The Cross of Clerical Criticism and Envy, The Anchor, January 15, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
January 15, 2010

When I was a seminarian, a priest I knew was taking me out to dinner. On the way to the restaurant, we passed a church whose territory bordered the parish where he was pastor. Since there was no sign on the property, I asked him what the Church was called. He told me its name and then added, “Some bad developments happening there.” I braced myself for the worst as I asked him, “What’s going on?”

“A holy priest has moved in,” he responded mournfully. That answer and tone caught me off-guard.

In my ecclesiastical naiveté, I queried why that was a “bad” development. “The worst thing for a pastor,” he replied, with words I’ve never been able to forget, “is when a holy priest moves next door. Everyone starts comparing you to him and they begin changing their expectations.”

This particular priest’s attitude toward a holy colleague in his midst is by no means representative, but it was an eye-opening experience for me. At least some priests, I realized, rather than rejoicing at the sanctity of a colleague, regard it as a problem or even a threat.

This story from the 1990s is useful to understand the negative reactions of many priests in 19th century France to the Curé of Ars. Last week we described the opposition Fr. Vianney suffered from lay people who didn’t want a holy pastor calling them to conversion. Today we discuss the even more painful antagonism from those priests who didn’t want a holy colleague.

The opposition began with Fr. Tripier, the cleric who was appointed Curé of Ecully after the death of the Fr. Vianney’s mentor and first pastor, Fr. Charles Balley. When Fr. Tripier arrived, he found the rectory more like an austere monastery than a place of priestly comfort. Even though the people loved their parochial vicar, Fr. Triper thought that Fr. Vianney — in his tattered and patched cassock, unpolished shoes, and drooping hat — was disgracefully attired for a priest, especially one near Lyons, where priests were famous for their external deportment. He was upset that Fr. Vianney did not share his interest in good food and drink, preferring instead to fast or to eat the smallest portions possible. He was particularly perturbed that the curate did not share his pastoral priority to give preferential care to the well-to-do families of the parish. All of these offenses led Fr. Tripier to conclude that there was something wrong with the future patron saint of priests — he was too “rigid” and eccentric — and to ask for him to be transferred.

After he had been appointed to Ars, many of the priests from the surrounding districts echoed Fr. Tripier’s censures. The well-dressed clergy thought that he was vested more like a beggar than as a priest. Some teased him about it; others criticized him and even judged him, claiming that he dressed shabbily in order to attract attention by pretending to be humble and holy. One priest refused to remain near him until he put on a better hat. Another denounced him in his presence to the bishop for not wearing a sash on his cassock. His eccentricity was confirmed, the priests asserted, when on a parish mission they bought him a pair of warm velvet trousers to wear under his thin cassock on his long wintry walk home. Along the way, he met a shivering beggar and exchanged his warm new pants for the beggars’ cold, old ones. Such actions, which were somewhat routine, elicited derision and disapproval from his brother priests rather than admiration for his charity and selflessness.

Things got worse once the lay faithful from throughout the region, during parish missions, started going to confession preferentially to Fr. Vianney, and especially when they started to make pilgrimages to Ars to confess to him there. Many of his brother priests — at least a few, blinded by envy — deemed such choices by the lay people “spiritually dangerous.” The Curé of Ars, after all, had spent only five months total in seminary, had been dismissed from it for being an “exceptionally poor student,” and still barely knew Latin. The situation was aggravated when some mentally unstable people returned from Ars proclaiming that Fr. Vianney was a better priest than their pastors and often inventing words to put in the Curé of Ars’ mouth to justify their foolish behavior. One pastor received a stipend from a lady to pray for a special intention, only to discover later that the special intention was that he be removed and Fr. Vianney take his place!

Several of the surrounding pastors, alarmed that the people were esteeming a colleague whom they believed too simple-minded, began to take action. Many forbade their parishioners to go to Ars. Others wrote to the bishop. Several used their Sunday sermon to preach, not about the good news, but against the Curé of Ars. Fr. Vianney got wind of what his colleagues were doing and it wounded him, as silly as it was. “Poor little Curé of Ars,” he said. “What do they not make him say! What do they not make him do! They are now preaching on him and no longer on the Gospel!”

He started receiving “hate mail” from his brother priests. One of the more famous examples came from Fr. Jean-Louis Borjon, a newly ordained priest in a village five miles from Ars. Jealous that so many of his parishioners were going to Ars, Fr. Borjon denounced him from the pulpit. He then wrote to his neighbor, charging, among other things: “When a man knows as little theology as you, he should not go into the confessional.”

Fr. Vianney was grieved and wondered whether God might indeed be offended by his service in Ars. He wrote the young priest back, “Most dear and most venerated confrere, what good reasons I have for loving you! You are the only person who really knows me. Since you are so good and kind as to take an interest in my poor soul, do help me to obtain the favor for which I have been asking for so long a time: that being released from a post which I am not worthy to hold by reason of my ignorance, I may be allowed to retire into a little corner, there to weep over my poor life.”

Fr. Vianney’s sincerity and humility deeply moved Fr. Borjon, who, pierced with compunction, ran to Ars to beg Fr. Vianney’s forgiveness. Vianney warmly embraced him. Thereafter the young priest became one of the Curé of Ars’ greatest supporters.

The priests of the region eventually composed a circular petition calling on the bishop to remove Fr. Vianney because of his supposed ignorance. By accident the petition was sent to Ars. Fr. Vianney read it and saw the names and denunciations. His response? He signed his own name to it and sent it off to the bishop, hoping that the bishop would react by sending someone more “capable” to Ars. The prelate, however, seeing Vianney’s signature, and marveling at his humility, decided — as a means by which to justify Fr. Vianney in the eyes of his colleague —  to send a canon of the cathedral to examine the situation. During the visitation, Fr. Vianney submitted a list of 200 difficult cases of conscience he had confronted along with his solutions. The prelate found the solutions unfailingly correct.

After the examination, when priests continued to call Vianney “mad,” the bishop routinely replied, “Gentlemen, I wish that all my clergy had a small grain of the same madness!” The bishop granted him faculties, rare at the time, to hear confessions anywhere throughout the diocese. With time the bishop’s support and admiration began to be emulated by most of the presbyterate. The greatest redemption of St. John Vianney’s reputation among his brother priests occurred in subsequent clergy convocations where, even though he was listed as one of many official confessors, most of his brother priests chose to confess to him.

They began to see, in short, that having a holy priest as a neighbor is not a “bad development” but a grace for faithful and priests alike.