A few weeks ago, when I began this miniseries on St. John Vianney as a confessor, I asked why so many men and women from throughout France made enormous sacrifices to get to the barely accessible hamlet of Ars to go to confession. I replied at the time with the words of one of the several hundred thousand reconciled sinners who had made such a pilgrimage: they came to Ars because there was something truly special about the confessor. They believed they were encountering “God in a man,” someone whose radiant holiness gave them a glimpse of the irresistible beauty of God’s merciful love.
That explanation is no doubt true from the subjective perspective of many of the penitents. But I don’t think it’s an exhaustive explanation. While only God knows all the reasons why St. John Vianney’s confessional was teeming while so many other confessionals in France were vacant, it seems plausible that the fundamental reason was that God himself was drawing them there. I like to think, moreover, that one of the reasons God was moving his sons and daughters to confess to this simple priest in a tiny village was because St. John Vianney “earned” and “deserved” them far more than other priests.
God, who cannot be outdone in generosity, seemed reward the constant prayers and heroic sacrifices of St. John Vianney for the conversion of others. Just as no other confessor in history has heard so many confessions for so many years as the Curé of Ars, so probably no other priest prayed and sacrificed as much for the conversion necessary to bring sinners to the confessional.
As I’ve noted in previous columns, when the future patron saint of priests arrived in Ars, the practice of the faith was quite weak. His confessional was, for the most part, dormant. Rather than deter or discourage him, this absence of fidelity on the part of others spurred him on. He would spend most of the night in his Church alone with the Lord, begging, “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish! I consent to suffer whatever you wish for as long as I live.” He would fast and do other types of bodily penance in prayerful reparation to God for the sins others were not confessing. He would wait patiently in his confessional, praying for those who should be on the other side, but who, for one reason or another, had not yet come to conversion. He did this for a decade before there was a steady flow of penitents.
Even after he began to be overwhelmed by the number of penitents, however, he kept praying and doing sacrifices for the conversion of others. While in most matters he was reticent about his own interior life, in terms of his praying for sinners, he was very open, because he wanted to enlist others in the effort to imitate him in praying for those in need of God’s mercy.
“I can’t stop praying for poor sinners who are on the road to hell,” he once said. “If they come to die in that state, they will be lost for all eternity. What a pity! We have to pray for sinners!” He said that praying for sinners was the “most beautiful and useful of prayers” because “the just are on the way to heaven, the souls of purgatory are sure to enter there, but the poor sinners” will be lost forever. He said that all devotions are good but “there is no better one” than such prayer for sinners.
“What souls we can convert by our prayers,” he said on another occasion. Paraphrasing the Lord’s words to the Prophet Ezekiel, he added, “The one who saves a soul from hell saves this soul and his own as well.” He passed these truths on to all who would listen, because he knew that one did not have to be a priest absolving sins in God’s name in the confessional to save sinners; by God’s design, one could also do so through prayer.
When he talked about praying for sinners, he wasn’t describing merely a short invocation, but a serious program of persistent supplication. When a parishioner asked him how more effectively to pray for sinners, the patron saint of priests responded with a list of things that seem to have an autobiographical tone to them. “One can offer himself as a victim for 8-15 days for the conversion of sinners. One can suffer cold, heat, deprive oneself of looking at something, go visit someone who would appreciate it, make a novena, attend daily Mass for this intention in places where it is possible. Not only would one contribute to God’s glory by this holy practice [of praying for sinners], but one would obtain an abundance of grace.”
To a brother priest who complained that his efforts to get his people to return to the Sacrament of Penance through his ministry in the pulpit had so far borne little fruit, St. John Vianney replied, with a response that likely featured much self-revelation, “You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline [a self-imposed penitential scourging]? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain.”
Whenever someone he met refused to repent, the Curé of Ars redoubled his prayers and penances for that person’s conversion. He would, moreover, do “preventative” prayer and penance prior to the scheduled debauched dances (the vogues) to beg God’s grace to help people falling in sin. He would also do post-confessional prayer and sacrifice for reconciled sinners, giving them easier penances and doing the rest himself, so that no one would be afraid to return to the sacrament of God’s mercy because of the fear of a harsh penance.
He prayed so much and so insistently precisely because he was convinced that the conversion of some from the state of mortal sin to grace was a true miracle that only God can work. “A great miracle is needed to raise a poor soul in that state,” he taught in one of his catechism lessons. “Yes, a greater miracle than what the Lord did to raise Lazarus!” To resuscitate a dead body pales, he thought, to resurrecting a soul from death; every absolution is in fact a resurrection, when God the Father says to his prodigal son, “My son was dead and has come back to life again.” St. John Vianney never lost the wonder of being God’s instrument for these most important miracles. When his fame began to grow through his being the instrument for some miraculous bodily cures, he downplayed their significance, saying that the “body is so very little” and adding, “It is a beautiful thought, my children, that we have a sacrament that heals the wounds of our soul!”
St. John Vianney’s existence, like Christ’s before him, became one great prayer for the miracle of the conversion of sinners. “I am only content,” he said, “when I’m praying for sinners.” One of the reasons for his was that he knew, by what seems to be a divine intimation, that such prayer pleased God immensely. “The good God has made me see,” he said to one of his friends, “how much he loves that I pray for poor sinners. … I don’t know if it were really a voice I heard or a dream, but, whatever it was, it woke me up and told me that to save a soul in the state of sin is more pleasing to God than all sacrifices. For that reason, I do all my resolutions for penance.”
His heroic praying for sinners was the prehistory for so many of the miracles of conversion that took place in his confessional. His confessional had the longest continuous lines in Church history because he prayed more than anyone in history that people would get in that line of salvation.
His example is an inspiration to all priests and faithful to imitate him in this prayer. The same Lord who was pleased to answer his persevering pleas so lavishly stands ready to respond to ours.