"There is a holy man in Ars; go and see him."
That's what the people said and first there was just a small trickle of villagers who came through the doors to see the new pastor in the 12th century church at Ars-sur-Formans, but it ended with a flood of people making pilgrimages from all over Europe between 1830 and 1859. A tsunami of over three hundred people a day swamped the little French hameau of Ars, which is a speck on the map in the east-central Rhône-Alpes wine region, not far from Lyon. Considering the fact that the entire community only consisted of two hundred people, that was quite an influx.
St. John Vianney was spiritually gifted by God as a confessor. He often spent up to sixteen hours a day in the confessional, dispensing prayer, advice, consolation and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit. His fame grew to the extent that people would mob him when he stepped outside the rectory to walk over to the church; he took to keeping a handful of blessed medals in the pocket of his soutane so that he could toss them up in the air, making a break for it as the crowds scattered to scramble for the medals.
He was committed to the Biblical concept of personal sacrifice for the spiritual benefit of others (for a chapter-and-verse list, click here) and fasted from personal comfort by sleeping on a hard bed and limiting himself to a diet of potatoes, bread and milk, offering up his sufferings for the village of Ars and the people who came to him. He became one of the truest ambassadors of Christ our world has ever known. Priests from the area who knew him testified to the fact that supernatural grace kept him going, because any other person would have crumbled under the strict fasting combined with his work load.
Because of his holiness and his success in drawing people to Jesus, St. John Vianney was tormented by evil spirits for a number of years. Demonic influence caused his bed to shake on the floor and voices to jeer at him; once the curtains of his bed were set afire. There were times when the manifestations included physical attacks on the good priest. These occurrences terrified the villagers of Ars, but St. John Vianney, with his gentle sense of humor (and knowing that satan's vast pride is outraged when he is mocked), would just smile and say, "Oh, the old Grappin* and myself? We are almost chums."
In spite of all this, St. John Vianney barely made it to the priesthood. In our modern way of naming things, we would have said that he had "special needs" or "learning disabilities." Undoubtedly, he did. Schoolwork was not his forte. He struggled with Latin for years while in the seminary, and the difficult theology courses soared over his head. However, he had been brought up in a godly home (his parents hid itinerant priests who traveled about the country in disguise to say Masses for the faithful in those days of post-revolution France, where the churches were still padlocked and it was illegal to attend Mass) to love and honor Jesus and to consider the Blessed Mother as lovingly as he considered his own maman. His sermons never expressed great depth of theological insight, but were instead simple catechetical observations that taught his people how to live simple, humble, prayerful lives before God.
St. John Vianney did such a good job of this that his church was literally never empty for years. There was always someone kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
St. John Vianney, one of my most beloved saints in the calendar and Meelyn's Confirmation saint, died on August 4, 1859 at the age of seventy-three. The year 2009 is a special one because it marks the 150th anniversary of his death.
His body is incorrupt and lies in state beneath one of the altars at the basilica at Ars. You can see the shrine, the basilica and pictures of Ars by visiting the official Ars-sur-Formans shrine website. And here's a great photo journal posted by a priest named Fr. Gary Coulter.
St. John Vianney, we love you! Happy feast day, saint of God.
*archaic French word for "pitchfork"
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