“When people want to destroy religion they begin by attacking the priest; for when there is no priest, there is no sacrifice: and when there is no sacrifice, there is no religion.”
— St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney exemplifies a life of sacrificial love, holy boldness and courageous perseverance. His example is absolutely relevant to our day and age. Twenty years ago on pilgrimage to Catholic shrines in France, our group visited the famous village of Ars. Our priest celebrated holy Mass in the same crypt that St. John Vianney offered Mass for his flock. That experience was marked with many extraordinary graces for everyone in our small group. After Mass we visited the cell where the Curé of Ars lived—a simple room with a single bed, a crucifix, a small table with a candle, and walls stained by smoke from the fiery ordeals that occurred there—battles between the priest and the evil one.
Ironically, the man who was not an intellectual genius models the genius of authentic masculinity: protector of what is good and vulnerable to demonic attack. He valiantly fought the good fight when he courageously persevered in the call to priesthood. That journey was particularly challenging and humbling for him. Having been ordained and sent to Ars, he had a different kind of battle. He found an entire village of people gone astray from God and he was sent to change that. He did as Saint Paul instructs, “Put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6). He was already a man in love with God, well prepared by the cross of Christ. He turned to God in prayer first. St. Vianney’s teaching on the primacy of prayer ties into Paul’s teaching on the armor of God, “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18).
Prayer is the source of all graces, the mother of all virtues, the efficacious and universal way by which God wills that we should come to him. He says to us: “Ask, and you shall receive.” None but God could make such promises and keep them. He says to us, “If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you.” . . . Ought not this promise [to] fill us with confidence, and to make us pray fervently all the days of our poor life? Within the reach of the ignorant, enjoined to the simple and to the enlightened, prayer is the virtue of all mankind; it is the science of all the faithful! Everyone on earth who has a heart, everyone who has the use of reason ought to love and pray to God.
St. John Vianney is a model for all believers who seek to radiate the love of the Sacred Heart—a love that is necessary to living the Gospel. Quite uniquely, the ordained priest is chosen and charged with the noblest mission of extending the priestly love of the Sacred Heart on earth through his self-offering. The ordained priest extends the spousal love of the Eternal High Priest to God’s people.
In 2009, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, celebrated on June 19 that year, marked two significant events: the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney (August 4, 1859), the patron saint of priests, and the start of the Year for Priests. The Year for Priests was declared by Pope Benedict XVI and was intended to “deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world.” I was present for the inaugural Mass of the Year for Priests at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., celebrated by His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and 130 other priests. It was a glorious liturgy, in which the cardinal elaborated on the gift of ministerial priesthood, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the necessity of asking God to renew priests each day. He implored the laity to celebrate the Year for Priests with priests and for priests so that God might bless them and they might do what God wanted them to do in the year designated for priests. He also praised the priesthood of St. John Vianney, who famously described the priesthood as “the love of the heart of Jesus.”
The cardinal reminded the priests that no one merits the great gift of God’s love that chose them for priesthood; and that from the womb they were called for transformation into God’s love for the Church. He invited priests to thank Jesus for breaking His Heart for them. He shared how priests have seen the glory of God in a newly baptized baby, in an old dying nun, in the face of a soldier in battle, in Catholic parents open to life (children), in the prisoner and in the wonder of mercy, in pronouncing the words of the Consecration over bread and wine, when they raise their hand in absolving sins, when a little girl receives her first Holy Communion and whispers, “I love You so much, Jesus.” Priests see the glory of divine love in the wonder of the sacrifice of their lives as alteri Christi (“other Christs”).
The Importance of the Priest
We desperately need more holy priests to reflect the light of Christ, reveal the tenderness of His Sacred Heart, radiate the beauty of His Holy Face, proclaim the truth of His Word, and extend the power of the seven sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes sacramental priesthood in this way: “Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry.” And St. John Vianney put it even more succinctly: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders we would not have the Lord.” Sometimes we do not realize the importance of the priest until we experience the need for God’s help. We then look to His minister to aid us. At all times, the priest is vitally necessary to the life of the Church and the salvation of souls.
I am aware of the challenge that priests face as they strive toward the goal of living like Christ. They acknowledge their individual powerlessness but say yes to God’s power working in them. They become burden-bearers for Christ and His people. In presenting themselves for the sacrament of Holy Orders, they step out in faith and into something much greater than themselves. Their good example helps the people of God to do the same.
The science of love taught by Christ consists of sacrificial love for God and neighbor, perfected in missionary zeal. It should only be for love that a priest agrees to follow Jesus in the ministerial priesthood. He is able to make a total gift of himself to Christ because he has experienced a love that is more powerful than anything else. Here we are reminded of the famous words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, i.e., than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
Falling in love with Christ creates an inner dynamism of the heart that spurs us to selflessly serve the Beloved. A person in love with God will do amazing things because nothing is more dynamic than a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Love is like a fire in the soul and it is the essence of the armor of God.
Pope Benedict XVI reflected upon the notion of priesthood radiating “the love of the heart of Jesus”: “The expression of St. John Vianney also makes us think of Christ’s pierced Heart and the crown of thorns which surrounds it. I also think, therefore, of the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests, either because they themselves share in the manifold human experience of pain or because they encounter misunderstanding from the very persons to whom they minister.”
One lays down his life for the Beloved and allows his heart to be pierced, as was the Lord’s. This means the priest must possess a kind of availability of spirit, as Pope Benedict XVI eloquently expresses: “Day after day it is necessary to learn that I do not possess my life for myself. Day by day I must learn to abandon myself; to keep myself available for whatever he, the Lord, needs of me at a given moment, even if other things seem more appealing and more important to me: this means giving life, not taking it.”
Every vocation requires a heart that sees the needs of others. We learn this through the gift of family, the domestic church. Every vocation passes through a family. A spiritually sensitive heart perceives Christ’s presence in the other. The ordained priest marries the family of the entire Church. That is why Christ gives priests His Sacred Heart with which to love the human family. In turn, God’s family should love their priests. They clothe us in the armor of God when they give us the sacraments.
St. John Vianney, pray for us.
Author’s Note: part of this article includes excerpts from a new book, Praying for Priests: A Mission for the New Evangelization available now from Sophia Institute Press.