The most important part of St. John Vianney’s efforts to convert his parish in Ars was to help his people to recover a sense of the sacred importance of the Lord’s Day.
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, summarizing the constant teaching of the Church, taught that to be truly Christian, Jesus in the Eucharist must be the source and the summit, the root and the center, of a person’s life. If someone chooses — other than because of a serious illness or physical impossibility — not to come to Mass on Sunday, opting to put some other person or some activity above God, then, they imply, the person is not really a Christian except in name. Sunday is a “little Easter” and if people don’t recognize the significance of celebrating Easter then they really do not grasp the basics of the Christian faith. Moreover, at a practical level, if someone thinks that work, or games, or catching up on sleep is a higher priority than coming to encounter God and worthily receiving his very life inside, then God is not really God in that person’s life and the person has forsaken the worship of God for an idol.
St. John Vianney knew this. He was convinced that he would never succeed in helping his people strive for and attain heaven unless he first got them coming to Mass.
The first Sunday after his arrival in Ars the Church of St. Sixtus was packed. The villagers hadn’t heard the bells of the Church ring since the premature death of their former pastor and most of the 230 residents of the village assembled in Church to learn the identity of their new pastor. Few presented themselves for Holy Communion, which showed Vianney that there was not much fervor among his new flock. He nevertheless hoped that, if they would come each Sunday, he could start to increase their spiritual temperature.
The next week, however, he saw a much smaller assembly. Many were absent on Easter. As the warmer months came, the Church was almost empty, as the sound of the Church bells lost a competition with the clamor of the anvils, carts, and workers in the fields. This profanation of the Lord’s Day wounded Vianney to the core. To him, it was first one of the most serious offenses against the love of God; second, he thought it was one of the worst sins a person could commit against himself, intentionally serving mammon instead of the Lord.
One Sunday he rose to the pulpit with tears already in his eyes. He preached with a holy fire and clarity that people could still remember fifty years later. His whole body shook as he spoke. Even though he was addressing the “choir,” he spoke in a way so that these “choir members” could sing the same melody at home and throughout the village to those who were not present.
“You keep on working, but what you earn ruins your soul and your body,” he said. “If we ask those who work on Sunday, ‘What have you been doing?,’ they might answer: ‘I have been selling my soul to the devil, crucifying our Lord, and renouncing my baptism. I am doomed to hell. I shall have to weep for all eternity for nothing.’
“When I behold people driving carts on Sunday, I think they are carting their souls to hell. Oh! How mistaken in his calculations is the man who toils on Sunday to earn more money or accomplish more work! Can two or three francs compensate for the wrong he has done himself by violating the law of God?”
The Curé of Ars, out of love for God and for those entrusted to him, didn’t mince words. His message may strike some today, as it did some in Ars in 1818, as too severe. He was reminding his people, however, of three essential truths that pastors in every age have the duty to make sure their parishioners never forget: first, there is a hell; second, there are mortal sins that, unabsolved, will lead us to hell; and third, voluntarily missing Mass on a Sunday and unnecessarily profaning the Lord’s Day are mortal sins.
Many then and now prefer not to think of hell or the mortal sins that can lead us there. They bristle when priests or concerned family members bring these subjects up and often react with scandalized outrage that someone would try to “scare” them into coming to Mass. They pronounce with an absolute moral authority — which they refuse to accord the Church as a whole! — “God would never send someone to Hell for merely missing Mass.” They do not want to face, however, the significance of their betrayal. Judas accounted Jesus less valuable than thirty pieces of silver. Many work on Sunday for far less than that.
Vianney was not principally striving to scare his people into their religious duties as to remind them that missing Sunday Mass is not a small matter without eternal consequences. He principally wanted them to know that Sunday is a day of and for the Lord. “Sunday is the property of the good God,” he preached. “It is his own day, the Lord’s day. He made all the days of the week; he might have kept them all; he has given you six and has reserved only the seventh for himself. What right have you to meddle with what does not belong to you?”
It’s noteworthy that when God gave us the commandment to keep holy his day, he also told us the reason: “for you were once slaves in Egypt” (Deut 5:15). To work on Sunday, in other words, is a form of slavery — slavery to work or to what work can accomplish — from which God wanted to set us free. God gave us the gift of the Sabbath so we could be restored to our true identity by putting first the God in whose image we are made. Jesus himself came to give witness to the meaning of the Sabbath as a day for the worship of God and charity toward others.
For Vianney, Sunday was the time in which people recovered who they really are: “Man is not only a work horse, he is also a spirit created in the image of God! He has not only material needs and coarse appetites; he has needs of the soul and appetites of the heart. He lives not only by bread, but by prayer, faith, adoration and love.”
In addition to preaching, he would go out in search of his lost sheep. In his home visits, he politely invited and encouraged everyone to return to the sacraments, but most ignored him. So early on Sunday mornings, he would go out to the fields to reiterate his appeal. One day he encountered a man taking in his crop. Ashamed at being caught, the man tried to hide behind his cart. “O my friend,” Vianney said with palpable grief in his voice, “you seem very much surprised to find me here… but the good God sees you at all times. He it is whom you must fear.”
The cumulative result of all of these efforts was that, a few years after his arrival, almost everyone in the village was coming to Mass. That allowed the real work of forming them to be saints, which we’ll write about in future columns, to begin.
We live in a time when, on any given Sunday, only one out of four Catholics is coming to Mass. This Year for Priests is an opportunity for all practicing Catholics to imitate the love of St. John Vianney in going out to call the other three back, first by invitation and encouragement and next, if necessary, by not hesitating to remind them of the significance and the eternal stakes.
The conversion of our culture, like the conversion of Ars in the 1800s, cannot happen without it.