Blessed John Baptist Vianney
by Rev. Constantine Kempf, S.J., 1916
by Rev. Constantine Kempf, S.J., 1916
The Blessed John Baptist Vianney, parish priest of Ars, is certainly one of the noblest figures among the saints of the nineteenth century. If one would know holiness in all its charms, in its ineffable gentleness and amiability, let him read the life of this illustrious ornament of the French clergy. The supernatural power revealed in him is so grand and so clearly manifest that only the ill-disposed can deny it.
John Baptist Vianney, born May 8, 1786, in the village of Dardilly, near Lyons, was the son of simple peasants. Grace attracted him heavenward from the beginning. Reason had hardly dawned in him when it turned toward God. The boy of three or four years was often found praying in some secluded corner of the house. When, at the age of seven, he was sent to tend the cows, he was able to spend almost the entire day in the sweetness of prayer. Even then he gave promise of his future calling. He used to gather the shepherd boys of the neighborhood around him from time to time and give them a little exhortation on the duty of avoiding evil and of persevering in good. He had always before his eyes the best example in his parents, who were models of piety and were most careful to preserve their children from every taint of evil.
Then came the French Revolution, closing the churches and expelling the priests. Blessed John received his first Holy Communion in a barn during the darkness of night. Finally, in 1803 a priest, the zealous Charles Bailey, was appointed to Ecully, about three miles from Dardilly. His attention was soon attracted to the virtuous John Vianney. He offered to help John to become a priest. The young man gladly agreed, lodged with relations at Ecully and began to learn Latin. He was then seventeen years old, but had had scarcely any schooling. Study, therefore, proved very difficult for him, for his natural talent appeared to be rather poor. But his tutor, convinced that this upright and innocent youth would serve the Church well by his holiness, if not by his learning, did not lose patience. Vianney sought help from God and vowed a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. John Francis Regis at Lalouvesc. While he advanced steadily but slowly in his studies, it brought him many humiliations. In the little seminary of Verrieres he had to suffer much from his fellow-students and he failed in his examination for entrance into the great seminary of Lyons. It was only through the intercession of his tutor Bailey that he was granted a second examination and admission to the seminary. On August 9, 1815, the end was at last attained. Vianney was a priest. His former teacher, Father Bailey, asked to have him for an assistant. Ecully rejoiced, for it already knew the profound piety and modesty of the newly-ordained priest. Vianney's good sense in the direction of souls soon showed itself. His zeal was prodigious but not indiscreet or excessive, and he began at once to achieve noble triumphs.
At the beginning of February, 1818, Vianney was appointed parish priest of Ars. The vicar-general said to him: "My friend, you are pastor of Ars. It is a small parish where there is little love for God. Bring it to them." Ars was in bad repute and not without reason. Even among the good attendance at divine service and the reception of the sacraments were limited to what was just necessary. The rest sometimes attended, but only exteriorly. Dissolute pleasure seeking allowed religion only scant existence.
Still all admired the edifying example of the new pastor in the church and in his humble and modest manner of life. If the sheep did not come to the shepherd the shepherd sought out the sheep. Vianney went from house to house, showed interest in their welfare and their troubles and spoke kinds words of encouragement and consolation. In this way the ice was broken. Sunday after Sunday more came to church, They ventured even to approach the sacraments outside the great feasts. Those who had once experienced in confession what gentleness flowed from the heart of the priest and how refreshing were his words, soon came again. With his heart glowing with love and speaking as only saints can speak he preached on God, death, heaven, hell, and on the Blessed Sacrament so movingly that from eyes which on like occasions had never wept there welled up fountains of tears. In the whole village only one voice was heard: "Our pastor is a saint." In the course of time no one could escape the influence of his personality. It was indeed a long struggle and many years passed before all hearts were conquered, for the love of pleasure made a most stubborn resistance.
The news of this change in Ars and of the holiness of its pastor soon spread throughout the neighboring country round about, penetrating at length to the limits of France and thence abroad. Every day the roads that led to Ars brought greater pilgrimages. Monnin says of them: "These pilgrimages, which went on for more than thirty years with extraordinarily great crowds and under exceptional circumstances, will fill a large page in Christian annals. They give the monograph we now publish a color so living and original, a framing so splendid, that it seems to be poetry as well as history. We find here on a large scale all those wonders with which our ancient hagiographers loved to adorn their narratives. But we have no mythical antiquity before us and no one can find excuse for our belief that our history of this man who is still a contemporary will show any trace of fanciful or exaggerated elaboration.
It is a history of our own time which can bring forward witnesses to its truth by thousands and hundreds of thousands, yet we find in it all that we marvel at in the legends of the past--all that in our own day we may regard as extraordinary heroism, perfect mortification, wonderful self-denial, incomparable humility, boundless love of God and our neighbor, and a dominion over souls--a power to draw them from afar, to move them, to convert and to gain them for heaven; and further, as if in proof of this spiritual dominion, a miraculous power over nature, the power to change the ordinary course of things, to heal bodily diseases, to read the depths of conscience as an open book, to foretell the future--in a word, he possessed the miraculous gift of knowledge and of power. This does not constitute, it is true, what is most sublime in the lives of the saints, but it is most convincing with the people--one of them told us: 'Before I came to Ars and saw the good Father [so the pilgrims used to call our saint], I found it hard to believe all that is related in the lives of the saints. Much in them seemed to me impossible. But now I believe it all, for I have seen all those things with my own eyes and even more.'"
In fact, Ars proved to be a constant miracle. Men could not say precisely what it was that attracted these vast crowds from near and far. They saw only a poor little church and a poorly-clad priest. Yet they stood there close-thronged and waited patiently two or three days to confess to him and to listen to his simple catechism, which powerfully stirred their consciences. Many came out of mere curiosity, but on these, too, fell the rays of grace. They could not resist going in and confessing their sins to the holy priest. To these wonders of grace were added the most astonishing cures of the sick, which he effected through the intercession of St. Philomena, and his wise admonitions, which were certainly inspired by divine enlightenment.
These labors demanded of him the heaviest personal sacrifices. He could hardly allow himself one or two hours of rest at night. A little after midnight he hurried to the confessional, there to remain the whole day except during the times of Mass, of the brief instruction, and of his very scanty meal. One can not understand whence he derived the physical strength for such uninterrupted exertions. Still, not satisfied with all this, he afflicted his body with the severest penances, and it pleased God to send him the most grievous interior trials. His combats with the evil one, which are verified by the best authorities, remind us of what St. Athanasius relates of the hermit Anthony. All that is related of the gifts of grace and the fulness of virtue possessed by the holy Cure of Ars and of the wonderful cures and conversions wrought by him, is full of consolation. What faith teaches of the power, the beauty, and the grandeur of the soul of the just man was embodied in him. Vianney was to be set against the unbelieving spirit of the age as a visible proof of the truth of Christian teaching.
On July 29, 1859, the Cure, then seventy-three years of age, had been, as usual, for sixteen or seventeen hours in the confessional, and there his strength suddenly gave way. On the morning of the fourth of August his soul took its flight to heaven while Abbe Monnin was reciting the prayer of the dying: "Veniant illi obviam sancti angeli Dei et perducant eum in civitatem caelestem Jerusalem;" "May the holy angels of God meet him and guide him into the city of the heavenly Jerusalem." But his influence was not ended with his death. All Christendom rejoiced when Pius X, on January 8, 1905, numbered this ideal pastor of souls among the beatified.