Bring back John Vianney!

By Fr Bevil Bramwell OMI

Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) was the curé of the parish of Ars in France and, because of his simple but great gifts as a pastor, was made the Patron of Priests and Parish Priests. I try to read his biography each year and am regularly struck by some of the features of his daily life.The reason for my fascination is that he was a pastor before the wholesale professionalization of the clergy. So he spent more time in his parish church than anywhere else. But he was not a desk jockey, although there were certainly some among the pastors of his circle.

The church building back then had not yet become a place of limited use. Rather it was like the courtyard of God, much after the fashion of the vision in Isaiah: “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1) There were people crowding in to pray at all hours of the day or night. They were coming for grace and truth. The good pastor was right there in the middle of that crowd.

Here is the eyewitness account of Monsieur La Croix in the church: “What mighty influence did he exercise over his hearers! . . . The multitude was crowded around him; at his feet, on the steps of the altar, on the pavement of the choir, were pressed together persons of every age, sex, and condition . . . all absorbed in breathless attention.” And all to hear a priest giving instruction in catechetics – and doing it daily.

He was in the church from midnight on to deal with the crowds. The remarkable thing is that the whole day passed in the church, and divided among prayer, instruction, and the sacraments. Of course, the sacrament that occupied the most time was Confession. Observers noted that he spent about sixteen hours a day in confession. This was of course before confession was obliterated by psychologizing and theories about the impossibilities of really sinning.

When did you last hear a homily on sin? It was the reason for Christ’s death and yet it is an almost unknown category in people’s thought, even Christians. Yet people become less human because of sin. We are watching the whole possibility of humanity trickle away into the sand.

 Le Curé d’Ars

In his biography of the Curé, Alfred Monnin says: “the bitterest drop in his chalice was the perpetual vision of sin; the daily insults offered to the Master he adored. ‘My God,’ cried he one day, ‘how long shall I dwell among sinners? When shall I be with the saints? Our God is so continually offended, that one is tempted to pray for the end of the world.’” What a sensibility! What a grasp of reality!

The Church has produced a number of documents on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but how much work has been done to instruct clergy in the teaching and then to lead them into the practice of reconciliation? The pope can issue documents, but without leadership at the diocesan and parish levels, they do not get much traction.

It is interesting how Benedict XVI encourages the practical use of his documents by using every possible occasion to pick up themes from them and recast them in new and fresh ways. By contrast, in recent decades “progress” in Church practice has come to mean, for many progressives, doing less. Always in the name of deeper experience, of course, but in fact less means less.

Fewer devotions are being encouraged. Fewer people spend time in church outside of official moments like the Eucharist. And would they see the pastor there if they went? When he arrived in the parish, the Curé (literally “the one who has care”) got into the church at four in the morning for his own prayer.

Now, as in our own lives, the people of Ars had other things to do. When he arrived in town, there was serious drinking and dancing and of course all of the backbiting that challenges any of the works of God. But the Curé trudged through it all. Eventually, people were coming to church rather than wasting their time on what might have been innocent pastimes.

The point was – where would one pass the time? With Christ? Or somewhere else? The “God is everywhere” mantra that we often hear today belies the wonder of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The Curé speaks of that reality: “Our Lord is there, waiting for us to visit him and ask him for what we want. How good he is. He accommodates himself to our weakness.”

And here are the Curé’s words to the Bishop Monsieur Devie: “If you want to convert your diocese, you must make saints of your parish priests. Oh, my friend what a fearful thing it is to be a priest! Confession! The Sacraments! What a charge! Oh, if men knew what it is to be a priest, they would fly like the saints of old, into the desert to escape the burden.”

Yes, but also what a blessing, for priest and people.

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

This column was originally published by The Catholic Thing (, copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Sacraments, Saints, Spiritual Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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