St John Vianney
Father Hanly’s homily for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, is on Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, whose feast day falls in this week.
Readings for Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
- First Reading: Wisdom 18:6-9
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22
- Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 or 11:1-2, 8-12
- Gospel: Luke 12:32-48 or 12:35-40
I’ve always liked this saint, St John Vianney, even though I mispronounced his name for about fifty-some years until I lived with Father Rabillet at St Joseph’s and he kept correcting me, “It is not Vi-anney, it’s Vianney,” so here’s a time to put it into order.
St Vianney was born on 8th May in 1786. That was just four years before the opening of the French Revolution, which was a central event in the history of Europe. He lived in a little village called Dardilly, and it was in a part of France close to Switzerland on the eastern border, but it was not known for anything. The city of Lyons wasn’t too far away, but it was a humble place.
He was born ten years before Napoleon seized charge of the revolution and turned it into the Napoleonic Wars. I say these things because they were terrible times. People were wandering all around. They all had to be registered and they were called up for the first time, a whole group, at least in Europe, of young men had to leave their homes and join the army, you see. They were drafted into the army.
And one of them was little John. He was by this time about eighteen years old and he deserted. What happened to him was he tried to find the troops and he couldn’t find them and he went into the church to pray. When he came out, his group had all left for the front which was in Spain and they left poor John. And they told him, they said, “You’re going to be executed for this.” And he was quite frightened. But one of the other officers left behind said, “No, you just go and catch up with them.”
So he went into the woods and he found a young man and he said, “I know where they’re going. I’ll take you right to the place.” And he took him to a village and this village was full of people like poor John. They were all considered deserters and, because of the times, you could be executed right away, so they told him to stay here for a while. And he did, he stayed there for a couple of years.
Now he always yearned to be a priest. It was his only wish in life was to be a priest. But he came from a simple background of farmers. He was the fourth of six children and he had no education. His older sister taught him how to read and write, and he was taken in by Father Balley.
Now Father Balley was a very nice priest who was in the worst of the terror when the Revolution turned into the reign of terror and somehow he escaped. But he brought little John in and started teaching him and preparing him for seminary.
But John had a terrible time. He didn’t have the proper education and he had a very poor memory and so he couldn’t get the Latin straight and so he flunked. Every time he went to take the seminary test, he flunked. They were not going to have him, because in those days every priest had to learn, really up to my own time, you had to be fluent in Latin to read all the text books, because all the text books were coming down to us in Latin as well.
So there he was and, finally, because Father Balley was such a nice priest, he fought for him and they took him back into the seminary. And eventually he got ordained, but he didn’t get ordained by passing exams, he flunked every exam. He got ordained because finally they decided, well, he seems to be a wonderful kind of person, a dedicated person. He’s a true believer. He’s not out for his own honour or anything like that. And he’s faithful and true.
So what they decided was that he could be interviewed so he didn’t have to speak Latin. And they found out that he wasn’t as stupid as everybody thought he was. In fact, he had a great sort of directness that impressed a few of the seminarian teachers. And finally they ordained him, yes.
But he was someone quite different because he couldn’t speak Latin. But he managed. He managed, but everything in the liturgy was in Latin. Anyhow, such was the fate, he was assigned, because even the Bishop who was talked into ordaining him, they weren’t going to ordain him because they thought he was a little slow, but he wasn’t slow, yes.
Anyhow, he was assigned to Ars. Ars is a little village in that general area. It’s a terrible little place. It’s like the end of the world. It’s got ponds all around it and it’s wet and damp and filthy. And it only has forty houses and two hundred and fifty people. And, of course, everybody knew he was being sent to the worst parish in all of Lyons diocese. They figured, well, if he’s going to do some harm, he can’t harm these people, because they were notorious for not even coming to church. Only one or two or three or four managed to make church.
Anyhow, the happiest man in Ars that day was St John Vianney. He finally had a parish and he finally felt he was where he belonged: a priest. And he loved Jesus so much that he used to spend half the night just in front of the crucifix, thanking Him for the great honour to become someone who could be serving and helping the Lord’s work.
Well, of course, the people of Ars were not too happy, because they were quite happy with no priest. It wasn’t a parish, it was sort of an outstation. And no priest had been in that church since the government outlawed religion at the beginning of the French Revolution. So it wasn’t really the kind of…
But the vicar general said this to him and he remembered it, the last word the vicar general said to him before he sent him to Ars was he said, “Now John, there is no love in that place and I’m sending you there to bring some love to that place.”
That encouraged him a great deal. And so what did he do? He must have done miracles and all that because, in 1857, when he was seventy some years old and he was dying (two years before), they had to bring busloads of people – twenty thousand every year — just to make pilgrimages to see this “dumb” little priest.
So what was he doing? Well I’ll tell you what he was doing. He would get up early in the morning, very early: four o’clock. He would say his prayers, read his breviary. He would go over to the church. He would do his meditation. And he would always, and he’s known for this, he would always cook, once a week, a whole pot of boiled potatoes, and that was his food for the whole week. Whenever he got hungry, he’d go into the kitchen and take some boiled potatoes and then go back to work.
The people began to forgive him for being strict. He was strict in ways saying that you’re not supposed to get drunk all the time. You’re supposed to come to church on Sunday, not spend it carousing down in the dance halls. They thought this wasn’t too good, you know.
But anyhow, he still continued. He prayed and he visited every last home when he first went there, all forty houses and all two hundred and sixty people, and he introduced himself as their parish priest and he would do anything that they would like: he would bury the dead and he would marry the youngsters and he would take care of all the liturgies.
And the church was a dump and so was the house he lived in. But he had one extravagance. He wanted to make the church the house of God. So he managed to get some money and, all his money was never spent on his potatoes, it was spent merely on buying nice vestments and lovely chalices and all of these things so that the house of God would shine with the generosity of this young priest.
And it made him very happy and, to this day, if you go there, you can see all encased in this poor hopeless little semi-literate parish, the kind of vestments that he had bought for them, because he would only have the finest artists of Paris making the vestments and all the things for the church.
Well, people got used to him a little bit. And they knew that he was a very holy man. And he would get up very early and do his prayers. And at lunchtime, he would do his prayers. He read the breviary. And they had, each hour, they had prayers to say and things to do.
And he was always there for the sick and he was always there. His sermons weren’t that good, but they welcomed him because he cared. And before very long he began to have a bit of a congregation coming in.
And because he was always in the church or around that place, every now and then a person would say, “Are you going to hear confessions?” And he said, “Of course, I’ll hear anybody’s confessions any time.” And so then, first of all there were two or three or four and, before you know it, there was always a big line, so that he would hear them for maybe an hour.
And a couple of years passed, he would spend two hours and three hours and four hours — until it was so many people wanting to go to confession to him that he would be in the confessional after mass for sixteen hours and eighteen hours towards the last six or seven years of his life.
Do you know what it is to be in a hot confessional for just one hour, listening to all the tears and all the difficulties and all the angers and all of that?
But somehow people would say, what’s so different about this man? And they would say, “It’s like confessing to God Himself.” He was strict, but he was full of mercy and full of kindness. And the main thing was they felt they were being treated with God’s love. And so that’s what makes John Vianney…
You think of miracles, were there miracles? Well, he blessed and cured all the sick people and for those, of course, that were cured, it was a miracle.
And he did outrageous things. He went out of his way to make people feel at home, to make people feel they mattered. He was there in times when people wanted to hear their last confession. And it was terrible times and dangerous times, but he was very brave. And he just very simply, if you asked him what he was, he would say, “I am the parish priest of Ars.”
People began to come from all around. And, finally, he was even honoured by the French government and he was given a military honour, a medal from the government. And he said, “The only contribution I ever made was I deserted from the army.” And then he said “But thank you anyhow.” So humble he was.
Now John Vianney had such a reputation that all of Europe started coming to Ars, just to touch him and see him. And one of the stories is this very heavy atheist from Russia came and he met his friend from Paris and they came down together. And he was an atheist and he wanted to see what was going on down there. So he went in and, of course, he was a pushy sort of Catholic so he was going to go into confession too.
So he spent about ten or fifteen minutes in confession and he came out. And his friend said to him, “Well, what do you think? Is there a God or isn’t there a God?” And his friend, kind of a little ashamed, said, “There is a God.” And he said, “What convinced you?” He said, “Today, I met Him for the first time.”
St John Vianney now is somebody now who never did anything except what? Serve his people and do his job. He never left Ars. He never did wonders. He never had great choirs, no wonderful art, all these things, no talent, except that he served God with his whole heart and his whole soul and what people got from him was love. He could lose his temper, but he never failed to give them God’s love.
There was a writer, Romano Guardini, when I was in seminary, he was a very famous writer. He was Italian and German and he wrote a book about the Lord. And He used to be a defender of God to the people of that time.
And, of course, people would say, “I don’t know how you can believe in a God that’s born like a little baby and becomes one of us. This is an outrage. This is blasphemy. What answer do you have to this?” And Romano Guardini would say, “Love does such things. Love does such things.”
And they said, “Alright, but what about the crucifixion? Is He up there in heaven watching His Son being beaten and destroyed and mocked and killed?” And Guardini said, “Love does such things.”
Now when I think back on Guardini and I think back on all the things that even my own experience in the priesthood, there’s no big explanations, there’s no wonderment, there’s nothing extravagant. God doesn’t fly out of the heavens.
Why? Because He’s quiet and close. He’s with us in our sorrows, in our joys. He walks with us. If we listen, He talks with us. But He is always serving us, loving us and letting us know that He cares.
This is what each and every one of us are able to do. You don’t have to be a wonder man to become St John Vianney. All you have to do is eat your potatoes and go out and help people.