Learning From Heroes, The Anchor, July 3, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
July 3, 2009

I begin today a series of articles on St. John Vianney, the Curé or pastor of Ars, who was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1929 the patron saint of parish priests and who, during this Year of the Priesthood, Pope Benedict will declare the patron saint of all priests.

Just over a month from now, on August 4, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s birth into eternal life. A century-and-a-half may seem a long time ago. It’s an era before refrigeration, light bulbs, televisions, computers, cars, planes, and modern medicine. It’s a time before the civil war. Yet, in terms of the larger issues of world and Church history, it is not so long ago at all, because France at that time was grappling with issues flowing from the French Revolution that will seem to us very modern since they still constitute the dominant themes regarding the organization of society, the Church, and human life today. For that reason, we can learn a lot about how to approach these issues from the reaction God inspired St. John Vianney to make in his lifetime.

Unlike many of the great saints in history, who are known, loved and admired by Catholics of all backgrounds and states of life, St. John Vianney is someone with whom most priests are very familiar and most lay people almost totally unfamiliar. What I hope to do in this series is first, to make him better known and loved, and second, to draw lessons from his life, vocation, priestly example and preaching, to inspire and help all of us to live our faith today with a zeal and courage similar to his.

When I consider the roots of the heroism St. John Vianney displayed as pastor of Ars, I cannot help thinking back to what he observed as a young child growing up in Dardilly in southeastern France.

A few months before he had turned five, the notorious “Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” flowing from the most-anticlerical factions of the French Revolution, started to be enforced. In addition to severing allegiance to the Pope, suppressing 57 dioceses and having the populace — including non-Catholics — elect their local bishops and their parish priests, it required every bishop and priest to take a written oath “to be loyal to the nation, the law, and to the king, and to support with all his power the constitution decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by the king.” Since many aspects of the constitution were in direct violation of truths of the faith and of ecclesiastical law, priests and bishops were being asked, in essence, to make the civil constitution, rather than the law of God, the supreme rule of his life.

The penalties for non-compliance became increasingly severe. At first they involved losing their parishes, their faculties to preach publicly and their income. Then they grew to include imprisonment and forced exile to far-away islands like Guyana. Eventually those who continued to disobey and avoid capture, when caught, would be executed at the guillotine within 24 hours without the possibility of an appeal. The Lyons Guillotine was administered by an apostate priest named Joseph Fouché who presided over the execution of 130 brother priests with a ferocity that stunned even the bloodthirsty Robespierre.

About fifty percent of priests ended up taking the oath. Most of the other fifty percent — called “non-jurors” or “refractory” priests — left the country lest they violate their faith. Thirty of the réfractaires, however, remained in the area around Lyons, at the risk of their lives, to care for the pastoral needs of the faithful under the brutal regime change.

At first the Vianney family, who were pious farmers, were oblivious to what was going on around them. They continued to attend Mass at their parish Church in Dardilly. They didn’t really know why Fr. Jacques Rey, their pastor for 39 years, had just suddenly disappeared. He had initially out of weakness taken the schismatic oath, but then, persuaded by his curate and the young clergy of the diocese, he came to repent of his action and publicly disavowed it, leading to his removal. The new schismatic bishop appointed a new juror-pastor, but the Vianneys, like many families, did not know what was occurring and in good faith continued to go to Mass as normal.

They did begin to observe some changes, however. First, the homilies were different. Instead of the themes they had been accustomed to hearing on being a good disciple, on obeying the ten commandments, on being salt, light and leaven, they started to get heavy doses on being a good citizen, on obeying the constitution, and on living civic virtues. Secondly, those attending with them were different. There were many well-dressed people whom they had never seen at Church before who now were showing up each week; on the other hand, many of the regulars with whom they had worshipped side-by-side for years were now absent.

Eventually a relative who came to visit, upon learning that they were still attending Sunday Mass at the Dardilly parish, expressed her horror and brought them up to speed on recent developments. She explained about the oath and how their new pastor, in taking it, had separated himself from the Catholic Church and was not their true pastor. The good priests, she continued, had refused to take it, and were now being persecuted. Several of them had remained at great risk, incognito as carpenters or cooks, to minister to their spiritual needs. It was to these, she told them, that they needed to go.

And so the Vianneys began participating in the underground Church of southeastern France. Once it was nightfall, they would head out in darkness and total silence to a place, often several miles away, where they were told Mass was going to be held. There were always people on the lookout for such pilgrim bands leading them to a priest who, if turned over to the authorities, would gain them a reward of 100 francs. When they eventually arrived at a dark barn or barely illuminated house, they would find a priest aged beyond his years priest praying in front of a makeshift altar or hearing confessions in the corner of a room. The priest would often have to bless marriages before celebrating Mass with the help of dim flame.

The Vianneys, over time, would occasionally host the forbidden Mass and hide the prohibited celebrants. If they were caught harboring such priests, the penalty was confiscation of property and banishment. To decrease suspicion, they, like all good Catholics, would ordinarily hide their crucifixes, statues and other pious objects, taking them out secretly only to pray. The young John Vianney had a tiny statue of our lady that he learned to treasure and use in this way.

This was the context in which young John Vianney began to consider the priesthood. He witnessed first hand not only the heroic example of priests who would risk everything to bring them Christ, but also the faith of his family, who with him would put everything on the line to attend Mass, knowing that what they would receive in the Mass was far greater than everything they might lose if caught.

Later on in life, John Vianney would remember with emotion his first confession made to one of these heroic priests at the foot of the clock in the Vianney living room. He would also recall making his first communion with 14 others in a house of a neighbor while their fathers were unloading hay outside the drawn windows as a decoy.

These were all lessons he would never forget.