Spirituality Year for Priests

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September 29, 2009: The Office of Teaching, The Curé of Ars, preacher of Truth

When in February 1818, the Archbishop of Lyons named Father John-Mary Vianney parish priest of Ars (France), he warned of the difficult situation that our Saint would find there: "You will find little love of God in that parish; stir it up yourself." « The plague that infested this village, as explained by one of his biographers, was its many dances, cabarets, working on Sundays, the negligence of spiritual duties and above all, much ignorance.[1] »

Instructing souls, the sacred duty of a priest

Saint John-Mary Vianney was very conscious of his duty to instruct the souls of his parish. For him, there was no doubt that the ministry of preaching was to be considered first among his priestly duties.[2] As Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy recently stated, instructing souls was at the heart of his pastoral charity: “The people of Ars were awestruck to see the dedication that their new parish priest had for the ministry of the Word by teaching his parishioners at length. He taught the children their catechism, and even when he was able to share the task with his newly-appointed curate, he continued to give his daily ‘eleven o’clock’ lesson at the school he had founded, ‘La Providence’, where the parents could also attend. We are reminded not only of his sermons, but also of his visits to families, all the meetings that he had with various people, the spiritual advice that he would give in confession : every occasion was a real opportunity to speak about his favourite subject: the Love of God.… The Curé of Ars was so conscious of the urgent necessity of preaching that he volunteered to participate in parish missions in the neighbouring villages”.[3] 

The teaching of souls was all that more urgent in the time of the Curé of Ars as a result of the French Revolution which had profoundly dechristianised society. The worship of the goddess Reason had soon replaced the worship of the one true God. From this point of view, we are confronted with the same challenges as the Curé of Ars. This very point was explained by Pope Benedict XVI in his general audience given at Castel Gandolfo on the 5th of August of this year: “If in his time the "dictatorship of rationalism" existed, in the current epoch a sort of "dictatorship of relativism" is evident in many contexts. Both seem inadequate responses to the human being's justifiable request to use his reason as a distinctive and constitutive element of his own identity. . . Today however, as in that time, man, "a beggar for meaning and fulfilment", is constantly in quest of exhaustive answers to the basic questions that he never ceases to ask himself.” According to Benedict XVI, it is in response to this quest for Truth that it is incumbent upon the priest to be ‘an educator of Faith’. Saint John Vianney tirelessly dedicated himself to this very task.

“Because, as is recorded, he was always ready to care for the needs of souls,” remarks Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Sacerdotii nostri primordia, “St. John M. Vianney, good shepherd that he was, was also outstanding in offering his sheep an abundant supply of the food of Christian truth. Throughout his life, he preached and taught Catechism. The Council of Trent pronounced this to be a parish priest's first and greatest duty and everyone knows what immense and constant labor John Vianney expended in order to be equal to carrying out this task. For he began his course of studies when he was already along in years, and he had great difficulty with it; and his first sermons to the people kept him up for whole nights on end. How much the ministers of the word of God can find here to imitate! . . .  Would that all pastors of souls would exert as much effort as the Curé of Ars did to overcome difficulties and obstacles in learning, to strengthen memory through practice, and especially to draw knowledge from the Cross of Our Lord, which is the greatest of all books. This is why his Bishop made this reply to some of his critics: "I do not know whether he is learned; but a heavenly light shines in him."[4]

Pius XII, was perfectly right in not hesitating to offer this country Curé as a model for the preachers of the Holy City: "The holy Curé of Ars had none of the natural gifts of a speaker that stand out in men like P. Segneri or B. Bossuet. But the clear, lofty, living thoughts of his mind were reflected in the sound of his voice and shone forth from his glance, and they came out in the form of ideas and images that were so apt and so well fitted to the thoughts and feelings of his listeners and so full of wit and charm that even St. Francis de Sales would have been struck with admiration. This is the kind of speaker who wins the souls of the faithful. A man who is filled with Christ will not find it hard to discover ways and means of bringing others to Christ."[5] These words give a wonderful picture of the Curé of Ars as a catechism teacher and as a preacher. And when, towards the end of his life on earth, his voice was too weak to carry to his listeners, the sparkle and gleam of his eyes, his tears, his sighs of divine love, the bitter sorrow he evidenced when the mere concept of sin came to his mind, were enough to convert to a better way of life the faithful who surrounded his pulpit. How could anyone help being moved deeply with a life so completely dedicated to Christ shining so clearly there before him?[6]

In his conference at the ‘Priestly Days’ event, which marked the centenary of the Saint’s death, Bishop Alfred Ancel (auxiliary bishop in Lyons) pointed out four main characteristics of Saint John-Mary Vianney’s preaching[7] :
            1- His attitude when preaching was wholly ministerial;
            2- He always told the whole truth;
            3- As demanding as he was, he was not harsh;
            4- Lastly, his preaching was the echo of his spiritual life.

Minister of the Word of God

As for the first of these points, Bishop Ancel insists on the constant concern of the Curé of Ars: Fidelity in passing on the word of God. The Curé of Ars had a very lofty idea of preaching. Conscious of the fact that he bore witness of God and that he spoke in His name, as a minister of Jesus Christ the High Priest; our Saint spoke with a force that seemed to come from God Himself : Fr. Bernard Nodet[8] points out that “he who hardly had the strength to speak, seemed to have a thunderous strength when it came to speaking of the things of God.”[9] In the first years of his priesthood, our Saint prepared his sermons through stubborn work; he found an aid in various collections of sermons and sought inspiration from copied sermons, which he adapted to the needs of his parishioners. As the number of pilgrims increased, the Curé saw that the time at his disposal to prepare his sermons was significantly reduced; soon he was forced to speak “without any preparation apart from his sustaining and persevering attention to God”[10]. The saintly Curé entrusted himself to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, speaking freely and with great ease. He demanded that his parishioners should also display a holy and pious interest: “Our Lord, who is Truth Himself, does not consider his Word less than His Body. I do not know if it is worse to be distracted during Mass or during the sermon: frankly, I do not see any difference. During Mass, we allow the merits of the Passion and death of Our Lord to slip away; whereas during the sermon, we let slip away His Word, which He Himself is.”[11]

Preacher of the whole Truth

The preaching of the Curé of Ars was sharp like the sword of the word of God in the sense that it was out of the question for our Saint to diminish in some way, out of human respect or mere subjectivism, the great truths revealed in Scripture or the sane doctrine taught by the Church. Bishop Ancel explains that “the Curé of Ars never hesitated to tell the whole Truth and to dispel errors even if, in doing so, he somewhat upset his listeners.”[12] Saint John-Mary Vianney was rather fond of saying that “the sun does not refuse to hide itself, for fear of upsetting the birds of the night!”[13]

Demanding without being harsh

If the Curé of Ars never hesitated to preach loud and strong those truths that some find upsetting: such as salvation, the Last Things, mortal sin, the necessity to do penance and the conversion of souls; he never showed himself to be overly harsh or nasty to his parishioners. He avoided hurting people. “I have never got angry with my parishioners, said the Saint, I don’t even think that I have ever criticised them.”[14] This goodness of the Curé and this care for souls on the part of one who was ‘meek and humble of heart’ like our Lord, made his preaching even more efficacious. The secret to the extraordinary impact of his humble preaching consists in the ardent charity that inspired his words. Saint John-Mary Vianney would often end his sermon with these words: “To be loved by God, to be united to God; to live in the presence of God, to live for God: O what a beautiful life and beautiful death!”[15]

Witness to Truth by his life

The Curé of Ars certainly did not resemble those who do not ‘practice what they preach’. That which he preached found its root in his inner spiritual life and was the echo of the daily reality of his own Christian living. Saint Jean-Marie Vianney offers us a coherent example precisely because he lived that which he preached; and because the Love of God was the overabundant source of his words, which burned with desire to convert souls. When he was still a young curate in the parish of Ecully, they would flock to the church to listen to him when it was his turn to preach. In that time, Saint John-Mary Vianney was far from being an experienced preacher but the people were not mistaken: “Through him, it was God whom we heard.”[16]

It was one-hundred and fifty years ago that our Saint commended his soul to God, and yet the resounding echo of his sermons and teaching have been handed down to us, continuing to lead many souls to conversion, particularly the souls of priests. In this Jubilee Year, let us pray to God that He may give us holy priests, faithful in their teaching of souls and who through their ardent words; show themselves capable of enkindling the burning flame of God’s love in the hearts of the faithful.

Fr Vincent Ribeton
French District Superior

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[1] André Ravier, Le Curé d’Ars, Parole et Silence, 1999, p. 56.

[2] Saint Pius X insisted vigorously on the duty incumbent upon priests to teach the Truth : «  Here then it is well to emphasize and insist that for a priest there is no duty more grave or obligation more binding than this. » Encyclical letter Acerbo nimis.

[3] Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Sermon from the Mass celebrated on August 4th, 2009, the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney.

[4] Blessed John XXIII, Encyclical Sacerdotii nostri primordia given on the 1st August, 1959, on the occasion of the centenary of the Saint’s death.

[5] Pius XII, Discourse of March 16, 1946: AAS 38 (1946) 186.

[6] Blessed John XXIII, Encyclical Sacerdotii nostri primordia ,80.

[7] The Priestly Days of the Centenary were held in Ars from September 22-24, 1959. Presided over by Bishop Fourrey, of Belley ; this event attracted over 600 priests. The conference by Bishop Ancel is entitled: Pastoral Spirituality of the Curé of Ars.

[8] Fr. Bernard Nodet, Le Curé d’Ars, sa pensée, son cœur, Le Cerf, 2006.Fr. Bernard Nodet (1911-1990), priest of the Diocese of Belley-Ars, published this collection in 1956 after long research done in Ars. Re-edited many times, his work has become a classic for those who wish to learn about the Curé of Ars and his thought.

[9] Nodet, ibid., p. 130.

[10] Nodet, p. 129.

[11] Nodet, p.126.

[12] Bishop Ancel, La spiritualité pastorale du Curé d’Ars.

[13] Nodet, p. 128.

[14] Nodet, p. 213

[15] Bishop René Fourrey, Ce que prêchait le Curé d’Ars

[16] Mgr Ancel, ibid.