This past week, on August 4th the Church celebrated the feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. This time of pandemic has probably been one of the most challenging times as a priest. With no blueprint where to go and what to do, and all the anger, fear and anxiety that this virus has brought, it’s totally new territory for us as priests.
St. John Vianney ministered in the village of Ars, France, during the first half of the 19th century. He spent his childhood in the middle of the French Revolution, when the Church was being persecuted and priests and religious were dying as martyrs. Moved nonetheless to be a priest, he struggled with Latin in the seminary, which almost got him kicked out.
Our culture is constantly insisting that we reveal who we are. I think that many people don’t know who they are. There is a lot of confusion in our culture about the idea of identity. Our society insists that we “be ourselves,” to be the masters and makers of our lives. This they claim is the ultimate freedom, yet we seem to be in an unprecedented time of fear, anxiety and psychological ills.
But the priest is not self-made; all he has, he has received. This is the mystery at the center of the life of the priest. He remains an enigma to himself, a puzzle, because he can never be in command of the Sacrament that has now claimed him; the One who has made his home in him. All he can do is receive this gift and allow it each day to form our identity and our purpose. The vicar general of Lyons said St. John Vianney should be ordained because he’s a holy man, and the grace of God will do everything else.
That’s why as a priest, I appreciate and am thankful for the example of St. John Vianney. None of the dangers, toils and snares afflicted him for long. His example is timely and relevant. There is a famous story of several of his parishioners who came to him every year and requested that he offer Mass for their intention, however, they would never tell him the intention. Finally, one day he pressed them, and they admitted that their intention was for a new priest! This is one of the great struggles of priests, the lack of support and encouragement they receive. Priest are men, they are sinners, they have weaknesses, and are imperfect. But that’s true of all of us, correct? And yet God uses us, in our weakness – again for the priest, it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus whom we bring with us and offer to the people.
As a pastor, St. John Vianney relentlessly summoned pilgrims and parishioners alike to greater intimacy with Christ and complete reliance on His mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation. He endured many setbacks in his pursuit of the Priesthood and his ministry to the people of Ars. Upon first arriving in that village in France, he found a lifeless church in near-ruin and a generation of people who had abandoned the substance and practice of their faith.
He would not relent. It was this attribute of perseverance which, coupled with a burning desire to convert hearts, was at the core of Vianney’s entire life and ministry. “The Lord is more anxious,” he would say, “to forgive our sins than a woman is to carry her baby out of a burning building.” St. John Vianney remained driven, even when confronted by unreceptive parishioners, jealous fellow priests and even nightly battles with the devil and his minions. But despite these torments, despite his exhaustion, he kept going. And that’s something modern-day Christians can learn from the Curé of Ars and ask him to help bolster through his powerful intercession in heaven.
Pray for your priests.
God bless, Fr. Dennis