A Pastor After God’s Heart, The Anchor, June 18, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
June 18, 2010

Since last June, to mark the Year for Priests, which took place on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth into eternal life of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, I dedicated a year-long series to helping make the Curé of Ars better known and loved. As the Year for Priests concluded last Friday, it’s time to bring this series to a close.

We began the series by focusing on St. John Vianney’s early life, how he learned the importance of the faith during the time of the ferocious anti-clerical persecutions of the French Revolution. At the risk of fines, imprisonment and more, the Vianney family gave shelter to fugitive priests and often traveled in the dark hours of the night to attend their illegal Masses celebrated devoutly in out of the way barns. The young John Mary learned from all of this that the Catholic faith was worth living for and dying for. He learned that the Mass was worth every sacrifice and noctural journey to attend. And he saw the absolutely irreplaceable value of the priest in the way his families and others revered the courageous men who put their lives on the line to bring them the sacraments. All of these realizations would mark his entire life.

We then turned to the subject of the difficulties he had to overcome to realize his priestly vocation. His lack of formal education due to the revolution’s closing all Church schools left him without the adequate intellectual rudiments for seminary studies. He struggled to retain anything taught him, not to mention obtain minimal proficiency in the liturgical and theological language of the Church, Latin. From his philosophical studies, he received the grade of  a “poor student to the extreme.” He was dismissed from the Lyons theologate because he couldn’t even grasp the Latin exam questions, not to mention answer them. In all of this, he persevered, thanks to prayer and to the help of his priestly mentor, Fr. Charles Balley, who repeatedly put his reputation on the line to persuade the ecclesiastical authorities that, despite Vianney’s academic difficulties, he would make a good and holy priest. With that assurance, the vicar general of Lyons admitted him to Holy Orders, saying, “the grace of God will do the rest.” We saw throughout the series how the grace of God did do the rest.

We observed how, after a brief stint as Fr. Balley’s assistant, Fr. Vianney was assigned to Ars, a tiny hamlet of 60 families where, as the Vicar General told him, there was little love for God. Helping the Catholics of Ars fully receive and reciprocate the gift of God’s love became the aim of his life. That task, however, was easier said than done. He made all night vigils in the Church praying for the conversion of his people. He took to the pulpit to preach about the need for repentance and labored for decades to put an end to the widespread profanation of the Lord’s day, to blasphemy, to the human destruction wrought by the taverns, and to lust fueled above all in the lascivious dances called the vogues.

There was serious blowback. Several residents fought to drive him from town. They attacked him. They insulted him. They mocked him. They plastered the rectory with filth from the farms. They invented and spread calumnies that he was a pervert. It got so bad that Fr. Vianney anticipated that he would eventually be carried off from the town in handcuffs. But he persevered, out of love for the people, and eventually — after 27 years — won almost every resident over. His triumph is a witness to the power of God’s grace, to priestly perseverance and to the importance of pastoral stability.

We focused on how, as Pope Benedict said, his life was an “existence made prayer” and on the means he employed to make his parish a genuine school of prayer. In contrast to many others in his day, he taught that prayer is a simple loving contemplation, where we look at God and he looks at us. His greatest catechesis of all was his example, kneeling in front of the tabernacle and behold at his Eucharistic lord behind the tabernacle door with smiles and ineffable sighs.

We examined his Eucharistic pastoral plan for the people of Ars, how he sought to help them live truly Eucharistic lives. That plan took four steps. He first worked to get everyone he could to begin to come to Sunday Mass. Then, once everyone was present, he began to catechize them on what the Mass truly was: our participation in time in the eternal actions done by Jesus during the Last Supper, on Calvary and from Joseph of Arimathea’s sepulcher. He helped them to see that the Mass was the “greatest action” any of us can ever do. That led to the third step, which was to take Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist seriously and treat Jesus like we would anyone we love. He helped them to start to make regular visits to him in the Blessed Sacrament, convincing them that the reason why Jesus’ remained in the tabernacle was because he was awaiting our prayers. Lastly, he sought to help them to recognize that there’s nothing more important we could be doing on any day of the week than coming to Mass and receiving Jesus with love. By the end of his time in Ars, the vast majority of the residents were daily communicants, at a time when in other parts of France the vestiges of Jansenism had led to a situation where even cloistered nuns were receiving Jesus in holy Communion only a few times a year. Jesus, working from within these daily communicants, was able to do the rest.

I dedicated 13 articles of the series to his famous work reconciling sinners to God: how he needed to endure a “martyrdom of waiting” for a decade until his people would come regularly to confession; how he prepared people for the conversion by preaching, by prayer and mortification, and by pulling and pushing people into the confessional one-by-one. The reason why he heard more confessions than any priest in history was likely because he prayed harder and more persistently than any priest in history for the conversion of sinners. God rewarded his efforts and heard his prayers. We saw how he taught his people to make a good examination of conscience, to increase their sorrow by his weeping over their sins, to acquire true purpose of amendment, and to adopt a life of penance in reparation for their sins and the sins of others. In short, he opened a “great hospital of souls” in Ars to which people flocked non-stop for over three decades. Pope Benedict has called every priest to learn from the conversion of Ars from a place where no one confessed to where the world came to confess what is possible for them today.

We focused on St. John Vianney’s 35 years of battling against the devil, his concern for kids and passion for education, his renowned charity, his preaching, his love for saints and for making his people saints, dhis evotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, his miracles and his death and canonization.

Early in his time in Ars, he had said, “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure that the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.” In all that he did, he sought to be that type of pastor after God’s heart, which is why the Church now venerates him as the patron saint of and model for all parish priests.

It’s been a great joy for me, with you, to have spent this last year getting to know him better and love him more. Let us continue to invoke his intercession for all priests, that they may share their patron’s awareness of how great a treasure and precious a gift their priestly ministry is, identity themselves totally with their mission, and cooperate with the Lord for the salvation of all his people.