Saint of the Day – 4 August – St Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney TOSF (1786-1859) – The Curé of Ars (Parish Priest of Ars) – Priest and Tertiary – (8 May 1786 at Dardilly, Lyons, France – 4 August 1859 at Ars, France of natural causes) His body is interred in the basilica of Ars. He was Canonised on 31 May 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Patronages – confessors, priests (proclaimed on 23 April 1929 by Pope Pius XI), Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney, Dubuque, Iowa, archdiocese of, Kamloops, British Columbia, diocese of, Kansas City, Kansas, archdiocese of, Lafayette, Louisiana, diocese of, Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, archdiocese of. St John Vianney’s body is incorrupt.
St John Vianney was born on 8 May 1786, in the French town of Dardilly, France (near Lyon) and was baptised the same day. His parents, Matthieu Vianney and his wife Marie (Belize), had six children, of whom John was the fourth. The Vianneys were devout Catholics, who helped the poor and gave hospitality to St Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of tramps, who passed through Dardilly on his pilgrimage to Rome.
By 1790, the anticlerical Terror phase of the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide from the regime in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. Even though to do so had been declared illegal, the Vianneys traveled to distant farms to attend Masses celebrated by priests on the run. Realising that such priests risked their lives day by day, Vianney began to look upon them as heroes. He received his First Communion catechism instructions in a private home by two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. He made his first communion at the age of 13 (normal in those times). During the Mass, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside. His practice of the Faith continued in secret, especially during his preparation for confirmation.
The Catholic Church was re-established in France in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in religious peace throughout the country, culminating in a Concordat. By this time, Vianney was concerned about his future vocation and longed for an education. He was 20 when his father allowed him to leave the farm to be taught at a “presbytery-school” in the neighbouring village of Écully, conducted by the Abbé Balley. The school taught arithmetic, history, geography and Latin. Vianney struggled with school, especially with Latin, since his past education had been interrupted by the French Revolution. Only because of Vianney’s deepest desire to be a priest—and Balley’s patience—did he persevere.
St Vianney’s studies were interrupted in 1809 when he was drafted into Napoleon’s armies. He would have been exempt, as an ecclesiastical student but Napoleon had withdrawn the exemption in certain dioceses because of his need for soldiers in his fight against Spain. Two days after he had to report at Lyons, he became ill and was hospitalised, during which time his draft left without him. Once released from the hospital, on 5 January, he was sent to Roanne for another draft. He went into a church to pray and fell behind the group. He met a young man who volunteered to guide him back to his group but instead led him deep into the mountains of Le Forez, to the village of Les Noes, where deserters had gathered. St Vianney lived there for fourteen months, hidden in the byre attached to a farmhouse and under the care of Claudine Fayot, a widow with four children. He assumed the name Jerome Vincent and under that name, he opened a school for village children. Since the harsh weather isolated the town during the winter, the deserters were safe from gendarmes. However, after the snow melted, gendarmes came to the town constantly, searching for deserters. During these searches, Vianney hid inside stacks of fermenting hay in Fayot’s barn.
An imperial decree proclaimed in March 1810 granted amnesty to all deserters, which enabled Vianney to go back legally to Ecully, where he resumed his studies. He was tonsured in 1811 and in 1812 he went to the minor seminary at Verrières-en-Forez. In autumn of 1813, he was sent to the major seminary at Lyons. Considered too slow, he was returned to Abbe Balley. However, Balley persuaded the Vicar general that Vianney’s piety was great enough to compensate for his ignorance and the seminarian received minor orders and the subdiaconate on 2 July 1814, was ordained a deacon in June 1815 and was ordained priest on 12 August 1815 in the Couvent des Minimes de Grenoble. He said his first Mass the next day and was appointed the assistant to Balley in Écully.
Curé of Ars
In 1818, shortly after the death of Balley, Jean-Marie Vianney was appointed parish priest of the parish of Ars, a town of 230 inhabitants. As parish priest, he realised that the Revolution’s aftermath had resulted in religious ignorance and indifference, due to the devastation wrought on the Catholic Church in France. At the time, Sundays in rural areas were spent working in the fields, or dancing and drinking in taverns. He spent time in the confessional and gave homilies against blasphemy and paganic dancing. If his parishioners did not give up this dancing, he refused them absolution. Abbe Balley had been St Vianney’s greatest inspiration, since he was a priest who remained loyal to his faith, despite the Revolution. He felt compelled to fulfill the duties of a curé, just as did Balley, even when it was illegal. With Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet, he established La Providence, a home for girls. Only a man of vision could have such trust that God would provide for the spiritual and material needs of all those who came to make La Providence their home.
Fr Vianney came to be known internationally and people from distant places began travelling to consult him as early as 1827. “By 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached 20,000 a year. During the last ten years of his life, he spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional. Even the bishop forbade him to attend the annual retreats of the diocesan clergy because of the souls awaiting him yonder”. His work as a confessor is John Vianney’s most remarkable accomplishment. In the winter months he was to spend 11 to 12 hours daily reconciling people with God. In the summer months this time was increased to 16 hours. Unless a man was dedicated to his vision of a priestly vocation, he could not have endured this giving of self day after day.
Many people look forward to retirement and taking it easy, doing the things they always wanted to do but never had the time. But John Vianney had no thoughts of retirement. As his fame spread, more hours were consumed in serving God’s people. Even the few hours he would allow himself for sleep were disturbed frequently by the devil, who physically attacked and tormented St John and kept him from sleeping.
St Vianney had a great devotion to St. Philomena. He regarded her as his guardian and erected a chapel and shrine in honor of the saint. During May 1843, he fell so ill he thought that his life was coming to its end. St John Vianney attributed his cure to her intercession.
He yearned for the contemplative life of a monk and four times ran away from Ars, the last time in 1853. St John Vianney read much and often the lives of the saints, and became so impressed by their holy lives that he wanted for himself and others to follow their wonderful examples. The ideal of holiness enchanted him. This was the theme which underlay his sermons. “We must practice mortification. For this is the path which all the Saints have followed,” he said from the pulpit. He placed himself in that great tradition which leads the way to holiness through personal sacrifice. “If we are not now saints, it is a great misfortune for us: therefore we must be so. As long as we have no love in our hearts, we shall never be Saints.” The Saint, to him, was not an exceptional man before whom we should marvel but a possibility which was open to all Catholics. Unmistakably did he declare in his sermons that “to be a Christian and to live in sin is a monstrous contradiction. A Christian must be holy.” With his Christian simplicity he had clearly thought much on these things and understood them by divine inspiration, while they are usually denied to the understanding of educated men. He was a champion of the poor as a Franciscan tertiary and was a recipient of the coveted French Legion of Honour.
On 4 August 1859, Vianney died at the age of 73. The bishop presided over his funeral with 300 priests and more than 6,000 people in attendance. Before he was buried, Vianney’s body was fitted with a wax mask.
On 3 October 1874 Pope Pius IX proclaimed him “venerable”; on 8 January 1905, Pope Pius X declared him Blessed and proposed him as a model to the parochial clergy. In 1925 John Mary Vianney was canonized by Pope Pius XI, who in 1929 made him patron saint of parish priests.
In 1959, to commemorate the centenary of John Vianney’s death, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia. St Pope John Paul II visited Ars in person in 1986 in connection with the anniversary of Vianney’s birth and referred to the great saint as a “rare example of a pastor acutely aware of his responsibilities … and a sign of courage for those who today experience the grace of being called to the priesthood.”
In honour of the 150th anniversary of Vianney’s death, Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of the Priest, running from the Feast of the Sacred Heart 2009–2010. The Vatican Postal Service issued a set of stamps to commemorate the 150th Anniversary. With the following words on 16 June 2009, Benedict XVI officially marked the beginning of the year dedicated to priests, “…On the forthcoming Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Friday 19 June 2009 – a day traditionally devoted to prayer for the sanctification of the clergy –, I have decided to inaugurate a ‘Year of the Priest’ in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the dies natalis of John Mary Vianney, the Patron Saint of parish priests worldwide…” In the Holy Father’s words the Curé d’Ars is “a true example of a pastor at the service of Christ’s flock.”
There are statues and stained glass windows of St John Vianney in many French churches and in Catholic churches throughout the world. Also, many parishes founded in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are named after him. Some relics are kept in the Church of Notre-Dame de la Salette in Paris.