cleveland catholic priesthood

Seminary Vocation Office

Diocese of Cleveland

28700 Euclid Avenue
Wickliffe, OH 44092

P: 440-943-7660

Life with Saint John Vianney

I Will Show You Heaven! Life with Saint John Vianney
by Father Michael K. Gurnick

The significance and the beauty of Saint John Vianney, the parish priest who spent 41 years serving the people of Ars, France, is not because he left us an abundant collection of brilliant theological writings. Nor is he noted for founding a religious order or being the visionary behind some great spiritual movement in the life of the Church. The significance and beauty of his life is to be found in his simple witness of being a faithful, zealous, and loving parish priest.

From the time a young shepherd boy named Anthony Givre directed the young Father Vianney how to get to Ars in 1818 until the priest’s last earthly breath on August 4, 1859, God had every intention of using this saintly man as an instrument of grace and as an inspiration for priests throughout the world. But his story is not only for priests. It is a story of a soul who fell in love with God and the fruit of that love, to this very day, impacts the lives of other souls. His story is what God desires for each of us – to love always, to pray without ceasing, and to bring others to Him.

 

His Early Years

Born on May 8, 1786, in the small town of Dardilly, near Lyons, France, to Matthew and Marie, John Vianney was the fourth of six children. His family owned a modest farm and with no evidence of luxuries of any kind. However, their simple life and deep Catholic faith brought great joy to all of them.

In 1789, although too young to realize the immediate impact, little John Vianney and his family experienced first hand the effects of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

The French Revolution’s primary objective was to abolish the French monarchy which was closely linked to the Catholic Church. The revolutionists envisioned a more egalitarian system of government. For a number of reasons, practicing Catholics were considered counter revolutionary. This political view forced priests into exile and churches to be closed by 1792. Those who were caught practicing the Catholic faith were persecuted and, in many instances, even murdered. The atmosphere was tumultuous and violent, but this would not stop many priests from finding ways to celebrate the sacraments – especially the Holy Mass – with their people. In barns, in cellars, at night, or covertly during the day, the people would continue living their faith.

For the young Vianney boy, this era of persecution provided the visits of many priests to the family home as neighbors conspired to participate in Mass and to have their confessions heard. He loved the clergy’s company and, even in his youth, appreciated the sacrifice they made to bring Our Lord to the people. John also enjoyed gathering the other children on Sunday afternoons to conduct little processions to honor Jesus, or the Blessed Mother and saints. A featured object in his processions was a small statue of Mary given to him by his mother. During this era of persecution the displaying of religious articles was outlawed, so he found a hollowed tree in the field to serve as a haven for this statue and other sacred objects. In many ways, that tree became a special treasure chest. While tending to the sheep and other animals, he would often reach into that special hollow tree and remove the statue and sing hymns. At other times, he would bring out a rosary to pray with his sister, Margaret. No one could deny that the soul of this boy was open to the mystery of God’s grace at such a young age and must have surely served as a foundation for what he would become.

At age 11, in his family’s living room, John Vianney made his first confession and in 1799, at the age of 13, he made his First Holy Communion in a neighbor’s kitchen as persecution of Catholics intensified. His first reception of the Holy Eucharist provided a moment of contemplation as he reflected, “What a joy to lose oneself in God, like a drop in the water.”

By 1801, as the 15-year-old grew in zeal, he revealed his desire “to win souls for the good Father.” This, of course, was the initial revelation that he felt called to the priesthood. But reactions were mixed. For his mother, this news was greeted with great joy; for his father, this news was greeted with rejection. Matthew Vianney, in principle, was not opposed to his son becoming a priest, for he respected the Church and was grateful for their faith. His concern was more practical, as the fledging farm was struggling, and seminary instruction would be very costly. Another factor was the difficulty of instructing seminarians during this time of persecution in France. This combination of financial strain and political climate served as the cause for his son’s delay.

The same year John received his first Holy Communion, Napoleon Bonaparte and Pius VII reached certain agreements. In addition to several other provisions, a significant feature of the Concordat of 1801 was that persecution of French Catholics would cease and that the Church was free to exist and worship in public. The teenage Vianney saw this as a confirmation of his vocation and very few around him, if any, would argue. His own father relented and gave his blessing.

 

Priestly Formation

A number of difficulties immediately arose as John prepared for the seminary. To begin, there was no room at the new school in neighboring Ecully, France. This school was founded by Father Balley with the intention of preparing young men for the seminary. After the priest met with the young man, however, there was no question that the school had room for one more pupil.

Studies were difficult and the aspiring seminarian found it almost impossible to grasp Latin which, of course, was required of every student. Almost ready to give up, Vianney decided to make a long 300-hundred mile pilgrimage to La Louvesc, France, which was home to a very special saint who Vianney admired very much. Saint Jean-Francois Regis succeeded in taking the Gospel to people in remote areas. The pilgrimage was a graced occasion and John Vianney returned home knowing he must persevere with his studies. Indeed, John Vianney resumed his studies and prepared for the seminary under Father Balley’s tutelage.

In 1809, however, Napoleon I declared war with Austria and Spain and called up the young men to serve in the army. Although seminarians were to be exempt from military service, a clerical error forced John Vianney to enlist. In obedience to the law, he suspended his studies and joined the army.

Falling ill, the soldier was admitted to a hospital and, after his respite, he returned to fight in Spain, where he fell ill again. Finally, recuperated, yet still weak, he was ready to march with his fellow soldiers. Before departing, John Vianney stopped into a local church to pray. Lost in prayer and not feeling constrained by the army’s schedule, Vianney was left behind as the troops marched onward. Between the illness and losing track of time in prayer, Vianney could not catch up to his comrades as he set out early the next day. He was exhausted and never saw the soldiers again.

The soldier-turned-deserter found refuge with a family in Les Noes where he would spend almost the entire next year hiding from authorities eager to punish with severe penalty. As a way to appease the officials, Francis, John’s younger brother, would take his place in the army. This was the last time the Vianney family would see their youngest son as Francis would never return home from the war.

While living in Les Noes, John made many friends and earned the trust of the people. He would speak of God’s love and the importance of prayer. They would buy him books so he could at least continue some of his studies.

By 1810, Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria. He then decreed that anyone considered a deserter would not be punished and may come out from exile. The people of Les Noes would miss their dear friend and, as a farewell gift, they bought him his first cassock, a black robe that was required seminary attire.

With a brother having never returned home from the army and his mother having died in February, 1811, Vianney’s heart was heavy, but he resumed his preparations for the seminary under the guidance of Father Balley in Ecully, serving as the priest’s groundskeeper and sacristan.

While in major seminary, he struggled with Latin and barely endured his examinations. In addition to the academic pressures, Vianney was significantly older than his peers and many of them found his academic performance and simple disposition cause for ridicule. Again and again, seminary faculty would question his abilities for they saw him as “too backwards.” In spite of these things and always haunted with the threat of dismissal, Vianney refused to give up!

 

You Are a Priest Forever

After a long journey with significant hardships, Father John Vianney, at age 29, was ordained to the priesthood on August 13, 1815. His first assignment was to serve as Curate (assistant) to his dear friend and mentor, Father Balley, who never gave up on his young priest. For two years the priests enjoyed working side by side as they served the parishioners of Ecully, France. In 1817, however, Father Balley became gravely ill and died shortly after. The bright joy found in priestly service was severely dimmed as the young curate grieved the loss of the holy priest who was so instrumental in Vianney’s vocation. But, being a faithful priest, he continued his work and ministry.

In 1818, after a difficult year with the new pastor, Father Vianney was transferred by the bishop to a small village named Ars. The bishop informed his priest that the people of Ars were not interested in religion. It is believed as few as 230 individuals lived in Ars at that time with far fewer identifying themselves as practicing Catholics. With this news, the priest accepted his next and final assignment. He was determined to love these people and lead them to God.

 

I Will Show You the Way to Heaven!

As he made his way down a country road on a wet, bone-chilling February day in 1818, Father John Vianney was traveling to his new assignment in Ars, France. Encountering Anthony Givre, a young shepherd boy, the priest asked him for directions. The boy obliged and the grateful traveler declared, “Anthony, you have shown me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Heaven!” Upon coming to the boundary of the parish territory, the new pastor knelt down and prayed asking the Lord to bless him as he assumed his responsibilities. With that he arose and entered into a community that he would transform and, in turn, would change him forever.

Love and prayer were John Vianney’s guiding principles as a priest and as a man. He knew this assignment was not an easy one. The first step in reaching out to the people, he thought, was to meet them where they were and to bring them along to something greater. He wanted them to encounter our Lord who loved them and desired that they share in His divine life. This priest would be the herald of such an important message.

Living in a small farming town, Vianney understood that manual labor was intense and necessary. He even tolerated a certain amount of work performed on Sunday since animals needed daily care. The new pastor appreciated their interest in celebrations and parties for the Curate himself saw life as a blessing and that it should be enjoyed. He even appreciated the fruits of creation, indulging in the occasional glass of wine. But anything in excess is not good for the soul and, to be sure, laboring at the expense of missing Holy Mass on Sundays was inexcusable. The gentle pastor knew he could not dictate commandments or chastise with a harsh tone.

As the son of a farmer, he understood these people. He reached out to them, talking about farms and the needs that accompany this way of life. He encouraged them in what was truly good. He built relationships with them. The priest lovingly challenged them in many ways. Over time, they would invite him to their homes to share a meal. Eventually, attendance increased at Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation found a restored place in the people’s hearts. Most of his success was during the winter when activity and work was minimal.

But spring and summer would appear to present new challenges. Farm life took priority over Sunday Mass, drinking increased, and spiritual indifference blossomed. The holy priest knew he must do something – many things – to help his flock.

With the challenges confronting Father Vianney, he began to address one issue after another. He convinced the farm owners that Mass and rest must be the priority on Sundays. Instead of careless parties he would initiate simple parish festivals and solemn processions throughout the year. Virtues increased while debauchery decreased. Catechism classes for both children and adults were offered and well attended. His homilies were straight to the point and he used the saints as living examples. His emphasis was always on God’s gift of love and mercy. In order to remind the people of the need to pray without ceasing, the pastor of Ars built a tower and bell to ring across the farmland. The priest’s approach was making a difference, and eventually, people from all over the region were attending Mass in Ars or waiting in line to have him hear their confessions.

Over time, the small country church needed to be expanded. With aid from others, Father Vianney built a number of side chapels to the main church. This provided much needed room for his growing congregation, but it also served as a way to honor the Blessed Mother and other saints whom he employed as the models for his ministry. Over the years of his pastorate, the church was modified to accommodate a chapel for Mary, the first addition in order that all be “welcomed by the ‘Lady of the House.’” Because he saw how priestly ministry means revealing Christ to all, he had a particular devotion to Saint John the Baptist who declared, as revealed in sacred scripture, “Behold the Lamb of God.” For Vianney this was exactly what priestly ministry is all about: revealing the loving Heart of Christ. With the need for two more chapels, Father Vianney dedicated these in honor of Saint Philamena, whom he admired as the “Ambassador to the Good Father” and to the Holy Angels who are the protectors of the Lord’s message.

In 1824 the pastor established a school for girls. He named it Providence House. Always in debt, there were times he desperately sought people’s help to feed the children. With their help, and divine assistance, the house provided shelter and love for the young women who had no other place to call home. A miracle is said to have taken place at this site when one night Father Vianney prayed that the empty cupboards be filled with food for the children. He awoke the next morning to find that the entire attic was overflowing with grain for bread! This is just one account of many miracles attributed to him.

As his ministry expanded and his fame grew, people from all over France sought him out. In fact, his popularity grew so much that the rail system had to issue special roundtrip tickets in order to accommodate the crowds; also this was due to the fact that a pilgrim to Ars was not sure when he or she would be returning to go home. For hours, even days, a person would wait in line for confession. By 1855 it was reported that nearly twenty thousand people would seek his spiritual counsel, annually.

There were also healings from physical illness, especially of children. Whether experiencing the priest’s spiritual wisdom or miraculous abilities, everyone knew they experienced the love of Jesus through this holy man.

Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Penance consumed most of the priest’s day, sometimes as much as 16 or 18 hours. But when there is pure zeal for the Lord, what things cannot be accomplished? Vianney knew success comes when all things are entrusted solely to the Lord.

 

Saints Will Suffer

His success, however, was not always met with admiration or appreciation. This included some citizens who felt his influence on the community was too much, and even neighboring priests began to complain that their own parishioners were coming to him instead of them. But his humility did not allow him to worry about such matters. And, if anyone were to question his qualifications, he would most likely be the first to do so. There is a story of how some clergy delivered to the Bishop a petition complaining of Father Vianney’s work. When news of this reached him, he himself requested to sign it! He genuinely believed the message he once preached to a brother priest being persecuted by others: “Let them say all they have to say. When they have said all they have to say, there will be no more to be said and they will be silent.”

In addition to the frequent objections and persecutions from those who rejected his pastoral work in Ars, including some of his fellow clergy, Father John Mary Vianney would experience great trials that tested his moral strength, his priestly ministry, and his spiritual core. He discovered that suffering was essential to obtain Heaven.

Spiritual trials would often plague him as he struggled to remain faithful to a life of prayer. “I am sad and at times I’m sick of prayer,” he once confided to a friend. This dryness never prevented his own faithful response as he relied on the grace of the Lord. Perhaps this even made him more credible to the thousands of people who sought out his spiritual wisdom.

Another kind of suffering occurred when the pastor of souls would prepare to receive truly repentant sinners for confession. It became a growing occurrence as the priest’s house experienced strange noises, flying objects, piercing sounds, and rattling walls. But this did not deter Father Vianney. He would ride out the night and await the dawn to resume the Lord’s work.

While Father Vianney cherished purity and strived for spiritual perfection, he realized that no one is immune to temptations. Suffering with temptation was, he insisted, opportunity to do good for others. As he once preached On Temptations, Vianney stated, “Offer your temptations for the conversion of sinners. When the devil sees you doing this, he is beside himself with rage and makes off, because then the temptation is turned against himself.” He continued, “we must watch over our mind, our heart and our senses, for these are the gates by which the devil enters in.”

Pastoral life would also take a toll on his spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Due to the many strains and burdens of his ministry, along with growing demands imposed upon him, there were three different occasions when he wanted to leave the parish. Each time he wanted to leave, many people convinced their pastor to remain. After the third and final time, he never attempted to leave again. He would surrender this desire to the Lord. In fact, his bishop asked that he never attend gatherings outside the parish because of the pilgrims who needed him in Ars. Out of love for the people, Father Vianney accepted his captivity.

It is said that when one embraces virtue, opportunities to practice it will abound. This was John Vianney’s experience and it was another form of suffering. One occasion speaks well of this kind of suffering when suddenly, in 1847, after establishing and maintaining Providence House as a school for girls for almost two decades, the saintly founder was informed by his bishop that a community of Sisters would take over its administration. To be sure, this created shock and disappointment and the temptation for any person may have been to demonstrate great displeasure with one’s superior. Father Vianney, however, simply obeyed and extended his cooperation with the transition.

For those seeking humility, even the best of intentions on the part of others can cause a soul to suffer. Father Vianney was a simple priest and he wanted no attention. The crowds of visitors to his parish in Ars, the accolades of civil and ecclesial authorities, and the attention from the press understandably subjected the pastor to much stress. All he wanted was to serve the Lord by bringing souls to Him. So, when his bishop wished to bestow the honorary title of Canon with a special cape (referred to as the cappa magna) or when civil authorities desired to award him with a medal of the Legion of Honor, the poor priest was beside himself. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to refuse such honors but, in the end, he got his revenge. The cappa magna is very valuable, so it is was not a surprise to his contemporaries when Father Vianney sold it and gave the money to the poor.

Suffering comes in various forms but all suffering has one thing in common, according to the Curé of Ars. Suffering is the opportunity to obtain heaven for others by offering one’s own afflictions. In his reflections, On Suffering, he writes:

The reward is so great for such a little effort. What have we to bear? Some humiliations, losses, sickness, sharp words? But they will not kill us! The martyrs suffered much more than that…Or temptations? But, by confidence in God and distrust of ourselves, we can overcome them.”

This may be a bit far-reaching for our contemporary society which insists on personal victimhood, ridiculous litigation, and painkillers for every little thing that causes discomfort or affliction.

 

A Good and Faithful Servant Is Called Home

The years of faithful ministry had passed and a well-seasoned priest in the remote village of Ars, France, had brought the Good News to thousands. As though walking the very steps of Jean-Francois Regis who did the very same thing for the people of La Louvesc and whose life once encouraged the young Vianney to persevere with priesthood, the 73-year-old cleric had arrived at the end of his own ministry.

In the last days of July 1859, signs that Father John Mary Baptist Vianney was soon leaving his beloved people became evident as he attempted to maintain his rigorous schedule. Barely eating and struggling to breathe in the summer heat, the pastor heard his last confessions on July 29. This, of course, was after hearing them for 16 hours. That night he had a priest called in for Extreme Unction. Four days would pass and a community waited in disbelief that their Curé, their beloved pastor, was leaving them. When the bishop received news that Father Vianney was dying, he interrupted an official ceremony in order to be at the Curate’s bedside.

With the consolation of the sacraments, surrounded by people who loved him, the simple parish priest who arrived in 1818 asking a young shepherd boy where Ars was located and who, at three different times attempted to leave this small village during the 40 years of his tenure, was finally going to have his wish. He was leaving and, this time, he would not return.

At 2 a.m. on August 4, 1859, the Lord called his faithful servant home. His work on earth was finished, and it was time for him to rest from his labors.

For nearly ten days and nights, people lined the streets waiting patiently to pay their respects to this priest who lived tirelessly for the salvation of souls. The bishop presided over his funeral with 300 hundred priests and more than 6, 000 people in attendance. The tolling of the bells throughout the region was merely another outward expression of their gratitude, as well as their grief.

 

A Saint’s Work is Never Finished

Although the primary mission of the Curé of Ars was the direction of souls, he is known for so many other gifts and graces. A holy priest who lived solely for others is what gives John Mary Vianney, to this very day, great renown and fame.

People continued to make pilgrimages to Ars seeking intercession from a priest who they were certain had found favor with God. By 1862, a pilgrimage church was built by one of his converts, and the bishop ordered that the old church be maintained. The bishop also directed that the intact remains of the Curé remain in sight for visitors to honor.

In 1925, after the process of inquiry was completed, Pope Pius XI canonized Saint John Mary Vianney. Four miracles were recorded: 1) how he obtained money and goods for his charities; 2) his ability to know the past and the future; 3) his healing of the sick; and 4) the miracle of his own life from self-mortification to the exemplary practice of all the virtues.

In 1931, the Curé of Ars was referenced as Pope Pius stated, “priesthood is love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

On May 30, 1980, Pope John Paul II suggested that the Curé of Ars is a model for all priests with regard to personal sanctity and pastoral zeal.

Six years later Pope John Paul II visited Ars and declared Saint John Mary Vianney as patron of all Parish Priests. Shortly after, Saint John Vianney Seminary was built near the basilica as a place for young men to prepare for priesthood.

As the Church celebrates this Year for Priests, we are reminded that the Curé of Ars serves not only as a model for priests but also as an intercessor for them. In addition to his work that continues today, the holy saint models for all Christians what it is to truly live. In death, as in life, he continues to be a great teacher of the Faith.

May the saintly Curé continue to bless the hearts of those who follow in his steps, and may he inspire our priests to know more deeply the privilege of bringing souls to Christ through the grace and power of Holy Orders.

“Happy is he that lives to love, receive, and serve God!” – Curé of Ars, Catechism On the Lord’s Prayer

 

Works Cited

Fischer, Marie-Therese. The Priest of Ars [translated]. Italy: Editiones du Signe, 2006. The Holy Curé of Ars (video). Produced by Shrine of Saint John Vianney, Ars-sur Formans

Otten, Susan Tracy. “St. Jean-Baptise-Marie Vianney.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910 [5 Aug. 2009]. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08326c.htm.

W.M.B. (arranged by). Thoughts of the Curé D’Ars. Rockford: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc. (current publication), 1967

Other information obtained through accounts of the Pilgrimage office at the Shrine of Saint John Vianney: Rue Jean-Marie Vianney – 01480 Ars-sur-Formans. For more information about the life of Saint John Vianney and the shrine visit: www.arsnet.org or email: infor@arsnet.org. Fr. Gurnick visited the Shrine of Ars in July 2009.

The Reverend Michael K. Gurnick, M.A., Mdiv., serves as Secretary and Vicar for Clergy and Religious in the Diocese of Cleveland. Father Gurnick made a personal pilgrimage to France in July 2009, and this article is dedicated to the Curé of Ars who remains a great inspiration. The reflection is also dedicated to his brother priests throughout the world with whom Father Gurnick is honored to serve.

Click to visit the official shrine dedicated to St. John Vianney in Ars, France.