God desires for each one. This is the means to persevere in our efforts.   

Catechesis in the New Evangelization

In this series of articles, I have spoken to you of a saint for the New Evangelization. I have commended to you the vital role of the priest as a catechist and drawn lessons from the conversion of Ars for our catechetical mission today. I have stressed the lesson of patient perseverance in this mission. However, beneath the surface of historical events I have also wished us to recall the perennial witness of Ars and pointed to that deeper, spiritual struggle which the saints saw most clearly beneath the surface of human events, of the classroom, of the parish, of the diocese. In looking to this saint of the New Evangelization, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the words of Saint John Paul II who, at the dawn of this Third Christian Millennium, pondered the question put to St. Peter on the day of Pentecost: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37). I have no hesitation in quoting the pope’s response in full: We put this question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naïve expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance he gives us: “I am with you!” It is not therefore a matter of inventing a new program. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center 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 fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem … This program for all times is our program for the Third Millennium.[10] This was the program, the goal of St. John Mary Vianney, and it must remain our program today. St. John Paul had observed, “The Curé of Ars … taxed his ingenuity to devise initiatives adapted to his time and his parishioners,” never sparing himself in numerous efforts and initiatives. However, “all these priestly activities were centered on the Eucharist, catechesis and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”[11] The same must be true for us. Yes, we need to use our imaginations as catechists; we must respond to the specific needs and circumstances we find in every time and in each place. However, we must never lose sight of this greater plan, the plan which is “the same as ever.” It is characteristic of the catechesis given by the Curé of Ars that everything he said would invariably lead people towards the Holy Eucharist and to a more fruitful reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Pope Benedict spoke of “a virtuous circle” by which the Curé “sought in every way, by his preaching and powers of persuasion to help his parishioners rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic Presence.”[12] Our own catechesis should never be reduced merely to the academic but has this same goal in mind of leading each soul to that renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ of which Pope Francis speaks with such urgency today.[13] The Curé of Ars saw clearly the lesson Pope Benedict XVI had drawn from the long history of the Church that “every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among his people.”[14] In the same letter on the Sacrament of Charity, Pope Benedict observes, “Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman.”[15]

A Last Picture which Teaches All

The last picture of Saint John Vianney I want to leave with you comes from the final days of his frailty, when he was so ill and weakened that he was barely able to speak. In those last days his catechesis continued and was described as a series of exclamations accompanied by tears. On the final day he appeared in the parish church, his voice was no longer audible to the crowds and so he simply pointed repeatedly to the Tabernacle and wept. All his catechesis we might say had this goal: to lead every soul to that wonder and recognition—as expressed in words of the Second Vatican Council—that in the Blessed Eucharist is found “the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”[16] In this last gesture, the Curé of Ars fell silent in history, fell silent as a catechist. And with that image in our minds I wish to complete this series by pointing with Saint John Mary Vianney to that same goal. The Rt. Reverend Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury, in England, and is a member of the International Council for Catechesis.


[1] Andres Vazquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, Volume 3 “The Divine Ways on Earth”, (Scepter, 2005), 238.  
[2]  Cf. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, art. 40.
[3] Benedict XVI, Dies Natalis, 19th June 2009.
[4] Catherine Lassagne, Petit Memoire, 16.
[5] Trochu, Chapter 7, Great Trials of the First Years.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Gregory the Great, Letter to the Abbot Mellitus, AD 601.
[9] Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Dies Natalis.
[10] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineute, art. 29.
[11] John Paul II, Letter of the Holy Father To All the Priests of the Church for Holy Thursday (1986), art. 6.
[12] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, August 5, 2009.
[13] See Francis, Evangelli Gaudium, art. 3.
[14] Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 6.
[15] Ibid., art. 77.
[16] Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, art. 5.


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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