Raised in a secret Church
The life of St John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, has remained a surpassing example of a priestly ministry given totally to God. Born in 1786, he himself was first inspired by priests whose names posterity has mostly forgotten – the clergy who carried on ministering after the French Revolution outlawed Catholicism. The Church, as he first knew it, was a secret Church: at the Mass for his First Communion, the windows were covered so that no agents if the state could catch them.
A beacon of holiness
Yet his life took place far from the great political events of modern France. He was sent to the little town of Ars – a place so obscure that he himself got lost on the way, and so scarred by the Revolution that Sundays had become days of work and drunken revelry.
St John did the obvious things – preaching, spending hours in the confessional, helping the poor and the uneducated – but he did them with such complete self-surrender to God that quite extraordinary things began to happen.
Ars became a beacon of holiness. Thousands began to visit; in summer he might be in the confessional for 16 hours a day. One visitor, who spoke for many, said he had “seen God in a man”. Many were converted, given their vocations or told the state of their souls.
Drama and consolation
St John’s ministry was blessed by God in a special way. According to one report, the Devil told him through a possessed woman: “If there were three upon earth like you, my kingdom would be destroyed. You have robbed me of 80,000 souls.”
For all the drama of St John Vianney’s life, much of his advice is homely and consoling. Of the Blessed Sacrament, he says: “If he had appeared before us now in glory, we should not have dared to approach him; but he hides himself like one in prison, saying to us: ‘You do not see me, but that does not matter; ask me for all you want, and I will grant it you.”
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