'A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart': St. John Vianney

In 2016, Fr. Patrice Chocholski, the rector of the Shrine of the Curé of Ars, brought the heart of St. John Vianney to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy.

In the late 18th Century, French Revolutionaries wrecked Catholic Churches, ruined holy images, and desecrated the Eucharist. The Enlightenment had inspired disaffected citizens of France to rise up and attempt to eliminate Christianity from society. Rising to power, they forced priests to subordinate their allegiance to the Pope and swear an oath of loyalty to the state. In the September Massacres of 1792, more than 220 Catholic priests were killed for refusing to submit to the state. In the midst of one of the most anti-clerical movements in the history of the West, God lifted up a lowly and unlearned peasant, St. John Vianney, to become who we now know as the patron saint of priests.

Saint John Vianney, whose feast day is Aug. 4, was born in 1786 to poor peasants in rural Dardilly, France, where he spent his adolescence as a shepherd on his father's farm. His pious parents brought him long distances to attend Masses said by priests who ministered in secret, remaining faithful to the Church. If discovered, they could face the punishment of the guillotine. So, Saint John Vianney studied catechism from private tutors and received his First Communion in a home with the windows covered. The heroism required to remain a faithful Catholic during such a dangerous time inspired St. John Vianney's ever-deepening faith.

Win souls for God
One day, after returning from working in the fields, St. John Vianney told his family, "If I ever were to become a priest, I would win many souls for God." At age 22, he followed a call to the seminary.

But St. John Vianney struggled through seminary since he did not learn to read until after he turned 17 years old. He finished very last in a class of 200 when he was tested in the traditional Latin. They allowed him to test in his native French, but even then he remained last. His ostensible piety was the only reason the seminary passed him and in 1815, he was ordained. Not long after, his Bishop assigned him to the parish village of Ars which had a population of about 200. He remained pastor there for 41 years, acquiring the title "Curé d'Ars." His Bishop told him, "There is little love of God in that parish. You will be the one to put it there."

Though the intense persecution of Catholics came to an end, it left in its wake a poorly catechized Church. Saint John Vianney, therefore, rose daily before dawn to teach his parishioners the catechism, not allowing himself to rest until his entire village turned their lives over to God. Though humble at heart, he knew the power of his role as a parish priest, saying, "Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love." Saint John Vianney mortified himself for the sake of converting his parish, taking little sleep, eating just a few small potatoes for sustenance each day and praying long hours before the tabernacle. Soon, all of Ars became devout and the villagers gained a reputation across the area for their piety.

Reading souls
God bestowed on St. John Vianney the grace of reading souls - he could sense exactly what troubled a soul and divine a penitent's sins even if withheld. He brought some of the most hardened sinners to repentance and soon, faithful from across Europe came to see him for confession.

For most of his priestly life, he spent more than 12 hours each day in the confessional, sometimes more during the summer. Pilgrims often waited in line weeks to see him. He heard as many as 400 confessions each day on average, and in this way became a captive of his own parish. Though he served Ars from this poorly ventilated box for much of his life, his name became known throughout Europe.

On Aug. 4, 1859, Saint John Vianney died after serving as Curé of Ars for 41 years. His body remains untouched by decay to this day, a miracle testifying to his sanctity.

Participants at the 2019 Divine Mercy Weekend conference in Stockbridge had the opportunity to venerate the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney.

Good shepherd
Toward the end of the Age of the Enlightenment, a time that ordained reason as the measure of man, God used a simple, unlearned peasant to bring his flock back into the fold. Saint John Vianney showed the world that love for souls is the true measure of a man.

He said, "A good shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy."

In 2016, Fr. Patrice Chocholski, the rector of the Shrine of the Curé of Ars, brought the heart of St. John Vianney to the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, so that more faithful could venerate this holy saint.

He said, "Saint John Vianney's heart is incorrupted because God ... is giving us a sign that he is a priest always - even now - he is still a friend of his people. He is a merciful priest, crying for his people and praying [for them]."

Saint John Vianney, pray for us and for our priests!


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