Not even the casual observer of Salvation History can fail to conclude that Our Lord loves the unlikely. He chose a teenage girl from the backwater of Nazareth to bring the King of Kings into the world. He called a fisherman who was, as Chesterton put it, “a snob and a shuffler,” to helm His Church. When the successor of that fisherman had grown too comfortable in Avignon, He sent the diminutive dyer’s daughter from Siena to tell him to be a man: “Esto vir.” When He had had enough of England’s depredations of the Eldest Daughter of the Church, He picked a peasant girl who had never fired a bow or ridden a horse to lead the army of liberation. He found a farmer who deeply loved Our Lady to convert Mexico from a land of devil worshipers into the greatest Christian country in the New World.
God loves the unlikely. And what could be more unlikely, more worthless, in the world’s eyes than confessing one’s sins to a priest. Yet when the soul of France ached for absolution from the terrifying evil of the Revolution, God found a confessor. He selected a struggling seminarian, lousy at Latin, and, against the opinion of his faculty, engineered his ordination. Then God sent this priest to another backwater, Ars-sur-Formans, population 230.
Never heard if it?
Neither had most of France in 1818, but within a few short years, all of France had.
When Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney, known to us as the Curé d’Ars, took over the village’s neglected parish, he did not issue a press release announcing the latest legislative initiative to restore marriage. He did not organize marches to stop infanticide. He did not manufacture bumper stickers to promote religious liberty. Instead, he ascended his pulpit and preached Catholic doctrine: heaven, hell, sin, forgiveness.
Was Ars a den of iniquity? Probably not, speculates Donald Attwater. “It seems to have been in just about the same state as many English village’s in the third quarter of the twentieth century: little definite immorality and definite wickedness, but little true religion and love of God.” Sound familiar? Peopled by “those sad souls whose works in life merited neither praise nor infamy,” as our friend Anthony Esolen has rendered in Dante, Ars was France writ small. “Look, and pass,” Virgil told Dante as they walked by the “hollow men.” But, knowing where such souls were bound, Monsieur Vianney did not look and pass. He proclaimed from the pulpit what Fr. Edward Leen would later call the secret of life: let all your actions be done from the love of God.
The pulpit was just the beginning. “The preacher beats the bushes,” said another French saint, John Eudes (whose feast is also this month), but “the confessor catches the birds.” Father Jean-Marie understood. After beating the bushes, he took his place “where even angels do not enter”, on the bench behind the confessional screen. From there he absolved and converted his parish. Then he absolved and converted France.
“A living saint,” writes Henri Ghéon in his tender hagiography, The Secret of the Curé d’Ars, “is more sought after than a dead saint.” Men and women of all stations, from peasants to nobles, from priests to bishops beat a path to Monsieur Vianney’s confessional. Although the lines stretched outside his church, around the corner, and down the street (the average wait was one week), although the holy Curé would sit for as many as eighteen hours in the box, to each soul he gave personal care, enlightening the ignorant, inspiring the lukewarm, drawing out the reluctant, stopping dead in their tracks those who tried to conceal their sins. He could read souls.
“How long since your last confession,” he asked a penitent.
“Thirty-three to be exact,” corrected the Curé.
Monsieur Vianney heard 300 confessions a day. He heard confessions on his deathbed.
The devil, of course, hates priests who take the work of absolving souls seriously. Failing to lure Father Jean-Marie with the standard temptations that work so well on the rest of us—pride, indolence, despair—Satan lost all patience and tried direct assault. There is no ascribing this diabolical infestation to psychosis or delusion. The physical evidence attested to by abundant witnesses is carefully presented in Abbé François Trochu’s definitive hagiography, derived from the not-inconsiderable canonization testimony.
Nightly Monsieur Vianney’s rectory was the site of a terrifying cacophony: scurrying and gnawing rats, the sound of pounding nails, and howling wind. When the noises failed to trouble the holy Curé, the Devil turned over furniture, smeared excrement on the doorway, and set the priest’s bed on fire. To this last effort, Vianney responded, “The wretched fiend. He has not been able to catch the bird, so he has burnt the cage.” Adding, “I have asked this favor of God; at last he has granted it. I am truly the poorest of the parish; they all have a bed . . . . I no longer have one.” Nights of particularly violent infestation pleased Fr. Jean-Marie for he came to learn that the following day always brought some major sinner, a “really big fish,” to his confessional. Fr. Thurston declares that there is no diabolical infestation in history that lasted so long or was so “varied and so cogent.” Asked how he tolerated it, Vianney, who had spent so much time in Satan’s company, brushed it off: “The grappin and I are practically mates.”
Of his countless works of charity, La Providence (the orphanage for girls), his devotion to St. Philomena (another of God’s unlikely ones), the miraculous cures and multiplications of food, the austerity of his deprivations, his defense of the Lord’s Day, his capacity to see the future, we can say that these things attend the life of a man determined to love God with every single action of his day. “Can you offer it to God?” he would ask his parishioners. “Then why bother?”
Something we can all offer to God is our desire to be forgiven. Celebrate St. Jean Vianney’s feast—August 4—by going to Confession. It is a Saturday this year, so it should be an easy task. But it also should be easy each and every day of the week. It was in Ars. In honor of St. Jean Vianney send a letter to your pastor and one to you bishop asking for greater availability of the sacrament of Confession. I have the good fortune to live in a diocese, where, thanks to the recently retired Bishop Thomas Doran, Confession is available seven days a week. I believe we are unusually blessed here in Rockford, but I feel certain that other, and much larger, dioceses throughout the republic have at least as many souls for whom love of God is not the chief motive of their actions.