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John Vianney and the Cross

In his biography of St. John Vianney, the Abbé Alfred Monnin, a contemporary of the saintly man, noted that he was not only oppressed by demons, but also by men who were otherwise good, fellow clergy. When Monnin asked whether this disturbed him, he said: “it is the cross which gives peace to the world; it is the cross which ought to bring peace to our hearts. All our miseries come of our not loving the cross. It is the fear of crosses which gives weight to the cross.”

The saint had a whole spirituality of suffering centered on Christ’s instruction to “take up your cross.” His spiritual ally, Saint Augustine, had explained long before in a sermon: “His command is not really difficult or painful, since he himself helps us to do what he commands.” Augustine connected this commitment to the line in his version of Psalm 17:4: “Because of the words of your lips I have abided by hard ways.”

Vianney concluded for himself that “a cross borne simply, without those movements of self-love which exaggerate its suffering, is no longer a cross.” In the process of carrying one’s cross, one faces a number of different spiritual dynamics. The one that really gets in the way is what he calls self-love. Any trace of egoism in one’s relationship to God in the particular suffering amplifies that suffering and gets in the way of our taking on the suffering unselfishly as Christ did. This egoism impairs our complete identification with Jesus Christ because there is more to relationship. Going back to Augustine: “they must not presume on their own strength.”

One of the modern and misleading cultural icons is the individual who struggles through misfortune by sheer will power. In fact, there is much more to the struggle as Vianney and Augustine and of course, Jesus himself had taught in the struggles of their lives. This struggle is the historical realization of our relationship to God. It is not possible to separate Him out in some fashion so as to conquer adversity on your own and so demonstrate your own virtue to the world. This means, however, being immersed constantly in the fact that Jesus really is a concrete historical person, the one witnessed to in the Scriptures and Catholic teaching, and blazingly present in the very life of the Church.

Our relationship with Christ is what it is all about. Vianney said quite bluntly, “nothing so likens us to our Lord as the bearing of his cross.” That “nothing” doesn’t leave much out. It is very much like Job’s words, in the Old Testament: “We accept good things from God; should we not accept evil?” (Job 2:10) Here, Vianney was recognizing the whole range of our relationship with God. So Catholicism is not merely a religion of ritual and morals. It involves both good and bad and the key – the sign of the quality of the relationship – is how we respond to each of them.

Statue of Saint John Vianney by sculptor Émilien Cabuchet (1867)
Statue of Saint John Vianney by sculptor Émilien Cabuchet (1867)

Vianney went on: “I do not understand how a Christian can dread and fly from the cross. Is it not also to fly from him who vouchsafed to be nailed to it, and to die on it for the love of us?” There is the nub of the matter. Further, those who live the life of the Cross, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, have sometimes been actually – physically – impressed with the marks of the Cross, the stigmata.

Coming at the issue of suffering from a different angle, Vianney once said: “If we could but go and pass a week in Heaven, we would know what this moment of suffering is worth.” The ultimate and genuine horizon of all of life is Heaven. Something good is a hint of Heaven. Something bad is a moment on the road to Heaven.

Going back to the people causing Vianney’s suffering, Monnin says: “he welcomed these humiliations for another reason. They delivered him from the continual dread of hypocrisy, with which he was filled, by the homage so generally paid him.” It is not for nothing that hypocrisy is mentioned again and again in the Gospels.

To put on the appearance of being devout, of even calling oneself devout and yet living contrary to the Gospel in fact was recognized as a pitfall by Vianney himself, which made him welcome critics: “at least I am not deceiving everybody. There are some who estimate me at my true value; how thankful ought I to be to them! They will help me to know myself.” As a humble man, he could see that at least some of the calumny and detraction might have been true. The real saints get glimpses of how they really stand before God and these glimpses may come from the people around them rather than from any supernatural vision.

As St. Augustine counsels us, “but hold out, be steadfast, endure, bear the delay, and you have carried the cross.”

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.