August 4 is the Feast day of Saint John Marie Vianney [1786-1859] – Confessor & the Patron Saint of all Parish Priests in the world.
So let’s get him for a short chat…
JF: So St John, do you mind telling us about yourself?
JMV: Sure. I was born in 1786 into a farming family at Dardilly, near Lyons, in eastern France. I was a young boy during the French Revolution and shared with my family a necessity of the times: the secret practice of our Catholic faith.
JF: So, it must have been a tough time for you and for your family then?
JMV: Oh not really. In fact it was during those decisive times that my faith was strengthened by my experience,
JF: Wow! You really have a way to look at the bright side of life huh?
JMV: Well, I had to. When the Revolution ended, I then decided to become a priest.
JF: Oh, and was that easy for you? Didn’t you have any second thoughts about your decision?
JMV: Obviously, there were many things that somehow hindered me to fulfil my dreams. My Dad was reluctant to let me go because I used to assist him in our farm.
JF: So, what did you do?
JMV: Oh well, my father’s reservation was just one of the few issues I have had then. I had sometimes in military service but I thought I was not meant to be there, so I left. I then entered the seminary for the priestly training.
JF: And did you really think that that was the right place for you then?
JMV: No. You see, I had terrible intellectual shortcomings, very poor memory and no ability or taste for abstract thought, that I just could not grasp the fundamentals of Latin and theology. I prayed a lot though for guidance and enlightenment about the subject matter but nothing happens. The seminary formators might have realized my piety but due to the demands of Academia, which I could not cope up with, I was dismissed from the seminary at Lyons.
JF: I’m very sorry for you. But wait, If you were dismissed from the seminary, then you would never have been a priest now, more so of being the Patron Saint of all Parish Priests?
JMV: I had a very good priest-friend, Father Balley of Ecully. He believed that I can do something for my dreams to be fulfilled. In fact, if it was not because of him, I would never have been ordained.
JF: So what did Fr. Balley do to help you?
JMV: Even if I was already outside the seminary, he conducted private lessons with me. He also arranged an interview for me with the diocesan examiner of candidates for ordination.
JF: And how did you feel during the interview?
JMV: I trusted in God’s providence. I spoke of things which I knew and understood. I spoke with much honesty and humility.
JF: And you’re recommended for ordination after the interview then?
JMV: Well, it’s embarrassing because they commented that though the interview uncovered my academic deficiencies which is true, they also found something of my holiness as they would say, an attribute that made me worthier for the priesthood than any amount of textbook knowledge.
JF: Which is really true. So, you received the sacrament of holy orders on August 12, 1815, how did you feel then during the ordination?
JMV: Oh I always considered that day as the greatest privilege I’ve had in my life. I was even more blessed so to speak, when I was sent as a curate to Father Balley at Ecully.
JF: And for how long did you work there with your mentor?
JMV: Not very long. He died barely two years after my ordination. After his death, I was sent to care for the people of a small, obscure village called Ars.
JF: How sad. But anyway, did you go immediately to Ars?
JMV: I arrived there in 1818. Ars had only about 230 inhabitants. And Few of these people were outstanding for either the practice or neglect of their faith; for most of them religion was merely a formality performed regularly and thoughtlessly once a week and the rest of the time ignored.
JF: So, if that’s the situation in Ars, it should have been very distressing for you?
JMV: Indeed! I could not understand such mediocrity and so I was determined to correct it. I went from house-to-house, knocking at people’s door, visiting all corners of the parish, teaching catechism classes for the children, and giving long Sunday sermons just to remind the people of God.
JF: It seems to be that you’re really facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge then?
JMV: Not only that. There was a tavern near the Church. People blasphemed a lot as if that’s part of their ordinary language. They also worked on Sundays.
JF: Oh God, what a job to do? Did you manage to correct all those ordinary outlets for frivolity or sin and those things there which were hindrance to salvation?
JMV: I tried very hard. I fasted. I prayed longer times. I inflicted myself just to convince heaven of how serious I am to restore God in the lives of the people there.
JF: And did all those work?
JMV: Yes, little by little? When the people learned of the nightly scourgings which I inflicted upon myself, of my long fasts broken by no more than one or two cold potatoes, when they heard my voice, trembling with emotion, speaking of the love of God, they started to go back to the confessional.
JF: Wow! That was awesome! Was there a massive conversion then?
JMV: Slowly things changed; the taverns closed, the church became crowded even on weekdays, and the line to the confessional grew always longer. In that small stuffy box I, being their priest relieved people of the burden of their sins in a way that could only be called Christ-like. Forgotten sins, concealed sins, grave sins, slight sins – all were brought to light. I dismissed them. I absolved them and left them with few compassionate words that often changed the whole course of the penitent’s life.
JF: Can you read one’s mind and hearts then? Since, it looks impossible for me to think you can unveil all those sins that people kept in their hearts, and brought them into light?
JMV: It’s God’s providence. He gave me the gift to see into the depths of one’s soul. Then, people from the neighboring villages, from Lyons, finally from all France and beyond, swarmed into the tiny village of Ars to confess and to get Spiritual counselling from me.
JF: I understand, that the crowd grew bigger and bigger. How did you manage to attend all of them, when you’re the only priest there?
JMV: I spent 12 to 16 hours in the confessional, healing the sick, and curing their spiritual illnesses of various kinds and forms. I’ve been doing like that since 1830.
JF: Obviously, you became very popular. How did you cope up with that I suppose great temptation to power and fame?
JMV: I neither wanted nor enjoyed my life being popular or famous. I immersed myself solely for the work of God so that I could be myself wholly and selflessly for other people who longed God to come into their lives.
JF: With all those long days, and pretty occupied day times even the evenings, how come you did not exhaust yourself?
JMV: I tried to get away from the parish many times. Three times I left Ars to retire to a monastery, my own conscience and touched by the pleas of the people, I had to return.
JF: So, is that all you’ve been doing? Hearing Confessions, spiritual directions? Mass?
JMV: I founded an orphanage and girls’ school. But in 1824 they were taken out of my care for reasons that are still obscure. I knew that many of my brother priests branded my whole life as “mad.”
JF: Oh what a madness indeed?! But if it’s for God, who cares? Right?
JMV: Yes. It’s all for him, and because of him.
JF: How about your Bishop then? Did he get involved with your work or he just did not care?
JMV: He cared for me I believed. When he heard the malicious comments, he merely said, “I wish all the clergy of my diocese had a small grain of this madness.” But the most horrific thing I had to overcome with was the constant persecution I had to bear.
JF: Persecution? Were you persecuted then? By who?
JMV: By the devil himself. I upset him. I destroyed his kingdom in Ars.
JF: In what forms did this evil one appear to you?
JMV: At night, I heard terrible, unbearable noises, sometimes my bed seemed to be burning, even physical assaults.The devil really was trying all he can do to stop what I was doing. But the more he persecuted me, the more I fought against him, and of course with the grace of God…Amazingly, sometimes, I just thought, the devil and I became old comrades. Because of his constant presence there to stop me.
JF: And you bore all these for forty years?
JMV: For the glory of God and for the salvation of all people, yes.
JF: Well, I see that your sufferings and mortification really worth it, because by the time of your death on August 4, 1859, Ars had already become a place of pilgrimage and continued as such in succeeding years because of you who brought back God to the people there.
Cheers for your canonization by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and for your great role as the universal Patron for all parish priests as declared in 1929!