Book Pick: The Cure D’ Ars Today: Saint John Vianney
by Fr. George William Rutler
People find the Franciscan charism intriguing, whether or not they agree with it. Mud and stones were flung at St. Francis, and so was gold. Indifference is difficult to maintain in the face of the Gospel personified. The Dominicans also have their intrigue—you know this yourself if you’ve ever seen a Dominican friar garbed in his brilliant white tunic and cloaked in his black prayer mantle…it’s a sight to turn heads! And if you’ve heard a son of the Order of Preachers at his craft, your wonder is only intensified. But the plain old regular diocesan priest generally produces less intrigue. His black clerics are a familiar sight, for he is the ordinary bread and butter of parish life. His consistency causes him to be taken for granted (which may not be an altogether bad thing). But, just as the religious orders have a charism, there is a kind of a charism for the secular priesthood too, and it is embodied in the person of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, patron saint of parish priests. As Francis is to the Franciscans and Dominic is to the Dominicans, Jean Vianney is to the secular (or diocesan) priest.
Fr. Rutler’s fascinating account of the life of St. Jean Vianney is a history lesson, a theology of the priesthood, and a biography all in one. When an author has the ability to nestle a subject snuggly within its historical context, and by stringent research is able to discern fact from fable, is able to draw applications to the present moment, and furthermore, is a good writer (which cannot be taken for granted), the result is a masterpiece. And a masterpiece is what Fr. George William Rutler has produced in The Cure D’ Ars Today: Saint John Vianney.
When our saint was a boy, France was in the murderous upheaval known as the French Revolution. Among the many horrors of this chapter of history was the relentless violence unleashed against the Catholic Church, and the priesthood in particular. The young Vianney would have attended Masses conducted by clandestine priests in wrinkled vestments uttering whispered prayers in homes and other hidden places. And when this same boy once asked the definition of a priest, the answer came: “A priest is a man who would die so he could be one.”
Though our saint did not have the opportunity to offer his life at a guillotine, as did so many priests during the revolution, his martyrdom came by way of the ordinary priestly duties lived in a remarkably unordinary way.
When the newly-ordained Jean-Marie Vianney was assigned to Ars, it was merely a commune of sorts, made up of about 40 small houses and 4 large taverns, for about 260 farm-folk; and it was considered a “punishment assignment” for priests. Fr. Rutler calls it “Siberia out of season.” The year was 1818, and Vianney was 31 years old. The famous story, oft retold, is that he lost his way and stated matter-of-factly to the boy attempting to guide him, “Show me the way to Ars, and I will show you the way to heaven.” That one phrase, uttered to the child, Antoine Givre, on February 9, even before his lifelong assignment was officially underway, revealed the motivation of his whole life: to show this boy, and every soul in Ars, the way to heaven. His job was the salvation of his parishioners, and this he took exceedingly seriously from his first day to his last.
Curé is the French way of saying pastor, but it fittingly reminds us of the English word “cure” or “remedy”. Certainly our parish priests possess the remedy we all stand in need of: the power to absolve our sins and to confect for us the Holy Eucharist. And this is what the Curé of Ars spent 41 years doing: dispensing the remedy for sin and the cure for weaknesses and moral failures. He also took his preaching and teaching office seriously, becoming simultaneously popular and unpopular as a result. While the locals were hurling excrement at his front door, people from neighboring parishes couldn’t get enough of him! When dancing and drinking were causing his flock to lose sight of the essentials, namely eternal life, he put a sign by the statue of St. John the Baptist: “It was a dance that cost him his head.” He took mortal sin for what it was, mortal, and therefore, was uncompromising in his stance as enemy to whatever was enemy to the souls of his parishioners. The work of a Catholic Priest could sound like a soft way of life, but no one who knew St. Jean-Marie Vianney could entertain such a thought. His famous daily routine was marked by his faithfulness to the Night Office at 1:00 am, Holy Mass and prayers throughout the day, his long hours in the confessional (up to 18 hours in a single day), a diet of one or two potatoes and a cup of milk, and retiring at 11:00 or later (which left a mere two hours for sleep). This wasn’t an occasional spat of frenetic devotion; this was seven days a week, every week. How many young seminarians and young religious attempt creative penances, not unlike those of the saints, but usually to their own consternation and to little spiritual fruit? As the psalm reminds us, “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor; if the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain do the watchmen keep vigil. In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat: when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.” When it is the Lord Who gives the grace of earlier rising and going later to rest, when the Lord is the builder, then the house becomes a supernatural dwelling, and that is what Jean-Marie was: a temple for the Lord, built by the Lord Himself. Jesus shared His Priesthood with him, and together as one, salvation was offered to thousands of souls in Ars and far beyond.
Now you may be wondering how a census of 240 people could produce an 18-hour day in the confessional. It would be important to know that as the word spread about “the cure” being dispensed from the confessional at Ars, people started arriving by the hundreds daily to wait in line for hours, and even days, to confess to the saint. The average length of wait became seven days. New trains, coach lines and schedules developed as a result of the confessional queue in Ars.
This fascinating biography is no glossed over hagiography, shining up the miracles and sweeping the dust under the carpet; Fr. Rutler delves right in to Jean-Marie’s failures in school and the years of jealousy, accusation and misunderstandings the saint suffered. He doesn’t dismiss the supernatural phenomena and miracles such as the miraculous wheat, nor does he psychologize or mythologize the harassment St. Jean Vianney was subjected to relentlessly by the devil. (The devil acknowledged his motivation: St. Jean Vianney was depriving him of thousands of souls by his endurance in the confessional.) It’s all there.
Jean-Marie Vianney was unshakably convinced of his unworthiness to be a priest of Jesus Christ. He saw himself first of all as a sinner (a common denominator of all saints) and desired desperately to retire to a life of prayer and penance, convinced that he could be a greater benefit to souls as an eremitic. Three times he attempted to leave Ars to that end. And three times he was searched out and physically prevented from leaving by his people. The final attempt at slipping away caused the alarmed sheep of so humble a shepherd to carry him back into town by force, where they deposited him in the confessional where he would remain. He was never to leave Ars again.
His final illness came July 29, 1859, in the midst of a scorching heat wave. After his usual routine in the Church, beginning at 1:00 am, and including hours in the stifling little confessional, he finally made it back to his rectory, where from his sick bed he continued to absolve sins as priests flocked to his bedside to make their confession to the saint. On August 4th, a violent thunderstorm coincided with the prayers for the dying. “May the holy angels of God come to meet him and conduct him into the holy city Jerusalem.” In silence, with no word or gesture, the Curé was finally permitted to cross the boundaries of Ars. But as Rutler observes, “Ars was no longer Ars.”
“Beginning at five in the morning on August 4th and continuing for the next two days, a constant stream passed through the old house.” And when it came time to move to the church for the Requiem, a procession of three hundred priests and religious, and six thousand pilgrims escorted the coffin. Directly behind the body walked a middle-aged Antoine Givre, who, a lifetime ago had guided the Curè to the forsaken hamlet of Ars and heard him speak the words, “Show me the way to Ars, and I’ll show you the way to heaven.”
Diocesan priests might be overlooked or taken for granted, yet they hold the remedy not for cancer or covid, but for the eternal ills that only a good confession and holy communion can cure. You may not be intrigued by the charism of the parish priest, but it is likely that you will be saved by it.
Mother Clare, CFR