Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. If ever there was a priest-saint for our times, it is St. John Vianney. A man who understood to his very depths the calling placed upon him at his ordination. He lived the sacred character of his office fully and he loved deeply with the heart of a spiritual father. Like the Good Shepherd, whose heart is moved with pity at a flock without a shepherd, St. John Vianney sought to give his life as a sacrifice united to Christ Crucified for the salvation of souls. He wanted to lead all souls to the Good Shepherd.
In an age when the beauty, sacred character, and the high calling of the priesthood has been marred by scandal, poor spiritual formation, and a reduction of priests to functionary, administrator, fundraiser, social justice warrior, and bureaucrat, now is when we need the St. John Vianneys of our time to arise.
It’s clear that the crisis of faith and assault on masculinity in Western culture has led to a loss of spiritual fatherhood within the priesthood. The solution can only be offered by priests who choose Christ and the love of souls over and above everything else. Men who seek to love with the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus regardless of what others think, including their brother priests.
St. John Vianney, like all saints, was misunderstood by those around him. He had much to overcome. The young saint struggled in school, but was able to persevere through his formation after starts and stops due to the events of his day. He was sent to the small village of Ars. The people of Ars were indifferent or had abandoned the faith, largely because of the French Revolution. The Church in France was devastated by the anti-clericalism of the Revolution that lead to the murder of many priests.
What set St. John Vianney apart was his dedication to the salvation of his spiritual children’s souls above everything else. He was not concerned with honor, praise, acceptance, or worldly lures. He fixed his eyes on Christ and the promises of eternal life. St. John wanted to lead all souls entrusted to him to heaven. He understood—given the state of the people’s indifference and ignorance—that he must radically live out his calling as a priest through a complete surrender and crucifixion with Christ. Our own day is one of religious indifference and ignorance, even within the Church.
He fought spiritual battles on behalf of his people. The devil pestered him mercilessly. He fasted and lived largely on potatoes. St. John forsook the comforts of this world in order to find the interior freedom to live for Christ alone and for his people. He understood the Sacrament of Penance was an indispensable gift given by Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, not something only offered once a week or by appointment only. A Sacrament that needs to be frequented in order to progress in holiness. He spent 11-12 hours hearing confessions in the winter and 16-18 hours a day hearing confessions in the summer. Tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Ars to go to Confession with him.
St. John Vianney, like other priest-saints, demonstrates that a priest’s fruitfulness is directly tied to how much he is willing to die with Christ for the salvation of souls. A priest who is willing to give everything to God for the salvation of souls will be a rich spiritual father who saves countless souls. A priest who seeks the comforts of the world, honor, praise, and who is concerned about being liked by his people will be unable to lead his spiritual children to the heights of holiness. His people will be worldly, just like him. A priest who has reduced his priesthood to being a functionary or a bachelor CEO will be spiritually impotent since he will quickly lose sight of his high calling and seek the security and comforts of this life above the salvation of his own people.
This is a problem we as the Church face today. As more and more of the faithful struggle to deal with the scandals, as well as the overly bureaucratic responses we are repeatedly given by the hierarchy, the People of God are starved for spiritual fathers. In many ways, the faithful don’t even realize they are being spiritually starved because we are so use to worldly notions of the priesthood. Now is the time to recapture a true vision and understanding of the priesthood.
Catechism on the Priesthood
St. John Vianney’s “Catechism on the Priesthood” points to the sublime heights the priest is called to and our calling as the faithful to love them deeply as men appointed by Christ to be other Christs to us in this life. We can never lose sight of this truth no matter how much our priests and bishops may hurt us. We must remember that through their sacred office and the indelible mark placed upon their souls at ordination, they are still other Christs. The Sacraments they confer are valid and through the mystery of Judas we can come to understand that even the most evil of priests confects the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments validly despite the state of his own soul.
As St. John Vianney stated:
Saint Bernard tells us that everything has come to us through Mary; and we may also say that everything has come to us through the priest; yes, all happiness, all graces, all heavenly gifts. If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have Our Lord. Who placed Him there, in that tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it that received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest — always the priest. And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side by side with this recollection, the image of the priest.
These words serve as a reminder of who the priest is called to be in our lives. There may be times when we have to remind them of this truth when or if they lose sight of it. They can become overburdened, lonely, frustrated, and weighed down by the demands of their sacred office. We must encourage them to persevere in the highest of callings Christ has given them.
One danger that we in the laity can fall into is a worldly view of the priesthood. There is a risk of feeling sorry for them because they cannot marry. We who are in the married state can almost view them in a patronizing way. I often see members of the laity fall into a false sense of pity through which they encourage priests in worldly pursuits in order to overcome their loneliness. This is the worst thing we can do for a priest. We must lead him back towards Christ, not the world. His life belongs to Christ alone who must be the priest’s joy, and through his deep intimacy with God, his heart will be expanded to love the multitude of souls entrusted to him. There is nothing in this world that can fill a priests’ soul, not even a wife. He has been set apart for Christ alone.
While it may be meant well, it is a failure to understand their mission and the fact that their calling is higher in the supernatural order than our own. We should celebrate and encourage them to seek that which is above and to abandon those things that tie them too much to this life. To truly love priests means we must point them to the Cross, not comfort and security. We must be like Our Blessed Mother and stand with them at the foot of the Cross despite the agonies they may suffer and suffer with them.
The freer priests are, interiorly and exteriorly, the more they will lead souls to Christ through their own union with Him on the Cross. They have been given a sublime task. One that is difficult and can be easily forgotten in an overly materialistic age. Priests are no longer their own. St. John Vianney pointed out this calling when he taught:
The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, “What can we do in this church? there is no Mass; Our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home. ” When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.
Their vocation calls priests to focus on the salvation of souls and to be a loving spiritual father to those souls. If he loses sight of his calling, souls may be lost with him. St. John Vianney also very bluntly said: “A priest goes to heaven or a priest goes to hell with a thousand people behind.” When we see priests, we should first see Jesus Christ, and second, we should see the thousands of souls behind him. It is no small thing when a priest or bishop falls into scandal or when they stop leading a spiritually fruitful life. Thousands upon thousands of souls are relying on the sanctity of our priests.
On this Memorial of St. John Vianney, let us commit to fervently praying and sacrificing for our priests daily.