“The great miracle of the Curé of Ars,” one of his contemporaries said during the process for beatification “was his confessional, besieged day and night.”
The fundamental reason why the Year for Priests has been called by Pope Benedict on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of St. John Vianney into eternal life is not because he left us a body of inspiring sermons like Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It’s not principally because of the angelic way he would celebrate Mass, his all night vigils of prayer, his fasting on boiled potatoes, his legendary battles against the devil, or his famous love and care for orphans. What made him famous, what earned him the reputation of being a saint in his lifetime and the title of the patron saint of priests after his death, was what God did through him in his “besieged” confessional.
For much of his 41 years in Ars, a town that had 230 souls when he arrived, he heard confessions of more than its entire population each day. He used to hear 12-14 hours of confessions in the winter and 16-18 hours in the summer.
Most of us, in hearing those numbers, would naturally admire his commitment and dedication, much like we would commend anyone who worked 18 hour days in loving service of others. When I was a seminarian, I used to applaud the concrete “priority” he gave to the sacrament of confession, which obviously would have required a lot of other sacrifices. It was only in December of 2000, however — while hearing confessions at my first Advent penance service at Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River — that I really understood what St. John Vianney’s commitment really meant. That night, I sat in the confessional and heard confessions for three hours in Portuguese and English. I likened it to Jesus’ three hours on the cross. Even though I was once an intercollegiate athlete used to pushing my body to the limit, I had never been so totally exhausted. My back ached. My bottom ached. My whole body ached, but I took solace at least that I could still feel it. My mind, on the other hand, felt totally depleted. A couple of years later, when preaching a retreat to 100 women in California, I heard 16 hours of confessions stretched from Friday night through Sunday afternoon. At the end of the retreat, I was basically comatose.
When I think now about the Curé of Ars’ hearing confessions for 12-18 hours a day, the closest analogy I would give would be to running 25-40 miles a day … uphill … into gale force winds… with ankle weights … and wrist weights … in full body armor … made of lead. And he did it almost every day for decades. Perhaps you’ve heard of Dean Kamazes, the ironman who each year amazingly runs 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days. What St. John Vianney did in the confessional is, to me, the physical equivalent of doing a triathalon for the last 11,000 days of his life. It gives new meaning to the term heroism.
This is the first reason why we can say that the great miracle of the Curé of Ars was his confessional, because his daily stamina makes Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, Kurt Gibson’s hobbling around the bases, and Willis Reed’s triumphant return to the basketball court look like minor feats in comparison.
The second reason his confessional was miraculous was because of what was occurring on the other side of the screen. People from all over France were making their way to an inaccessible hamlet in the southeastern corner of the country, taking primitive trains, even more primitive horse-drawn carts, and often walking for miles in fog, rain and mud. Once there, they would in general need to wait up to eight days in a church that was stiflingly warm in summer and ice cold in the winter in order to have their confession heard. Why wouldn’t they have taken the easy way out and just have gone to confession to one of the priests in their cities or town? Why would as many as 4,000 people have shown up one day, and 120,000 in a year, to go to confession to this simple priest in a tiny village?
They were coming, as one of the penitents once said, because they were encountering “God in a man.” In St. John Vianney, they found more than a man ordained to act in the person of Christ to absolve them of their sins. Any validly ordained priest with faculties to hear confessions could do that. They were coming to someone who incarnated the mercy of the Heavenly Father, who shared the Good Shepherd’s zeal to do anything it took to bring back to the fold the one lost sheep, who would rejoice with all the saints in heaven over the repentance of one sinner, and who like Christ would willingly be hammered to the wood of his confessional to save sinners. In him, the encountered not just a confessor who administered God’s power for the forgiveness of sins, but the closest earthly approximation to the holiness of God. That drew them irresistibly and through all types of sacrifices to make the road to Ars the road to Damascus.
His besieged confessional was miraculous even more so considering that in France in the 19th century, the sacrament of penance was not popular. Sometimes Catholics today can look back to the long confessional lines in the 1950s and think that that was always the way it was until the present crisis in faith and in the practice of confession. When St. John Vianney arrived in Ars, however, most people were not practicing the faith at all, not to mention not having frequent recourse to the sacrament of penance.
God used him, however, almost single-handedly, to bring the whole Church of France back to the beauty of his mercy.
This is one of the reasons why Pope Benedict has called this Year for Priests to mark the 150th anniversary of St. John Vianney’s death. He wants priests today to be willing to make the same heroic commitment to the confessional as their patron did, recognizing that the same miracle God worked in Ars for the Church in France he can work again.
“Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament,” the Holy Father wrote in a June letter to priests. “In France, at the time of the Cure of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a ‘virtuous’ circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day. It was said that Ars had become ‘a great hospital of souls.’”
In a 1986 letter to priests on the bicentennial of the Curé’s birth, Pope John Paul said that the state of the world requires that all priests should imitate the pastor of Ars in making themselves “very available” for the Sacrament of Penance. He asked them to give it “priority over other activities” so that the faithful will realize the value attached to this “most difficult, the most delicate, the most taxing and the most demanding [priestly ministry] of all — especially when priests are in short supply.”
Through his earthly vicars, Christ is asking his priests generously to open up again that “great hospital of souls,” so that he can replicate in the cities and towns of the Diocese of Fall River and elsewhere the great miracle he worked through one priest in Ars. He’s also calling all the faithful to come to receive this universal spiritual health care.