St. John Vianney and the Pursuit of Holiness

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience August 5, 2009

During his general audience on Aug. 5, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. He emphasized the Curé of Ars’ unrelenting pursuit for holiness throughout his lifetime and his special devotion to the Eucharist and to the sacrament of penance.

Dear brothers and sisters,

In today’s catechesis, I would like to briefly return to the life of the saintly Curé of Ars, highlighting those characteristics that can serve as an example for the priests today, which is certainly quite different from the time in which he lived, yet is marked in many ways by the same fundamental human and spiritual challenges.

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of his death. On Aug. 4, 1859, at 2 o’clock in the morning, St. John Baptist Mary Vianney, having come to the end of his life here on earth, went forth to his heavenly Father in order to receive the legacy that was his — the Kingdom that God had prepared before the creation of the world for those who faithfully follow his teachings (see Matthew 25:34).

What a great feast in heaven it must have been at the arrival of such a zealous pastor! What a welcome must have been given him for his work as a parish priest and a confessor by the multitude of these children who had reconciled with the Father!

I was inspired by this anniversary to declare the Year for Priests, which, as you know, has as its theme “Faithfulness to Christ, Faithfulness of the Priest.” The credibility of every priest’s testimony, as well as the effectiveness of his ministry, is, of course, dependent on holiness.

Illiterate at 17

John Mary Vianney was born in the tiny village of Dardilly on May 8, 1786. He came from a family of farmers who were poor in material goods but rich in faith and kindness to their neighbors.

He was baptized on the day he was born, according to the custom in those days, and he dedicated the years of his childhood and adolescence to working in the fields and tending to the animals. As a result, he was still illiterate at the age of 17.

However, he had memorized the prayers that his pious mother had taught him, and he had been nourished by the intense spiritual atmosphere of his home. His biographers tell us that he sought to conform himself to God’s will from his earliest childhood, even in the humblest of tasks.

He nurtured a desire in his soul to become a priest, but it was not easy for him to do so. In fact, he was ordained to the priesthood only after numerous trials and misunderstandings thanks to the help of some wise priests, who did not merely consider his human limitations, but were able to look beyond them in order to see the holiness of this truly exceptional young man.

Thus, he was ordained a deacon on June 23, 1815, and a priest on the following Aug. 13. Finally, at age 29, after many uncertainties, failures and tears, he was able to ascend to the altar of the Lord and realize his life’s dream.

‘Conquer Many Souls’

The saintly Curé of Ars always demonstrated a deep appreciation for the gift he had received.

“Oh, what a great thing the priesthood is!” he exclaimed. “It can only be understood in heaven ... If it could be understood on earth, one would die, not of fright but of love” (Abbé Monnin, Esprit du Curé d’Ars, p. 113).

As a child, he confided to his mother: “When I become a priest, I would like to conquer many souls” (Abbé Monnin, Procès de l’ordinaire, p. 1064).

And so he did. In his pastoral service, which was as simple as it was extraordinarily fruitful, this unassuming parish priest from a remote village in the south of France was so successful in identifying with his ministry that he became, in a way that was visible and universally recognized, an alter Christus, an image of the Good Shepherd, who, unlike a hired hand, would give his life for his own sheep (see John 10:11).

Following the example of the Good Shepherd, he devoted his life to decades of service as a priest. His life was a living catechesis that was especially effective when people saw him celebrating Mass, kneeling in adoration before the tabernacle, or spending many hours in the confessional.

The center of his life was the Eucharist, which he celebrated and adored with devotion and respect.

Another fundamental characteristic of this extraordinary priest was his tireless ministry in the confessional. He saw the sacrament of penance as the logical and natural fulfillment of his priestly ministry, in obedience to Christ’s command: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (see John 20:23).

Thus, St. John Mary Vianney distinguished himself as an excellent and tireless confessor and spiritual master.

Moving “with a single interior movement from the altar to the confessional,” where he spent a great part of his day, he sought in every way, through prayer and persuasive counseling, to help his parishioners rediscover the significance and the beauty of the sacrament of penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence (see “Letter to Priests on the Year for Priests”).

St. John Mary Vianney’s pastoral methods might appear to be hardly suitable for today’s social and cultural situation. Indeed, how can a priest today imitate him in a world that has changed so much?

Even if it is true that times change and that many charisms are specific to a person and therefore unrepeatable, there is, nonetheless, a fundamental way of living and a fundamental desire that we all are called to cultivate.

It is clear the Curé of Ars’ holiness was rooted in his humble faithfulness to the mission to which God had called him — his constant abandonment, full of trust, into the hands of God’s providence. It is not because of his own human gifts or his exclusive reliance on an admirable commitment of the will that he was able to touch the hearts of people.

He conquered souls, even the most antagonistic souls, by communicating to them what he experienced in an intimate way — his friendship with Christ.

He was “enamored” of Christ, and the true secret of his pastoral success was the love that he nurtured for the Eucharistic mystery that he proclaimed, celebrated and lived. This was transformed into love for Christ’s flock, Christians as well as all those who were seeking God.

Total Transformation

His witness reminds us, my dear brothers and sisters, that for every baptized person, and even more so for every priest, the Eucharist is “not simply an event with two protagonists, a dialogue between God and myself.

“Eucharistic communion leads to a total transformation of one’s own life. In a powerful way, it flings open the entire ‘I’ of man and creates a new ‘we’” (Joseph Ratzinger, La Comunione nella Chiesa, p. 80).

Therefore, far from reducing the figure of St. John Mary Vianney to an example — admirable as it is — of 19th-century devotional spirituality, we need to see the prophetic power that was a characteristic of him as a person and as a priest, which is highly relevant even today.

In postrevolutionary France, which experienced a kind of “dictatorship of rationalism” that was set on annihilating the very presence of priests and the Church in society, he lived, above all during his youth, heroically and clandestinely, walking miles at night in order to take part in holy Mass.

Later, as a priest, he distinguished himself by a singularly fruitful pastoral creativity, intent on showing that the rationalism that prevailed at that time was in reality far from satisfying the authentic needs of man and thus clearly unlivable.

Dear brothers and sisters, the challenges of society today, 150 years after the death of the saintly Curé of Ars, are no less demanding. On the contrary, they have, perhaps, become more complex. If there was a “dictatorship of rationalism” during his time, in the current age there is a “dictatorship of relativism” in many sectors. Both are inadequate responses to man’s rightful demand to fully use his own reason as a distinctive and constitutive element of his own identity.

Complex Challenges

Rationalism was inadequate because it did not take into account human limitations and claimed to elevate reason alone as the measure for all things, transforming it into a god.

Contemporary relativism degrades reason because it has come to affirm that the human being can know nothing with certainty beyond what science can know in a positive way.

Today, therefore, like then, man, “who is begging for meaning and fulfillment,” is constantly searching for in-depth answers to the fundamental questions that present themselves unceasingly.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council had this “thirst for truth” that burns in the heart of every man in mind when they affirmed that it falls on priests, “as educators in the faith,” to form “a genuine Christian community” that is capable of opening up “the way to Christ for all men” and to exercise “true motherhood” to them, pointing out and making smooth to nonbelievers “the path to Christ and his Church,” and an instrument for those who already believe, “arousing, nourishing and strengthening the faithful for their spiritual combat” (see Presbyterorum ordinis, 6).

In this regard, the holy Curé of Ars continues to teach us that every priest should have an intimate and personal union with Christ at the basis of any pastoral commitment, one that he must cultivate and nurture day after day.

A priest can teach this union, this intimate friendship with the divine Teacher, to others only when he is enamored of Christ. Only then can he touch the hearts of men and open them up to the Lord’s merciful love. Consequently, it is only in this way that the priest can infuse enthusiasm and spiritual vitality in the communities that the Lord has entrusted to him.

Let us pray that, through the intercession of St. John Mary Vianney, the Lord may give his Church holy priests and that the desire to sustain and aid their ministry may grow in the hearts of the faithful.

Let us entrust these intentions to Mary, whom we invoke today as Our Lady of the Snows.

Register translation

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