In the summer of 1859, the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush began. Amherst and Williams played the first intercollegiate baseball game. In October, John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. Troops commanded by Robert E. Lee captured him. He would be hanged on December 2. And, on this very date, the Curé of Ars, Jean Baptiste Vianney, died in his village in France, age 73.
Vianney’s beatification and canonization were among the most rapid in modern times, before the reforms in these processes by Pope John Paul II. Pius X beatified him in 1905, and on May 31, 1925 he was canonized a saint by Pius XI.
In my previous column (“Abortion is the Crux”), I referred to the famous quotation of St. Josemaria Escrivá, that “these world crises are crises of saints.” We may heartily agree with the statement, and yet not quite understand precisely what it means. What it means seems to vary as much with the individual, and the crisis, as does sanctity itself. Consider as pertinent examples: Saints Juan Diego, Thomas More, John Henry Newman, Mother Teresa, and John Paul II. But today let’s consider Vianney.
In retrospect, Vianney looks to be one of several great priests and religious raised up in the wake of the French Revolution to help bring France back to the faith. He was a boy during the French Revolution and Reign of Terror. He saw priests executed and the churches closed under order of civil authorities. Yet for him, the need for priests became, therefore, more palpable, not less so. And he was not alone: among those ordained deacon with him in Lyons were Marcellin Champagnat (canonized a saint by John Paul II in 1999), and Jean-Claude Colin – founder of the Marist Fathers.
Yet although saints are the answer to crises, they do not aspire to be “answers to crises” – nor arguably could they become saints if they did so. They aspire to love God passionately, regardless of crises. Vianney’s biographer, Joseph Vianney, interprets Vianney’s well-known struggles with Latin and philosophy in this light.
By human lights, Joseph writes, one might have thought that the crisis in France would best be answered by brilliant apologetics in the Sorbonne, or attractive oratory in the cathedral of Notre Dame. But the Church had still greater need of country pastors, “to demonstrate, by the sanctity of their lives, the truth of the Gospel, in which the people had ceased to believe. The child from Dardilly had been chosen, from among all others, to be the model of those holy priests, who are indispensable to the execution of the divine plan.”
Late in life a churchman brought a complex case of conscience to the confessional in Ars for the Curé’s counsel, and found that a problem that had perplexed the greatest moral theologians was resolved immediately, elegantly, and convincingly by the simple pastor. He asked where Vianney had acquired such astute theological knowledge. The saint responded by pointing to his prie-dieu.
The Curé was deeply convinced of his own unworthiness, received no consolations from his own virtue, and prayed fervently that no attention would ever be drawn to him. For instance, through his prayers, thousands of pilgrims to Ars were cured of bodily ailments. But apparently, in answer to his prayers, they were almost never cured on the spot. Rather, he would tell them to go back home and make a novena to St. Philomena – and on the 9th day they would be cured, without attention, and far from Ars.
It is well known that he would spend 16 or 17 hours in the confessional each day. That figure itself seems sufficiently impressive. But then consider that his church was not heated. He would quip humorously that, at the end the day in the winter, he would see his feet first, before he could feel them. He’d touch them, he said, to reassure himself they were still there.
In the high heat of summer, yes, the pilgrims waiting in line could step outside for a moment and get fresh air, to avoid fainting. But he spent the whole time behind a curtain in a box fed by the breath of the penitents, and often, as they were mainly poor, by their odor too.
And then he listened to sins during those 16 or 17 hours. This was his greatest cause of suffering. “I pine away with melancholy on this wretched earth,” he once told a fellow priest, “my soul is sad even unto death. My ears hear nothing but painful things that break my heart with grief.” His biographer likens this to St. Peter being compelled to witness the Passion for 17 hours each day.
He slept on boards for just a few hours nightly, enduring chronic pain. Only grace and love can explain his energy during the day. He consumed too little food for anyone to live on by natural means. Late in life, under obedience, he would take a little bread and milk after Mass. His biographer gives this telling incident: “Brother Jerome, who was often present at this light repast, soon noticed that he always ate the bread first, and drank the milk afterwards. ‘But, Monsieur le Curé,’ he observed one day when he saw with what difficulty the bread was swallowed, ‘if you were to put your bread in the milk it would be much better.’ ‘Yes, I know’ was his gentle answer.”
And it was much more difficult for a parish priest than a religious, he would say: “It is thought, prayer, intimate union with God that a priest needs. The curé, however, lives in the world ; he converses, mixes in politics, reads the newspapers, has his head full of them ; then he goes to read his breviary, and say his Mass; and so, alas ! he does it as if it were an ordinary thing!”
Alas indeed! His words apply to laypersons as well as secular priests. And these world crises are crises of saints.
*Image: Le Curé d’Ars (St. Jean-Marie Vianney) by Émilien Cabuchet, 1867 [Basilica of Ars, Ars-sur-Formans, Ain, France]