St John Vianney article on the occasion of the visit of his relics to England, by Donal Anthony Foley
Late last year it was announced that the heart of St John Mary Baptist Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, (“parish priest of Ars”), the patron saint of parish priests, was to be brought to the Diocese of Shrewsbury from France for veneration by the faithful. At the time, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury made the following connection: “The visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux to Britain in 2009 had a great impact on the many thousands who spent time to pray and reflect on the life of the saint. The visit of the relics of St John Vianney will likewise be a moment for many to reflect on what should be at the heart of parish life, the heart of the priesthoodthe same call to holiness and witness to the Gospel which was seen in the life of this great parish priest.”
The intentions for the four-day visit of the relic, which is due to take place early next month, are for prayer for the renewal of the priesthood, for new vocations, and for the renewal of parish life. It will now involve three dioceses, and includes time at the Birmingham diocesan seminary at Oscott, which is hosting the Invocations Annual National Vocations Conference from 6-8 July. Details of the visit can be found at: http://www.dioceseofshrewsbury.org/
Bishop Davies had requested the relic visitation when he met with Bishop Guy Bagnard of Belley-Ars, France, in September 2011, during a successful visit to Ars, which included Shrewsbury diocese’s three seminarians and some of his clergy. Bishop Bagnard and two priests from his diocese will accompany the relic.
But who exactly was the Curé d’Ars, and why is this visit so significant?
St John Vianney was born in 1786, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, growing up during the time when its worst effects were most evident. He was born on the family farm at Dardilly, near Lyons in south eastern France in May 1786, and his pious mother ensured he was brought up in a truly Christian way. He had to receive his first Holy Communion in secret at the age of 13 at Ecully, his mother’s birthplace, due to the persecution the Church in France was then undergoing. From an early age he wanted to be a priest, but faced many obstacles, only being able to begin his studies at a school for aspirants to the priesthood in Ecully at the age of 20. He was thus learning with other pupils much younger than he was, and to make matters worse, he struggled with his studies. It was a real school of humility, but he persevered, and was eventually ordained as a priest in 1815, shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. At the time, religion in France was at a low ebb in the aftermath of the Revolution and Napoleon’s rise and fall.
He was sent to the small village of Ars, a remote place with about 200 inhabitants, and began to live the extremely penitential life which characterized his entire ministry. He ate very little and rose very early to pray in the parish church, summer and winter. His resolved to suffer everything God might ask of him if only his small country parish was converted. The result was a steadily growing personal influence as crowds of people, hearing of his great gifts, came to see him during his long ministry of over 40 years.
It was particularly for the holiness increasingly evident in his role as a confessor that the people came to him, but he also exercised a very important ministry towards his own parishioners, who were gradually persuaded to give up working on Sundays, blasphemy, and excessive drinking and dancing. After ten years of preaching, prayer and penance, there was a noticeable improvement in the moral condition of the village, such that the Curé could himself remark that “Ars is no longer Ars.”
There were long queues at his confessional, as hundreds of people visited Ars every day, eventually coming from all over France and even further afield, such that he would spend anything up to sixteen hours a day in hearing confessions. In the confessional he exhibited the power of reading the souls of some of his penitents as well as various prophetic gifts, and there were also miraculous healings attributed to him.
He used rise at about one o’clock in the morning in order to hear confessions in the church, staying in the confessional until he celebrated Mass at 7 am. After this he would return to the confessional, emerging at eleven o’clock to give catechetical instructions, before taking a very sparse lunch. This was usually followed by time for visiting the sick and then it was back to the confessional. Before retiring, he would recite night prayers, and then return to his room for a few hours of spiritual reading, penitential exercises and a little sleep. That he was able to keep up such an incredible regime for forty years was a miracle in itself. He eventually succumbed at the age of 73, his austere manner of life having completely worn him out. He died on 4 August 1859, the day on which his feast is celebrated in the Church’s calendar. The Curé d’Ars was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and was proclaimed the principal patron saint of parish priests four years later.
Despite living over 150 years ago, he faced similar problems to those confronting priests in the developed world today, and thus his life and ministry retain their significance in our own times. The importance of the visit of this relic goes far beyond the fact that the Cure d’Ars was a very holy man: as patron saint of parish priests he is also a potent symbol of the fact that it is necessary for there to be a renewal of parish life generallyboth priests and peopleif the Church itself is to be properly renewed.
To this end, Bishop Davies is working with Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, in preparing new catechetical material for the forthcoming “Year of Faith,” which was announced by Pope Benedict XVI last year, and is due to begin in October. Among the activities planned for this are: a “Faith and Culture” symposium; a public witness of faith by every parish and school in the diocese; a convocation of the clergy of the diocese; and a five-day clergy pilgrimage to the sites of the first four Church Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon.
Thus the visit of the relic of St John Vianney to this country at the behest of Bishop Davies, even if we can’t personally venerate it, will help us all to focus on our Catholic beliefs and practices in a way that ought to be very encouraging for the Church in this country. Above all it should focus our minds on the importance of the priesthood, and of the need for more priests. It’s a simple fact that without vocations, there will be fewer and fewer priests in the future and the mission of the Church in this country will be seriously compromised.
In the words of Bishop Davies: “The Scriptures speak of the saints as those ‘witnesses’ who encourage us in our faith. This visible reminder of the heart of a simple and extraordinary pastor will encourage us to look to that love and truth found at the heart of the Catholic priesthood, for St John Vianney said simply: ‘The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.’ ”
This article appeared initially in the Catholic Times.