After being laicized by the Vatican in 2019 for allegations of decades of sexual abuse, 91-year-old Theodore E. McCarrick, the now infamous former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C., has been criminally charged with abusing a teenage boy nearly fifty years ago in Massachusetts. He faces three counts of indecent assault and battery on a minor. He is the highest-ranking United States official in the Catholic Church to sink so low. God have mercy on him.
The McCarrick scandal is a cruel and potentially crippling confirmation of the outrageous infiltration of so many wolves in shepherd’s clothing, and it is a call to offer sincere prayer for the scouring of the priesthood through the prayers and example of one of the most powerful patron saints of priests: Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney. St. Vianney knew well the evils that prowl like lions seeking to devour the souls of men—laity and clergy alike—and he combatted them valiantly and victoriously despite their terror.
Considering present times and present terrors, the Curé of Ars stands out as a saint whose patronage is needed today—all over the whole world just as it was in his little village of Ars—to show the way to heaven, as all priests should. Indeed, Vianney’s priestly zeal in reaction to the anticlericalism following the Reign of Terror of 1790 is the very zeal we must beg from our priests in response to the anticlericalism of abusive clerics like McCarrick.
As the new parish priest of the poor French village of Ars, Jean Marie Vianney quickly set a new tone of morality and decency for the town. He swooped in with priestly purpose, warding off the evil influences that had become customs in Ars, shaking the people with his sermons from the pulpit of the tiny Church of St. Sixtus, and soothing them with God’s love and mercy in the confessional. He condemned the licentious dances that were popular, and with his fervent fire he ran innkeepers out of business whose wine kept husbands from feeding their families. St. Jean Marie Vianney was more than just a priest of Melchizedek. He was a pastor of men, bringing spiritual healing for spiritual sickness.
As he usually does, the devil took good note of the Curé’s good work and set to work of his own to crush it. Nightfall brought noises of mice gnawing violently at the bed curtains. Blows crashed suddenly against the bedroom door. Voices shouted in panic, shattering the silence. Invisible carts rumbled down the rickety staircase. Unseen rats squealed beneath the floorboards. Infernal fists smashed the plaster walls. Bulls, bears, and dogs lurked, snarling in the corners of his bedroom. The devil had come to Ars with his arts in full array. But the Curé was undeterred.
Not for a second did the holy priest give in to Satan. “One can get used to anything,” he would say, grinning wryly. “Le grappin and I are almost comrades.” Eventually, the Curé noticed that the assaults of le grappin, as he mockingly called him, preceded what that Fisher of Men called a “big fish”: a fallen-away Catholic in the confessional. This realization fortified him through these terrifying bouts all the more. The devil could not get the better of the Curé of Ars. Back he crawled to Hell night after night, leaving the indomitable priest to lead on to Heaven as he promised to do when he first came to Ars.
St. Jean Marie Vianney showed how priests ought to grapple with the devil and send him away the beaten, banished being that he is. Too often, though, in recent decades, too many priests have become actual comrades of le grappin, groveling before the devil and his empty promises and becoming as prowling devils themselves. Unspeakable crimes took place at the hands of so many priests who, like McCarrick, carried out depredations on unsuspecting souls, wounding them instead of saving them, and even making their victims question themselves and give too much benefit of the doubt long before questioning a priest.
Many men who received Holy Orders preyed upon the helpless in a manner that was both psychological and physical. Many of their victims could not believe or even see that they were assaulted or under assault, groomed and gaslighted into silence and suffering by licentious, homosexual, pedophile priests. Those willing to do wonton violence to their own natures for the sake of a perceived good will, given time, do violence to others. The priesthood of Jesus Christ has suffered betrayers since the beginning of the Christian ministry, but it has also been graced with those whose ardor to the holiest of vocations rendered them untouched or, at least, untainted by the devil’s targeting.
Ars soon became renowned as a place of pilgrimage for its Curé. People came on foot, carts, beasts, and trains to hear Fr. Vianney preach his simple yet sublime sermons and have him hear their simple yet sublime confessions. They formed lines so long that the priest spent most of his time absolving poor sinners by the richness of God’s grace. But when he began to be sought out by souvenir seekers and relic collectors, he feared this veneration would make him proud and threaten his salvation. Three times Fr. Vianney fled from Ars to join a Trappist monastery, but God always returned him to Ars. Fame could not break the Curé any more than the devil could.
The Curé of Ars died after three days of anguish in the heat of August. Men draped wet sheets over the roof of his house to cool his room against the glaring sun while mourners wept and prayed in the courtyard. This champion of priests passed into the arms of his Lord on August 4, 1859. The serenity of his countenance can be seen to this day on the wax mask that adorns St. Jean Marie Vianney’s incorrupt body in the glorious basilica that appends his shabby church in Ars. It is a wondrous place imprinted with priestly power.
Priests with the raw determination and unwavering virtue of St. Jean Marie Vianney may be rare, but they are sorely wanted these days, and we must pray that the Curé entreats the Good God to send them to His Church. As that same Church reels in the storm of the unimaginable clergy sex-abuse crisis, brought once again to the painful fore by McCarrick’s official charges, the misconduct of weak and even wily bishops is compounded by obfuscations, euphemisms, and silences that are a scandal unto themselves.
Three days after his resignation in 2013, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of “divisions in the ecclesial body which besmirch the face of the Church,” echoing an earlier reference of his to the “filth” in the Church. Many have interpreted this “filth” as pertaining to the clerical sex-abuse scandals that pollute the Church all the way up to the Sacred College of Cardinals.
No quarter whatsoever can be given to such devilry, as the Curé of Ars exemplified by his priesthood. Within the Church’s ministers and pastors there can be no hesitation concerning sexual crimes, tolerance of foppishness, or acceptance of aberrant orientations. But the record tells a different story, as do the rumors of the “St. Gallen Mafia,” of which McCarrick was a member. In taking the tiller from Benedict XVI, Pope Francis was called upon to be strong enough to judge the wheat from the chaff, but—who is he to judge? Instead, the question “Is the pope Catholic?” has become barely rhetorical.
St. Jean Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, is a patron saint for priests of the present and the future, and we need his patronage more than ever before. In an era of corruption, what better help can Catholics hope for than intercession from a priest who combatted and conquered corruption? Moreover, the Curé of Ars overcame many of the forms that are prevalent in society nowadays: from sexual sin, to the crisis of the confessional, to material obsession, to demonic influence, the world is reeling from the attacks that St. Jean Marie labored against in his humility against hypocrisy and in his penance against perversity.
The Curé of Ars stands in clear contrast to the McCarricks that plague the Church and poison the priesthood, having fallen prey to the devil’s attacks. Now in Heaven, the Curé can and will direct the grace won by his sacrificial life to be a cure for the sickness that infects so many of our curés. As the legal proceedings continue over McCarrick’s horrifying charges, we stand to suffer further scandal and shock if the dark secrets of the darkly secretive “McCarrick Report” come to light. We pray for priests that are strong and good to help us weather the storm that may be coming. St. Jean Marie Vianney, pray for priests, pray for us.
[Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]