The Grappin and the Gros Poissons, The Anchor, February 26, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
February 26, 2010

Last we described the various vexations by which the devil for over 35 years harassed the patron saint of priests at night as he was trying to get a couple of hours of rest before returning to the confessional. These diabolical assaults are among the most famous and well documented in recent Church history. There were many eyewitnesses, and even more “ear-witnesses,” of these infestations. Hundreds of his parishioners and tens of thousands of pilgrims would hear the sounds coming from St. John Vianney’s bedroom each night. Thrill-seeking boys, who are always simultaneously fascinated and terrified by haunted houses, would press their ears against the rectory’s doors and windows to listen for the voice of the devil, seldom leaving unsatisfied. Rectory visitors would routinely be awakened by the devil’s various manifestations coming from Vianney’s bedroom at night.

There were, of course, bound to be skeptics. Among the most incredulous initial doubters were Fr. Vianney’s brother priests. They thought there was a far easier explanation for what the Curé of Ars was saying was occurring to him each night: he was so worn out by his rigorous fasts, immoderate mortifications and excessive hours in the confessional, they said, that he had lost his mind and had begun to hallucinate.

The thoughts of the presbyterate changed abruptly in 1826, during a parish mission in Saint-Trivier. Fr. Vianney and most of the priests of their area had come to help out. The first night, all of the priests heard loud noises coming from Fr. Vianney’s bedroom. They determined that Fr. Vianney himself had to be the cause, since the cacophony began only after he entered the room and ceased when he departed. “It is the grappin,” Fr. Vianney corrected them. “He is angry because of all the good that is being done here.” They refused, however, to believe him. “You do not eat, you do not sleep,” they retorted. “It is your head that is playing tricks on you!”

The next night a loud noise, which the priests said resembled the moving of a heavy cart, was heard throughout the rectory. The whole house began to shake like an earthquake and they thought it was about to crumble. Then they heard terrifying noises coming from Fr. Vianney’s room. One of the priests exclaimed, “The Curé of Ars is being murdered!” and they ran to his quarters. When the door was thrown open, they saw that the Cure’s heavy bed had been hauled into the middle of the room. “It is the grappin who has dragged me here!,” the priest said, smiling but embarrassed and apologetic. “I’m sorry I forgot to warn you adequately beforehand.” He then clued them in on a secret that he had already discovered about the devil’s harassments: “It is a good sign, however. There will be big fish tomorrow.”

“Gros poissons,” or big fish, was the way Fr. Vianney referred to inveterate sinners, guilty of some of the worst mortal sins, who had not been to confession for years. Fr. Vianney had already recognized that the nocturnal molestations were most severe whenever a “big fish” was to appear the following day. It was then that the devil most wanted to throw Fr. Vianney off his grace-filled game, so that he might decide to take a rest the following day and not be available to reconcile to God someone whom the devil had long held captive.

Even after witnessing the noise and the “interior redecoration” of the devil in the rectory, however, the priests in Saint-Trivier weren’t buying the explanation that what was occurring to Fr. Vianney had anything to do with the confessional or the reconciliation of notorious sinners. So a few of them decided to spy on the Curé of Ars’ confessional the following day to see if any “big fish” really did show up. Toward the end of the day, a scandalous nobleman, who had long neglected his religious practices and had flaunted his impieties and sinful behavior throughout the village, entered the Church, asked Fr. Vianney to hear his confession, and soon after left a new man. After that, the priests of the region began to recognize that their special colleague was thoroughly telling the truth.

“At the beginning I felt afraid,” he said to a priest who asked about the history of his encounters with the devil. As bothersome as all of the molestations were, however, he eventually learned how to take joy in them when he realized that there was a link between what was going on in his bedroom and what was going on in the confessional. “I did not know then what it was, but now I am quite happy. It is a good sign: there is always a good haul of fish the next day.”

He would speak often about this connection. “The tumult is greater and the assaults more numerous if, on the following day,” he said, “some big sinner is due to come.” After a particularly bad night he came into the Church and stated, “The devil gave me a good shaking last night. We shall have a great number of people tomorrow.” Such advertising led him to begin to look at the devil almost as a collaborator. “The grappin is very stupid,” he told a group of penitents. “He himself tells me of the arrival of big sinners!” For that reason, “the grappin and I are almost comrades.”

It was understandable that many of the people who would hear the vile sounds coming from the rectory at night or who would hear his stories about the devil would become afraid. He would readily pass on to them various counsels he had gained from his experience.

He summarized his advice by saying: “I turn to God. I make the sign of the cross. And I address a few contemptuous words to the devil.”

To kids in the catechesis, he expanded on these recommendations, “The devil is very clever, but not very brave. A sign of the cross puts him to flight.” He added that he would often get the devil to stop harassing him by threatening to tell the kids in the catechesis about his behavior, so that, rather than fear him, they would despise and reject him.

To his younger sister, Gothon, who had slept over the rectory one night and had heard much more than she bargained for, he said, “Don’t be frightened. It is the grappin. He cannot hurt you.” Except in the rare occurrences of obsession and possession, the devil cannot hurt us, but seeks only to frighten us away from God and the power of the Cross.

The devil also seeks to divert us from our vocations. Once, when Fr. Vianney was ill, a young philosophy student was going to confession to him in his bedroom. When he was about half way through, the whole room began to shake and the kneeler he was using started to rock violently. Frightened, the young man stood up and was about to flee. The Curé grabbed his arm and guided him back to the kneeler, “It is only the devil,” he said. At the end of the confession, Fr. Vianney told him that if the devil so was so desirous of disrupting his confession, he must have the vocation to be a priest. Denis Chaland took that advice and the whole experience to his prayer. He did indeed end up becoming a priest, but the harrowing occurrence scared him away from ever again confessing to the Curé of Ars!

It’s unsurprising that Fr. Vianney’s work to transform Ars from the domain of the “prince of this world” (Jn 12:31) to the kingdom of God would be violent, and that the devil would try to fight back. St. John Vianney was the one to suffer most of the direct attacks of that violence for the sake of his parishioners and penitents. But he succeeded in freeing hundreds of thousands from the grip of the devil in the confessional.

As we’ll see next week, he also freed some from the possession by the devil through exorcism.