Last week in France, a priest was murdered by Islamic terrorists during Mass. Fr. Jacques Hamel was 86 years old; a thin, small man with white, wispy hair, hollow cheeks and hooded eyes. It is thought-provoking to compare this French priest’s appearance to another French priest who lived and died nearly 160 years ago; one who also had a diminutive frame, shrunken face, deep-set eyes, silvery hair—and a holy death. One week after the passing of this parish priest as he celebrated Mass, the Church celebrates the passing of the patron saint of parish priests, Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney. St. Jean Vianney knew the storms of evil that beset man, and combatted them valiantly and victoriously despite their terrors. Considering present times and present terrors, the Curé of Ars stands out as a saint whose patronage is as needed today all over the world as it was in his own day in his little village of Ars to show the way to heaven.
Born to Terror
Jean Marie Vianney was born in the month of May on the family farm near Lyon in the village of Dardilly, France, 1786—but he was born in a time of terror. The French Revolution raged and roared out of Paris like a volcano, tearing down the Bastille and erecting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, resulting in the Reign of Terror that searched and scorched the far corners of France like a fire. The gore-spattered guillotines slogged tirelessly on their screaming pulleys. A price was put on the head of every Catholic priest. Church doors were chained shut. Bells were silenced. Crossroad shrines were toppled and trampled in the dust. A war against religious fervor was waged with ferocity by the Revolutionary radicals.
But through this mad chaos, a little boy named Jean tended cattle and sheep with a sanity that is a sanctity, and the authority of children. He grazed his father’s livestock with rosary in hand and a small carven image of Our Lady enshrined in a hollow willow tree that stretched over a stream. There he would play Mass with other village children who made up his congregation, and the blind wisdoms of the God-hating world were never the wiser. Already, Jean was laughingly called the Curé and his games were good, for play is best when it is practice for serious work to come. Even as a child, the Revolution and its ravages were no match for the Curé. And the apple did not fall far from the tree. Rumors ran that many a persecuted priest was harbored at Matthieu Vianney’s farm. Murmurs passed that Mass was celebrated in his home by hunted holy men. Through it all, the boy learned the fear of the catacombs. Through it all, he felt the tremor of terror. Through it all, he knew God the better.
Pain and Progress
As Jean grew up, he was devoted to the poor and the beggars who went door to door. But his farm duties prevented him from any such devotion to his education. When he was sixteen, the bells of Notre Dame de Paris rang in Easter morning with the liberation of Catholic France by Napoleon Bonaparte, and Jean heard the calling of God in the answering bells that shook out their cobwebs with pealing reverberations across the stricken country. A new day dawned for France and for the young Frenchman. It was at this time that Fr. Balley arrived in nearby Écully as pastor, and Jean, intelligent but ignorant, began to study under him as he discerned a vocation to the priesthood. Though he struggled, especially in Latin, the patience and perseverance of both pupil and professor paid off, and Jean-Marie made progress slowly and steadily.
But nothing worth obtaining is easily obtained. As Jean’s commendation for the priesthood was imminent, Napoleon’s war with Spain demanded immediate conscriptions. Jean was enlisted. However, the physical mortifications he had adopted by the example of the saintly Fr. Balley, had made him so weak that he was unable to join his company. Though he dutifully attempted to catch up with them when he was able, he inadvertently fell in with deserters and was forced into hiding until the occasion of the Emperor’s marriage prompted a general pardon, allowing Jean to return finally to his studies. Jean Vianney was shortly thereafter ordained to the priesthood at twenty-nine years of age.
Welcome to Ars
After serving as assistant to Fr. Balley until that holy priest’s death, Fr. Vianney was assigned to a small, plain parish in the small, plain village of Ars. It was only twenty miles from his birthplace, but so obscure that the Curé became lost upon his journey. Running across a group of young shepherds in the fog that wafted from the surrounding swamps, Fr. Vianney called out, “Can you please tell me, children, the way to Ars?” Fluent only in a local dialect, the children did not respond. “Ars? Ars?” repeated the priest. A boy understood and pointed. “You have shown me the way to Ars,” the Curé said. “I shall show you the way to heaven.”
He finally stumbled into Ars: fifty or so drab clay houses huddled in the flats, stagnant ponds, barren soil, thickets of bushes, a walnut orchard, one chateau with tower, moat, and battlement, a cemetery, a rectory, and a broken-down church of St. Sixtus. Thanks be to God. The Curé set himself up with intensity in the dirty, shabby church and with austerity in the dirty, shabby rectory.
He boiled potatoes for his diet in water and began penances for his parishioners in blood. He reached out to the poor with compassion and to his people with vigor. He preached fire and brimstone from the pulpit and love and mercy from the confessional. He paid the fiddler who played for riotous dances double to stay at home. He rebuked the girl who merely watched these dances, saying “she danced in her heart if not with her feet.” He reproached the innkeeper who served wine to family men who should have been feeding their families with the money they paid for drink. He forced public houses out of business. He refused absolution with an inexplicable scent for duplicity. He ignited a desire for virtue. He inspired rest on Sunday. He introduced innocence in rest. He was a priest. He was a pastor.
The devil took good note of the Curé’s good work, and set to work of his own to impede it. Darkness brought dark noises. Mice gnawing at the bed-curtains. Blows crashing against the bedroom door. Voices shouting in panic. Carts rumbling. Rats squealing. Rocks smashing. Bull. Bear. Dog. The devil was come to Ars in all his guises and with all his arts. The attacks were beyond description or belief, though witnessed by many. But the Curé remained unmoved. Then came the shaking of the house. Then came the tossing of the priest from his bed. Then came the fire, the stench, the obscenity, racking that body already so wasted from suffering for his flock.
“One gets used to everything,” he would say, grinning. “Le grappin and I are almost comrades.” When the assaults were particularly fiendish, he would say, “The villainous grappin! He could not catch the bird, so he burns the cage.” Eventually, the Curé came to learn that the onslaughts of le grappin were precursors to what he called a “big fish,” a fallen-away Catholic in the confessional. This realization steeled him to these terrifying bouts all the more. Like his Revolution, the devil himself could not get the better of the Curé of Ars. Back he lurked to hell, leaving the indomitable priest to lead on to heaven.
Saint in the Flesh
Before long, Ars became renowned for its Curé, and a place of pilgrimage. They came by foot, by beast, and by train to hear Fr. Vianney preach his simple yet sublime sermons, and to have him hear their simple yet sublime confessions. They longed to spy the tears that he shed when speaking of Our Lord, as though he were longing to spy His Face among the crowd stuffed into his tiny church. They lined up in droves so long and vast that the priest spent most of his time absolving poor sinners from their sins by the richness of God’s grace. But when he began to be assailed by souvenir-seekers and relic-collectors, he feared this veneration would make him proud and threaten his salvation. Three times Fr. Vianney fled from Ars to join a Trappist monastery. Three times God returned him to Ars.
The Curé of Ars died after three days of agony in insufferable August heat. The men of Ars draped wet sheets over the roof of his house to help cool his room against the glaring sun, and continued to douse them on the day that he died while mourners wailed in the courtyard below. He passed into the arms of his Lord on August 4, 1859. The serenity of his countenance can be seen to this day on the death mask that adorns St. Jean Marie Vianney’s incorrupt body in the great and glorious basilica that appends his dirty, shabby church of St. Sixtus in Ars.
Priest for the Present
St. Jean Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, is a priest and a patron saint for the present and the future. In an era of terrorism, what better help can Catholics hope for than from a priest who knew and combatted terror? Moreover, the Curé of Ars combatted terror personally in many of the forms that are prevalent in society nowadays: from sexual sin, to the crisis of the confessional, to material obsession, to demonic influence, the world is reeling from the attacks that St. Jean Marie labored against in his humility against hypocrisy and in his penance against perversity. As Fr. Jacques Hamel gave the world a startling and stunning paradigm of what Catholics must be ready to endure for Christ’s sake, so too does the Curé of Ars corroborate and consecrate the sacrifice of his fellow French priest by his own sacrificial life and his own dedication to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.