God’s Greatest Masterpiece and Our Greatest Treasure, The Anchor, May 28, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into the Deep
May 28, 2010

In Catholic piety, May is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a fitting time, therefore, to see what we can learn from St. John Vianney’s ardent devotion to the Mother of God and how he sought to spread love of her among all his parishioners.

“The Blessed Virgin Mary was the object of my earliest affections,” the Curé of Ars declared late in life. “I loved her even before I knew her.”

His devotion began as an infant praying the Rosary with his mother. When he was four, Marie Vianney gave him a statue of the Blessed Mother that became, for the next several years, his constant companion. He would place it on a chair in the corner of a room and kneel down and pray before it. He would make a small altar out of bales of hay in the barn and spend hours in meditation. When he was watching the sheep, he would place the wooden image in the niche of a tree and invite his companions to join him in honoring her. Wherever he went, Mary was beside him. “Oh, how I loved that statue,” he would say retrospectively. “Neither by day nor by night would I be parted from it. I would not have slept had I not had it beside me in my little bed.”

That childlike love for Mary only intensified over time. He meditated on the mysteries of the Rosary every day. He sanctified each hour by saying a Hail Mary as soon as the Church bells rang. He prayed the Angelus three times a day. He would turn to Mary whenever he was in need. Once when his older brother was supervising him raking hay in the fields, the brother expected the young John Mary to keep up with all the other, much bigger boys in workload. The first day, John Mary broke down in tears at his incapacity to meet the higher expectations. The next day he sought Mary’s help. He decided to place the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary ahead of him and rake as fast as he could to “catch up to her.” He did that non-stop for the entire day, kept up with all the bigger boys, and finished the day amazed — and grateful to Mary — that he was not tired in the least.

As a priest, his love, devotion and reliance only magnified. One of the first things he did after arriving in Ars was to erect an altar in the Church dedicated to Mary. Every Saturday for the next 40 years, he celebrated a votive Mass to her on that altar, asking her intercession for his vocation and for all his parishioners. He led a pilgrimage of his whole parish on foot to Notre Dame de Fourvìeres in Lyons, to help them learn how to follow Mary’s faith on the pilgrimage of life. When he remade the entrance of the Church, he put a statue of Mary on the pediment above the door and hung around her neck a red heart-shaped box in which he had put the names of all his parishioners, as a tangible reminder of how tenderly she keeps each one in her immaculate heart.

He encouraged every family in the village to erect a statue of her before their house, to remind them each day to imitate St. John and take Mary into their home. For the inside of their houses, he gave every family a colored picture of the Mother of God, as a visible reminder of the consecration of the entire parish to her Immaculate Heart in 1836. He encouraged all the mothers in his parish, when they saw that blessed image in their homes for each morning, to re-consecrate to Mary all the members of their family.

In his extraordinary ministry of conversion, Mary was St. John Vianney’s constant intercessor and accomplice.  He repeated often that he sought to put into practice the insight of St. Bernard, who attested that he had obtained more conversions by a single “Hail Mary” than by all his sermons combined. The parishioners of Ars routinely witnessed their pastor begging Mary’s help for the conversion of sinners. Once when a man was resisting coming into the Church for confession, the Curé of Ars was overheard praying, “Mary, don’t leave me for a minute. Be always at my side. Mary! Chase away the demon who has enslaved this person under his empire, who is tempting him and trying to prevent his making a good confession.” When others came asking him to pray for the conversion of a loved one, he always readily assented, but he likewise recommended that they have recourse to the Blessed Virgin and make a novena to her for this purpose.

He tried to help everyone relate to Mary as a mother full of merciful love. “The heart of this good mother is only love and mercy,” he said. She “desires so much to help us… but above all does so when we want to return to the good God.” Therefore, “we should address her with great confidence, sure that, even though we’re miserable, she will obtain for us the grace of our conversion.” To back up this point, he used a characteristically unforgettable image: “The more we’re sinners, the more she has tenderness and compassion for us. The child who has cost his mother the most tears is always the one dearest to her heart. Does not a mother always run to the weakest and most exposed of her children? A doctor in a hospital, doesn’t he always pay most attention to the sickest?”

He encouraged them to follow his example and have recourse to her under trial. “If you invoke her when you’re tempted, this mother who is so full of tenderness will come immediately to your aid,” for she is “better than the best of mothers.”

He encouraged his parishioners to develop a deep filial relationship with her, by saying a Hail Mary at the beginning of each hour, praying the Rosary and the Angelus each day and turning to her with confidence whenever in need.

The secret of all his intercessory prayer, he confessed, was to make it through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin: “One prayer very pleasing to God is to ask the Holy Virgin to offer to the eternal Father his divine Son, all full of blood, all lacerated for the conversion of sinners. It’s the best prayer one can make. … My children, listen well: every time I have obtained a grace, I have asked for it in this way and I’ve never gone without.”

Full of love and reverence, he preached about Mary as “the masterpiece of God’s hands” and “the depository of all his graces.” When Pope Pius IX solemnly declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, five years before Fr. Vianney’s death, the priest’s joy couldn’t be contained. Despite multiple infirmities, he rang the Church bells himself so long and so loudly that people from neighboring villages came thinking that there was a fire. He sang the solemn Mass in a beautiful new vestment and walked in a celebratory procession. To those who thought in his condition he was going overboard, he gave his own version of the traditional Catholic aphorism,de Maria numquam satis (“of Mary, one can never say enough”): “In order to give something to the Holy Virgin,” he declared, “I would sell myself if I could!”

He treasured his relationship with his spiritual mother as the greatest gift he had ever received after the Eucharist. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “after having given us everything he could, wanted to make us heirs of what was most precious to him: his holy mother.”

He never took that gift for granted, and Mary helped him not only to become a faithful priest after the heart of her Son but a tireless collaborator in bringing literally hundreds of thousands to know, love and follow the blessed fruit of her womb.