A hero of the confessional and of the priesthood

During this Year of the Priesthood, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth into eternal life of the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Vianney (1786-1859).

The Cure of the tiny French village of Ars is an inspiration to seminarians and priests for a multitude of reasons. For those who struggle with parental reluctance to their vocations, he patiently overcame his father’s resistance. For those who struggle in their studies, he failed out of the Lyons seminary because he couldn’t master Latin. For those who struggle to show any fruit from their pastoral efforts to sanctify their people, he spent his first eight years as pastor in all night vigils, fasting, penance and catechesis before he was able to convert his small parish of 240 individuals. For those who struggle with preaching, he labored for hours with textbooks to try to craft sermons that were worthy of a priest. For those who have financial problems, he battled to keep his parochial school afloat, many times needing to throw himself on the mercy of God’s providence. For those who suffer through the misunderstanding and envy of others in the presbyterate, he once received and signed a clergy petition seeking his removal.

He is a priestly model above all, however, because of his heroism and exhausting dedication in the confessional. When he was assigned to the out-of-the-way village of Ars, his bishop instructed him, “There is not much love of God in that parish. You will put some there.” The men who were not putting work above worship on Sunday would generally spend the Lord’s Day getting liquored up in the taverns. The women who came were, for the most part, icons of tepidity. The soil of the village was mainly hardened, rocky and thorny. That didn’t discourage the holy Cure, but only made him pray, fast, mortify and work all the more. “O my God,” he prayed, “grant me the conversion of my parish: I consent to suffer whatever you wish, for as long as I live.”

The people started to notice that the lights in the Church were on all night. When they went to spy on the burning candles, they observed their pastor on his knees in front of the tabernacle. They noticed that he dedicated his salary to adorning the little church, to getting beautiful vestments, to showing the people by example that God is worth our best and our all. He did home visits and returned multiple times even when people were reluctant to let him in. Slowly the light of his holy life began to penetrate the darkness of the village.

His ministry in the confessional began to explode when a group of women, moved by seeing him praying in Church after midnight, asked if he would hear their confessions. He happily assented. His tears in the confessional -- out of love for them and sorrow for their sins -- brought them, too, to tears, introduced them to a whole new level of contrition for their sins, and gave them a taste of the holiness to which we’re all called. The women began to spread word that there was something special about the way their pastor heard confession. Soon others from the village began to come to find out for themselves. Penitents would say that he had read their souls, told them with precision how long it had been since their last confession, and what sins they had forgotten to confess. The experience transformed Ars, one reconciled soul at a time.

After Ars residents started to inform their relatives and friends in other villages about their ascetic and prayerful pastor’s special gifts in the Sacrament of Penance, the road to Ars became the road to Damascus. Soon he was hearing hundreds of confessions a day. One day in 1845, three thousand penitents arrived. About 120,000 people arrived that year. Train tickets from Lyons to Ars were valid for eight days, because that is about how long someone could have to wait to go to confession. He would hear confessions for 12 hours a day in the winter, 16-18 hours a day when the weather was better. His day would also involve a devout Mass, holy hour, daily catechesis, an appearance at the parish school and visits to the sick. At a maximum, he would sleep from 9 pm to midnight. On many occasions the devil would attack him during his few hours of shut-eye, violently shaking his bed and doing whatever he could to disrupt his sleep. The neighbors and penitents waiting outside would rush to his room convinced by the clamor that he was being murdered. St. John Vianney realized that these harassments were most ferocious on the night before a “big fish” -- great sinners -- would arrive, and so he would offer his sufferings for their total conversion.

In his preaching about the sacrament to the throngs who came from near and far, he would try to help them to repent. He did it first by focusing on the beauty of God’s forgiveness. “My children,” he said in one catechesis, “we cannot comprehend the goodness of God towards us in instituting this great Sacrament of Penance. If we had had a favor to ask of our Lord, we should never have thought of asking him that. But he foresaw our frailty and our inconstancy in well-doing, and his love led him to do what we should not have dared to ask.” When his reputation began to grow through his being the instrument for some miraculous cures of the body, he downplayed their significance, saying that the “body is so very little” and adding, “It is a beautiful thought, my children, that we have a sacrament which heals the wounds of our soul!”

When the situation warranted, however, the Cure would preach against sin with the force of an Old Testament prophet. “To be a Christian and to live in sin,” he clamored, “is a monstrous condition. A Christian must be holy.” He denounced evil in all its forms, for people’s salvation was at stake. “If a pastor remains silent,” he said when someone complained that his words against sin made him uncomfortable, “when he sees God insulted and souls going astray, woe to him! If he does not want to be damned, and if there is some disorder in his parish, he must trample upon human respect and the fear of being despised or hated.”

Most often, however, he would show hatred for sin by his tears. Once, a penitent who was confessing his sins matter-of-factly without sorrow was startled when the Cure began to sob. “Why are you crying?” the man asked. “I am weeping because you are not,” the Cure responded. When criticized for giving soft penances even to those who were publicly known for having done truly heinous things, he replied that he generally gives light penances so as not to scare hardened sinners from coming, but in justice he himself would do the rest of the penance their sins deserved.

In a 1986 letter to priests on the bicentennial of the Cure’s birth, Pope John Paul said that the state of the world requires that all priests should imitate the pastor of Ars in making themselves “very available” for the Sacrament of Penance. He asked them to give it “priority over other activities” so that the faithful will realize the value attached to this “most difficult, the most delicate, the most taxing and the most demanding [priestly ministry] of all -- especially when priests are in short supply.”

In initiatives like “The Light Is On For You” in the Archdiocese of Boston and “Be Reconciled to God” in the Diocese of Fall River, priests are giving the Sacrament of Penance the priority it deserves. We are begging our holy patron to intercede for us so that we might imitate him in the confessional. And we’re begging his help to encourage you to come to receive the joy of the sacrament that “heals the wounds of our soul!”

Father Roger J. Landry is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River. He has authored a 50-article series on St. John Vianney which is available at www.CatholicPreaching.com.

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