Last week, we examined one of the reasons why St. John Vianney’s confessional became the most besieged one in the history of the Church: he prayed and sacrificed so much for sinners that that God, it seems, not only heard but rewarded those prayers, drawing hundreds of thousands of penitents from all over France to confess to a priest who shared his own zeal to reconcile his prodigal sons and daughters.
While prayer should always be the first act of a Christian, it’s not meant to be the only action. Accordingly, the patron saint of priests did not stop at praying for sinners, but constantly labored to invite, persuade, and, when the circumstances demanded it, push and pull people to take advantage of God’s great sacrament of mercy.
Whenever he heard that there was someone in need of the sacrament who was reluctant to come, he went out in search of him. Once a wife who had brought her ill boy to him told him that her husband was standing at the door, unwilling even to enter the Church. The Curé of Ars left the sacristy and started calling for him by name, asking others to bring him to him. At the third call, the husband entered the Church and approached the saint, who grabbed him by the hand and led him behind the altar where there was a special confessional normally reserved for bishops and priests. He pointed to the confessional and said, “Put yourself there.” “I don’t feel like it,” the husband replied. The priest looked at him and with loving firmness said, “Begin.” At that point, overcome by the supernatural force of the emaciated cleric, the man began and the saint helped him make his first confession in 14 years.
On another occasion, he heard of a boatman who had transported a large group of penitents but who refused to accompany them to the Church because, he told them, he was a hardened sinner with no intention of changing his behavior. The pastor of Ars went to see him at his hotel room. “I have not come here to play the devotee,” the boatman said to him after opening the door. “Leave me in peace! I am anxious to be off.” St. John Vianney grabbed his hand and with tender concern said, “So you do not want to have pity on your soul, my friend?” The saint left, but his words continued to resonate in the heart of the boatman. The following morning the boatman was in line for confession.
A third occasion shows how creative St. John Vianney could be in trying to meet sinners where they were at and lead them back to the Father’s house. A young man tried to persuade his friend to come with him to confession in Ars. The friend replied that he would accompany him, but, insofar as he had no desire or need to confess, stated that he would go hunting while the other was in line for the sacrament. When they arrived in the village, St. John Vianney was crossing the square. He stopped before the friend, who had his rifle in one hand and the leash to his hunting dog in the other. St. John Vianney looked at the dog and then turned to its owner. “Monsieur,” he said, “would that your soul was as beautiful as your dog!” The vain young man blushed. After some time reflecting on the saint’s words, he entrusted his gun and pet to townspeople, entered the Church and with great tears, made his confession. His conversion was so thorough that, a few years later, he himself was captured by the Hound of Heaven and became a Cistercian monk.
The most notable means St. John Vianney’s used to draw people to the confessional, however, was through regularly preaching about the need for the sacrament in the pulpit. His customary style would be to speak about God’s mercy; when times warranted, however, he could also thunder with the fierceness of an Old Testament prophet.
He would generally begin with a focus on what a great gift the sacrament of confession is. “My children,” he preached once, “we cannot comprehend the goodness of God towards us in instituting this great Sacrament of Penance. If we had had a favor to ask of our Lord, we should never have thought of asking him that. But he foresaw our frailty and our inconstancy in well-doing, and his love led him to do what we should not have dared to ask.”
The essence of the sacrament, he continued, is an encounter between God’s mercy and our misery, where the love of God “heals the wounds of our soul.” He labored to eradicate the popular Jansenist conception of an angry God, an image that would scare people away from the sacrament. “The good God will pardon a repentant sinner,” he countered, “faster than a mother will grab her child out of a fire.” In the sacrament, he said, “it’s not the sinner who comes back to God to ask for forgiveness, but God himself who runs after the sinner to make him return.” The Father of the prodigal son “comes after you, he pursues you after you have abandoned him. ” Basing himself on Jesus’ words about the great eruption of joy in heaven for one repentant sinner, St. John Vianney stressed, “God’s greatest pleasure is to forgive us.”
Anticipating almost verbatim some of what Christ himself said to St. Faustina a century later about his Divine Mercy, he continued, “How good God is! His good heart is an ocean of mercy. Even though we can be great sinners, we should never despair of our salvation. It is so easy to be saved!” God’s mercy is much greater than our misery. “What are our sins,” he asked, “if we compare them to God’s mercy?” This mercy extends not just to the past but to the future: “The good God knows all things. It knows that after you confess, you will sin again, but he will pardon you. What love God has that he will even voluntarily forget the future to forgive us.”
But there were times when the honey of God’s mercy was not enough to attract people to the sacrament. On those occasions, he didn’t hesitate to resort to fire-and-brimstone to let his parishioners know the consequences of sin and the failure to come to have sins forgiven. “Scaring them” into the sacrament was preferable to letting them live and die without it. He preached about the realities of the Last Judgment and Hell just like Jesus himself frequently did before him. Sometimes he would describe what sinners were doing to themselves, like carrying their souls to Hell by unnecessary work on Sunday. At other times, he would beg those who refused to repent at least to “commit as few mortal sins as possible, so as not to add to their everlasting punishment.” Most often he would just start sobbing in the pulpit, for as much as 15 minutes at a time, contemplating the fate of damned souls, and saying, “Cursed by God! Cursed by God! What a pity!”
It was almost impossible not to be moved. He would always conclude his homilies by inviting his listeners to action. “If the poor people who are damned had the time that we lose,” he said once, “what good use they’d make of it!” He would remind them of the words of “God does not will the death of the sinner” and call them to take advantage of the means they have to meet the mercy of God in confession before they meet his justice at the judgment. Most did. “Without the sacrament of penance, it would be fitting to weep,” he said; because of God’s love in founding the sacrament, however, there was an opportunity to turn those tears into joy.
In sum, St. John Vianney was not content to remain in the confessional waiting for people to come, but actively went in search of Christ’s lost sheep to bring them home to God. His courageous example of holy preaching and persistent personal invitation remain an imitable lesson for all priests and faithful today.