St. John Marie Vianney, Patron of Parish Priests
On His Feast Day – August 4
Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, known as John in English, was born May 8, 1786, in Dardilly, France, and was baptized the same day. He was the fourth of six children born to Matthieu and Marie Vianney. He entered the world at a very unfortunate time in the history of his native France. Three years after his birth, the French Revolution broke out. The spirit of this Revolution was filled with a hatred for the Church. Many French churches were destroyed, and bishops, priests, and religious sisters were killed. Vianney received his First Holy Communion in secret as the public celebration of the Mass by loyal priests was forbidden. When he first expressed his desire to be a priest, his father would not allow it because young John was needed to work on the farm. He was twenty when he was finally able to pursue his studies for the priesthood, under the direction of a priest who ran a small school.
Once the Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars were over, he eventually was able to enter the seminary. He found the studies very difficult, and although the authorities recognized his goodness and made special provision for his slowness in learning, after doing poorly in his studies, he was about to be dismissed from the seminary. The Vicar General of the Diocese allowed his studies to continue by asking the Rector: "Is Monsieur Vianney good?" The Rector replied: "He is a model of goodness." The Vicar General said: "Let him be ordained. The grace of God will do the rest." Later, at John Vianney's ordination in 1815, the same Vicar General said: "The Church wants not only learned priests but, even more, holy ones."
In 1817, young Fr. Vianney was sent to the small town of Ars, whose parish consisted of 230 people. He took upon himself a life of great penance and prayer as one of the means of drawing the people of his village away from sin and closer to God. He became a great apostle of the confessional and his fame for sanctity and for being a wise but challenging confessor eventually made it necessary for him to spend upward of eighteen hours a day in the confessional. Fr. Vianney spent his entire life in the heart of rural France, which had first experienced the upheaval of the Revolution and then spiritual desertification due to anti-clericalism.
In the midst of many challenges, difficulties, and scandals today, we may hear it said that priests, bishops, and cardinals are corrupt, irrelevant, and out of fashion in our day. The life and witness of holiness of John Marie Vianney invites us to reflect on the priesthood and give thanks to God for the first parish priest who influenced our lives and introduced us to the Lord. The blatant infidelity of some priests, bishops, and cardinals is a very shameful and horrible burden, yet it is of infinitely less importance than the myriads of priests, bishops, and cardinals who, day after day, despite their suffering and the misunderstanding they encounter, often offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission, or even persecuted and killed, are witnesses of Christ in the world, together with so many of their religious or lay brothers and sisters. They are the witnesses of an incarnate God who continue to impress and fascinate contemporary men and women because they are signs of a different world and a different way of being.
The little town of Ars in the Diocese of Belley became famous throughout France and, eventually, throughout the world because of the holiness of its pastor. Fr. Vianney left behind a legacy of faith, a life of holiness and was known as the champion of the poor. Priestly holiness, a deep faith, and a love of the poor continue to speak loudly in our day. Now more than ever we need the example of Vianney’s holiness in priestly and episcopal ministry in the Church.
John Vianney died on August 4, 1859, at the age of 73. Nearly 1,000 people attended his funeral, including the bishop and priests of the diocese, who already viewed his life as a model of priestly holiness. On October 3, 1873, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Fr. Vianney as "venerable," and on January 8, 1905, Pope Pius X beatified him. St. John Vianney was canonized on May 31, 1925. His feast day was declared August 9,
but it was changed twice before it fell to August 4. May this holy presbyter, patron of parish priests, intercede for us today.