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by Fr Vincent Vaz, S.D.B.
The Curé of Ars
This is how John Mary Vianney got his appointment as the Curé of Ars. As he walked to his new parish with a knapsack on his back and a cart following him with his few belongings, he asked a shepherd boy the way to Ars. On receiving the proper direction, he told the lad: "You have shown me the road to Ars: I will show you the road to Heaven!"
When he took over Ars, the church was deserted. No one was interested in religion. Sundays and feast days were ignored. Instead the village was famous for its dances and for drunkenness. Business was good for the four taverns in that place.
What did John Mary do? He just knelt before the tabernacle and prayed. He ate very little, slept very little. "Dear God," he repeated again and again, "I beg you to convert my parish. I am willing to suffer anything you want and as long as I live."
The villagers became curious. They wanted to know how their new curate was faring. An old woman stepped into the church and saw him kneeling in prayer. Another walked into the presbytery. The kitchen was bare, the pantry was empty, the bed had neither mattress nor blankets. "Father," they asked, "how do you live?" "See," he said, "I manage to survive."
More persons kept coming to the church and because he knelt, they knelt, because he prayed, they prayed. They soon became over-powered by his trust in God and his love for them. They believed him when he declared: "I am nothing, God is everything. I can do nothing of myself, God can do everything. The souls of men and women belong to God, they were made for God. And the reason I came into the world, the reason I am here is to give them God." They knew he meant every word of it.
Within a few years Ars was transformed into the most fervent parish in the Archdiocese of Lyons. The faithful thronged the church on Sundays and Feast Days for Mass. They recited the Rosary, attended Vespers, came for the Curé's catechism classes. Instead of foul language, hymns echoed from the countryside. At the sound of the Angelus, all work stopped. The Curé taught them to "bless the hours" by reciting a Hail Mary as the hour struck. A visiting Bishop remarked: "Their faces reflected a holiness that we have rarely noticed elsewhere to the same degree. A serenity, a sort of radiant blessedness made them stand out among thousands."
His calling to the priesthood
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, priests and nuns were targeted and sent to the guillotine. John Mary made his first confession at the age of eleven to a priest who came disguised as a cook. He was then sent to live with his aunt at Ecully where two nuns dressed in lay clothes prepared him for his First Communion. The ceremony took place in 1799 in a private house. The windows were closed so that the authorities might not notice the light of the candles. In 1802 the Concordat signed by Napoleon and Pope VII restored the rights of the Catholic Church in France.
To be a priest, to win many souls, were the thoughts shaping in John Mary's mind as he turned seventeen. His mother was overjoyed, but it took another two years for his father to be brought around.
Fr Balley, the pastor at Ecully, had three students training for the priesthood. When John Mary's mother approached him, he received a "Sorry, but no! Your son is nineteen and has very little education." John Mary's brother-in-law pleaded: "Just meet him. When you see him, I'm sure you will take him." Fr Balley met him and not only accepted him, but promised to "make any sacrifices for John Mary."
It was Fr Balley who persevered with John Mary even though the latter found the study of philosophy and theology very difficult. And when it came to doing his tests, John Mary would just freeze, forgetting everything he had learned. He failed several times and wanted to give up and join the Christian Brothers as a laybrother. Fr Balley kept him going at his studies and reappearing for his tests.
In spite of his poor marks, John Mary was finally accepted because of his holiness. "Is Vianney a devout man?" the Vicar General asked. "Is he devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Can he recite the Rosary?" When he was told, "Why yes, he is a model of piety," the Vicar General gave his approval. John Mary Vianney received his diaconate on June 23, 1815, five days after the historic Battle of Waterloo, and was ordained a priest on August 13 of the same year. He was given faculties only to say Mass but not to hear confessions since he fared badly in his seminary studies.
He was sent as assistant to Fr Balley at Ecully. The two of them lived a life of rigorous penance, and spent long hours in prayer and learning the doctrines of the Church. When Fr Balley passed away in December, 1817, John Mary lost a father, guide and friend. In the meanwhile he had also been granted faculties for hearing confessions and was thus prepared for Ars, his next assignment.
A day in his life
At noon he would slip into the refectory, take his meal standing - a cold boiled potato and a glass of milk - and then rest a few minutes before returning to hear confessions until close to midnight, with brief intervals for visiting the sick and attending to his other duties of a pastor.
After working for nearly twenty hours, seventeen of them in the confessional, he would retire to bed.
All his life John Mary showed remarkable humility.
A young priest wrote to him: "Monsieur le Cure, a man with as little theology as yourself ought never to enter a confessional."
The Cure of Ars replied: "My very dear and respected colleague, how right I am to love you. You alone really know me. As you are good and charitable enough to deign to take interest in my poor soul, help me to obtain the favour for which I have been asking for so long, so that I may be moved from a post I am unworthy to fill because of my ignorance and retire into obscurity to atone for my wretched life."
Ars, a centre of pilgrimage
In 1827, there were twenty persons arriving everyday, then more and more. From 1830 to 1859, on an average, 400 made their way to Ars per day. The railways started issuing eight-day cheap return tickets from Lyons to Ars as it required several days for pilgrim to get his or her chance to kneel at the Cure's confessional. Prelates, priests, monks, nuns, aristocrats, commoners, intellectuals and peasants stood in queue for hours and days to seek his advice and absolution. New hotels had to be opened to accommodate the pilgrims during the night.
Honours were bestowed on him though he tried his best to avoid them.
The Bishop made him a canon and came to Ars to invest him with the canon's cape. John Mary suffered the placing of the robe on his shoulders for a few moments. Then he took it off, sold it for fifty francs and gave the money to the poor.
Napoleon III bestowed on him the Cross of the Legion of Honour. He never accepted it. It was pinned on him only when he was laid out in his coffin.
Worn out by his labours and austerities, he grew weaker. He kept fainting in the confessional. His voice in the pulpit became very feeble. At one o'clock in the morning on July 30, 1859, he called for the Cure of Jassons and humbly made his confession. He received Holy Viaticum at three in the afternoon. He wept. "It is sad to receive the Lord for the last time," he said. "How good God is! When we cannot go and see him, he comes to us."
On August 4, 1859, he kissed the crucifix and as his confessor was reciting the words, "May God's holy angels come to meet him and bring him into the heavenly Jerusalem," John Mary Vianney, the Cure of Ars for over forty-one years, passed gently into eternity.
He was beatified on January 8, 1905, by Pius X and canonized on May 31, 1925, by Pius XI. In 1929, Pius XI declared him patron Saint of parish Priests all over the world. His incorrupt body now reposes in the new basilica at Ars in a glass coffin.