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St John Vianney

Feast day: 4 August

St John Vianney was born on 8 May 1786, in the French town of Dardilly, near Lyon. His parents, Matthieu Vianney and his wife Marie, had six children of whom John was the fourth. The Vianneys were devout Catholics, who helped the poor. In 1790, the anti-clerical phase of the Terror of the French Revolution forced many Catholic priests to hide from the regime in order to carry on their ministry. The Vianneys travelled to distant farms to attend mass, even though it was illegal to do so. John was inspired by the heroism of the priests. He was prepared for his First Communion by two nuns, whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. He received the eucharist in a neighbour’s kitchen. The windows were covered, so that the candles could not be seen. He continued to practice the faith in secret.

Napoleon Bonaparte re-established the Catholic Church in France and John was allowed to go to a “presbytery school”. He was now twenty and wanted to study for the priesthood. The school taught arithmetic, history, geography and Latin. Since his education had been interrupted by the Revolution, he found learning difficult, especially Latin; however, he persisted. His studies were interrupted in 1809 when he was drafted into Napoleon’s army. Normally as an ecclesiastical student he would be exempt, but Napoleon needed soldiers to fight in Spain. Two days after he had to report in Lyons, he fell ill and as result the soldiers left without him. He was drafted again but while praying in the church, a young man offered to lead him back to his group but instead took him deep into the mountains, where there was a group of deserters. He remained for fourteen months, looked after by a widow, and he opened a village school. He was safe during the winter but when the snow had melted, the gendarmes came looking for deserters. However in 1910 an amnesty was given to them and he resumed his studies. At the major seminary in Lyons, he was considered too slow and was returned to Abbé Balley who had been his teacher. Balley persuaded the Vicar General that John’s piety compensated for his lack of learning, and he was ordained a priest on 12 August 1815. He said his first mass the next day and was appointed assistant to Balley in Ecully.

In 1818, after the death of Balley, John was appointed parish priest of Ars, a village of about 250 people. He got lost trying to find the place. Two young men tending their flocks pointed him in the right direction. He made it his business to visit every home. The Revolution had done a great deal of damage to religious practice: people were ignorant of their faith and spent Sundays working in the fields and dancing and drinking in taverns. John tried to restore Sunday observance. He also attempted to curtail blasphemy and dancing, which he regarded as pagan. He was also rigid about modesty of dress. Some of his attitudes may seem today to be outmoded but it must be remembered that the Revolution had tried to obliterate religion and replace it with a culture that was purely secular.

The Curé of Ars is of course best known for his preaching and for his work in the confessional. Though people found it difficult to hear his homilies, they were still drawn to listen to him because they sensed his innate goodness. Soon pilgrims came from long distances to confess and seek advice. During the last ten years of his life he would spend the greater part of the day in the confessional. He spoke to people in simple language using everyday images. There is a story told of a woman who was greatly distressed because her husband had committed suicide. She could not reach the confessional because of the queue. John Vianney cried out, “He is saved!” He said that the man repented during his fall, when he plunged from the parapet of a bridge. Such a ministry took its toll and several times he tried to escape, to live the life of a monk in solitude, but his bishop made him return. He slept only about two hours a night and was often tormented by Satan. However he believed Our Lady protected him.

As well as his work as a confessor John founded a home for girls with Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet.

The Curé of Ars led an austere life. He would boil a pan of potatoes at the beginning of the week and eat them cold till they were finished. He had a great devotion to St Philiomena, whose supposed remains had been discovered in a catacomb in 1802 (St Philomena was removed from liturgical calendars in 1961; the tiles with their inscription, which covered the place where the body of a young girl was found, date from the second century AD, while the remains were fourth century AD when the persecution of Christians had ceased). During May of 1843 he had fallen ill and thought he was dying. He attributed his recovery to her intercession.

By 1858 about 100,000 people came to see Jean Vianney. It eventually became too much for him. He died on 4 August 1859. A bishop presided over his funeral, which was attended by three hundred priests and about six thousand people. He was buried in the church at Ars. His body, though dried, was later found to be incorrupt and now lies above the high altar in the basilica of Ars (built on the site of the old church in the second half of the nineteenth century). He was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925, who in 1929 made him patron saint of parish priests. In honour of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death, Pope Benedict XVI declared the Year 2009-2010 the Year of the Priest. The basilica in Ars is now a place of pilgrimage.

St John Vianney, Curé of Ars, pray for us.