John Vianney: The Saint Who Could Read Souls

Saint John Vianney

This beloved saint, the patron of parish priests and confessors, has a lot to teach believers the world over.

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.

Humble Beginnings

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 heaven.”

The tiny church originally dedicated to Saint 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 dog.”

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 at Ars.

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 one.”

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.

Key Events in St. John Vianney’s Life

1786  Born in Dardilly, France. Lives as a poor farm boy and shepherd with his family.

1806  Begins formal seminary school very late because of family’s financial state. Does not excel in studies and is expelled because of his considerable difficulties with Latin.

1810  Is drafted into the French Army, but frail health forces him to miss his recruiting call.

1815 Sponsored by a local priest, he reenters the seminary and is ordained at age 30.

1818  Assigned to small parish of Ars as its pastor.

1824  Starts La Providence, a home for orphan girls.

1855  Is hearing 20,000 confessions a year. (This number will increase to nearly 75,000.)

1856  Receives the French Legion of Honor.

1859  Dies on August 4 (his current feast day).

1905  Beatified by Pius X.

1925  Canonized and named patron saint of parish priests.

Brotherhood of Saints

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