|Benedict XVI asserts the timeliness of St John Mary
Vianney's ministry during General Audience Catechesis
A life of trusting abandonment to the hands of Providence
On Wednesday, 5
August , at the General Audience at his Summer Residence in
Castel Gandolfo, the Holy Father commented on the Holy Curé
d'Ars the day after the 150th anniversary of his birth in Heaven. The
following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today's Catechesis I
would like briefly to review the life of the Holy Curé
of Ars. I shall stress several features that can also serve as an
example for priests in our day, different of course from the time in
which he lived, yet marked in many ways by the same fundamental human
and spiritual challenges.
Precisely yesterday was the
150th anniversary of his birth in Heaven. Indeed it was at two o'clock
in the morning on 4 August 1859 that St John Baptist Mary Vianney,
having come to the end of his earthly life, went to meet the heavenly
Father to inherit the Kingdom, prepared since the world's creation for
those who faithfully follow his teachings (cf. Mt 25:34).
What great festivities
there must have been in Heaven at the entry of such a zealous pastor!
What a welcome he must have been given by the multitude of sons and
daughters reconciled with the Father through his work as parish priest
I wanted to use this
anniversary as an inspiration to inaugurate the Year for Priests, whose
theme, as is well known, is "Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of
Priests". The credibility of witness depends on holiness and, once and
for all, on the actual effectiveness of the mission of every priest.
John Mary Vianney was born
into a peasant family in the small town of Dardilly on 8 May 1786. His
family was poor in material possessions but rich in humanity and in
faith. Baptized on the day of his birth, as was the good custom in those
days, he spent so many years of his childhood and adolescence working in
the fields and tending the flocks that at the age of 17 he was still
Nonetheless he knew by
heart the prayers his devout mother had taught him and was nourished by
the sense of religion in the atmosphere he breathed at home. His
biographers say that since his earthly youth he sought to conform
himself to God's will, even in the humblest offices.
He pondered on his desire
to become a priest but it was far from easy for him to achieve it.
Indeed, he arrived at
priestly ordination only after many ordeals and misunderstandings, with
the help of far-sighted priests who did not stop at considering his
human limitations but looked beyond them and glimpsed the horizon of
holiness that shone out in that truly unusual young man.
So it was that on 23 June
1815 he was ordained a deacon and on the following 13 August, he was
ordained a priest. At last, at the age of 29, after numerous
uncertainties, quite a few failures and many tears, he was able to walk
up to the Lord's altar and make the dream of his life come true.
The Holy Curé
of Ars always expressed the highest esteem for the gift he had received.
He would say: "Oh! How great is the Priesthood! It can be properly
understood only in Heaven... if one were to understand it on this earth
one would die, not of fright but of love!" (Abbé
Monnin, Esprit du Curé
d'Ars, p. 113).
Moreover, as a little boy
he had confided to his mother: "If I were to become a priest, I would
like to win many souls" (Abbé
de l'ordinaire, p. 1064). And so he did. Indeed, in his pastoral
service, as simple as it was extraordinarily fertile, this unknown
parish priest of a forgotten village in the south of France was so
successful in identifying with his ministry that he became, even in a
visibly and universally recognizable manner, an alter Christus,
an image of the Good Shepherd who, unlike the hired hand, lays down his
life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:11).
After the example of the
Good Shepherd, he gave his life in the decades of his priestly service.
His existence was a living catechesis that acquired a very special
effectiveness when people saw him celebrating Mass, pausing before the
tabernacle in adoration or spending hour after hour in the confessional.
Therefore the centre of his
entire life was the Eucharist, which he celebrated and adored with
devotion and respect. Another fundamental characteristic of this
extraordinary priestly figure was his diligent ministry of confession.
He recognized in the
practice of the sacrament of penance the logical and natural fulfilment
of the priestly apostolate, in obedience to Christ's mandate: "if you
forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of
any, they are retained" (cf. Jn 20:23).
St John Mary Vianney thus
distinguished himself as an excellent, tireless confessor and spiritual
director. Passing "with a single inner impulse from the altar to the
confessional", where he spent a large part of the day, he did his utmost
with preaching and persuasive advice to help his parishioners rediscover
the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an
inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence (cf.
Letter to Priests for the inauguration of
the Year for Priests).
The pastoral methods of St
John Mary Vianney might hardly appear suited to the social and cultural
conditions of the present day. Indeed, how could a priest today imitate
him in a world so radically changed? Although it is true that times
change and many charisms are characteristic of the person, hence
unrepeatable, there is nevertheless a lifestyle and a basic desire that
we are all called to cultivate.
At a close look, what made
of Ars holy was his humble faithfulness to the mission to which God had
called him; it was his constant abandonment, full of trust, to the hands
of divine Providence.
It was not by virtue of his
own human gifts that he succeeded in moving peoples' hearts nor even by
relying on a praiseworthy commitment of his will; he won over even the
most refractory souls by communicating to them what he himself lived
deeply, namely, his friendship with Christ.
He was "in love" with
Christ and the true secret of his pastoral success was the fervour of
his love for the Eucharistic Mystery, celebrated and lived, which became
love for Christ's flock, for Christians and for all who were seeking
God. His testimony reminds us, dear brothers and sisters, that for every
baptized person — and especially for every priest — the Eucharist is not
merely an event with two protagonists, a dialogue between God and me.
Eucharistic Communion aspires to a total transformation of one's life
and forcefully flings open the whole human "I" of man and creates a new
"we" (cf. Joseph Ratzinger, La Comunione nella Chiesa, p. 8o).
Thus, far from reducing the
figure of St John Mary Vianney to an example — albeit an admirable one —
of 18-century devotional spirituality, on the contrary one should
understand the prophetic power that marked his human and priestly
personality that is extremely timely.
France which was experiencing a sort of "dictatorship of rationalism"
that aimed at obliterating from society the very existence of priests
and of the Church, he lived first — in the years of his youth —a heroic
secrecy, walking kilometres at night to attend Holy Mass. Then later —
as a priest — Vianney distinguished himself by an unusual and fruitful
pastoral creativity, geared to showing that the then prevalent
rationalism was in fact far from satisfying authentic human needs, hence
Dear brothers and sisters,
150 years after the death of the Holy Curé
of Ars, contemporary society is facing challenges that are just as
demanding and may have become even more complex.
If in his time the
"dictatorship of rationalism" existed, in the current epoch a sort of
"dictatorship of relativism" is evident in many contexts. Both seem
inadequate responses to the human being's justifiable request to use his
reason as a distinctive and constitutive element of his own identity.
Rationalism was inadequate because it failed to take into account human
limitations and claims to make reason alone the criterion of all things,
transforming it into a goddess; contemporary relativism humiliates
reason because it arrives de facto at affirming that the human being can
know nothing with certainty outside the positive scientific field.
Today however, as in that
time, man, "a beggar for meaning and fulfilment", is constantly in quest
of exhaustive answers to the basic questions that he never ceases to ask
The Fathers of the Second
Vatican Council had very clearly in mind this "thirst for the truth"
that burns in every human heart when they said that it is the task of
priests "as instructors of the people in the faith" to see to the
"formation of a genuine Christian community", that can "smooth the path
to Christ for all men" and exercise "a truly motherly function" for
them, "showing or smoothing the path towards Christ and his Church" for
non-believers and for believers, while also "encouraging, supporting and
strengthening believers for their spiritual struggles" (cf.
Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 6).
The teaching which in this
regard the Holy Curé
of Ars continues to pass on to us is that the priest must create an
intimate personal union with Christ that he must cultivate and increase,
day after day.
Only if he is in love with
Christ will the priest be able to teach his union, this intimate
friendship with the divine Teacher to all, and be able to move people's
hearts and open them to the Lord's merciful love. Only in this way,
consequently, will he be able to instil enthusiasm and spiritual
vitality in the communities the Lord entrusts to him.
Let us pray that through
the intercession of St John Mary Vianney, God will give holy priests to
his Church and will increase in the faithful the desire to sustain and
help them in their ministry. Let us entrust this intention to Mary, whom
on this very day we invoke as Our Lady of the Snow.