The Cure of Ars Life and Message
Life of the Holy Curé
- A life under God’s eyes -Saint John Vianney [1786-1859]
Jean-Marie Vianney was born on 8th May 1786 at Dardilly near Lyon into a family of farmers and his childhood was deeply influenced by the fervour and love of his parents. However the context of the French Revolution made a powerful mark on his youth : he made his first confession beneath the great clock in the living room of the house in which he was born, instead of in the village church and he received absolution from an underground priest. Two years later he made his first communion in a barn, during a clandestine mass celebrated by a non-juror priest. At the age of seventeen he chose to answer the call of God, saying to his mother Marie Béluze : “I would like to win souls for the Good Lord”. Yet his father opposed to this choice for two years for labour was scarce in his father’s house.
At the age of twenty he began to prepare for the priesthood with the Abbé Balley, the parish priest of Ecully. His difficulties matured him : he oscillated between discouragement and hope, and went on pilgrimage to La Louvesc to the tomb of Saint François Regis. He chose to become a deserter when he was called into the army to go and fight in the war in Spain. However the Abbé Balley was able to help him during these years of trials. He was ordained a priest in 1815 and at first was curate at Ecully.
He was sent to Ars in 1818. There he awakened the faith of his parishioners through his preaching but most of all by his prayer and his way of life. He felt his own weakness in the face of the mission he was to accomplish, but he allowed the mercy of God to seize him. He restored and embellished his church, founded an orphanage, “La Providence” and took care of the poorest of the poor.
Very rapidly his reputation as a confessor drew to him many pilgrims who were seeking through his person the forgiveness of God and peace of heart. Assailed by many a trial and battle, he kept his heart rooted in the love of God and neighbour : his sole concern was the salvation of souls. His catechism lessons and homilies above all proclaimed the goodness and mercy of God. He was a priest who let himself be consumed by love before the Blessed Sacrament and who was totally surrendered to God and given over to his parishioners and to the pilgrims. He died on 4th August 1859 after having surrendered to the bitter end to Love. His poverty was not feigned. He knew that he would die one day a “prisoner of the confessional”. He had attempted three times to flee his parish, believing himself unworthy of the mission of parish priest and because he thought that he was more of an obstacle to the goodness of God than an instrument of His Love. The last attempt to escape was less than six years before his death. His parishioners caught up with him in the middle of the night and brought him back after having rung the alarm. He then came back to his church and began hearing confessions at one o’clock in the morning. The next morning he remarked : “I behaved like a child”. There was a crowd of more than a thousand people at his funeral, including the bishop and priests of the diocese, who had come to the man who was already an example for them.
He was beatified on 8th January 1905 and in the same year was declared “patron of the priests of France”. Pius XI canonised him in 1925 (in the same year as Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus) and in 1929 he was proclaimed “patron saint of the priests of the entire world”. Pope John Paul II came to Ars in 1986.
Today Ars welcomes 450,000 pilgrims a year and the Shrine proposes various activities. A seminary was opened in 1986. It trains future priests under the guidance of “Monsieur Vianney”, for there where the saints pass, God goes with them!
The message of the Holy Curé of Ars
The message of the holy Curé for today, summarised in a few points…
A man of prayer
Long periods spent in front of the tabernacle, a true intimacy with God, a total surrender to His will, a face transfigured… elements such touched deeply those who met him and made the depth of his prayer life and union with God perceptible. They were his greatest joy and the ground for a true friendship with God : “I love you, oh my God, and my only desire is to love you until my dying breath”. This was a friendship that implied a reciprocity which Mr. Vianney compared to two pieces of wax which are melted together and can no longer be separated or identified as distinct from each other ; it is thus for our soul with God when we pray…
At the heart of his life, the Eucharist celebrated and adored
“He is there”, the Holy Curé would exclaim as he stared at the tabernacle. He was a man of the Eucharist celebrated and adored ; “There is no reality greater than the Eucharist”, he used to affirm. What touched him most deeply perhaps was the realisation that his God was there, for us, present in the tabernacle : “He awaits us !” The awareness of the real presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament was perhaps one of his greatest graces and one of his greatest joys. Giving God to men and men to God, the eucharistic sacrifice, very quickly became the heart of his day and of his pastoral life.
Tormented by the salvation of mankind
It is perhaps this which best summarises who the Holy Curé was during his 41 years as a priest at Ars. He was tormented by his own salvation and that of others, most especially that of those who came to him or for whom he was responsible. As a priest, he was "accountable to God” he used to say. That each person taste the joy of knowing and loving God, of knowing how much He loves us… this was what Mr. Vianney strove relentlessly to achieve.
A martyr of the confessional
As from 1830 thousands of people came to Ars for confession with him, and more than 100,000 in the last year of his life…. The Curé of Ars was a true martyr of the confessional, John Paul II declared, for he spent up to 17 hours a day ‘imprisoned’ in order to reconcile men with God and among themselves. Smitten by the love of God, filled with wonder at the vocation of mankind, he had grasped the full measure of the folly in wanting to be separated from God. He wanted each person to be freed in order to be capable of receiving a taste of the love of God.
At the heart of his parish, a man with a social awareness
“We cannot imagine what the Holy Curé did not accomplish by way of social work” one of his biographers comments. He saw the Lord present in each of his brothers and sisters and did not rest until he had assisted them, brought relief, appeased their suffering or soothed their wounds, and enabled each one to be free and happy. Nothing was beyond him…starting an orphanage, setting up schools, being attentive to the poorest and the sick, a tireless builder of the Church that he was. He accompanied the families and sought to protect them from all that destroys them (alcohol, violence, egoism…). At the heart of his village he sought to take into account each of the dimensions of the human person (human, spiritual, social).
The patron saint of the priests of the whole world
He was beatified in 1905, and in the same year on April 12th he was declared patron saint of the priests of France by Pius X. In 1929, four years after his canonisation, Pope Pius XI declared him “patron saint of the priests of the whole world”. Pope John Paul II said no less by repeating three times that “The Curé of Ars remains an outstanding and unparalleled model for all nations both of the accomplishment of the ministry and the holiness of the minister”. “Oh, how great a reality lies in the priest !” Jean-Marie Vianney would exclaim, for he can give God to men and men to God ; he is the witness of the tenderness of the Father for each person and the artisan of salvation.
The Curé of Ars, an elder brother in the priesthood, is the saint to whom every priest in the world can come in order to entrust his ministry or his priestly life to the Curé’s intercession.
A universal call to holiness
“I will show you the path to Heaven” he replied to the little shepherd boy who showed him the way to Ars. By this he meant ‘I will help you to become a saint’. “There where the saints go their way, God goes with them”, he would remark later on. Ultimately he invited each and everyone to let themselves be sanctified by God, to seek the means to achieve this union with God here on earth and for all eternity.