St John said the English Church would ‘recover her ancient splendour’, says Donal Anthony Foley. Now his relics will rekindle the faith
The visit of St John Vianney’s heart to this country next month, like the visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux in 2009, is another important moment in the life of the Church here. Of course, both saints were French, but it could be said that in some sense they were at opposite ends of the spectrum of sanctity: St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, (1786-1859), lived a life of unremitting penance, whereas St Thérèse lived out her “Little Way” of spiritual childhood in what seemed on the surface to be a much gentler manner. In reality, though, Thérèse suffered tremendously towards the end of her life.
It’s easy to focus on the extraordinarily penitential life of the Curé d’Ars and thus lose sight of his more general role in the building up of the Church in France in the 19th century. Catholicism there had suffered greatly during the French Revolution and its aftermath. The persecution of the Church during the Revolution had been intense, and had aimed at its destruction, but this eased following the accession to power of Napoleon in 1799.
During the Revolutionary period, the Church had been forced underground, and the Curé d’Ars had received his first Holy Communion in secret at the age of 13, behind closed doors for fear of discovery. He treasured the memory of this fraught but beautiful ceremony all his life.
His path to the priesthood was not easy; but despite all sorts of setbacks, he persevered and was finally ordained in 1815, at the age of 29. He was sent to the backwater of Ars-sur-Formans as parish priest, a desolate village comprising 40 houses and a decrepit parish church. Here, he began his ministry of prayer, penance and priestly work, which would last until his death. It was a very inauspicious beginning to a ministry which would turn out to be of such importance, not just for the Church in France, but for the Universal Church, and see St John Vianney become the patron saint of parish priests.
His struggle to reform his parish was not easy. As was true of the country generally at this time, religion there was at a very low ebb. He resolved to suffer everything God might ask of him if only his parish would be converted.
To that end, he lived an extremely mortified life and, as time went on and increasing numbers of pilgrims came to see him, he would spend anything up to 16 or 17 hours daily in the confessional. Many of these were souls seeking their vocation in life and it is on record that he helped numerous men and women in this way, guiding them in the right direction and even encouraging the founders of new congregations, thereby making a great contribution to the rebuilding of the Catholic Church in France.
But he did not work alone in this, and we can see him being used by Providence, in union with the Blessed Virgin through the various Marian apparitions which took place in that country during the rest of the 19th century, to rebuild French Catholicism. And, in view of France’s position as the “eldest daughter of the Church” – that is, the oldest and most prominent Catholic European country – her influence tended in turn to affect the whole Catholic world.
The apparitions of Our Lady to St Catherine Labouré, which had taken place at the convent at the Rue du Bac in Paris in 1830, were responsible for the wide propagation of the Miraculous Medal. Then in 1846 the Blessed Virgin appeared to two children at La Salette, in south-eastern France, with a message of prayer and penance. The Curé d’Ars was directly involved with this event, and after meeting Maximin, one of the seers, became doubtful about their authenticity, but eventually recovered his certainty about the apparition, following a request for a sign from God, which was apparently forthcoming.
The apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes in 1858, just before the death of the Curé, further strengthened the Church in France, as did, later on, the life and teaching of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
But in all this it could be said that St John Vianney played a central role in re-focusing people, in a practical way, on the importance of the sacraments – and particular the sacrament of Confession – through his devoted priestly life. In one of his catechisms he said: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He was visited by Bishop William Ullathorne of Birmingham in May 1854. He explained to the Curé the need for prayers for English Catholics, who were suffering so much.
The bishop described how “suddenly he interrupted me by opening those eyes – cast into shadow by their depth, when listening or reflecting – and streaming their full light upon me in a manner I can never forget, he said, in a voice as firm and full of confidence as though he were making an act of faith … ‘I believe that the Church in England will recover her ancient splendour.’ ”
May this visit of the heart of St John Vianney be a step in that process of rebuilding and recovery which the Church here needs so much.
Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions and maintains a related website at Theotokos.org.uk
This article has been reproduced courtesy of The Catholic Herald.