A poor lost priest was wandering through the evening mist. He was on a country road not much better than the cow tracks which split off on either side. Maybe one of those was the real road. There were no signs. The last people he had seen could only tell him that the village of Ars was generally in this direction. He began to pray to St. Christopher, guide of travelers. In the next field were some children. They looked at the priest and came closer. Priests were an unusual sight in this district, and this one was clearly on the move, with all his worldly belongings in a cart beside him. The children spoke a funny dialect (patois); they did not understand him. The priest repeated his question until the most intelligent boy recognized the word Ars and put him on the right path. By way of thanking him, the priest said: “My young friend, you have shown me the way to Ars; I will show you the way to heaven.”
This was a great promotion for John Vianney. For a few years after his ordination Father Vianney wasn’t a very useful priest; he could offer the Mass and bless rosaries, but he couldn’t hear confessions. John had done poorly in his studies, so his superiors didn’t trust him that much. He was not an intellectual. His Latin was so poor that he was sent away from the seminary to continue his studies for the priesthood in private lessons with a kind, old priest, Father Balley. If the French Revolution had not caused such a shortage of priests, he might never have been ordained. But there was a shortage, and John Baptist Marie Vianney was a pious young man. The Cardinal was absent when the Vicar General of Lyons decided to allow John to be ordained. He sent Father Vianney to be the assistant of the old priest who had been his mentor, Father Balley. Looking back over the life of our saint, it is surprising that he was not allowed to hear confessions. Perhaps God knew that he needed a break, because he certainly worked hard in the confessional in later years. By the end of his life he was hearing confessions for up to eighteen hours a day. Hundreds of pilgrims came to see him. They lined up outside his church at one o’clock in the morning, waiting to confess to “the saint” when he arose from his short sleep. St. John Vianney had the gift of reading hearts. He knew people’s sins before they spoke, and he would gently help nervous penitents to make a good confession. Sometimes he would even say, “Now will you tell me your sins or should I tell you?”
There was a special compassion about this man. He knew how to approach people and how to win their friendship. His simplicity, his gentleness, and his humility convinced his parishioners that he was a living saint.
When Father Balley died, the Cardinal decided to entrust Father Vianney with some responsibility. He appointed Father Vianney as pastor (curé) of the country-village church at Ars. This village of about 300 residents had been almost abandoned by the Church due to the lack of priests. John Vianney arrived and found an old church in need of repairs and a small rectory, well furnished by a generous benefactor. A few curious ladies came to Mass on the first morning in response to the ringing church bell. Sunday Mass attendance was not much better.
The only way to convert souls is prayer and penance. So Father Vianney decided to set the example. He packed the nice furniture onto a cart and returned it to the benefactor. He ate very little, often making some milk and a pot of boiled potatoes his food for a week. He gave away his mattress to a poor man and slept on a blanket instead. Most of the men in the parish were farmers, so he went to visit them and he talked about agriculture and animals. This was something John knew since he grew up on a farm.
At first he tried hard to memorize his Sunday sermons, but his memory failed and he had to walk away from the pulpit, leaving his parishioners with the clear sense that the sermon was incomplete. Surely he was the butt of many jokes, but no one was afraid of such a man. Thus he could approach anyone and offer his help or counsel. Soon all the people of Ars began to think of their Curé as a real spiritual father. They came to Mass and the sacraments, and Ars was soon a model Catholic village.
It was this success which caused another trial. Catholics from the neighboring villages heard about the saintly Curé and they went to see him. Priests can be worse than housewives when it comes to gossip. The word went round that Father Vianney was stealing parishioners from other parishes and some of the other curés became jealous. They wrote him anonymous hate mail, listing his faults, especially his lack of education. They circulated a petition to have him removed from Ars. One priest openly denounced him from the pulpit, telling the faithful that it was wrong for them to leave their own parish and confess their sins to another priest. Someone with a sense of justice sent the petition to Father Vianney so that he could see what accusations he faced. Our saint read it with great humility, added his own signature to the bottom, and sent it on to his bishop.
The pilgrims also came to Ars because St. John Vianney had a reputation for working miracles. For example, on Ash Wednesday of 1857, just after Mass, Anne Dévoluet, a poor woman, put her foot in the door of the sacristy and insisted on speaking with the Curé. The woman was carrying her son who suffered from a hip disease. Father Vianney told her to put the boy down. “But he is unable to stand,” the mother objected. “He will be able to do so now. Have confidence in St. Philomena.” Anne Dévoluet attempted to pick up her crippled child, but the Curé forbade her: “No, let him walk!” With difficulty the boy walked to the statue of St. Philomena and knelt in prayer. He stayed kneeling upright for 45 minutes. Then he stood and walked normally.
Father Vianney had acquired a relic of St. Philomena and built a shrine to her in his church. He tried to blame most of his miracles on her, but the pilgrims believed it was more of a partnership between two saints. Sometimes the partnership was rough, as when the Curé forbade the virgin martyr to work miracles of physical healing at Ars. It always caused a stir of excitement and brought the Curé unwanted attention. So he told St. Philomena to confine herself to spiritual miracles and cures which could take place outside of Ars. She did not always obey him.
With time the initial failures in preaching were corrected. God gave Father Vianney a gift for preaching in a simple style that was all his own. It was more like what we expect from a sermon today: short, direct to the point, and full of pious examples from the Bible or the lives of the saints. This differed greatly from the sermons of the great French preachers of his age, such as Lacordaire, whose sermons could last over an hour. (Fr. Henri Lacordaire actually met the Curé of Ars and listened to him teach catechism. The Little Catechism of the Curé of Ars is also available in English (TAN), and it is recommended as spiritual reading.) St. John Vianney’s sermons only lasted 10 or 15 minutes. A number of these sermons were written down and they have been published in English.
Let us read a few of St. John’s own words as a fitting conclusion to this story of his life:
“My dear Christians, are we not astonished at what the saints have suffered, at the patience which they exhibited in all this suffering, at the longing which they showed for crosses and sufferings? And we—we complain when we have to suffer a little! We bear with impatience the slightest adversity sent to us from God. Let us remember that ‘through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God,’ and let us bear the little suffering which God sends us with patience and submission, so that we may by this, like the saints, obtain the everlasting joys of heaven.” (Sermon for All Saints’ Day, Sermons of the Curé of Ars [Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press, n.d.], p. 4.)