Saint John Vianney and all Priests

What does John Vianney have to do with all priests, diocesan and religious? Well, in his Letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, Benedict XVI spent a great deal of time on explaining precisely that. This was a significant event in the history of the Church. It signaled the end of the period of imaginary experimentation that slouched into the Church starting in the fifties. I say “imaginary” because this experiment had more to do with the self-validation that dominated so much social thinking then than with any real advance in understanding.

We had a panoply of attempts to “correct” the Church’s understanding of what the priesthood is by bringing in the current fads in different social sectors. The then current obsession with management thinking gave us the 9-5 crowd (The priest as CEO of a business). The self-growth movement gave us the bachelor priest (priesthood is just a job, the rest of the time the man is free to pursue most of what other young men do). The celebrity culture gave us the star-struck priest (the priesthood is for me to express myself because  that is what existence is all about). The culture of anti-institutionalism gave us the go-it-alone priest (I know Christianity better than the Church). The wave of pop psychology gave us the if-it-feels-good-do-it kind of priest (Hell in the confessional). Finally, let us never lose sight of the sin of pride which always gives rise to the priest as climber (Jesus died so I could have a position in society) Traditionally, priests who do not trust the Church’s teaching on priesthood have looked elsewhere for a model of priesthood that they do not find to be too demanding.

In the fifties, these quirky self-absorbed ways of thinking moved from being sad but amusing oddities to being the mainstream. The waves in the culture supported and validated the thinking of many individual priests. The recent scandals have made clergy more self-aware, but the atmosphere of experimentation finally needs to be buried. By the way that he framed the Year for the Priest, Benedict XVI has moved to do this, not by edict, but by putting Saint John Vianney front and center in his treatment of priesthood. By using an example, especially so complete an example, as can only be offered by a historical figure, Benedict XVI is ensuring that Saint John Vianney will enter into every reflection on priesthood, diocesan or religious.  Each of the distortions of the priesthood listed above only happened, without other priests laughing themselves silly, because the distortions developed in period of great idealism. Crudely put: in the fifties and sixties priesthood could be reduced to an idea and who knows what happens to an idea once it gets into people’s heads?      

First of all, Benedict tells us that John Vianney teaches by the witness of his life. This is a solid three-dimensional presence. Let me just give you one quotation from Benedict’s letter: “Upon [Vianney’s] arrival [in Ars], he chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought whenever needed.”(John Monnin, Biography)

Then the Mass meant everything to him. Benedict cites Abbé Nodet, who explains: “All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass” – he would say – “since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God.” (Nodet, Biography)

Closely linked to the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Confession. Benedict states that: “By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness.”

Then finally, John Vianney was poor, chaste, and obedient, even though he was a diocesan priest. Benedict cites John XXIII who said that “even though priests are not bound to embrace these evangelical counsels by virtue of the clerical state, these counsels nonetheless offer them, as they do all the faithful, the surest road to the desired goal of Christian perfection.”

The point is that John Vianney embodies the specifics of priesthood as it is understood in the Catholic Church. A good Dominican is going to find a powerful resonance between this image of priesthood and the priesthood of Saint Dominic, as will a Franciscan,  and so on with the other founders. (This is only as regards priesthood per se and is not a comment on the role of the founder of a religious order.) The Catholic priesthood, because it is ontological, needs John Vianney’s rock solid expression to stand against the vagaries of cultures and the willfulness of sinful individuals. Benedict XVI is giving us a wonderful lesson on the priesthood and also showing us how to think about Catholic realities.