Miracles in Ars, The Anchor, June 4, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
June 4, 2010

“God is always almighty,” the Curé of Ars once told his sister. “He can at all times work miracles and he would work them now as in the days of old were it not that faith is wanting.”

St. John Vianney had a deep and total faith in God and hence it’s unsurprising that God regularly began to work them in Ars during the time of the patron saint of priests as Jesus worked them in Capernaum, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and elsewhere during his public ministry.

As we see in so many of Jesus’ wondrous deeds, miracles occur in response to faith and are meant to confirm and elicit deeper faith. They are never ends in themselves, or merely supernatural solutions to natural problems, but are meant ultimately to lead people through faith to salvation. Jesus often tried to prevent those who received miracles from speaking about them, lest everyone begin to look at him more as healer of physical maladies, bread and fish multiplier, solver of irremediable problems, and even restorer of life to the dead than as the Savior sent by God to heal them of their sins. When God began to answer in abundance St. John Vianney’s prayers for physical cures, he likewise sought to downplay their significance lest Ars become known as a free clinic for the body rather than a priceless hospital for souls.

The greatest miracles of all that occurred in Ars, the Curé of Ars insisted, were the miracles of conversion. The conversion of someone from a state of mortal sin to grace, he said, is “a greater miracle than what the Lord did to raise Lazarus!” “The body is so very little” in comparison, he said, to the “sacrament that heals the wounds of our soul!” These were the types of miracles for which the patron saint of priests implored God the most, and, aving witnessed so many of them as a confessor, it’s somewhat predictable that he trusted totally in the Lord’s ability to work the “lesser” miracles of the body.

In the investigations for St. John Vianney’s cause for canonization, which began just six years after his death, 30 documented physical cures were presented, but these were just a small sample of what occurred in Ars. The Mayor of Ars, after much commotion was made over the healing of a blind girl, straightforwardly replied to the astonished visitors, “Oh! Our holy Curé performs many such miracles!” These wondrous cures only continued after the priest returned to the Father’s house, which the process of canonization also noted.

As with Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel, those worked through St. John Vianney were of all types: young and old, the deaf, blind, mute, partially or totally paralyzed, those afflicted with tuberculosis or visible tumors, and maladies affecting almost every part of the body. He also worked prodigies like the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Once, when those at the orphanage and school told him in desperation that there was no longer had any food at all to eat, he bowed his head, prayed and send one of the staffers up to the previously empty attic with a cup to bring down some corn. The confused young woman went out of obedience, only to return seconds later saying that she couldn’t open the door. When others went to help her, they discovered that the reason they door couldn’t open was because the entire attic was now filled with corn to the very roof.

Normally St. John Vianney tried to deflect the agency for the miracles the Lord worked for him. His greatest thaumaturgical co-conspirator was St. Philomena. When Vianney was just 16, the grave of this young female martyr was discovered in the catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome and her remains brought to Mugano, a suburb of Naples. Since she had died for the faith about the age of 15, the pious future priest developed a natural devotion to this heroic young contemporary, about whom little was known beyond her name. When Fr. Vianney received a relic of hers after his ordination, he resolved to spread devotion to her. During the renovations of the Church in Ars, he built an altar to her and installed her relics within. It was from that altar that her fame grew by leaps and bounds.

To those who came to the Curé of Ars asking for cures, he replied, “I do not work miracles. I am but a poor ignorant man who once upon a time tended sheep. Address yourselves to St. Philomena. I have never asked anything through her without being answered.” He affectionately called her his “dear little saint,” “consul,” “representative,” “intermediary,” and “agent with God.” It was clear that they had a very deep, personal, supernatural friendship. He sent a girl who hadn’t been able to speak in two year to go pray at St. Philomena’s altar with these words: “Tell her that if she is not willing to restore your voice to you, she should give you her own!” She was cured at the end of the prayer. To a woman paralyzed on her left side, he instructed, “Go and talk about all this to St. Philomena and tell her, ‘Restore my arm to me or give me your own!’” She was healed instantaneously.

After many such miracles, however, people started to ascribe them — it seems correctly — not just to St. Philomena but to the faithful priest who was invoking her alongside them. That was too much for the Curé of Ars to handle. He told friends he had to strike a deal with his saintly friend: he would send them to her altar to begin a novena but that she would ask God to grant the miracle on the ninth day, after they had returned home from Ars. Fr. Vianney told his parochial vicar, “I have asked the saint to cure souls here to her heart’s content, but to heal bodies elsewhere. This time she has heard me: several sick people have come here to begin their novena; they finished it at home, where they were cured, unseen, unknown!” But the priest grew frustrated when his saintly intercessor violated her end of their agreement. Once, when a crippled child was cured instantly at her altar, he said to a friend later, “St. Philomena has broken her word. She should have cured the child elsewhere!”

Try as he did to pass the credit for the working of miracles to St. Philomena, there were several that he worked that could not be so delegated. A famous and funny example happened when a woman brought a child with a huge tumor under his eye. The priest suggested she take the child to St. Philomena’s altar. She said she would, but asked first for his blessing. As he raised his arm, the mother took his hand and touched it to the tumor, which immediately disappeared. “A fine trick was played on me today,” he told friends later. “I felt so ashamed that had I seen a hole anywhere I should have tried to hide in it.” Several cures also happened immediately in the confessional, especially of those who were mute and otherwise would not have been able to confess.

Since miracles always require faith, and morals flow from faith, Fr. Vianney demanded this living faith from those who came with such requests. To a young epileptic from Marseilles who was not living chastely, he said, “That is not the way to behave for one who desires to be cured.” To a young girl with a paralyzed, shortened leg, he told her that her leg would be cured to the extent that she became truly respectful of her mother. Over the course of the next three months, she worked on it and her leg inexplicably began to grow and acquire complete neuromuscular control.

Often the saint tried to help people to see that a physical cure might not be spiritually good for them. As we’ve discussed in a previous column, St. John Vianney viewed the cross as a caress not a curse and believed that “the greatest cross is to have no cross!”  He therefore said to a sick man, “O my friend, I do not know whether to pray for your cure or not. One should not take the cross from shoulders that are so well able to bear it!” These are words for us to ponder.

As we near the conclusion of the Year for Priests and this series, it would be wise for us not only to look at St. John Vianney as a model disciple and pastor, but also as a most powerful intercessor, even for otherwise hopeless physical cures. The same Lord who worked miracles in Palestine 2000 years ago and in France 150 years ago through the Curé of Ars’ intercession is still all-powerful and does still work them in response to faith.  As a reminder of that truth, St. John Vianney would undoubtedly want me to point every reader to the confessional, where the omnipotent Lord works his greatest of miracles every day.