Revised and reposted for the Feast of St. John Vianney: August 4th
Imagine a long haired priest, having just barely made it through the academic rigors of a seminary training, being subject to a recall. Scandalized that such a simpleton squeaked through the seminary, some priests were determined to have St. John Vianney cast out from the priesthood. A petition was even circulated in parts of France to this effect. Lo and behold, the petition came to Ars, the parish of the small town where St. John was assigned to. To add insult to injury, the priest behind this effort showed St. John Vianney just how many signatories there were on the petition to have him ousted. What was his response? “Oh!” he exclaimed, “do you mind if I sign it?” That’s right. Laughing at yourself or at least not taking yourself too seriously can be a mark of holiness.
Needless to say this nineteenth century priest, also known as the Cure of Ars, went on to become one of the greatest priests the Catholic Church has ever known. As a matter of fact, on June 19th, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared St. John Vianney the Universal Patron of Priests. Who says that a long haired seminarian whose report card resembled that of a dropout can’t make it to the priesthood? This priest demonstrated that what booksmarts can't provide, holiness can. Indeed, what St. Paul said regarding the "foolish" and the "weak" can also be said of St. John Vianney: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong..." He was regarded by his brethren as being too dumb to be a priest.
To be sure, the Catholic Church is not exempt from ironies. Another great irony is that St. John Vianney, who is now the Patron Saint of priests, would not be qualified to teach at a seminary or Catholic university. He simply didn’t have the academic credentials. Blessed John XXIII, who wrote an encyclical on this saintly priest in 1959, even said the following: “For he began his course of studies when he was already along in years, and he had great difficulty with it; and his first sermons to the people kept him up for whole nights on end.” Indeed, he barely made it through his seminary training and his first years as priest did not come any easier. But what he lacked in academics he made up for in his holiness. The same pontiff went on to say that for the Cure of Ars the Cross of the Lord was the greatest of all books. Perhaps this is why the Bishop of Ars made the following reply to St. John’s critics: "I do not know whether he is learned; but a heavenly light shines in him."
This is instructive for the Catholic professional world. If holiness would be regarded as the best and surest means through which we know God and his Word, perhaps more priests and teachers of the Faith would enjoy the same results as St. John Vianney. Book knowledge and theological learning is a must, no doubt, but the leaders of today’s Catholic institutions should take a page from this Patron of Priests by making holiness the highest of priorities. With that said, I think we can take comfort in that there are some trends to this effect within the Church. Still, it is unclear just how important holiness is as a qualification for being a priest, professor or a leader.
At any rate, the holiness of St. John Vianney was the reason why thousands upon thousands would flock to his parish. He would often hear confession for eighteen hours at a time. "In the middle stands the temple,” he would say, “in the middle of the temple the Sacred Tabernacle, and on either side the confessionals where supernatural life and health are restored to the Christian people." The willingness to endure these long hours of leading souls to Christ was fostered by prayer before the tabernacle in all night vigils and spiritual sacrifices. As Pope John XXIII recounted, he denied himself with great strength of soul. The pope went on to say that he was “rich in his generosity toward others but the poorest of men in dealing with himself.” Indeed, he was a victim priest in much the same way Jesus was the Lamb of God.
Mother Theresa once told a friend of mine that for those who are mired in serious sin, such as prostitution or homosexuality, there is a price to be paid. That is, our Lord asks of us to join our sufferings with his as a prayer of expiation. He died for us not so that our suffering would be useless, but rather, that by being baptized into his death and resurrection our suffering would take on redemptive value; something that is useful to others. Can it be this is why St. Paul said to the Romans, “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” Or can it be this is why he said to Corinthians that “death is at work in us, but life in you.”
When sinners would come to St. John seeking God, he was well aware of this prayer of sacrifice and the price that needed to be paid. He said, "I impose only a small penance on those who confess their sins properly; the rest I perform in their place." And to unrepentant sinner who would ask him, “Why the tears, Father?” He would then reply, "My friend, I am weeping because you are not."
And for those priests who presumed they did all they could to win souls to Christ but with not even half of the success of the Cure of Ars, he would tell them the following: "You have offered humble prayers to God, you have wept, you have groaned, you have sighed. Have you added fasts, vigils, sleeping on the floor...Until you have done all of these, do not think that you have tried everything."
I love St. John Vianney because he went out of his way to bring the consolation of Christ to lost souls- and was willing to pay the price; but yet he cared enough for them to administer the shock of a reprimand if they did not repent.
He was unconventional in his pastoral methods but not so much so that he was disobedient to his Bishop. He would be the first to apologize for his mistakes and the first to laugh at himself when his critics assailed him.
He was no theological expert but through his faith and holiness God taught him everything he needed to know. And as I already mentioned, that although St. John Vianney would not be qualified to teach in today's seminaries, he was, nevertheless, declared by one of the most intellectual popes to date, Benedict XVI, as the Universal Patron of Priests.
How do you like that? And just think, at one time he was rumored to be too dumb for the priesthood!