Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney, better known as the Curé d´Ars, was the son of a peasant farmer, born in France in 1786, three years before the beginning of the French Revolution. As a young man, John Vianney wished to become a priest, but his studies were hindered, first by the poverty of his family, next by the anti-religious policies of the Revolutionary government, and finally by the wars of Napoleon. He was not a particularly bright student, and struggled with his studies, especially Latin. He failed his seminary examinations, but was finally ordained at age 29 through the intervention of Monsieur Bailey, his tutor, and the First Grand Vicar of France. His superiors decided that his zeal and devotion, his sincerity, his love of God, and his humility compensated for his “academic under-qualification.”
He was sent as a curate to the small and obscure village of Ars-en-Dombes, a small village of some 200 people in France. This village had been without a priest for many years, and the people seemed to have forgotten God, spending their time in bars and dance halls. Lying and stealing were common, and Sunday was treated just like any other day. The little church had even been used as a social hall and was badly in need of repair. The new priest met the people of Ars and did penance for them; he went on begging tours to repair the church and purchase new vestments, and he campaigned vigorously against drinking, dancing, and immodest dress. He also began to say Mass and preach.
Never an eloquent public speaker, John Vianney wrote out his sermons and carefully memorized them. Yet he was often embarrassed when his mind would go blank during the sermon. Finally, one Sunday, when he again forgot his prepared sermon, he began to speak words that came from … he knew not where.
“My friends, I know what you are thinking,” he said, tears running from his eyes. “You are thinking ‘Of course, Monsieur Curé is a priest. Of course, he disapproves of the way we live.’ ”
“No, my friends. No, no, no! It is not disapproval I feel for you. I feel sorry for you. Why do I feel sorry for you? Because, my friends, I know that you are throwing away the only thing that really counts! You are throwing away the chance of heaven.”
“And what is heaven, my friends? You know that, too. Heaven is where one sees God face to face. Think of that, my friends. Think! Think!”
His words were simple, but they went like arrows to the hearts of his listeners. Soon people were packing the church and coming from neighboring towns. By 1830, Ars was completely turned around. It was one of the most Christian villages in all of France.
Because of his difficulties with his studies, John Vianney was not allowed to hear confessions for his first year as a priest. When he finally began to hear confessions, the people soon discovered that John Vianney had an ability to read and understand the secrets of a person’s heart and to deal with sinners firmly but with great compassion. He was blessed with extraordinary psychological insight and became known for his skill in individual counseling. He knew when to say, “you are worrying too much about your sins and failing to trust in the mercy of God,” and when to say “You are not worrying enough about your sins and are treating the mercy of God as a moral blank check.” He would often tell people, “Your spiritual problems do not lie in the matters you have mentioned, but in another area entirely. Many people came away convinced that he must be a mind-reader. After a time, hundreds of people began making the journey to Ars to confess to John Vianney. The famous and the infamous, archbishops and robbers, all came to the little village. Penitents stood in line for hours and even days. John Vianney regularly spent 12 and sometimes 18 hours a day hearing confessions. As his fame spread, people came for hundreds of miles to receive his private counsel and to hear him preach (close to 100,000 in the last year of his life.) The work was exhausting, and three times he undertook to resign and retire to a monastery, but each time he felt bound to return to deal with the needs of his congregation.
Although he was very popular with the people, John Vianney feared praise and remained remarkably humble throughout his life. Once some jealous priests from the surrounding communities circulated a petition asking the bishop to remove the simple country priest. The petition claimed that it was a scandal that a person who had barely passed his studies should be a pastor. When John Vianney read the petition, he signed it himself and sent it off to the bishop! Fortunately the bishop was too wise to heed the document.
On August 4, 1859, John Vianney, then an old man with long white hair, died in Ars at the age of 72. Thousands attended his funeral Mass. In 1942, Pope Pius XI declared John Vianney to be what many who had known him in life always said he was a saint! He is considered the patron saint of parish priests.
Source: Condensed from the book The Cure of Ars; The Priest Who Outtalked the Devil by Milton Lomask (Farrar, Srauss and Giroux) and from an Internet article by James E. Kiefer