Prayer and Penance Is What Makes Parish Endeavor’s Fruitful And It Will Convert Hearts and Minds.
By Father John Cihak.
St. John Vianney (1786-1859) is regaining popularity among diocesan seminarians. After a generation of being ignored, if not ridiculed, the patron saint of parish priests is once again finding his way into the hearts and minds of seminarians and priests. The Church names him as patron because this humble priest, assigned to the backwaters of southeastern, post revolutionary France, reveals things perennial about the priesthood and priestly ministry. The pioneering Pope Blessed John XXIII even wrote an encyclical letter on St. John Vianney recommending him as a model for diocesan priests to follow. The new generation of American priests is not discovering St. John Vianney because it simply has nostalgia for what is old, rather because it has a hunger for what perdures. This article is the fruit of this search and the summary of a discussion I had with a group of transitional deacons on the cusp of ordination. By the time this article is published, these men will already be priests.
Their assignment was to examine the beginning years of St. John Vianney’s ministry in Ars through the lens of two questions: 1) What was the cultural landscape of his time? 2) What are the basic contours of his pastoral plan? How was it that within eight years of the Curé’s arrival to Ars many of the people who were living indifferent and nominally Christian lives became fervent and committed believers? The biography used was Father Francis Trochu’s The Curé D’Ars, whose research was based on the Curé’s process of canonization. Notwithstanding the literary style of his time, the work is still the most comprehensive treatment of his life in English, and fortunately still in print [Trochu, Francis. The Curé D’Ars, tr. Ernest Graf (Rockville, IL: TAN, 1977)].
The group discovered that St. John Vianney’s ministry gives parish priests a fundamental blueprint for a pastoral plan for any place and time. This assertion may strike some readers as naive, but I invite them to risk reading what follows. After all, if we are honest with ourselves and the current spiritual state of our parishes, we know that the various approaches of the last forty years have not borne much fruit, and we often feel that we are grasping at straws in knowing what to do. Perhaps we have settled into mediocrity and have allowed ourselves and our people to drift into lukewarm waters which deep down we know have drastic consequences (cf. Rev. 2:15 16).
Similar Cultural Landscapes
Although separated by thousands of miles, the topography around Ars is quite similar to that of mid Willamette Valley, Oregon where Mount Angel Seminary is situated. Both areas are largely agricultural, green with trees and fields spread over rolling hills and dotted with small towns. Even today, Ars is little more than a crossroads among farms.
Though separated by nearly two hundred years, the cultural landscape between 19th century France and 21st century America is also similar. Mentioned here are the relevant contours of 19th century France; the thoughtful reader can make the connections with present day America. Father Vianney arrived at his parish a generation after unparalleled cultural and political upheaval in France. The Revolution and subsequent Terror, the hardships under Napoleonic rule, the widespread devastation of churches, religious communities and practices, and the outright attack on the Church in France herself, were still fresh in the minds of many. The Revolution’s spawn of secularism had permeated much of French society, with even the smaller villages feeling its reverberations. God and the Church were relegated more and more to the margins of French life.
Upheaval was also felt within the Church in France. In the wake of the Revolution, the faithful were often confused about the relationship between faithfulness to the Church and allegiance to the State. The State had sought to subsume the Church, going so far as to force the clergy to take an oath to the State, effectively making the priest more of an employee of the State than a servant of the Gospel. The faithful, moreover, were scandalized when many priests succumbed to this pressure, including the then pastor of Ars, Father Saunier. Educated at the Sorbonne, Ars’s pastor took the oath in 1791 and the spiritual unraveling of the parish in Ars began. The next year the parish church was looted and Father Saunier left the priesthood. The sanctuary of the parish church was converted into a club where the “free thinkers” of the area held their meetings. Though restoration of the Church in France began in 1801, tension and confusion about the clergy still existed. Which priests could one trust? What of the priests who took the oath? What about those priests who refused and suffered or were even killed? France in the 19th century also was experiencing a priest shortage.
The religious ignorance and indifference spawned by the Revolution had their effect on the life of Ars. People frequently missed Sunday Mass, and work dominated the lives of most. The tiny settlement boasted of four taverns where the livelihoods of many families were squandered. The very people who could not find time for Sunday Mass spent themselves in festivities, lasting far into the night and ending in the usual evils. Religious ignorance was rampant in both children and adults. Ironically the efforts of the Revolution to replace worship of the living God with the goddess “Reason” reaped the fruit of widespread illiteracy, and only a minority in Ars could read. Ars, however, was no better or worse off than the other villages in France. Remnants of faith and morals were still found scattered about among some of the families. The faith and the priesthood were not despised, just ignored. The impact of the Revolution and Terror, and the poor example or lack of stable clergy left the parish unsettled, ignorant, confused and at best lukewarm.
Despite the many similarities to our own time, four primary differences exist between St. John Vianney’s time and our own. One obvious difference is that Jansenism, with its harshness, scrupulosity and anxiety, was still felt within the faithful. The heresy had been put down, but its bitterness could still be tasted in the spiritual groundwater. A second difference was respect for priests, and their authority, still existed in the culture. A third difference was the local government, embodied in the mayor and municipal counselor, who supported his efforts in the religious and moral regeneration of the village because it promoted the common good. Fourthly, differences existed within the Church between then and now. For example, today’s “culture of dissent” among some Catholic quarters and the problem of liturgical abuse were not so much part of Vianney’s time.
Into this cultural milieu stepped the little priest from the village of Ecully, and he gave the people of Ars something they had never seen before. How did he do it? Our group detected eight basic features to his pastoral plan: 1) the conversion of his own life as a priest; 2) manifesting an approachable and available demeanor; 3) prayer and ascetical living; 4) channeling initial energy into those families already faithful; 5) giving special attention to the liturgy, preaching and catechesis; 6) addressing problems at their roots and not in their symptoms; 7) planting good habits of prayer and the works of mercy; and doing it all with a strong priestly identity.
When we hear about pastoral plans, we often think first of implementing some packaged program motivating parishioners to “get involved.” St. John Vianney’s plan did not begin with the parishioners in what they needed to do, nor did it begin with what he needed to implement for them. He began with what he needed to do within his own life.
St. John Vianney did not come down from Mount Olympus to reform and save the poor parishioners of Ars. He first of all set out to save his own soul, and by example drew others into this path of holiness. In this he followed the spiritual maxim from the Desert Fathers and from the Lord himself: If you want to sanctify others, begin with yourself. Vianney’s conversion of the parish started with his own, and his deepened along with theirs. One deacon in the group observed that early on, the Curé of Ars made the conscious decision to become a saint. Yet he did not arrive in Ars already a saint. He became one at Ars by being a priest for his flock, and gained sanctity over time through much grace and struggle.
The matter and form of his path to holiness came from his vocation as a priest. He did not go looking for “his spirituality.” All he needed was found within the priesthood Christ had given him. He practiced chastity, obedience and simplicity of life, the same qualities that the Bishops of the United States list as necessary before a candidate can be recommended for ordination (cf. Program of Priestly Formation, nn. 544 545). Vianney’s biographer focuses primarily on his simplicity of life. When the Curé arrived to his parish he brought with him “a few clothes, a wooden bedstead, and the books left to him by M. Balley [his mentor]” (p. 106)…. “His cassock was made of coarse material, and his shoes were such as were worn by the peasantry” (p. 115). It was well known among the poor that beggars received “bountiful alms” from the new parish priest of Ars. It is thought that millions of francs passed through Father Vianney’s hands, of which very little was spent on himself.
Approachable, Available and Real
This indispensable foundation in his own conversion as a man and priest blossomed into action. He soon established the habit of making rounds in his parish at the time he knew most people would be in. Even though his presence was not universally welcomed, the villagers judged their new Curé “to be full of kindness, cheerfulness, and affability” (p. 117). The Curé of Ars was an approachable and likeable man. In his approachability, Father Vianney exemplifies what Pope John Paul II has written in our time: “It is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 43). The Curé of Ars did not wait for people to come to him; he was to be found mingling with his people. He exhibited a spirit of joy and energy in what he did. He loved being a priest. People generally knew where to find him, and he made it a point to be seen walking, often praying his breviary or his rosary. Though he loved solitude and quiet, he had no trouble exchanging words with the workers he passed.
When visiting his parishioners on their turf he began the conversation with ordinary things of interest to farmers and workmen: crops, weather, the work in progress, etc. But he obtained deeper information in these informal chats such as the number and ages of the children, the state of the relationships among family members, and the connection between the different families in Ars. He ended his visit with some questions about the faith whereby he could gauge how well they had been catechized and identify the primary spiritual problems. What he discovered in his visits may sound similar to what a parish priest today may discover: most parishioners knew little, and cared little, about their faith, especially the younger generation who were born during and after the Revolution. Vianney’s approach was not to treat his parish in the abstract, and he did not pretend to convert the world. His priestly mission was not to the abstract “world” or “parish,” Put the concrete reality of the people and place of Ars. All his priestly energy was directed uniquely to them.
Prayer and Penance
Coming upon the boundary of his new parish for the first time, Father Vianney knelt down and prayed. He was acutely aware that the mission given him was completely beyond his ability. If his priestly ministry was to be fruitful, it would come from Jesus working through him. For this reason we find him face down on the floor of his church early in the morning and late at night begging, even crying, for the grace of conversion for his parish. “My God,” he was heard to pray before the tabernacle, “grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please thee to lay upon me; yes, even for a hundred years am I prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted” (p. 118). Only a priest who understood himself as a true father, and not a hireling could utter such a prayer. A hireling easily finds a way to avoid responsibility while a father takes responsibility. If the people were not holy, it was his responsibility to do something about it.
The primacy of prayer in ministry, which is so evident in the Curé of Ars, is an important lesson for parish priests. The cancer of Pelagianism among us is more prevalent than we like to admit. We are deceived into thinking that we can accomplish our priestly mission by relying on our gifts, our creativity and our activity. Especially among us younger priests, we are easily fooled into thinking that we need to jump into activity without realizing that only prayer and penance usher in the grace that will make it fruitful. Vianney reminds parish priests that the offering of daily Mass, constancy in the Liturgy of the Hours, fidelity to a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, making an annual retreat, and practicing self denial are the necessary foundation for the priest’s mission of preaching, sanctifying and governing.
To his prayer, St. John Vianney joined penance. While maintaining the absolute necessity of asceticism in a priest’s life, we are compelled to view the Curé of Ars’ asesis through the lens of his time, his own personal temperament, and the tremendous graces given him. Too easily we hear about his excessive use of the discipline and dismiss his asceticism, while failing to learn its valuable lesson. Though we may sift through the details of his asceticism, we must agree about the fact of living ascetically. As the years passed, he moderated some of his harsher practices.
Father Vianney’s example teaches that prayer and penance was the most, not the least, a priest could do for his people. He knew that the fruitfulness of his priesthood lay not in clever preaching, creative ideas or building team spirit, but first of all offering himself daily in love as a living oblation for his people. An effective pastoral plan would begin here or not at all.