Spirituality Year for Priests

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December 1, 2009:  The office of governing

St. John Mary Vianney the Pastor of Ars

The canonized saints are almost always known simply by their first name: St. Timothy, St. Matthew, and St. Agnes. For some saints a title is added to distinguish them from others bearing the same name: St. John the Evangelist and St. Stephen Protomartyr. It is perhaps significant that St. John Mary Vianney is more commonly known by his title than his name: the Curé d’Ars. A bit like his own patron, St. John the Baptist, he is named by his role almost as though he were completely defined by it. He is the Curé, the Pastor of the faithful of Ars, the shepherd of his flock.
Yet when one thinks of the Curé d’Ars it is most often as a preacher and confessor rather than in his direct duties as a pastor; his other pastoral activities; the directing of his parish. Each priest as a alter Christus participates in the offices of Christ as priest, prophet and king. All three of these offices are necessary for the priest, as an instrument of Christ, to lead the faithful entrusted to him to heaven. 
The last of the three offices is called by a number of different names. It is referred to as the mumus regendi or office of governing, which underlines that a part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is to establish the hierarchy and governance of the Church, the Pope at its head and the bishops and priests in union with him. In more recent documents of the Church this role of the priest is spoken of as that of “shepherding the flock” or as the “priest’s fundamental relationship to Jesus Christ, head and shepherd”.[1][2] In so far as the priest shares in the mission of Christ, he necessarily shares in His authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age”.
The very idea of authority is not an easy one to accept or to exercise in our day and age. This can be seen in society at large, within the family and even within the Church. In the life of the Curé d’Ars we see that this aspect of the priesthood was even the most difficult for him. More than once he shrank before the prospect of the duties which shepherding his flock entailed and the responsibility for the souls in his care.
The fact that St. John Mary Vianney more than once tried to flee his parish of Ars for a contemplative life is perhaps the most surprising aspect in his life, but perhaps it also underlines this aspect of governing whose gravity is sometimes overlooked or underestimated. After all, this reaction can be seen in the quo vadis of St. Peter or the tears of St. Pius X in accepting his election to the papacy. The Cure d’Ars loved his duties as a priest, but frankly admitted that he found his pastoral duties a cross to be carried: “I do not regret being a priest and being able to offer Holy Mass, but I do not want to be a Pastor, this I regret having to do.”[3]
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Saint’s death, Mgr. Ancel, Auxiliary Bishop of Lyons, referred to this anxiousness on the part of the Curé for his duties as a pastor as a real mystery in his life which needs to be carefully considered:
“In considering the pastoral spirituality of the Curé d’Ars we encounter a particularly delicate point. We cannot completely comprehend it; we can only say that the fear which filled his soul when he thought about his pastoral responsibilities was, for him, an occasion of very profound spiritual purification, and this ought to be an opportunity for spiritual reflection for us [as priests] as well.”[4]

Profound Understanding of Pastoral Duties

For St. John Mary Vianney his understanding of his pastoral duties was not simply something gathered from books of moral theology or on the priesthood. Certainly at his time he received a strong doctrinal formation regarding the duties of the priest towards his flock. He well understood that the duties of the priest were not simply to sanctify through the sacraments or to teach from the pulpit to the congregation as a body. He also needed to direct individual souls and at times state things which would provoke in them the same response that our Lord heard at times: “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?”[5] For him the former two duties were indeed a joy, but the third would always be a cross. “I only rest two times each day”, the Saint would say, “when I am at the altar and in the pulpit.”[6]
The profound understanding which he had of his pastoral duties was no doubt the fruit of his prayer and meditation. Certain expressions on the priesthood are characteristic of St. John Mary Vianney and show the great lights granted to him to comprehend the sacred priesthood. “If the priest were to really penetrate the greatness of his vocation, he would nearly die”[7]; “he holds the place of God, he is clothed with the powers of God.”[8]
Just as he viewed his priesthood as carrying out the sacramental acts of Christ and having the duty to teach only the teachings of Christ, he saw that his authority was the authority of Christ and not his own. This real and accurate understanding of the dignity of priesthood did not lead the Curé d’Ars to expect expression of it in titles, dress or acts of reverence towards him. It did not tempt him to see himself as having an authority which was to be lorded over others. Since it was Christ’s authority, it was the authority of one who came “not to be served but to serve.”[9] 
But since it was the authority of Christ this carried a great and heavy duty to correct souls when necessary, to “be instant in season and out of season: reprove, entreat rebuke in all patience and doctrine.”[10] In our times some of the direction of the Holy Curé regarding dancing and other activities as occasions of sin might strike us as severe. But in his insistence it becomes clear how seriously he took his responsibility for each individual soul, and given the gravity of his duty there could be no place for human respect. When he first arrived in Ars hardly a soul could bear to listen to his direction, but the Saint saw that in being seen as a fool he had another opportunity to imitate his Lord and Master.
The real key to his understanding of his pastoral duties, however, was to see all things first in reference to God. Sin was first and foremost an offense against God and therefore the greatest evil. Each individual soul had been created to be with God and only His grace could overcome the obstacles of the devil for the souls entrusted to him to arrive at this eternal life with God.   God had chosen him as a priest to be an instrument, to be His chosen shepherd to direct each of these souls in his parish. When seen in these simple terms there could be no care for the opinions of others or natural comforts. There could be no place for human respect.[11]  The authority which he exercised was not his own, he exercised it as an instrument of Christ in whose priesthood he participated.

Self Immolation

The first consequence for the Curé d’Ars of his profound understanding of his pastoral duties was to offer himself like Christ for his parishioners. He saw from the start that his own natural capacities were insufficient to lead the flock entrusted to his care. He felt himself “incapable due to his ignorance and his little virtue to fulfill his duties as pastor.”[12] If his direction were to be followed he saw that its force would not be found in his eloquence but rather in the grace of God which he begged through the penance he carried out. This is attested to in his words to a fellow pastor: “You have prayed, you have lamented, you have wept; but have you fasted, have you kept vigils, have you slept on the floor, have you disciplined yourself? Until you have done this, I do not believe that you have done everything.”[13]
It is clear that St. John Mary Vianney was divinely inspired to carry out mortifications which exceeded human prudence. We can see through the torments of the devil that God allowed his servant to take on trails not given to most priests to suffer for his faithful. The degree of these mortifications does not, however, call into question the power of imitating Christ through mortification for the good of the souls that each priest serves. With such prayer and immolation as a foundation for his pastoral duties the priest will be greatly safeguarded from ever considering the fruits as being his own and will keep a profound understanding that his authority is one of service rather than one which is for his own benefit.

A Living Example

These acts of prayer and mortification which went on unseen by his faithful were evident in their influence on the everyday life of St. John Mary Vianney. His faithful were led first by his example. Seeing the hours which he passed in prayer the faithful thought their Pastor seemed to live in the church itself rather than his rectory. They saw his hours passed in the confessional and could not imagine anything could be more important to him that the soul before him returning to God. Finally, they also saw that each soul was important to him. He did not seek this or that type of the faithful but simply what God gave to him in his parish. He favored no one, but like the Good Shepherd sought always those who were lost.
His example is strongly attested to in a passing comment about his preaching while he was still the parochial vicar of Écully: “at that time he did not preach well yet in my opinion. Even so, when it was his turn to preach one would hurry to the church.”[14] His very presence spoke volumes to the point that the example of the man speaking was even more convincing than the content. 
How much souls benefit from living examples. The instruction of the priest can easily seem empty when it is not accompanied by a life which demonstrates conviction.  In his letter opening this year of priests the Holy Father reminds us of this need for the interior conversion of priests and to have their lives as examples of holiness. The priestly scandals have done enormous damage, but he reminds us conversely what great good can be done by the strong example of the Church’s pastors: “In today’s world, as in the troubled times of the Curé of Ars, the lives and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a determined witness to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”[15]

Care for His Parishioners

When we think of the pastoral care of the Curé d’Ars we think especially of his preaching from the pulpit. Here he never hesitated to speak the truth in its fullness and to expel error even if it at times made his auditors a bit uncomfortable. He saw this naturally as a right of the faithful to have the full truth preached: “Error must be combated, even for Christians. They have just as much right to the truth as others.”[16] He used the following analogy: “The sun does not hide itself because it is afraid to inconvenience the birds of the night.”[17]
He even used the church as a permanent place of instruction. Over the side chapel in the church dedicated to his patron saint, John the Baptist, he had painted a phrase to remind all who entered of the dangers of both dancing and human respect: “His head was the price of a dance.”
The confessional was the place where he dedicated the greatest part of his time. For the Curé d’Ars it was not a place simply to ‘dispense’ grace or absolve sins, but it was also a privileged place to direct souls. Here he instructed, encouraged and, when needed, rebuked like a true pastor. Here many attest to his mixture of severity and goodness as he saw fit for each soul. The true mark of the Saint was never to make a remark out of fatigue or to justify himself in any way. All was said in light of leading the soul closer to God. He was known to be demanding, but in no way mean towards his parishioners: “I have never been angry with one of my parishioners; I do not even think that I have even reproached them.”[18]  And parishioners echoed this testimony: “It happened more than once that he had to speak strongly, and I would even say almost severely. But he always avoided with care anything which would wound his parishioners. There was never anything personal in his instructions.”[19]
In his letter to open the Year for Priests Pope Benedict XVI also stressed the sacrament of confession as being a particular area for each priest to reevaluate his work. He admonishes priests to never be resigned to confessionals being empty. He encourages each one to consider it a privileged place for the direction of souls.
Finally, although these aspects of preaching and confession are the ones more often cited in the life of the Curé d’Ars, his pastoral work in the parish far exceeded these. He founded a school for girls; he built a school for boys and created ‘La Providence’. He also spent a great amount of time visiting his parishioners and had a particular care for the sick: “When he first came to Ars he frequently visited his parishioners, he spoke with them about their daily affairs. These good people were so pleased to have their Pastor take part in their work and interests. For the sick he gave them counsel, even in detail, for remedies.”[20]
It is easy to get a false picture of St. John Mary Vianney as only showing interest in the supernatural, as if he lacked human contact. These stories which are less often related show that he used all gifts both natural and supernatural to attract souls for Christ. He cared for the souls before him in every aspect. He did not approach them as a sort of mere ‘project for sanctification’ as if this had some sort of recipe. Like Christ, he loved them and cared for them in every aspect of their lives.

Prayer for Priests

In the life of St. John Mary Vianney we can see that great need for a profound understanding of the responsibility of the priest in shepherding his flock. The seriousness with which the Curé took his duties of authority might lead us to think that he did so mainly out of fear, but here we need only remember his words about the priesthood: “If one fully understood the priesthood on earth, one would die not of fear but of love.”[21]
Given how difficult this pastoral duty was even for the Curé d’Ars we ought to be encouraged to pray for our pastors, the Holy Father first, bishops and all priests. In this time when false notions of freedom have caused authority to be so often misunderstood or questioned, these prayers are clearly even more important. During his homily for the ordination of bishops this last September Pope Benedict XVI asked in particular for three virtues in bishops and priests: goodness, prudence and fidelity.[22] The goodness and prudence with which St. John Mary Vianney directed souls is clear from the many stories of his life, but perhaps the most striking was his fidelity. Through his many years as Pastor he was constant and tireless in shepherding his flock.
The words prayed by members of the Confraternity of St. Peter each day well summarize this need for fidelity in all priests which was found in the Curé d’Ars. May it serve as a reminder to us of the true source of this fidelity.
O Lord Jesus, born to give testimony to the Truth, Thou who lovest unto the end those whom Thou hadst chosen, kindly hear our prayers for our pastors. Thou who knowest all things, knowest that they love Thee and can do all things in Thee who strengthen them. Sanctify them in Truth. Pour into them, we beseech Thee, the Spirit whom Thou didst give to Thy apostles, who would make them, in all things, like unto Thee.

Very Rev. Fr John Berg
Superior General

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[1] Pastores Dabo Vobis nn. 15 and 16.

[2] Mt. 28:18-20.

[3] Nodet, Bernard, Le Sacerdoce, c’est l’amour du cœur de Jésus in Le curé d’Ars. Sa pensée – Son cœur, 1966, p. 105.

[4] Mgr. Ancel, Conference for the 100th Anniversary of the Death of St. John Mary Vianney, September 24, 1959.

[5] Jn. 6:61.

[6] Nodet, p. 109.

[7] Nodet, p. 100.

[8] Nodet, p. 100.

[9] Mt. 20:28.

[10] 2Tim. 4:2.

[11] Cf. Trochu, Francis, L’Ame du Curé d’Ars, Sévérité et Bonté, pp. 61-79

[12] Nodet, p. 105.

[13] Mgr. Ancel

[14] Nodet, p. 130.

[15] Benedict XVI, Letter Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the Dies Natalis of the Curé of Ars, June 16, 2009

[16] Nodet, p. 127.

[17] Nodet, p. 128.

[18] Nodet, p. 213.

[19] Nodet, p. 133.

[20] Mgr. Ancel

[21] Nodet, p. 100.

[22] Benedict XVI, The Church Is Not Our Church, but God's Church, Homily at Episcopal Ordinations September 12, 2009.