When Fr. John Vianney was notified that he was being sent to Ars, three years after his priestly ordination, his vicar general told him, “There is not much love for God in that parish; you will bring some into it.”
Msgr. Courbon was right on both scores.
Ars, a village of 230 in 1818 when Vianney arrived, was at best lukewarm and lackadaisical in the practice of the faith. Part of this could be ascribable to its recent history. In 1791, Fr. Etienne Saulnier, the then Curé of Ars, took the oath of the Civil Constitution, professing that the highest authority in matters of faith would be the French Constitution and government, not God and the Church he founded and guides. This was the path by which cowardly priests, who valued saving their earthly life at the risk of losing their eternal life, evaded the guillotine. Later, when despite his oath he was still arrested on account of his priestly ordination, he gave up his priesthood rather than face death and actually had the scandalous gall to return to Ars to try to make money off his former parishioners as a businessman. Such a faint-hearted spiritual father was not one to preach to his flock on the supremacy of the love of God. In the midst of a time of great Christian heroism in France, Catholics in Ars were trained in spiritual pusillanimity. They were never trained to be faithful in denying themselves, picking up their Cross and following Christ down the path of the grain of wheat.
After Fr. Saulnier’s abandonment, the Church of St. Sixtus in Ars, rather than being used for divine worship, was transformed first into a discussion club for the “free-thinkers” of the Revolution. It was also used for the assemblies of the new secular religion that leaders of the French Revolution were trying to invent, worshipping not on Christian Sabbath but on the tenth day of the new French calendar, and adoring not the true God but the goddess Reason. No record exists of protests from the people of Ars.
In the early 1800s, after the bloodshed had ceased and Napoleon restored some rights to the Church, a missionary priest visited Ars, where he tried to catechize, celebrate baptisms, and legitimize marriages, before he needed to move on to other villages. Another priest arrived in 1807, and labored for a decade, before the unrelenting diligence needed got him to ask for a transfer. Vianney’s immediate predecessor was appointed when he was only 26. Seeing the spiritual state of Ars, he worked tirelessly to correct abuses and bring people to the love of God, but in just a few months he literally worked himself to an early death.
The parish that Fr. Vianney inherited had a few devout men and women, but many of the inhabitants, despite the baptism, were practical atheists or even pagans. In the words of a future Mayor of Ars, “There was a good deal of negligence in the parish and even a measure of carelessness and indifference. But I do not think there were disorders of an outstanding nature at Ars. The most deplorable aspect was simply the forgetfulness of religious practices.”
Few people attended Mass, with vast segments of the populace prioritizing working on the farms, or going to drink at one of the tiny villages’ four taverns, or getting ready for Sunday night soirées, over the worship of God. Few of those who did come to Mass people presented themselves for holy Communion on Sunday because they were not ready morally to receive and too tepid to go to the sacrament of confession. Almost all were ignorant of most of the teachings of the faith and had no great desire to remedy it. The practice of family and personal prayer was uncommon.
Into this lukewarm situation, Vianney brought the fire of the love of God. He started to visit each of the 60 resident families to get to know them and encourage them to return. Few took him up on the offer. He started to clean himself and adorn the house of God with his own money, to demonstrate that God is worth our sacrifices and our best. These improvements were obviously talked about in a small town but these attractive embellishments failed to attract many to the pews.
Seeing the situation for what it really was, he upped his recourse to the two main weapons in a Christian’s arsenal.
The first was prayer. He began to spend all night in prayerful vigils in the Church, kneeling with a candle before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and tearfully begging his help. “My God,” he implored, “grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please you to lay upon me; yes, even for 100 years I am prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted.” Soon these vigils became a subject of curiosity to the night owls and the content of his prayers became an item of even greater curiosity. Why would someone stay up all night to pray for their conversion?
To these prayers he added the second main spiritual weapon, mortification. He began to fast even more intensely than he was accustomed up until then, and started to go a whole week on a few boiled potatoes. He began to increase his use of the discipline, a whip of cords that many saints, priests and religious have used through the centuries to unite themselves to the passion of Christ and do penance for their sins and the sins of others.
Only then did he go out into the pulpit and into the village to eliminate the sins that were leading his people into an earthly slavery and endangering their eternal lives. He preached and fought with a holy ferocity to shut down the taverns, eliminate the dances, and curtail the blasphemies that were spiritually poisoning his people. He reminded and convinced his flock that Hell was real and that we need to be serious about hating sin and avoiding its near occasions.
It took him 25 years of relentless, patient perseverance, but he eventually achieved the conversion of his parish.
In future weeks, we’ll have a chance to examine more closely what he did to achieve this conversion, since many of his issues are faced, in one form or another, by priests and parishes today. This work was the prelude to bringing the love of God to Ars, since genuine love of God requires a concomitant hatred of whatever is incompatible with that God.
What I’d like to finish with, though, is his courageous pastoral zeal. He was willing to pay any price to eliminate what was spiritually harming his flock. Pope John Paul II called attention to this in a 1986 letter to priests:
“The Cure had the courage to denounce evil in all its forms; he did not keep silent, for it was a question of the eternal salvation of his faithful people: ‘If a pastor remains silent,’ the Curé said, ‘when he sees God insulted and souls going astray, woe to him! If he does not want to be damned, and if there is some disorder in his parish, he must trample upon human respect and the fear of being despised or hated.’ This responsibility was his anguish as a parish priest. … Rarely has a pastor been so acutely aware of his responsibilities, so consumed by a desire to wrest his people from the sins of their lukewarmness.”
One of the goals of the Year for Priests called by Pope Benedict is to help make all priests — in the midst of a a society in which there are far greater spiritual ills than afflicted Ars — become as “acutely aware” and “consumed” as their patron.