Saint John Maria Vianney
Dardilly, France. May 8, 1786.
Ars-sur-Formans, France. August 4, 1859.
He was beatified by Pope Pius X on January 8, 1905.
He was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 31, 1925.
St. John Maria Vianney, known as the Holy Cur of Ars was born on May 8, 1786 in Dardilly, France, into a farming family. His parents passed on to him a solid faith and an ardent charity through their example. The saint would later say, “After God, I owe everything to my mother. She was so good!” John remembered how during the winter they took in the poor, seated them at their table and his father hung their damp clothes by the hearth to dry. Also, during the French Revolution, when many were persecuted, the family took in up to 20 persons a night.
During the French Revolution, while John was a child, the Catholic religion was fiercely persecuted. The Vianney family, however, did not leave their pious practices and continued to attend Mass, in clandestine, risking their lives just as the priests did. The Saint receives his First Holy Communion in secret, when he was 13 years old, with great excitement and overflowing joy. All of these experiences profoundly impact him.
At 17 years old he felt called to the priesthood. He tells his mother, his confident, “If I were a priest, I could gain many souls for God.” His father, however, although he was a good Christian, did not allow him to leave, for he did not want to lose John’s help in the fields. He didn’t obtain his father’s permission to begin his studies until he was 20 years old. Father Balley, the parish priest of Ecully, a town close to Dardilly, offered to help him. He enthusiastically began his studies, however Latin was very difficult for him and he began to be discouraged. Then, he decided to go on pilgrimage, by foot, begging for alms, to the tomb of St. Francis de Regis, en Louvesc,( about 100 km away) to implore the saint’s help. This was in 1806. His difficulties continued. His journey to the priesthood was sown with problems and misunderstandings, failures and many tears on John’s part. Amidst all these troubles, he always had the support and help of priests, like Fr. Bally, who discovered, above John’s human limitations, God’s urgent call to the priestly life.
After much effort, on June 23, 1815, John Vianney was ordained a deacon. A year later, on August 13, he was finally ordained a priest, at 29 years old. His heart overflowed with joy, for he understood the greatness of the priesthood. “Oh, how great is the dignity of a priest! It will only be understood in heaven. If it were understood on earth, we would die, not of fear but of love,” said the Holy Cur.
His first destination as a priest was as the assistant priest in the parish of Ecully, with his beloved Fr. Balley, who was always a true spiritual father for him. When Fr. Balley passed away in 1818, John was named chaplain of the Church of Ars. Beforehand he was told, “In that town there is little love of God, but you will instill it.” These words turned out to be prophetic. Ars was a little town of about 230 inhabitants, lost in the south of France. It was poor from a material point of view and even more so from a spiritual point of view. The inhabitants had grown cold in their faith, and had deeply rooted bad habits, like working on Sundays, blaspheming, taverns and dances.
Image of the Good Shepherd, the Holy Cur of Ars gave his life for his flock. He desired the salvation of all his parishioners, above all of those who were farthest away, or most hostile to the faith, the greatest sinners. Therefore, he implored, “My God, grant me the conversion of my parish. I agree to suffer all that you want me to, the greatest pains, for my entire life, even if I were to live a hundred years, as long as they convert.” He spend long hours in prayer, did very hard penances for his parish and preached the truth with great strength. His life was a miracle of God, for many years he lived in extreme austerity, eating only boiled potatoes and getting very little sleep. His love for the Eucharist, his prolonged and fervent prayer, his devotion and recollection during the Holy Mass, the poverty in which he lived, and his works of charity, were very edifying and touched many hearts, bringing them to conversion. Inflamed out of love, he exclaimed, “My God, grant me the grace to love you as much as I am capable of.” He was able to share his intimacy and love of Christ with other souls, “We know that Jesus is there, in the Tabernacle; let us open our hearts to him and rejoice in his presence. This is the best prayer.” “Come to receive Holy Communion, my children, come to where Jesus is. Come! Live by Him to be able to live with Him.” He also stood out for his works of charity. One example of this is the foundation of the House of Providence, a school for poor girls, which ended up converting into a home for orphaned girls from the area.
He especially distinguished himself as an untiring and outstanding confessor and spiritual teacher. During the last years of his life, he spent up to 15 hours a day, and on occasion more, in the confessional. During the summers he burned up from the heat and during the winter he froze. It was a great penance which he offered up for the conversion of sinners, especially for his parish. He didn’t hold back anything not reject any sacrifice that might help lead souls to God. He identified himself with Jesus Christ the Victim and suffered for the sins which were confessed to him and, even more so, for the lack of repentance. He said, “I cry for all of you who do not.”
His reputation soon began to spread throughout the surrounding towns and cities and then through all of France. The small town of Ars began to receive considerable numbers of pilgrimages of penitents who wished to confess or to consult this priest for their spiritual problems. The line of penitents who awaited their turn to confess reached outside the Church and wrapped around it several times. People of all different conditions, eminent prelates, famous intellectuals, and simple countrymen, came to Ars.
The Lord enriched him with many gifts, among which was the gift of reading consciences. He encouraged some, helped others to overcome their scruples, their cowardice or their pride. He reminded some of their forgotten sins, clearly showed others their vocations or warned them of the dangers they would face, etc.
His austere and penitential life, together with the long hours spent in the confessional, wore on St. John Maria’s health, leading him to physical exhaustion. Around the year 1853, a group of diocesan missionaries were sent to help him, to lessen his work. However, he did not slow down his work but rather increased his time in the confessional and the reception of pilgrims since he was freed from other duties.
On July 29, 1859, he felt bad but went down to the Church, as usual, at 1 a.m. However, he was unable to spend all morning in the confession; he had to get some air. Before the catechesis at 11, he asked for a bit of wine and went up to the pulpit. No one understood him, he looked towards the tabernacle with tears in his eyes. Later he continued confessing. That night he also felt bad and asked for help, thinking that his end was near. “The doctor won’t be able to do anything. Call the priest from Jassans.” On August 2, in the afternoon, he received the last sacraments. He said, “God is so good; when we can no longer go towards Him, He comes to us.” During the early morning of August 4, while they prayed around him, the Holy Cur died peacefully, without any sign of agony. He had been in Ars for 41 years and he was 73 years old.
He was beatified in 1905 by Pope Pius X. In 1925, Pius XI canonized him and three years later, named him the Patron Saint of Parish Priests. On June 16, 2009, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s birthday, Benedict XVI convoked a Year of the Priest, to “contribute to the interior renewal of all priests, so that their evangelical testimony in the world today might be more intense and direct.” (Benedict XVI) His body is incorrupt in the Basilica of Ars, France.
For the Holy Cur of Ars, the Eucharist was the center of his existence. If he said, “a priest is the love of the Heart of Jesus,” we could well say that the Eucharist was the love of the heart of John Vianney.
He transmitted his passionate love of the Eucharist to his parishioners, inviting them to draw near to the Lord, frequently visiting the Blessed Sacrament and cultivating a personal relationship of love of Him through prayer and frequent reception of communion. “Visit Jesus. It so good for us to visit Him! How pleasing it is to leave our work for 15 minutes to come to pray, to visit him and to console him for the many offenses he receives.” “We know that Jesus is present in the Tabernacle. Let us open our hearts to him and rejoice in his presence. This is the best type of prayer,” he told them. He also insisted that they frequently receive communion, “Come to receive Holy Communion, my children, come to where Jesus is. Come! Live by Him to be able to live with Him.”
The Holy Mass was the center of his day and he taught the faithful the importance of the Sacrifice of the Altar. He said, “All good works put together cannot be compared with the Sacrifice of the Mass, because they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God.” “If we knew what the Mass really is, we would die. We won’t understand the happiness found in the celebration of the Mass until we get to heaven. Oh my God, how lamentable it is that a priest might celebrate Mass as if it were an ordinary thing!”
He spent a long while preparing himself, on his knees and in silence, with his eyes fixed on the Tabernacle, for the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. During the homily, he frequently fixed his gaze on the Tabernacle, taken up in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and couldn’t speak. When he had the Sacred Host in his hands, he momentarily paused to contemplate it and smiled in such a way that it seemed that he was seeing the Lord himself. Before the Tabernacle, he excitedly said, “He is there!”
Although he lived in the upmost poverty, he did not hesitate to spend all the money necessary to restore the church and enrich it with liturgical ornaments. He also stood out for the small details of love that he had, the way that he genuflected before the Eucharist or how he looked towards the Tabernacle.
John Maria’s childlike soul was nourished by the warmth of a firm faith and a tender Marian devotion which he had learned from his family. One day, while still very little, he was looking at a rosary and his little sister came up and took it from him. He, who didn’t want to give up his prized treasure, became to kick and cry. But, his mother said, “My son, give your rosary to Gothon for love of God,” and this was enough to make the child, despite his tears, give his rosary to his sister. Mrs. Vianney rewarded her son’s generosity giving him a small statue of Our Lady which until then had been on the fireplace in the kitchen. Many years later, the saint would say, “I loved that statue so much! I couldn’t leave it, day or night, and I wouldn’t have slept peacefully without it at my side!” He took the statue with him when he went to pasture the sheep. He liked to make altars for her, decorating them with flowers, and he went there to pray alone before them.
He spoke with the Blessed Virgin with trust and familiarity. “ The Most Blessed Virgin is without spot; she is adorned with all the virtues which make her beautiful and pleasing to the Most Holy Trinity.” And again, “This good Mother’s heart is nothing more that love and mercy. She only wants us to be happy. You only have to speak to her and she’ll listen to you.”
He had a habit of greeting the Blessed Virgin on the hour, every hour, making the sign of the cross and praying a Hail Mary, where ever he was. He daily prayed the rosary and encouraged others to do so. He asked the mothers to consecrate their children to the Most Blessed Virgin every morning, praying a Hail Mary. He encouraged the faithful to have a statues or image of Our Lady in their homes and to have a family consecration written below it. He signed these consecrations and, starting with the father’s name, wrote down all the family member’s names. When he came to Ars, he founded the Fraternity of the Holy Scapular and the Holy Rosary. His tender love for the Blessed Virgin inspired him to consecrate his parish to the Mother of God on August 15, 1836. He placed a statue of Our Lady above the church door. And shortly later, he had a red heart made and hung it from the statue. The names of all the parishioners are written inside the heart.
Catherine Lassagne, from the House of Providence, declared:
“I heard him say that he had made two vows to the Blessed Virgin and that he had never failed to fulfill them. One of the vows was to celebrate mass every Saturday in her honor, or, if he couldn’t, have it celebrated in her honor, to be under her protection. The other was to pray a certain number of times each day, “Blessed be the Most Holy and Most Pure Conception of the Virgin Mary.”
The Virgin Mary appeared to him many times. The first time was in the sacristy. A woman came in to speak with him, but saw that he was talking to another lady and went out to wait for him, without interrupting his conversation. After a long while, since the lady didn’t come out, she became impatient and knocked on the door. Saint John opened the door and told her to come in. She, surprised, asked him where the woman was whom she had seen with him before. The saint, realizing that she too had seen Our Lady, begged her, “Don’t speak to anyone about this! That woman won’t come out. She was the Virgin Mary. How blessed you are for having seen her! Love her a lot.”
Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed the Holy Cur of Ars’ devotion to the Virgin Mary:
“The Holy Cur of Ars felt a childlike devotion to her, to the point of, in 1836, consecrating his parish to Mary ‘conceived without sin,’ before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed. He maintained the custom of frequently renewing the offering of his parish to the Most Blessed Virgin, teaching his parishioners that ‘As soon as you begin to speak to her, she listens,’ simply because she ‘wants to see us happy.’”
The birthplace of John Maria Vianney. Here you can find his house, which is now a museum. He lived there until he was sent to Ars. Some of the saint’s relics can be found here.
The Basilica of Ars is a complex which is attached to the old church of Saint Sixtus from the XIX century, where the Holy Cur of Ars was the parish priest. In the chapel called the ‘Chapel of the Heart,’ you can venerate a relic of the saint’s heart. His incorrupt body also rests there. You can also visit the saint’s house where numerous relics of his are preserved.
From the saint:
Only 85 of his notebook, containing 113 of the saint’s sermons, have been preserved. Some of them can be found online or in some Catholic editorials.
From the Popes:
- Encyclical Letter "Sacerdotii nostri primordia" from Pope John XXIII, on the first centenary of the Holy Cur of Ars’ death. August 1, 1959.
- St. John Paul II’s letter to priests on Holy Thursday 1986.
- Pope Benedict XVI’s letter convoking the year of the priest on occassion of the 150th anniversary of the the Holy Cur of Ars’ birthday.
- Pope Benedict XVI’s catechesis on August 5, 2009.
- Pope Benedict XVI’s angelus on August 15, 2009.
From other authors:
- "The Cure D'Ars : St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney", by Francois Trochu.