The Consoler of Struggling Souls

The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

Here’s something you can do for your parish priest: congratulate him on his feast day. It’s coming up soon; August 4, to be exact. It’s actually the feast day of St. John Vianney, but since he’s the patron saint of the thousands of parish priests all over the world, in a real way it’s a special day for each and every one of them.

The day falls this year on a Sunday, so the feast itself might be overlooked. That would be too bad, since St. John Vianney, a parish priest himself, is so special he ought to be remembered. And by the way, referring to St. John Vianney as a parish priest is akin to thinking of St. Paul as just another missionary. He set the bar so high that it probably will never be equaled.

St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney came to his calling in the wake of the violently anti-Catholic French Revolution, when many Catholics–priests, religious men and women, lay people–received the crown of martyrdom. But what would follow was a flowering of the Catholic faith, particularly in France, and St. John Vianney was at its vanguard.

Born in 1786 in Lyons to devout Catholic parents, he was known as the Curé of Ars, after the village to which he was assigned once he was ordained a priest. There he went to work, and once word began to spread about his amazing abilities as a confessor and a counselor, he was swamped with penitents. As I wrote about him a few years ago (in Our Sunday Visitor’s Treasury of Catholic Stories):

“The numbers stagger the imagination, but they are accurate–20,000 visitors to the small town of Ars-en-Dombes, just to hear his words of advice; the Curé himself spending up to 18 hours a day in the confessional, just to console struggling souls…”

It might have sounded impossible, and indeed it did to some of Father Vianney’s fellow priests–whose complaints found their way to the local bishop.

“Is that so? the bishop responded. In that case, he added, it’s too bad that a few more priests didn’t have a touch of exactly the same thing.”

St. John Vianney began his day at the improbable hour of 1 a.m. and filled it with confessions, lessons, the Mass and private prayer. It was only a few yards from church to rectory, where he would take a noontime meal, but so many people wanted his blessing or a few words of comfort that it took him a while to get there. After an hour (at the most) of private time, it was back to the confessional until perhaps 8 p.m., and then, after a personal meeting or two and more prayer, he might get to sleep at 9:30 or 10–for what would be a short night indeed.

He was 73 when he died in 1859, and the Church quickly paid public tribute to his extraordinary priesthood. Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1925, and recognized him as the patron of all parish priests four years later. In 1986, the 200th anniversary of his birth, Pope John Paul II visited the little town of Ars, and the “Year of the Priest,” from 2009 to 2010, was placed under his patronage by Pope Benedict XVI.

After all these years, St. John Vianney remains a model for priests everywhere. May they still follow his example–and may they all have a blessed day on August 4!

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