Jean-Baptiste Vianney never set out to please people. Rather he proceeded purposefully in seeking to please God.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 5th August 2018 at 3.00 PM
At around this time of the year, when my children were younger, we would pack the car with all sorts of useful stuff and set out across the channel for our annual family summer holiday in France.
These adventures took us all over the country, but it usually involved renting an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Some days we would just stay put and enjoy the garden, other days we would travel around and visit interesting places.
Some fifteen years ago we ended up near Lyon, which is not that far from Geneva.
We eventually found our house in the countryside, around thirty miles north of the city, not that far from a small village called Ars.
This is the village where the patron saint of parish priests, Saint John Vianney, exercised his sacred ministry during the nineteenth century. It was his only parish, in then a tiny unremarkable, unknown little backwater.
You may not have heard of St John Vianney, but he arrived there as Parish priest exactly 200 years ago this year, and yesterday the church around the world quietly celebrated his Feast day.
Today this old sleepy village contains a great new shrine to Saint John Vianney, and pilgrims travel there from all reaches of the globe. It now has two churches: the old 12th-century church where St. John Vianney preached, and a new basilica that displays his preserved body in a glass case.
The saint's heart is also enshrined in a smaller separate building, the Shrine of the Cure's Heart. Its also possible to visit the home of the Curé of Ars, which has been preserved just the way he left it. It still contains the saint's rosary, breviary, library and other personal items.
200 years ago, when his ministry first began there, he was considered by his bishop to be the least able of all his priests. He struggled with his ordination training, and by all accounts he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the diocesan box.
The bishop probably said to himself, what shall I do with him? and in the end he decided to send him out into this nondescript parish where he could do little harm.
He was told: ‘There is not much love of God in that parish; you will bring some into it.’ These words were remarkably prophetic.
On first seeing the tiny village of Ars St John Vianney knelt down and kissed the ground as he entered his parish, just as St John Paul II would do on a global scale many years later.
He then rang the church bell on his first morning in that parish. A broken bell in a run-down building. Today such a building would, I suspect, quickly find its way onto the redundant church list.
But he was faithful in his prayers and diligent in his love and in his spiritual direction. God answered his prayers and there followed a quite remarkable and radical conversion of the parish with hundreds of thousands eventually journeying from all over France to that tiny little place, to seek his priestly counsel.
Every day he would kneel for hours before the Tabernacle, containing the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Nearly 30 years ago I can remember walking the bounds of the first parish that I had responsibility for, and within it there was a Religious Community where perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament had taken place, night and day for over 100 years.
Over the years I have come to understand what an incredible spiritual achievement that was. It took me much longer to learn what St. John Vianney knew immediately.
During his first few years in Ars, the people were most suspicious of him. Preaching was an enormous trial and there was ostentatious yawning in the church to show a complete and casual dismissal of whatever this new priest was trying to say.
I have often been surprised on leaving a parish when people have told me that the greatest encouragement I gave them was not my preaching, or visiting, or projects or administration, but simply being there in the church praying.
St. John Vianney never set out to please people. Rather he proceeded purposefully in seeking to please God.
This led him very close to all his people and especially close throughout his life to the most difficult and confused of his people the types of people we might naturally be inclined to avoid.
St. John Vianney lived in a situation not entirely unfamiliar to us. There was a sort of faint, folk memory of faith combined with a religious illiteracy resulting from the turmoil following the French Revolution.
This was the cultural context in which he set about teaching and preaching and explaining for more than forty years the Gospel of Christ. But it was in the confessional that he would increasingly be found. People demanded that he remained there for up to 16 hours each day every summer.
Now let me give you an incredible fact: An estimated fifth of the population of the France of his time would be drawn to that tiny and remote village. However, its important to remember he began with as few penitents as many a Parish Priest complains of today.
Moreover, his concern for social justice was never a theoretical one and he drew his parishioners into caring for the unique dignity of everyone.
His care for the orphaned girls, for the poorest and the weakest was a constant of his life where the preferential love for the poor was lived-out as a daily deed rather than as a topic of conversation.
He was genuinely appalled by the honours of church and state which drew attention to himself. He once remarked that in his Canon’s robes nothingness was dressed up as pride.
This reaction was not simply to avoid the egotism of a priest who might tragically think the Priesthood is all about himself. It was to avoid a still greater evil: that everything would be considered to revolve around himself.
St. John Vianney had no doubt that whatever lies at the centre, the core of parish life or indeed Abbey life or cathedral life, must always be to bring people back to the heart of Christ.
There is much we can learn from him, but the greatest lesson is that faithfulness lies at the very heart of discipleship and all spiritual growth flows from utter dependence upon God.
Perhaps we might think on this as we now come to sing our final hymn ‘Firmly I believe and truly’, taken from Part1 of The Dream of Gerontius, by Blessed John Henry Newman.