'Ars... is no longer Ars!'
The simple priesthood of St Jean Vianney changed a town and a
On Tuesday evening, 9 February 1818, Antoine Givre, a boy herding
sheep in the Dombes region, had an unusual encounter. He met a priest
striding towards him, like a peasant on the road from Lyons. He was
pushing a rickety cart heaped with objects, among which he could make
out a wooden bedstead.
The priest called to the boy and asked him if it was much further to
the village of Ars. Antoine pointed out to him the modest little town
before them which was disappearing into the darkness. "How small it is!"
the priest murmured. Then he knelt on the frozen ground and prayed at
length, his eyes fixed on the houses.
'I will show you the way to heaven'
As he rose and set out again with his cart, the boy was at his side.
When they arrived in front of the poor church, the priest said to him:
"Thank you for showing me the way to Ars... I will show you the way to
Ars, with its population of 200 who depended on the Parish of Misèrieux
in the Diocese of Lyons, was unaware that it was welcoming its chaplain,
Fr Jean-Marie Vianney.
He was born in Dardilly, near Lyons, on 8 May 1786, the son of
Mathieu Vianney and Marie Béluze,
poor peasants with a strong faith.
His childhood was marked by the tragic events of the French
Revolution. While the Jacobins, supported by the Freemasons, were
organizing the hunt for priests and sending them and their faithful to
the guillotine, Jean-Marie was studying catechism in secret and fell
hopelessly in love with Jesus. The Crucified One must indeed deserve
all, the young man thought, if so many thousands of youth and adults,
priests and lay people were giving their lives for him, tolerating even
the most atrocious torture.
It was during a Mass celebrated secretly behind barred doors by an
anti-Revolution priest in a home near
close to his native parish, that Jean-Marie received his First
Communion, which strengthened him in his inmost desire.
"I will be a priest", he affirmed.
Overcoming enormous difficulties, he was ordained to the priesthood
on 13 August 1815, in the chapel of the Seminary at Grenoble. From that
time an adventure began for a tiny French town that down the centuries
would never be forgotten: they were to receive their "Curé
The day after his arrival he was almost alone as he made his way
toward the altar to celebrate Mass. But a few days later, when some came
to see what another priest could possibly have come to do at Ars and how
he lived, the faithful found him on his knees in prayer before the
Tabernacle, as though he truly saw Someone: they found him in the same
position, morning, afternoon, evening and even at night.
When some started coming to his Sunday Mass, they realized they
understood what he was saying: he was talking about God, who rewarded
the good with Paradise and punished the wicked with hell; about his Son,
Jesus Christ, who came to die on the Cross to expiate the sins of the
world, of his infinite love, of his forgiveness for those who change
their way of life, of the joy that comes from him alone.
They were simple words, words of fire, unforgettable words that won
the heartfelt admiration of the people.
Still others came to hear him. The same thing could happen today, if
our priests were to preach like that and not about abstruse things.
Prayer, fasting, penance
The food he lived on became known through some pious ladies who went
to help him at home: a little dry bread, a few boiled potatoes. They
also told of traces of blood they had seen on his very plain clothing.
He had looked around and seen the sins of his people and had begun a
ruthless fight against these evils with prayer, fasting and penance,
offering his whole life to God with the Crucified One.
When he listened to his people, he was kind, meek and very gentle, a
true father with a marvellous message for them: love for Jesus Christ,
intimacy with him, so that even the most rebellious could not resist his
Even those who were the most remote from God, the most recalcitrant
sinners, soon felt that God had sent a saint to Ars and hastened to
listen to him.
Little by little, the tiny town was transformed. Those who saw and
heard him felt drawn to his confessional: whole lives were converted,
people returned to God, won over by his prayers and his "blood".
Dancing, drunkenness and swearing, things the Curé
condemned most severely, disappeared from the town. Even the most
dissolute young men changed their ways. The church was filled with
people, including those who started to come from neighbouring environs.
In 1823, the Bishop raised Ars to the rank of parish. Fr Vianney
wanted to leave, for he felt unworthy to be a "parish priest", but he
remained out of obedience.
In 1827, he cried out to his parishioners with his heart full of joy:
"Ars, my brothers and sisters, is no longer Ars!".
His method: being a priest
What was his method? What analyses had he made, what pastoral plans
had he organized?
In a word: None!
He had only his priesthood, lived to the point where he truly became,
more and more, day by day, "another Christ".
His priesthood brought him to a most exalted state: "Since the priest
is important", he wrote, "the priest will only be understood in Heaven.
If we were to understand him on this earth, we would die of love.
"After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish without a priest
for 20 years and beasts will be worshipped there", as happens today, to
the satisfaction of God's enemies who seek to corrupt priests in order
to corrupt his people.
No one has expressed better than he how "frightful" it is to be a
priest, to have the mandate to absolve people and to make God present in
a host: "How a priest is to be pitied when he celebrates Mass as an
ordinary event. How unfortunate is a priest without an inner life!".
Fr Vianney celebrated Mass early in the morning and it was apparent
to everyone that he was fulfilling the Sacrifice of the Son of God on
the Cross. He was absolutely certain that Mass is everything, because it
is from this sacrifice that salvation comes, and in those moments God is
adored as befits him.
"If I were to meet a priest and an angel", he used to say, "I would
greet the priest first and then the angel.... If there were no priest,
the passion and death of Jesus would serve no purpose. What use is a
treasure chest full of gold if there is no one who can unlock it? The
priest has the key to the treasures of Heaven".
Consumed by the confessional
The first treasure to open is God's forgiveness: from the first
moment he arrived in Ars, Fr Jean-Marie had become the man consumed by
the confessional. He had gone to Ars, indeed, he had become a priest to
convert souls, together with Christ, to Christianize the world.
His parishioners flocked to him for confession and felt the joy of
God's forgiveness and of conversion. He listened, understood, read their
minds, prompted repentance and comforted them.
Ars became the European capital of reconciliation with God: men and
women from across Europe and around the world would set out for France
because they truly believed that in an out-of-the-way French village, a
priest consumed by prayer and penance was speaking of God, hearing
confessions and guiding souls to holiness.
The pilgrimages to see him became international: 10,000, 100,000,
400,000 or perhaps even more pilgrims went every year to Ars for 30
years. They were simple people, famous founders, statesmen, Bishops.
They left him, renewed.
And all, like the peasant of Macon who when asked: "But who did you
see at Ars?", were able to reply: "I saw God, in a man".
In the summer of 1859, Ars was still being invaded by pilgrims. On 2
August of that year, Fr Jean-Marie received Holy Communion and Extreme
Unction from his own curate in simplicity and joy. He came face to face
with God at dawn on 4 August 1859.
On the feast of Pentecost, 31 May 1925, Pope Pius XI enrolled him
among the saints, and on 23 April 1928, declared him Patron of the
world's parish priests.
God's logic: the 'little' ones
The poor boy from Dardilly, ordained a priest "through compassion"
and in charge of an isolated parish, the one who prepared himself to die
every day: because of the strange logic of God who chooses the little to
depose the mighty, it was this man who became a teacher and model even
for the Popes who sit on the Chair of Peter, who are inspired by him and
hold him up for emulation to the entire Church.