Yesterday, August 4th, we celebrated the feast day of St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of parish priests. It should first be noted that his very early days were not exactly the most favorable time to be growing up Catholic, as the French Revolution began when he was only three and for most of his youth, until he was about thirteen, his family and others would have to practice their faith in secret. He grew up learning to help on his father’s farm and didn’t have the time or money to be able to get an education. Always wanting to be a priest he finally left for the neighboring village where the pastor ran a ‘presbytery-school’ when he was 20.
Always remembered as being a very poor student he was especially noted as having difficulty with Latin. Unfortunately, at the time, this was the language all instruction would be given in once he made it to the major seminary and so it would be questioned whether he could continue or not. Eventually he would make it through. It was realized that he was very academically challenged, but he was also considered to be very devout, and so he was approved for ordination. Once ordained he was assigned to assist at a parish and would be noted as a popular confessor from the beginning.
After being ordained only about two years the parish of Ars-en-Dombes became vacant. It was described as a place they would send an ill-educated priest who wasn’t very motivated but would be trusted to have a few straightforward and safe sermons he could preach. Basically where nothing much was expected and it was considered not much harm could be done, and Vianney was considered a perfect candidate. But they were mistaken about the effort that he would put forth in fulfilling his ministry. Not resigned to do the minimal he would visit every household, set up classes for children, and particularly set an austere, devout, and disciplined example for the people. Slowly making this little town, that was dismissed an example of how people could truly live a religious life.
Over the years he would become particularly known for spending hours on end hearing people’s confessions every day. All types of people would make a journey by rail to specifically come to Ars to go to Vianney for confession. And while his popularity and effect on people through the sacrament of confession should not be minimized, it has also been considered that many of the people who came may have been there not simply for Fr. Vianney, but to see a parish of practicing Catholics in mid-nineteenth-century France.
I hope you can see why he is the patron saint of parish priests, but also why he appropriately is most often referred to as the Cure of Ars, since we should not just remember the saint, but the also the parish that also provided the example for others in their day.