By Isabel Orellana Vilches

Saint John Mary Vianney, the “Cure of Ars, Patron of priests, was enamored of the Eucharist and a master of penance. Among others, he received the gift of tears. With his sanctity already in life, he moved the Europe of his time.”

Benedict XVI declared in 2009 a “Year for Priests, which extended from June of that year to June of 2010, giving this admirable Saint as an example for priests. The Pontiff made a panegyric of this humble parish priest who arrived at Ars saying: “My God, grant me the conversion of my parish. I accept to suffer all that You will during my whole life,” bearing his yearning until the end. The Pope wished to remind the ordained ministers to be holy priests during the commemorative celebration of the 150th anniversary of Father Vianney’s death. His touching trajectory of love reflected his extraordinary passion for the divine. He was an apostle who touched the heart of hundreds of thousands of people with his virtue, in the silence of his offering and embrace of the cross, contemplating the Eucharist, enveloped in tears.

He was born in Dardilly, France on May 8, 1786, when the Revolution as starting and its influence was felt in Catholic homes such as his, which marked his childhood. The pious practices that his whole family was obliged to carry out clandestinely, also marked his First Communion: he received It at night in a haystack. He helped his family with field tasks and taking care of cattle. However, he wanted to be a priest at all cost and, although his father was opposed, he succeeded in beginning his studies. The formators recognized his virtue, but he was calamitous in regard to his studies. Discouraged at having to leave the Seminary, he begged for alms to cover the cost of his pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Francis Regis. He left there with the conviction he would be a priest despite his limitation.

At 17, being a seminarian, he was exempt from fighting with Napoleon’s troops, for which he had been recruited. Enveloped in adventures, alternating sickness, and periods of convalescence, he ended up following a deserter without realizing it. He survived fourteen months hidden in the mountain of Noes using fictitious names until the amnesty took place, all this with the knowledge of the Mayor, whom he informed of the situation. Then he continued his studies in Verrieres and Lyon. As his problem with Latin continued, he wasn’t admitted to the Seminary; neither did the Brothers of the Christian Schools receive him. Finally, Father Balley helped him and John Mary, who couldn’t assimilate the subjects, was ordained in 1815 by the Bishop of Grenoble, without finishing his studies. The loneliness in which it occurred, a loneliness that continued afterward, did not take its toll on his spirit.

Happy to be a priest, he completed his formation with Father Balley, a virtuous priest, being his Vicar in Ecully over a brief period, until the latter died. Then he was sent to Ars, which didn’t have a parish. His pastoral experience took place in this school of holiness together with Father Balley. He began with something that isn’t acquired anywhere: the grace to be converted every day into another Christ, a longing he maintained without failing every second of his life. He suffered in his new destination and offered himself for sinners in a genuine holocaust, with a life full of penances and austerities, nourished practically with prayer, given that he hardly had anything to eat.

Of heroic humility, on innumerable occasions, he wished to find a place to go to “mourn his poor life.” He found coldness and distance to the faith in the people, but he soon moved them by his holy conduct. Night and day they saw him praying before the Tabernacle, and their initial curiosity turned into admiration. When he offered Mass it was obvious that he was remembering Christ’s sacrifice. “Oh, what a great thing the priesthood is! It won’t be well understood except in Heaven. If it was understood on earth, one would die, not of fright, but of love. What misfortune is a priest without an interior life!” he said.

Despite his strict discretion, the rumor circled of his raw fasts and penances. He didn’t have the gift of speech, but what he was able to do were embers that set on fire the heart of the faithful. They received fully the goods he offered them, even undermining the meager savings of the parish He won over everyone with his burning pleas to God and constant sacrifices, embracing a cross that came enveloped in defamations and a campaign of permanent discrediting before his Superiors, but his faith was unbreakable. He was determined to place very high people’s moral values. He was able to do it all, despite the devil’s snares who gave him no peace.

The example of his heroic charity and rigorous mortifications circulated everywhere, going beyond the borders of Ars. And pilgrimages began to arrive, which took on an unexpected dimension in a short time, given the testimonies that spoke of the priest’s virtue, which extended from Lyon and Belley to the rest of France and of Europe. People of all conditions, rich and poor, wanted to go to Confession with him. And the humble confessional was practically his only abode. “The confessional is the coffin where they buried me while I was still alive,” he used to say.

Miraculously, he was able to survive for years without hardly eating and giving himself the least rest, attached materially to the harsh disciplines that he inflicted on himself. Obedient, simple, humble, grateful, with significant gestures such as acquiring a silk umbrella for a lady who received him in her home when he was hiding, with the gift of penetration of spirits and of tears, this great priest, tender and human, died on August 4, 1859. He had given glory to God and covered with his holiness the little village of Ars, practically unknown until he arrived, and that henceforth would be identified with his name. Pius X beatified him on January 8, 1905, and Pius XI canonized him on May 31, 1925, and named him Patron of parish priests in 1928.

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