Last week, we focused on the “great miracle” of St. John Vianney’s confessional, to which prodigal sons and daughters from all over France flocked to be embraced by the merciful love of God the Father. The Curé of Ars is rightly called a “martyr of the confessional,” because with unfathomable stamina for over 30 years he imprisoned himself in the confessional up to 18 hours a day in order to set others free from their sins.
Because of his fame as a ceaseless and heroic confessor, it’s hard for some priests today to relate to him, because often their experience has been quite different that their patron’s: rather than having penitents wait up to eight days for the opportunity to spend five minutes going to confession, many priests would say their experience has been more like needing to wait eight days to have five penitents!
That’s why it’s useful to recognize that it took St. John Vianney almost a decade as pastor in Ars before his people began to have regular recourse to him as a confessor. From 1818-1827, no matter how much he preached on God’s mercy, on sin and on the Sacrament of Penance, no matter how many all night vigils he spent in his tiny church begging God for the conversion of his parish, few of his people came to confession. The only people who generally came were those who, according to the custom of the time, wanted to receive Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday and for that reason came to confession the previous day. And since the people in Ars, like in most of the Catholic world at the time, sought to approach the altar rail only once or a few time times a year, the martyrdom St. John Vianney experienced in the confessional during his first ten years as pastor of this tiny village of 230 was, like many priests today, a martyrdom of abandoned, expectant waiting.
Adding to his agony as a pastor, while doubtless providing some consolation as a priest, was the fact that in parishes other than his own, people were coming to his confessional in great numbers.
In Ecully, the parish he was assigned upon his ordination, the people literally couldn’t wait to go to confession to him. Just as it is one of the great ironies of Catholic history that the future patron saint of priests was dismissed from the Lyons seminary by the priests on the faculty, so, too, it is hagiographically incongruous that the future martyr of the confessional was not given the faculties to hear confessions until months after his priestly ordination.
It was common practice in the Church until basically after the Second Vatican Council for bishops and dioceses to restrict the faculties of priests to hear confessions until some time after their ordination, when they would either pass a special test or be considered sufficiently mature and experienced to begin hearing confessions. On some occasions, they would receive no faculties to hear confessions at all except when a penitent was in danger of death; some priests, in fact, would spend their whole priest as a “simplex priest,” capable of no priestly ministrations except celebrating private Masses or public Masses without a homily. On other occasions, priests would be given the faculties to confess only certain groups of “easy penitents,” like young children. In many places, the last group of penitents that priests would be given the faculties to confess was not hardened felons, but religious women, a fact I must admit I’ve always considered both absurd and unwise.
Regardless, for the first few months of his priesthood, the future “extraordinary apostle of the confessional,” as Pope John Paul II would later call him, needed to tell the people of Ecully who asked him to hear their confessions that he had not yet received authorization. That changed when his mentor and first pastor, the saintly and learned Fr. Charles Balley, approached the ecclesiastical authorities in Lyons and persuaded them that his curate was ready. As soon as he returned to give Fr. Vianney the good news, he put him to work. The pastor dropped to his knees at the feet of his parochial vicar and asked Fr. Vianney not only to hear his confession but to become his spiritual director.
Once the people of the village discovered that the 29-year old priest they had known for a decade was now a confessor, they began to crowd his confessional, and the sick also began to call for him preferentially to come to hear their confessions at their homes. It’s routine that young priests get more than their average share of work in the confessional because many penitents anticipate that priestly rookies will be easier on them out of inexperience. This was not, however, what was going in Ecully. They were asking for Fr. Vianney because they knew that there was something extraordinarily special about him, even in comparison to Fr. Balley, their holy and ascetic pastor.
It must have been quite a shock for Fr. Vianney, therefore, after Fr. Balley’s death, to be transferred from a parish in which he was inundated with penitents to one in which he barely heard any confessions.
Even still, Catholics in other places saw, and took advantage of, what his own parishioners failed or refused to see. During his first several years in Ars, St. John Vianney — and all the pastors of the area — would assist the Carthusian monks who would come into the area to preach lengthy missions trying to bring the people back to the practice of the faith. Because so many Carthusians had been killed during the terror of the French Revolution, and because the state of the knowledge and practice of the faith had collapsed due to the brainwashing and persecutions of the revolutionaries, the Carthusians needed all the priests of the area to help them in the pulpit and in the confessional. So the priests of surrounding villages would leave their parishes during the week to assist the Carthusians in these missions taking place in the region.
The holy monks recognized that there was something special about the pastor of Ars as a confessor. Their preaching would almost always be effective in getting people to return to the sacraments, but they began to notice on their missions that the lines for Fr. Vianney were always much longer than the lines for other priests. Moreover, long after the other priests had called it a day after hearing confessions for hours to return for a late dinner in the rectory, St. John Vianney would remain in the confessional, sometimes until long after midnight, to reconcile those who were still waiting. On occasion, the local pastor would come to try to “rescue” him about 9 p.m., but doing so would almost always cause a revolt. Pastors admitted that they loved his assistance, because, as one said, “He worked hard and ate nothing.”
Once, on the night before the mission was scheduled to end, the crush of people who had waited to the last second to go to confession, as well as those who were returning to Fr. Vianney after a previous experience with him in the sacrament, surged around his confessional so much that they pushed over both the confessional and the confessor within it.
On another occasion, because he was so exhausted after a marathon in the holy ice-box, he collapsed in the snow trying to make his way home. The rumor soon spread around Ars, however, that their pastor, in fact, was dead, having died of exhaustion in the coffin of his missionary confessional.
Despite his hearing confessions almost non-stop in other places, when he returned to Ars, there was still only a trickle. In 1827, he was hearing, at most, 20 confessions a day, with those numbers buttressed by penitents coming from surrounding villages.
After ten years of prayer, mortification, preaching and hard work, that would soon change. What had been a mustard seed would soon become a tree in which not only the people of Ars but all the penitents of France would be able to find refuge.