St John Marie Baptiste Vianney, is affectionately known to you and I as The Cure of Ars……..or if you like, the Parish Priest of a once little unknown town in Eastern France called Ars.
Every saint is a great gift from God. They all show us such wonderful example, and help us to learn more about God, and bring us closer to our Divine Creator. We, in the Catholic Church, are blessed with so many saints, of many different shapes and sizes, and I am sure we all have our own favourites. In many countries we are very lucky to have some wonderful saints of our own, to pray and intercede for us, before the throne of the Almighty God.
The Cure of Ars really is a saint of our times, considering that he died just over 150 years ago. He is of course the patron saint of Parish Priests, and Pope Benedict the 16th also chose him as the model priest for the year of the priest. Imagine………… amongst the millions of priests there have been throughout the centuries, The Pope chose the Cure of Ars, but why? For most of us, when we think of the Cure of Ars, we probably think about the supernatural elements of his life – the incredible almost super-human mortifications he endured for sinners, no food, no sleep, no drink………or we may think of the daily routine of 18 hours in the confessional box even during sweltering summers and freezing winters, or…… maybe the many miracles and prophecies attributed to him, or…… maybe how incredibly thousands upon thousands walked to Ars from all over France to simply catch a glimpse of the living saint or…. maybe even how he was tormented by the devil night after night for many many years, or… perhaps how he could read a person’s soul in the confessional and tell them their sins. There is no doubting that these are extraordinary things and definetly worth pondering on, but they are not the only things which made the Cure the Saint he is today. Like most saints The Cure of Ars excelled in the virtues of humility, kindness, patience, gentleness, and charity, but maybe the one thing that made him a saint above all the others was his perseverance in obediently carrying out the will of God. His cross was a very heavy one, just like Jesus and Mary and he endured great suffering, but persevered carrying his crosses, seeing them not as burdens as we perhaps often do, but as opportunities to offer up to save souls.
So…..who was St John Marie Baptise Vianney
The Cure of Ars grew up in a very difficult environment for Catholics. He grew up in a time of a fierce and bloody persecution against the church in France. It was illegal to attend mass and his family had to travel to distant farms in secret for mass. Windows had to be blackened out to hide the candle light. He received his first Holy Communion and also his Confirmation in secret. Brave priests, not undeterred by execution by the Guillotine, continued to minister to the people, and it was priests such as these that inspired the young Saint. However, as we have seen throughout church history, the blood of so many martyrs proved the seed for a new generation of fervent Christians. Christian persecution or suffering endured for Christ is never in vein.
St John Marie Baptiste Vianney was born on May 8th, 1786 in the small town of Dardilly near the city of Lyon, and he was baptised on the same day. He was the 4th of a family of six children. Like many saints he enjoyed the advantage of being born into a family which had truly Christian parents. The family frequently gave alms and hospitality to the poor, something which The Cure of Ars was himself to do for the rest of his life. As a pious young boy working in the fields, he had a tremendous devotion to Mary, and he would place a statue of Our Lady in the hallow of a big tree, and kneel and pray his little heart out. He blessed himself each new hour and prayed a Hail Mary, asking his heavenly mother to bless that hour. At school he was heard to say “if I was a priest I could win many souls for God”.
Studying was difficult for the young Saint and when he entered the seminary he had tremendous difficulty with Latin, which was obligatory for priests to learn. All questions were put to him in Latin, and the authorities seeing how he struggled forced him to leave the seminary. This caused him great pain, for he longed to be a priest. However, as we know God’s ways are different to ours, and God had another route for him to take. His local Parish Priest understood the saint’s zealous pious nature, and saw this as far more important that his inability to learn Latin, and he privately tutored him. The young saint was however drafted into the army and only returned from duty at the age of 24, when he was able to continue with his studies. His formation was one enormous trial after another, which is now understandable, given the great mission the Lord had in store for him. His Heavenly Mother was however always at his side during the difficulties, and he even survived a soldier almost sticking a bayonet rifle sword through him, when he was forced to go into hiding into a bail of hay. After years and years of torture struggling with the academic side of his formation, he eventually became a priest in 1815 at the age of 29.
Ironically for a man who was to later often spend 18 hours a day hearing confessions, the Diocesan authorities did not initially consider him able enough to hear confessions. Consequently he was not allowed to hear confessions at the beginning of his ministry. Thankfully, his Parish Priest however, was able to persuade them otherwise, and secured the faculties for him to hear confessions. The pupil and the Parish Priest developed a great friendship and even had a holy rivalry regarding who could out due the other in fasts and penance.
Upon the death of his Parish Priest, it was decided to send the saint to a place “where he could not do much damage”. So they chose a little village called Ars, with a mere 200 inhabitants, who had for the large part strayed from their faith. He famously met a young boy on his way to Ars, and said “if you show me the way to Ars, I will show you the way to Heaven”. There is today a statue of the Cure and the young boy marking this spot. The young boy showed him the way to Ars, and amazingly The Cure also kept his promise for the boy, then a man, died not long after the Cure of Ars had passed from this world. The Cure was to be in Ars for the next 41 years of his life.
On arriving in this small village, which now of course is a major town and pilgrimage destination, he prophetically said that “this parish will be unable to contain the crowds that will flock to Ars”. The natives had become luke warm and pleasure seeking, so the Cure decided the best way to convert them was to mortify himself as much as he could, meaning he went several days with no food at a stretch. He would boil some potatoes and they would last him for the week, eating just a couple each day and nothing else. By the time he got to the last few potatoes they would be covered in mould, but he nonetheless ate them and saw this as extra penance. Some mornings he would take half a glass of milk around 0830 having been up hearing confessions since 0100. He famously said that the devil really fears those who “deprive themselves of food, drink and sleep”.
The Cure was involved in many works of charity, and he opened a FREE school for girls. This school was called Providence, and it became a boarding school for destitute children. He loved this above all other undertakings, and for 20 years he visited Providence daily. Any money he received, he would never spend on himself. If he did not give the money to the poor it would be spent on buying the best of things for the church, even if it meant a several hours walk into Lyon, anything to obtain the best quality for Jesus.
His sermons cost him much pain and he would often stay awake all night trying to put one together. Some of his sermons however were very different to what we are used to. He was known sometimes to just cry at the pulpit when he thought about the passion of Jesus, and the whole congregation would follow suit in tears. The saint also suffered in many other ways. He would experience intense desolation and dark night of the soul, like Jesus in the Garden, which included a total dryness of prayer and darkness of the soul, something which Mother Theresa experienced for 50 years. Like many of the saints he also was the victim of much persecution and gossip at the hands of others. For 35 years he was physically molested and tormented by the devil. This often involved wild shouting and strange noises, even those of wild animals, anything to prevent the Cure from getting even a small bit of sleep. The Cure would find his bed being shaken or moved around the room, and his bed was even set fire to one night. The devil’s objective was to try and exhaust him by disrupting his 1-2 hours of sleep, and prevent him from going to the confessional box the next day. However the Cure famously said “the devil is very stupid because he always gives me an extra hard time the night before a big sinner is on his way to visit me in the confessional the next day. As a result of this all this suffering the Cure was showered with graces, and was even able to cast out demons from possessed persons. The saint was once heard to say that if he had known all that he was to suffer in Ars, he would surely have died the day of his arrival.
The more the Cure suffered the more fruits that began to show. Bit by bit his parish began to be converted, and within 2 years of his arrival the whole village began to attend Vespers or Evening Prayer led by the Cure. Eventually all the parish would be converted alongside thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from all over France and Europe. Corpus Christi was the highlight of the year for the Cure, and even in his old age when barely able to stand, he insisted on carrying Jesus in the monstrance around the village. In his last year 120,000 pilgrims visited, which is just an amazing number when you consider this was before the era of the car or any kind of rapid transport. The Cure never took a holiday or indulged in any kind of repose. Interestingly, he did in fact try to leave Ars three times, as he yearned for a life as a contemplative monk, but each time the people would demand he come back, and one time they even followed him en mass to a house where he was trying to hide.
Where does one begin to even try and recount the many miracles he performed, it is perhaps an impossible task. Perhaps the greatest miracle is that he stayed alive at all, given the fact that he barely ate, slept or drank, and when you consider that he reached the age of 73, which in those days would have been unusual, it is just absolutely miraculous. He was proclaimed venerable in 1874 not long after his death, and in 1905 declared blessed. Pope Pius the 10th made him a saint in 1925.
So….what can we here today learn from the Cure
God calls special people for special missions, and we thank God for the special gift of the Cure of Ars. The Pope in his pastoral letter to the Irish people outlined the importance for all of us to do some penance, but don’t worry it’s unlikely that you or I are being called to be a Cure of Ars. The Cure would not even allow some of his parishoners to imitate him in his mortifications, as he had a special grace for this. As the Pope has recently instructed, we can however perform acts of penance and we should do each day, if possible. Penance is not just about giving things up, we can perform little acts of sacrifice like not turning on the radio in the car, or not having a desert after dinner, or picking up someone else’s piece of paper off the ground, but doing all this for love of Jesus. Nobody will know but you and Jesus. God has a mission for each one of us, and time will reveal what this is. We can stay focused and close to God by making little sacrifices as the Little Flower has advised. Each day we are called to live a life of holiness as if it is our last day on Earth, and we can learn from the Cure in this respect.
Today let us pray to the Cure of Ars to intercede for us for all our needs, but also pray to The Cure of Ars for our priests and those called to religious life, especially those in your own parish. You can be sure that The Cure had many people praying for him.