Gene Plaisted, O.S.C.
John Baptiste Vianney, affectionately called the Curé of
Ars, is the Catholic Church’s patron saint of parish priests.
If you travel across the United States, chances are you will find
a parish named after John Vianney (1786-1859) in almost every diocese.
He was a champion of the poor as a Third Order Franciscan and a
recipient of the coveted French Legion of Honor. Vianney’s remarkable sanctity
and commitment to his small rural parish in France drew over 100,000 pilgrims
each year. People journeyed from all over Europe to attend his Masses or sit
in his confessional where he spent up to 16 hours a day hearing penitents.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting France, and decided to
research this unique, holy pastor. John Vianney’s parish in Ars is situated
along the Rhone River, a 30-minute drive from Lyon, in France’s magnificent
Beaujolais wine region. Vineyards, lovely birch trees, elms and willows line
the gently rolling hills.
Pope John Paul II himself visited Ars in 1986 at the 200th anniversary of
John Vianney’s birth and referred to the great saint as a rare
example of a pastor acutely aware of his responsibilities...and
a sign of courage for those who today experience the grace of being
called to the priesthood.
The pope also emphasized the numerous hardships John Vianney overcame
in his life to become a great priest, the first being his expulsion from the
Grand Seminary in Lyon because he could not master Latin. It was only through
the goodness of Father Balley, a family friend and local pastor who personally
tutored Vianney, that the bishop of Lyon finally agreed to ordain him.
Ars is a tiny village, composed of one main street, a square and
several quaint hotels. A statue in the main square depicts John
Vianney alongside two shepherds, commemorating a true story: When
Vianney’s bishop first assigned him to Ars, he got lost trying to
find the town. Two young men tending flocks in the fields pointed
him in the right direction. Vianney told them: You have shown
me the direction to my parish. I will one day show you the way to
The tiny church originally dedicated to St. Sixtus, where John Vianney
said daily and Sunday Mass, still stands in the town center much as it did in
his day. The interior, with only 20 rows of seats, more than accommodated the
village’s populace. But with the renowned transformation of Vianney’s parish
bringing pilgrims from as far as Eastern Europe, the church was often packed
beyond its walls.
Inside the church are several side altars that John Vianney built
over the years to some of his favorite patrons. St. Philomena, a first-century
Roman martyr, and St. John the Baptist, Vianney’s own patron, are two of them.
Canes and crutches still line the side altar to St. Philomena, as a result of
numerous healings attributed to her by Vianney himself.
A very modest basilica that seats 200 people is now connected to
the church where Vianney’s body rests in a glass coffin. In preparation for
Pope John Paul II’s 1986 visit to Ars, a 400-seat chapel was built underground.
Love for People Reached Beyond Parish
According to the Acts of Beatification and Canonization,
John Vianney’s gift as a confessor is what drew thousands of penitents to line
up, sometimes three days in advance, to experience what many recalled as his
ability to see into the deepest recesses of the soul.
Kneeling in Vianney’s confessional can be a mystical experience.
You can almost see his face behind the grated partition. Part of his popularity
as a confessor was his personal connection to all who went to him. It is clear
that John Vianney saw the sacrament as integral to true conversion and one of
the most powerful roads to reconciliation with God.
His first glance seemed to reach into the very depths of your soul,
Christine de Cibiens commented during the Acts of Canonization
in reference to waiting in line for confession. In the Acts of
Canonization there are countless testimonies of penitents being
astounded by Vianney’s poignant insights into their personal struggles
with sin. He reportedly knew remarkable details about their lives
without ever having met them before.
Vianney’s humor was also noteworthy. When a Paris socialite visiting Ars complained
of waiting in line for confession, he told her she would have to
wait even if she were the queen of England. When Francois Dorel,
a local plasterer, visited the church during a duck-hunting trip
with his dog in 1852, Vianney spotted him and told him: It
is greatly to be wished that your soul was as beautiful as your
Vianney had a soft spot for the forgotten as well. La Providence,
an orphanage for young girls that John Vianney started in 1824, can be found
across the street from the church. At the end of the Napoleonic Era, France’s
grave economic woes gripped the country. Countless women and girls roamed the
streets selling themselves as prostitutes.
In the true spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, La Providence
was John Vianney’s response to the social injustice of national poverty. The
orphanage is a modest, white, two-story French country house where numerous
young teenage and orphan girls in need of spiritual direction and shelter learned
skills such as housekeeping from Catherine Lassagne, who headed the house.
One of John Vianney’s great pleasures was his noontime catechism
to the orphan girls. In fact, once Ars became a hot spot for pilgrims, Father
Vianney’s midday chat with the girls became a crowded affair, one that had to
be relocated to the church.
Those sermons included a host of topics. He praised the beauty of prayer:
The soul should move toward prayer the way a fish should move
toward water; they are both a purely natural state. He advised
on the love of the cross: My children, it is in loving the
cross that we find true peace, not running from it. And he
encouraged a love of the Eucharist: There is no better way
to experience the good God than to find him in the perfect sacrifice
of the Mass.
The parish of Ars was literally changed into a community of piety,
prayer and heavenly peace through Vianney’s simple example of sanctity and love
for his flock.
Pope John XXIII, in his 1959 encyclical Nostri Sacerdotii Primitias
at the 100th anniversary of John Vianney’s death, called him a model
of priestly life and pastoral zeal which helped accomplish such
dramatic results rarely seen in history. A true ascetic, Vianney
often fasted on a few potatoes a day and prayed sometimes through
the night for the conversion of his parish.
Touring Vianney’s Home and Heart
John Vianney also had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi
and, though a diocesan priest, he became a Third Order Franciscan because of
his love for the poor. Today a Franciscan friary has been built on the parish
grounds and the friars now say the Masses and hear the confessions of pilgrims
When asked by people if they should give to the poor, John Vianney would often
reply with a smile: We will have to answer for why we did
or didn’t give, and the poor will have to answer for what they did
with what is given them.
The presbytery where John Vianney lived is a two-story house with
narrow stairs and wood floors. During a self-guided tour, you can view his bedroom,
guest room and kitchen where he ate what little he allowed his cook, Madame
Bibost, to feed him.
Vianney’s room is left in much the same way it looked when he was
alive, with personal items such as his rosary and pictures of numerous saints
whom he admired hanging on the wall. Near his bed is a substantial bookshelf
that includes two of his popular reading companions: his breviary and a book
on the lives of the saints.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Perhaps one of the most bizarre ingredients in the Process
of John Vianney’s Canonization are witnesses testifying to hauntings
of this presbytery building during the course of his assignment
from 1824 to 1859.
Father Trochu’s extensive biography, borrowing from the Process
testimonies, reports a plethora of incidents, which include Vianney’s own
sister, Marguerite Vianney, testifying in a deposition that she once spent the
night at the presbytery only to be awakened by strange rapping on the wall and
table in her room.
When Marguerite lit a lamp, she found everything in order, but the
noise continued after she returned to bed. Finally descending to the church
where her brother was hearing confessions late in the night, she found the Curé,
who said to her:
Oh, my child, you should not have been frightened: It is the Grappin
[pitchfork]. He cannot hurt you. As for me, he torments me in
sundry ways. At times he seizes me by the feet and drags me about
the room. It is because I convert souls to the good God.
In the museum at Ars’s presbytery, probably one of the strangest
relics is John Vianney’s old soot-covered bed frame, which was reportedly burned
by the devil when his room caught fire on the morning of February 24, 1857.
According to Father Trochu’s book (from a deposition taken from Father Alfred
Monin, a young priest), John Vianney was in the church hearing confessions
when he was informed of the fire in his room. The Grappin
is very angry, Vianney remarked. He couldn’t catch the
bird so he has burned the cage. It is a good sign. We will have
many sinners this day.
The strange stories of rectory hauntings, as well as John Vianney’s
stringent fasts, which resulted in his emaciated appearance, aroused suspicion,
adding to the growing struggles in his life.
Tattered Clothes, Unbreakable Spirit
Even John Vianney’s attire seemed to cause trouble. No slave to
fashion, he dressed simply. According to several parishioners, his
cassock, not unlike that of Francis of Assisi, was often torn or
worn out. The bishop of Belly, when informed that Vianney had appeared
in public without his sash, however, reportedly responded: The
Curé of Ars without a sash is worth any priest in my diocese with
Still, the pilgrims came by the thousands, and many tepid souls
were reconnected to the Church through Vianney’s confessional. To this day,
France honors him as a giant of spirituality.
It is remarkable that a poor village boy, who couldn’t pass his
exams in the seminary, later became a universal symbol of the Church’s clergy.
John Vianney reminds us that the true love of Christ can powerfully manifest
itself through guileless prayer and service.