Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was born on May 8, 1786, three years before the world would collapse into the chaos of the French Revolution. His schooling did not start until he was nine. It lasted only three years.
When Jean was eleven, an underground priest stopped at the Vianney family farm. When he asked Jean how long it had been since his last confession, Jean said he had never received that sacrament. “We can take care of that right away,” the priest said. When Jean had confessed, he heard for the first time the words that he would later speak more often than any priest thereafter, until the Italian Capuchin Padre Pio in the 20th century: Ego te absolve — “I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Jean’s First Communion followed in 1799, secretly in the local manor house, with hay wagons drawn up before the door, to prevent a sudden raid. “I was there,” Jean’s sister recalled later. “My brother was so happy that he didn’t want to leave the room.”
As he moved through his teens, Jean spent what time he could snatch from his farm work in prayer. Increasingly, he felt drawn to the idea of priesthood. His mother was supportive, but not his father. Jean was needed on the farm, he said; and where was the money to finance his son’s studies?
When Jean was approaching 20, a remarkable parish priest, the Abbé Balley, started to tutor Jean, with small success. Perhaps he should return to the only thing he really knew, Jean told his tutor — work on the family farm. Impressed by his pupil’s deep piety, Balley sent Jean on pilgrimage to the shrine of a local saint. On his return he made modest progress in Latin, permitting his tutor to hope that Jean might yet be admitted to seminary. In 1807 Jean, now 21, was confirmed, taking the name Baptiste, in honor of John the Baptist.
Two years later Jean received a fresh setback: a draft notice ordering him to report for military duty. Though already 23, the prospect of army life brought about a collapse that sent him for six weeks to a military hospital. Ordered to catch up with his regiment, underway to Napoleon’s war in Spain, Jean fell in with a deserter, who persuaded him to seek refuge with a family that was already sheltering several deserters. Jean hid out with them for more than a year, until a general amnesty enabled him to go home. His mother died shortly after his return. For the rest of his life, Jean would remain grateful to her for believing in his priestly vocation. After Easter 1811, Abbé Balley arranged for Jean to receive tonsure, which made him technically a cleric.
Not until November 1812 could Jean enter the seminary. Unable to understand the Latin textbook, he was put into a special class where the teaching was in French. Even there he was hardly able to follow the teacher. Despite this, the Abbé Balley got Jean admitted to the major seminary at Lyon in October 1813. Even with tutoring from a fellow student, he understood so little that the authorities sent him home at Easter 1814 with instructions not to return.
Devastated by this final rejection, Vianney decided to become a Christian Brother. Abbé Balley vetoed this plan and proceeded to tutor Jean with a basic handbook in French, a kind of Catholicism for Dummies. Using all his influence with the authorities, Balley managed to get Vianney ordained subdeacon on July 2, 1814, and deacon a year later. On August 13, 1815, Vianney finally attained the goal: He was ordained priest in the seminary chapel at Grenoble, alone. There he celebrated his first Mass the next day, still alone save for two army chaplains who were celebrating at neighboring altars. His ordination certificate stated that he was not to hear confessions.
His first assignment was as curate to Abbé Balley, but his mentor died on December 17, 1817. Vianney would use his shaving mirror for the rest of his life, because, he said, “it had reflected his face.” In February 1818, Vianney was assigned to the village of Ars. Too small to be a parish in its own right, it seemed to the authorities just right for a man of such meager abilities.
The French Revolution had devastated church life. With four taverns to serve the 60 houses in Ars, few people went to church. Fifteen years previously, the parish priest had written in a remarkably candid report to the diocese that most of the children in the parish “have little to distinguish them from animals but their baptism.” To convert his flock, Vianney began a routine of prayer and penance that he would maintain all his life. Up long before dawn, he would spend much of the day in church. His diet consisted mostly of boiled potatoes, often days old and moldy.
When he was not praying in the church, he was in the sacristy working for hours at his sermon preparation, which in these early years consisted of copying out lengthy passages from books in his modest personal library. He would then attempt to memorize what he had written.
Given his weak memory, it is not surprising that Vianney sometimes broke down in the pulpit, unable to remember what he had prepared. In time, however, he began to improvise — and his preaching improved. What he said came from his heart, supported by the hours he spent in prayer. The content of his sermons was heavily hortatory and moralistic: condemnations of drinking and dancing. When, after five years in the parish, he was able to add to the church a chapel to St. John the Baptist, it displayed a sign saying: “His head was the prize for a dance.”
In his early years in Ars, Vianney’s small flock heard far more stern warnings than good news. He started catechism lessons for children and postponed First Communion for those who would not learn. Adults who continued to drink and dance despite his warnings were refused absolution.
Such good news as there was in his early preaching was centered on the Blessed Sacrament. “I have hardly ever heard him teach without reference to the Real Presence,” a parishioner said later. “As soon as you have received God,” Vianney told his flock, “a great joy fills your heart, then for several moments a sense of close union with him, and finally a feeling of well-being throughout your entire body.” His parishioners recognized that these words reflected their pastor’s personal experience. When, after only two years in Ars, he was promoted to a larger parish, people in Ars got the transfer cancelled. A year later, in 1821, Ars was made an independent parish, with Vianney given tenure for life as pastor.
Opposition continued nonetheless. There were complaints to the bishop about Vianney’s excessive severity. There were false charges that he was the father of a recently born illegitimate child in Ars, and a whispering campaign from fellow priests based on little more than dislike of a colleague who was “different.” For much of his priestly life, Vianney suffered from what has been called throughout Christian history invidia clericalis, clerical envy. It’s no wonder, then, that he said at one point: “I do not like being a parish priest, but I very much like being a priest because I can say Mass.”
A jubilee declared by the pope in 1826 brought many conversions in Ars and the surrounding area. People began travelling to Ars to confess to the eccentric but increasingly famous priest, enabling Vianney to say from the pulpit: “Ars is no longer Ars, it has changed!”
To accommodate the growing crowds, he slept only three hours, rising after midnight so as to be in his confessional at one a.m. At six or seven, he would celebrate Mass; after a short break for his meager breakfast, he would return to the sacristy for men’s confessions, breaking off at ten to pray the Breviary. Then it was time for the children’s catechism lesson. When this was finished he ate a sparse midday meal, consumed standing, dealt with mail, and visited the sick. Then it was back to the church for women’s confessions until five, when he returned briefly to his rectory, returning to the sacristy for men’s confessions until half-past seven or eight, when he went into the pulpit to lead the rosary and evening devotions. Finally he retired to his bedroom, only to spend a good portion of the night in prayer.
What was his secret? Part of it was his ability to read minds and souls. To a penitent who said he had not confessed for 40 years, Vianney said: “It is 44 years.” A female cousin with whom he had boarded during his studies wondered, while visiting Ars in 1833, whether she could confess to a relative. “At that moment,” she testified later, “someone came to me with a message from him to say that he was waiting for me. I was very much astonished, for he could not see me from where he was. I left Ars filled with wonderful interior joy.”
Similar is the story of a young hunter, François Dorel, who went to Ars with friends, but told them there was no way he would go to confession. He was standing in the square with his dog when the Abbé Vianney passed by. “I wish your soul were in as good shape as your dog,” the priest said. Overwhelmed, the young man wept, and made his confession, during which Vianney told him: “Go to La Trappe.” François Dorel died there as a Trappist monk 30 years later.
A geologist who had not attended Mass since his First Communion went to Ars in 1841 just to please a friend. Once there, his companion insisted that the geologist accompany him to Mass. His eyes met those of Vianney as the priest went to the altar. “I felt overwhelmed,” the man said later. “During the whole of Mass I hid my face in my hands. After Mass I wanted to get out of there. As I was passing the sacristy door, I heard a voice from within saying ‘Out, everybody out.’ A bony hand drew me in. Without thinking what I was saying I began to tell the saintly man the whole story of my life, from my First Communion onwards. While I did so he wept and cried out repeatedly: ‘How good God is! How much he has loved you!'”
This was clearly not the same man who had told his parishioners two decades earlier that they would go to hell if they did not stop going to dances. Divine wrath had been supplanted by divine love. Toward himself, however, Vianney remained severe to the end, fearing for his salvation. “I should be the happiest of priests,” he said on one occasion, “if it were not for the thought of having to appear before God’s tribunal as a parish priest.” Three times he attempted to leave Ars for a monastery. Each time he was prevented, either by circumstances or by his own change of mind.
By 1859, the year of his death, it is estimated that up to 120,000 pilgrims were coming annually to Ars (an average of almost 330 a day) to confess to the most celebrated priest in France. Special trains were laid on to accommodate the crowds. He made light of this, saying: “I am like the zeros, which have no value except alongside other figures.”
At the end of July 1859 Vianney knew he was dying. On the fourth of August, two hours after midnight, he went home to God, at the hour when, on thousands of days previously, he had already spent an hour hearing women’s confessions in his little church.
He was canonized in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, who declared him the patron saint of parish priests. I have invoked his prayers daily for more than 40 years. Of all the sayings attributed to him, my favorite is this: “In the heart which loves God, it is always springtime.”