Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was a religious personality of unusual force. To the incomparable exclusion of everything else he addressed himself to the greater honor and glory of God and the salvation of souls. He accepted his obligation to holiness at an early age, and it took complete possession of him. Every word he uttered was spoken out of the world of religiousness. He brought to a conclusion an achievement which it would be hard for anyone to imitate. From this man there emanated an influence which cannot be overlooked, and the results of which cannot be contested.
Born on 8 May 1786, in the French town of Dardilly, France (near Lyon), and Jean-Marie baptized the same day. Jean-Marie’s mother was a woman of great piety, and she led him into the way of religion at an early age. “I owe a debt to my mother,” he said, and added, “virtues go easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done.” He was a good-natured boy, with blue eyes and brown hair. In spite of his lively disposition, he admitted much later on in life that “when I was young, I did not know evil. I was first acquainted with it in the confessional, from the mouths of sinners.”
It was only after much toil and trouble that Jean-Marie was admitted to the priesthood. At the age of 20, he was having great difficulty in his studies for the priesthood.
In 1818, Bishop of Ars assigned him to Ars. As parish priest, Jean-Marie realized 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. Jean-Marie 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.
Not over night, but little by little, the tiny hamlet underwent a change. The people of Ars were unable to remain aloof for long from the grace which radiated from the remarkable personality of their priest. When a man attacks inveterate disorders and popular vices, he challenges opposition. Jean-Marie was not unprepared – he knew the enemy would raise his head. “If a priest is determined not to lose his soul,” he exclaimed, “so soon as any disorder arises in the parish, he must trample underfoot all human considerations as well as the fear of the contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even when he certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit. A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times. Did not St. Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: ‘I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls, although loving you more, I be loved less.’”
In his early sermons, he thundered against the prevalent vices of the village of Ars: Blasphemies, cursing, profanation of Sundays, dances and gatherings at taverns, immodest songs and conversations. “The tavern,” he would say, “is the devil’s own shop, the school where hell retails its dogmas, the market where souls are bartered, the place where families are broken up, where health is undermined, where quarrels are started and murders committed.”
It took Jean-Marie ten whole years to renew Ars, but the community changed so noticeably and to such an extent that it was observed even by outsiders. There was no more working on Sundays, the church was filled more and more every year, and drunkenness fell off. In the end the taverns had to close their doors since they had no more customers; and even domestic squabbles abated. Honesty became the principal characteristic. “Ars is no longer Ars,” as the Saint himself wrote; for it had undergone a fundamental change. Under his guidance the little village became a community of pious people, to whom all his labors were directed. He delighted in teaching the children their catechism and he did this daily. After a while the grown-ups came too and he found that those who were children during the Revolution were in complete ignorance of their religious duties. He taught the people love for the rosary and wanted everyone to carry one around at all times. It is truly astounding to reflect upon what Jean-Marie, with a staff of trained assistants, was able to achieve in the village in the space of a few years. What an immense amount of endeavor underlay his work will best be appreciated by anyone who has had to convert only a few drunkards to sanity.
The Saint sanctified himself whilst at work in the field or in the house. The supernatural world was ever present to him, but for all that he was neither a slacker nor a dreamer, his being a healthy and active temperament. “O what a beautiful thing it is to do all things in union with the good God!” he would say. “Courage, my soul, if you work with God, you shall, indeed, do the work, but He will bless it. You shall walk and He will bless your steps. Everything shall be taken account of – the forgoing of a look, of some gratification – all shall be recorded. There are people who make capital out of everything, even the winter. If it is cold they offer their little sufferings to God. Oh! What a beautiful thing it is to offer oneself, each morning, as a victim to God!”
Jean-Marie had loved Mary from the cradle. As a priest he had exerted all his energy in spreading her glory. To convince themselves of it, the pilgrims had but to look at the small statues of her that adorned the front of every house in the village. In each home there was also a colored picture of the Mother of God, presented and signed by M. le Curé. In 1814 he had erected a large statue of Mary Immaculate on the pediment of his church. Eight years earlier, on May 1, 1836, he had dedicated his parish to Mary Conceived Without Sin. On the feasts of Our Lady, Communions were numerous, and the church was never empty. On the evenings of those festivals the nave and the side chapels could barely contain the congregation, for no one wished to missed the Saint’s homily in honor of Our Blessed Lady. The hearers were enthralled by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of the holiness, the power, and the love of the Mother of God.
Jean-Marie 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.
In 1854, a girl of Montchanin (Saone-et-Loire) of the name of Farnier, came to Ars to beg from Jean-Marie the cure of her paralyzed leg. “My child,” the Saint told her, “you disobey your mother far too often, and answer her back in a disrespectful manner. If you wish the good God to cure you, you must correct that ugly defect. Oh! what a task lies before you! But remember one thing: you will indeed get well, but by degrees, according as you try to correct that defect.” As soon as Mlle. Farnier returned home she endeavored to show more obedience and respect to her mother. Her crippled leg, which had been four inches shorter than the other, insensibly grew longer, and at the end of a few years her infirmity had wholly vanished.
Fr. Jean-Marie 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”. He spent at least 11 or 12 hours a day in the confessional during winter, and up to 16 in the summer. He also had a great devotion to St. Philomena. Vianney regarded her as his guardian and erected a chapel and shrine in honor of the saint.
On Aug. 4, 1859, Fr. Jean-Marie Vianney gave up his soul to God. He had been parish priest of Ars for 41 years. In 1925, he received the highest honor of the Church by being canonized and placed in the index of the Saints. Today over 500,000 people visit every year this simple farming town where they come to see the incorrupt body of one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. The life of St. Jean-Marie Vianney is the story of a humble and holy man who barely succeeded in becoming a priest, but who converted thousands of sinners.
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 Jean-Marie Vianney was canonized by Pope Pius XI, who in 1929 made him patron saint of parish priests. In 1928 his feast day was inserted into the General Roman Calendar for celebration on 9 August. Pope John XXIII’s 1960 revision, in which the Vigil of Saint Lawrence had a high rank, moved the feast to 8 August. Finally, the 1969 revision placed it on 4 August, the day of his death.
In 1959, to commemorate the centenary of Jean-Marie Vianney’s death, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia. John Paul II visited Ars in person in 1986 in connection with the bicentenary 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.”