A Man Sent by God
In 1827, Ars was a remote country village eighteen miles outside of Lyons in France with nothing extraordinary about it; nothing extraordinary apart from the fact that from 1827 until 1859 — a period of thirty-two years — the little church of Ars was never empty. Multitudes poured into the church from before the first light of day until well into the night. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:6-8).
Remarkably, the parish priest of Ars was, even by name, another John the Baptist; his full Christian name was, in fact, John Mary Baptist Vianney. Baptized John Mary, he chose the name Baptist at the time of his Confirmation on a cold snowy day in 1807. He was twenty-one years old. On that one day Cardinal Fesch, the Archbishop of Lyons, confirmed three-thousand souls. The ceremony began early in the morning and continued until after 5 o’clock in the afternoon. In the wake of the French Revolution, so many souls had been deprived of catechesis and of the sacraments, that it was not uncommon for such sacramental marathons to take place. From that day forward, John Mary Vianney signed his name John Mary Baptist, or John Baptist Mary.
The identification with the Forerunner of Our Lord was a mysterious portent of things to come. Twenty years after his Confirmation as crowds of pilgrims descended upon Ars, one might have put to them the very words of Our Lord concerning Saint John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in king’s houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Mt 11:7-9). By the grace of the Holy Ghost, John Mary Baptist Vianney was a prophet — but he was more than a prophet. He was a priest of Jesus Christ.
Nothing of the Showman About Him
Naturally speaking, there was nothing in the parish priest of Ars to draw crowds. He had nothing of the showman about him. He wasn’t surrounded by publicists. There were no sophisticated lighting and sound systems. Outwardly, he wasn’t anything at all like the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. One would not have described him as handsome, although a childlike purity of heart shone in his eyes, and there was about his face something of a supernatural radiance, especially when one observed him in prayer. His clothes were more or less clean, but shabby; an old patched cassock and shoes totally unacquainted with polish. He wore his hair in the clerical fashion of the day: shoulder-length and pushed straight back. Once at a meeting of priests, a more fastidious clergyman refused to sit next to him for fear of catching something from Vianney’s greenish, soiled hat.
Not the Typical Priest
Many of his brother priests found him eccentric, even odd. With raised eyebrows and knowing smiles, they murmured among themselves about his notoriously deficient seminary training, about his lack of sophistication, his very rudimentary Latin, and — to their mind — excessive piety and fasting. The numbers of penitents drawn to his confessional disconcerted them. Were they not better educated than the parish priest of Ars? Had not they more respectable credentials, a sense of propriety, and the ability to ally their priesthood with life’s finer pleasures, those of the palate, of the eye, and of the mind? Why then were veritable caravans of souls making their way to the parish priest of Ars, and returning from him transformed, converted, repentant and joyful?
John Mary Vianney might have answered their queries with the words of Saint John the Baptist: “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:28-30).
Freely You Have Received
In these few lines one finds a portrait, not only of Saint John Mary Vianney, but of a universal, that is, a Catholic priestly holiness. The grace of the priesthood, and the charisms that, by God’s gracious will, sometimes accompany it come from heaven. They are pure gift. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift,” says Saint James, “is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:17). The priest gives what he himself has received. What were, after all, Our Lord’s instructions to his first twelve priests-in-training? “Preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. Freely have you received; freely give” (Mt 10:7-8).
The priest is another Christ: a representation of the Divine Original, invested by the Holy Spirit with a three-fold gift and power to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. The priest images Christ as Bridegroom of the Church; Christ as Head of the Mystical Body; Christ as Shepherd of the flock of God; Christ as Sower of the Seed. The priest makes Christ. present. He reveals his Face, His Heart, and His Hands. He acts in the Name and in the Person of Christ.
The priest bears within himself a mysterious sacramental imprint: the indelible character of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, that nothing and no one can erase. In heaven, the indelible character that marks the soul of the priest causes him a glorious joy beyond description; in hell, which God forbid, that same indelible character causes the priest an everlasting torment.
Oh, How Great Is the Priest
Saint John Mary Vianney was aware of the immense dignity of the priesthood. He was humble: not denying the gifts he has received, but glorifying their Giver. Listen to him preach on the priesthood:
A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy. Oh, how great is the priest!” he said. “If he realized what he is, he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host.
Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the sacraments, he said:
Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest… After God, the priest is everything! … Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.
Stand Up, and Kneel Down for Your Priests
It is time for all Catholics to reclaim and recover a sense of awe in the face of the priesthood. It is time for us to rediscover the beauty of the priesthood. It is time for the faithful to stand up for their beloved priests and, even more importantly, to kneel down for them before Christ in grateful adoration and supplication.
The priesthood of Jesus Christ has, over the past decade, been dragged through the mud. The sins and weaknesses of a few — and these cannot in any way be minimized, rationalized, or condoned: they can only be humbly confessed and mercifully forgiven — these sins and weaknesses have, in fact, covered the Face of Christ the Priest with filth, and caused His Bride the Church to weep tears of bitterness and shame.
Say what you will, the promises of the Lord uttered through the mouth of His prophet remain, because the Word of the Lord endures forever: “Her priests I will clothe with holiness, and her faithful will ring out their joy” (Ps 131:16).
The Priest Continues the Work of Redemption on Earth
Seven years ago, in declaring a Year of the Priesthood, Pope Benedict XVI invited the whole Church to listen to the teachings of the parish priest of Ars, and to take them to heart. Here is the remedy we have been waiting for: the words of a holy priest on the priesthood:
Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love… Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth… What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods … Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there … The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you.
A Sacerdotal Pentecost
No priest is for himself. Each and every priest is for the Church. Pray, then, and fast for priests. Beseech the Father to glorify the priesthood of His Son by a new outpouring of the Divine Comforter over the priests of the entire world. Ask boldly for a Sacerdotal Pentecost. Only by the action of the Holy Ghost will priests be “sanctified in the truth” (Jn 17:17). Only by the action of the Holy Ghost will priests recover the ardour of their first love and the zeal of the prophets and saints.