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Catholic Heroes . . . St. John Vianney

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By CAROLE BRESLIN

During these challenging times in the Church and with the dangers of religious becoming secularized, the Church has a shining example of a holy and sanctifying priest in the Curé of Ars, the patron saint of priests.
The Curé of Ars, also known as St. John Vianney, was not particularly brilliant and almost did not become a priest, but he had a love of both God and neighbor that led him to heroic practices to win souls for the Kingdom of God.
On May 8, 1786, Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze brought their newborn baby straight to the church to be baptized in Dardilly, near Lyons, France. He was the fourth of six children. His baptismal name was Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, commonly called John. His parents were devout Catholics who welcomed the poor into their home.
As a youth, John witnessed the Catholic Church being ravaged by the French Revolution as more and more properties were taken over by the government and more and more restrictions were placed on Catholic practices. John had to study his catechism in secret. He pondered the sacrifices and the sufferings of those who refused to abandon their faith.
Many Catholics were being put to death or imprisoned and John fell in love with such devotion and love of Jesus. In 1799, John received his First Holy Communion in a home near Ecully — he had to prepare for this in secret as well. Continuing his clandestine studies, he prepared for Confirmation.
Once confirmed, he considered his future vocation and longed for an education beyond the little he had already received. Finally, when John was 20 years old, his father him permission to attend a school run by Abbot Balley.
With great difficulty, he struggled through his preliminary courses and then he was admitted to the seminary. The abbot assigned Matthias Loras, one of the brightest of John’s fellow seminarians, to help John. Once Loras became impatient with the slowness of John and in a fit of exasperation boxed John’s ears. John quickly knelt at the 12-year-old’s feet and begged Matthias to forgive him.
Instantly, Matthias tearfully repented and they became close friends for the rest of their lives.
Abbot Balley noticed the virtues and zeal of John and continued to mentor him in his preparation for the priesthood, but John was conscripted by the French army. The day he was to board the train for his assignment, John went to the church to pray and missed his ride. A young man learned of John’s plight and offered to help John get to his destination, but instead took him to Noes, which was a haven for deserters.
John decided to stay in the village as Jerome Vincent. He opened a school for the children. In March 1810 amnesty was given to all deserters and John returned to Ecully to finish his studies. In 1812 he went to Verrieres to the minor seminary and then to Lyons in 1813 to the major seminary.
Like St. Joseph of Cupertino, he still had difficulties with learning and he was sent back to Ecully. Abbot Balley’s great faith in John proved helpful when the abbot persuaded the vicar general that John’s great piety was sufficient for the priesthood. Hence, John was ordained a subdeacon on July 2, 1814, a deacon in June 1815, and finally a priest on August 12, 1815 in the convent in Grenoble. He celebrated his first Mass in Ecully, where he would become Abbot Balley’s assistant.
Three years later after the death of Balley, John was appointed parish priest of Ars — a remote village of 200 persons. Twice John lost his way while going to Ars, but found a boy who finally led him there. When they finally reached his destination John told the boy, “Thank you for showing me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Eternal Life.”
Ars, as small and remote as it was, soon became a famous destination. The Catholic faith, decimated by the French Revolution, was barely practiced, so John set about restoring it. He was quite successful in stopping field work on Sundays, getting people to attend Sunday Mass, and getting them to reform their lives of drinking and dancing. Even though he received much opposition from man and the Devil, he persevered in his work of winning souls for the Kingdom.
His Sunday sermons were clear and concise and began to draw people from near and far. Slowly, year by year, attendance at the tiny church grew as the village was transformed from a violent and chaotic town to one of peace and orderliness.
John taught catechism to young and old alike. He founded The Providence which became a model for like homes all over France for homeless girls. He encouraged recitation of the rosary and frequent Confession.
One time Fr. John was out giving missions in outlying hamlets. The mayor was so concerned about his safe return that he sent his son to escort the priest back. However, Father wanted to visit the shut-ins so the trip was greatly delayed.
His zeal for souls led him to fasting, long vigils of prayer, and the offering of many sacrifices. He would sit in the confessional 12 to 18 hours a day and frequently read the hearts and souls of those confessing.
Because of his success — in one year he saved over 700 souls — the Devil attacked him relentlessly, but John did not falter. As he explained, “That which beats [the devil] is the curtailment of one’s food, drink, and sleep. There is nothing the Devil fears more; consequently, nothing is more pleasing to God.”
When a distraught woman came to Fr. John telling him she was pregnant once again, he told her, “Be comforted my child. If you only knew the women who will go to Hell because they did not bring into the world the children they should have given to it.”
The Curé of Ars, the patron saint of parish priests, achieved his success because of his endless hours of prayer, sacrifice, and service.
Regarding the responsibilities of the priest he wrote, “If a priest is determined not to lose his soul as soon as any disorder arises in his parish, he must trample underfoot all human considerations as well as the fear of contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even were he certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit.
“A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times. Did not St. Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: ‘I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls, although loving more I be loved less’.”
St. John Vianney died in Ars in 1859. His feast day is August 8.
Dear Sr. John Vianney, intercede for our priests to preach the truth. Obtain for us the inspiration to always pray, fast, sacrifice, and assist our priests in any way we can so that they will be perfect soldiers for the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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