The Saintly Shuttle Pocket, The Anchor, March 12, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
March 12, 2010

Because love is the point of human life and the means of holiness, it’s not at all surprising that St. John Vianney excelled in Christ-like charity.

The Curé of Ars’ example is a great lesson for us during the Lenten season, which began on Ash Wednesday when, among other things, Christ called us back to the centrality of almsgiving in the life of faith. The future patron saint of priests lived and taught the real meaning of almsgiving: to love others as Christ has loved us first, by putting all we are and have — our money, possessions, time and talents — at the service of those for whom Christ gave everything down to the last drop of his blood.

Today we’ll look at St. John Vianney’s example of Christian charity. Next week we’ll focus on how he sought to catechize his people to love others as — or more than — they love themselves.

For the future patron saint of priests, charity began at a young age. During the French Revolution, there were thousands of poor and displaced families. On any given night, the Vianneys would take in as many as 20 mendicant families on their farm in Dardilly, with the women and girls sleeping in the house and the men and boys sleeping in the barn. The example of his parents’ generosity and Christian hospitality had a contagious impact on him. He routinely gave the little food he had to the boys his age who often had gone for quite some time with no food at all.

When he was a seminarian, something happened to him that forever after influenced the way he would treat the poor. Struggling in his studies, he decided to make a 120-mile round trip pilgrimage to a mountain shrine. He made a vow that he would not bring any provisions, but beg for his food along the way. He anticipated people would be kind, especially to a pilgrim seminarian. He was wrong. No matter how many people he asked, he was consistently refused and often gratuitously insulted and derided. He was so hungry toward the end of his 60 mile hike to the sanctuary that out of desperation he began to eat some grass and shrubs. At the shrine, a priest commuted his vow so that he could buy provisions on his way home. He would never forget, however, what it felt like to beg and to be refused. This experience gave him a great compassion toward all those in need. “I begged only one time in my life,” he confessed later, “and it was awful. It’s then that I know that it’s better to give than to ask.”

When he became the Curé of Ars, his almsgiving would know no limits. Almost everything he had, he would give away. We discussed in an earlier column how he gave away his entire familial inheritance to build a school and an orphanage for girls. “He had a tender love for the victims of misfortune,” the Mayor of Ars told one biographer. “For them, he stripped himself of everything; he was forever giving. To enable him to bestow alms, he sold all his personal property: his furniture, his linen, any trifle that belonged to him.” Any money that was given to him by pilgrims was soon passed on to the poor. He called his cassock pocket “the shuttle pocket,” because whatever entered there soon left into the hands of the poor.

He would literally give the shirt off his back for the poor. He was constantly instructing the person who cleaned the rectory to make sure there were enough shirts in his wardrobe so that he would be able to pass one on to a man in need. In 1823, his fellow priests gave him a pair of velvet trousers, to keep him warm while returning to his parish during a cold winter mission. One Saturday walking home, he found a poor man shaking in the cold. “Wait a moment, my friend,” he said, as he went behind the shrubs and returned holding his pants. When his brother priests asked him a short time later how the pants were working out, he said. “I put them to fairly good use; a poor man has borrowed them for an unlimited period!” He would routinely give his shoes to barefooted men he encountered and then try to hide under his cassock the fact that he was just wearing stockings. He would also exchange bread with the poor, giving them the fresh bread that people had brought by the rectory in exchange for the blackened crusts they carried in their wallets. This was a means by which he could preserve them from the shame of begging.

He wasn’t afraid of being exploited. His assistant Fr. Raymond sought to persuade him that many of those who asked for alms were “impostors” just trying to take advantage of his generosity. Many of the leading residents of Ars complained that their village had become a place where all the indigent of the region would converge, including many who were poor by choice rather than by circumstance. Fr. Vianney wasn’t naïve and therefore sought to be discriminating in his charity, giving more to those who had greater need. But at the same time, he gave something to everyone who begged. “We are never taken in,” he said, “if we give to God.” He expanded upon the point, saying, “If it’s for the world that you give alms, you are right to complain [about being taken]. But if it’s for the good God, whether one thanks you or not, what does it matter?”

He would regularly add, “I prefer to be deceived that to deceive myself,” meaning that he would never want to make a false conclusion about someone’s motives and refuse someone in read need. To those who complained that some recipients made bad use of his sacrifices, he replied, “The poor man will be judged on whatever use he makes of your alms, but you will be judged on the alms itself that you could have done but didn’t.”

He was kind even to those whom even the most generous secular philanthropists would never have given. One woman who had been caught stealing linen from the orphanage and money from the sacristy came to him after she had been released from prison. He readily gave her clothes and money to help her get back on her feet.

He sought whenever possible to give alms anonymously. He used to refer, as a model of charity, to how St. Nicholas of Myra secretly provided a dowry for the three young girls by throwing sacks of money through their open window. For that reason, he cherish the presence of a poor blind woman, Mrs. Bichet, who lived near the Church. He could walk up to her and give her alms without her ever knowing the identity of her benefactor.

Toward the end of his life, his charity was staggering. He was paying the rent of at least 30 families so that they wouldn’t lose their houses and farms. To hundreds of others, he was providing fuel and flour. To those who complained he was “too” charitable, he replied, “I’ve never seen someone ruined by doing good works!”

He said once, only half in jest, “The dentists ask five francs per tooth. If someone would give me five francs for each of the dozen teeth that remain, I would freely take them all out for the poor.” As if that wasn’t a strong enough indication of his prodigal heart, he added, “I would even sell my cadaver in order to have money for my poor!”

He simply did not know how not to give when he saw someone in need. He often quoted St. Augustine, who taught, “Love doesn’t know how to remain without action.” He would tell his people: “You’ll never be able to find a true love that doesn’t show itself in deeds!” Real love always leads to deeds of love.

That’s the type of love we’re called to, in Lent and in life.