Last week we focused in general on the heroic prayer, penance and preaching St. John Vianney engaged in to bring about the total conversion of his parish. Like any good shepherd, he fought with ferocity whatever wolves could harm his flock. His love for God and for them led him to have a holy hatred for the sins that would kill their souls and separate them from God.
The two main institutions against which he railed— the taverns and the dances — might seem to many today to be relatively innocuous. After all, we face much larger problems: instead of taverns, we are confronting a widespread drug culture that many justify; rather than dances, we face ubiquitous pornography, “sexting,” “friends with benefits,” and culturally-supported promiscuity. For these reasons, we can be tempted to think that St. John Vianney was fighting against the equivalent of chewing gum in schools. But that would be a huge mistake.
The Curé of Ars was laboring to eradicate the roots of the same sinful tendencies that have grown into the much larger, problematic and ominous trees we confront today. One of the reasons why we’re facing much larger problems is because there have not been enough pastors, parents, teachers and cultural leaders with the courage and love to do what Vianney did. That’s why it’s important and urgent for us to re-examine what the patron saint of priests accomplished, so that we can learn from him the types of things that God calls us to do today.
When St. John Vianney arrived in Ars in 1818, there were four taverns in a village of 230. The per capita equivalent for a city like Fall River or New Bedford today would be about 1,600 bars! There was, obviously, a lot of drinking going on. The men would show up after work, discuss the news or local gossip, and generally spend what was in their pockets drinking well past intoxication. The taverns would also open on Sunday morning to give the men someplace else to go when their wives went to Church. For Vianney, the taverns were not just “potential” occasions of sin but a real cause for the evil that corrupting most of the men of his village.
He preached about it with stark language borrowed from the early desert father, St. John Climacus: “The tavern is the devil’s workshop, the school where hell retails its dogmas, the place where souls are sold, families are destroyed, health deteriorates, quarrels begin and murders are committed.” He would continue with tears: “Christ wept over Jerusalem… I weep over you. How can I help weeping, my brethren? Hell exists. It is not my invention. God has told us. And you pay no heed… You do all that is necessary to be sent to it. … Do you think then that God does not see you? He sees you, my children, as I see you. … Hell exists. I beg you: think of hell. Do you think that your Curé will let you be cast into hell to burn there forever and ever?”
He lamented that the drunkards had “degrad[ed] themselves below the lowest of beasts.” Because the patrons had indeed become addicts both of the lifestyle and of the booze, the pastor went after those who were profiting from their weakness: the tavern owners who, although they liked to style themselves “businessmen,” were little more than the equivalent of today’s drug dealers. He shamed them, saying that they “steal the bread of a poor woman and her children by selling wine to drunkards who spend on Sunday what they have earned during the week.” He described in no uncertain terms how they would be damned unless they stopped trying to make money by inducing others to sin. He also refused absolution to their patrons unless they promised not to return to the site of sin.
Vianney’s words and actions were decisive. The two taverns located across from the Church soon closed, followed in short succession by the other two. Seven other bars that tried to take their place all failed before getting established. One tavern owner came to plead with him that closing his bar would mean his financial ruin. Vianney kindly gave him the money he needed to close his bar and pay his bills. Eventually the former owner became a model Christian.
One of the most noticeable and quantifiable good effects of the closing of the taverns was that pauperism was totally eliminated among Ars residents. That’s because St. John Vianney had extirpated the main cause of poverty that had existed before his arrival.
The pastor of Ars was equally as resolute in trying to do away with the dances. These vogues were not tame and innocent social gatherings for young adults, but more like neo-pagan bacchanal revivals where the combination of liquor and lust led often to their becoming drunken orgies. These dances had earned such a reputation that young adults from all the surrounding villages would come to Ars and “dance” until sunrise near the grove of walnut trees behind the Church.
Vianney was no prude, but he was shocked to see so many young people put themselves in a situation prone to so many sins of the heart and of the flesh. He was even more shocked to see so many parents look the other way when the souls of their children were in danger. He again first took to educating their consciences from the pulpit, candidly reminding them of their responsibilities and the eternal consequences, for them and for their children, of neglecting them. “Mothers may indeed say: ‘Oh, I keep an eye on my daughters.’ You keep an eye on their dress but you cannot keep guard over their heart,” he said, as a keen observer of human psychology. He then used language that they could not forget or ignore: “Go, you wicked parents, go down to hell where the wrath of God awaits you, because of your conduct when you gave free scope to your children; go, it will not be long before they join you, seeing that you have shown them the way so well… Then you will see whether your pastor was right in forbidding those hellish amusements.”
He used other means as well. He built a chapel in his parish Church to St. John the Baptist, above the arch of which he wrote a somewhat humorous reminder of the terribly serious evil the sin of lust can occasion: “His head was the price of a dance.” He would routinely try to intercept the fiddlers who were coming to accompany the vogues and pay them double to leave the village without playing. He would refuse to absolve young people unless they promised never to return to a dance, since those who wish to avoid sin must be resolved to flee from the occasions. While the dances were occurring, he formed groups of the devout to come to the Church to pray in intercession and reparation as well as organized simultaneous activities for young people so that they would have something else, and good, to do together.
It took him 25 years totally to eliminate the dances in Ars, but his perseverance paid off, and the fruits were real. Not only did Ars avoid much of the centrifugal destruction of lust that other villages experienced, but his young people were also equipped to seek the abiding happiness that comes from a life of grace.
St. John Vianney had the pastoral charity, courage and endurance to do what it took to fight against sin and make sanctity possible for his people. Let’s together ask him to intercede for all priests and those entrusted with the care of souls today, that they might love their people in the same way.