Increasingly, we are living in an age in which moral principles have no objective standard, a time of global terrorism and violent Christian persecution. In the face of such grave challenges it is necessary to emphasize the increasing importance of the priesthood and the need to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior spiritual renewal so that they can more forcefully and incisively bear witness to the Gospel in today’s world.
To this end one need look no further than to the exemplary life of Saint John Mary Vianney, the Patron Saint of parish priests worldwide.
The Curé of Ars, whose feast day is August 4, was a humble man who held the priesthood in high esteem as an immense gift to the people of God. From an early age, while the church in France was being persecuted and he was forced to assist in secret at the Mass of any fugitive loyal priest who came to his neighborhood, he developed a deep admiration for the courageous fidelity and sacrificial nature of holy priests.
St. John Vianney was not well educated in his early years and while in the seminary had great trouble learning Latin. However, he was a model of goodness which made him excel at moral casuistry. When he first arrived at Ars he found the little parish of 230 souls in a sad state – the people lacking true religion and love of God. He made it his mission to overturn the religious indifference and material preoccupations of the people and make a real conversion of the village.
He set about harmonizing his life with Christ. He prayed and fasted for the people, visited the sick as well as every household, cared for orphans, gave religious instructions, gave several parochial missions, educated the children, and prepared masterful sermons against profanity, obscenity, blasphemy, working on Sunday and poor Mass attendance. So profound were his sermons that they went straight to the hearts of both the learned and the simple, the rich and poor, the good and bad.
Saint John Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by his personal influence and authentic witness. This is especially evident in the way he offered the Sacrifice of the Mass with great reverence and awe. His holy example inspired the people to pray and make regular visits to Jesus in the tabernacle. 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.”
His deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Mass naturally and inwardly moved him from the altar to the confessional where he helped his parishioners discover the real meaning, beauty and grace of the Sacrament of Penance.
The Curé of Ars had the gift of reading hearts. It was thus said of him that he had become “a great hospital of souls.” It was not long before people from all over France came to have him hear their confession and to give them his spiritual advice. At times he spent up to sixteen hours a day in the confessional often weeping and later doing penance for sinners.
He was so consumed by apostolic zeal that he never abandoned his duties despite having often suffered from a conviction of personal inadequacy and unworthiness. He remained faithful to his vocation by praying, fasting and by practicing self-mortification. He also observed with strict fidelity and dedication the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
It is said that, in addition to having the power of reading souls, he could (through Christ) perform miracles and had the knowledge of the hidden past and future.
So great was his holiness and thirst for souls that he suffered supernatural persecution from the devil himself. Despite these attacks he was never harmed personally. By his heroic practice of prayer, humility and patience he was responsible for an untold number of conversions.
Saint John Vianney died on August 4, 1859 and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Our time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love. The value of the priests is inestimable. Without the priest there would be no Eucharist, no forgiveness of sins, no Holy Mass, and no Church. Let us pray during this time of Christian persecution for more priestly vocations. Let us hope that in a humble and genuine way every priest will strive for spiritual perfection and aim to identify their ministry with the example given by the Curé of Ars.