L’abbaye aux puces
Twenty-nine summers ago, my dear friend Père Jacob, O.P. (not yet a Friar Preacher) and I were on a kind of back-packing pilgrimage in France that allowed us to discover all sorts of holy people, places, and things. At one point we stayed in the “hôtellerie” of a certain famous monastery only to discover that the beds were inhabited by . . . fleas! I should have guessed as much when I noticed that there were cats lolling about on most of the beds and freely roaming the hallways.
One of the goals of our pilgrimage was to seek the intercession of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney at Ars. For both of us, the priesthood we so desired seemed an almost unattainable dream. We wanted Saint Jean-Marie Vianney on our side.
The Baron with the Purple Hair
We hitchhiked (in the rain) from “l’abbaye aux puces” (the Abbey of the Fleas) to Ars. At one point a shiny black sedan stopped for us; the youngish driver, being frightfully avant-garde, had a bright purple streak of hair. He was very “sympathique,” and drove us right to the door of the basilica of Ars. As I extended my hand to thank him for the lift, he gave me his card. He was the Baron de R., a scion of one of Europe’s most famous banking dynasties. Who would have known?
Guitars at Ars
We washed our clothes in Ars and, once liberated from the fleas, were able to make our devotions to Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. Oh, one more thing — there was a “rock” Mass going on in the basilica. Very upsetting. I looked at the Curé of Ars reclining in his glass reliquary, fully expecting him to turn over at any moment. But he didn’t.
The Preacher Belongs to the Word
The Word does not belong to the preacher; the preacher belongs to the Word. This was true of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, it was true of Saint Peter Julian Eymard, and it is true of today’s saint, the holy parish priest Jean-Marie Vianney. The Curé of Ars stands in a long line of preachers possessed by the Word, and compelled to speak it without compromise.
Jean-Marie Vianney was not particularly eloquent; he preached in a cracked and broken voice, but his words communicated the fire of the Holy Spirit. Even the greatest preacher of the nineteenth century, the Dominican Père Lacordaire, fell silent before the charism of holy preaching in Jean Marie Vianney.
John Paul and Jean-Marie
When the Curé of Ars spoke of the Sacrament of the Altar, he glowed. He communicated to his hearers the Eucharistic fire that burned in his own heart. Twenty-two years ago, Pope John Paul II devoted his Holy Thursday Letter to Priests to Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. I think that today we can read that letter as one saint talking about another. This is what Pope John Paul II said:
The Eucharist was at the very center of Saint Jean Vianney’s spiritual life and pastoral work. He said: “All good works put together are not equivalent to the Sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the works of men and the Holy Mass is the work of God.” It is in the Mass that the sacrifice of Calvary is made present for the Redemption of the world. Clearly, the priest must unite the daily gift of himself to the offering of the Mass: “How well a priest does, therefore, to offer himself to God in sacrifice every morning!” “Holy Communion and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are the two most efficacious actions for obtaining the conversion of hearts.”
Recollection and Adoration
Thus the Mass was for John Mary Vianney the great joy and comfort of his priestly life. He took great care, despite the crowds of penitents, to spend more than a quarter of an hour in silent preparation. He celebrated with recollection, clearly expressing his adoration at the consecration and communion. He accurately remarked: “The cause of priestly laxity is not paying attention to the Mass!”
The Curé of Ars was particularly mindful of the permanence of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. It was generally before the tabernacle that he spent long hours in adoration, before daybreak or in the evening; it was towards the tabernacle that he often turned during his homilies, saying with emotion: “He is there!” It was also for this reason that he, so poor in his presbytery, did not hesitate to spend large sums on embellishing his Church. The appreciable result was that his parishioners quickly took up the habit of coming to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, discovering, through the attitude of their pastor, the grandeur of the mystery of faith.
Dear brother priests, the example of the Curé of Ars invites us to a serious examination of conscience: what place do we give the Mass in our daily lives? What care do we take in preparing for it? And in celebrating it? In praying before the Blessed Sacrament? In encouraging our faithful people to do the same? In making our Churches the House of God to which the divine presence attracts the people of our time who too often have the impression of a world empty of God?
A Prophetic Message
Like Saint Alphonsus and Saint Peter Julian Eymard, Saint Jean-Marie Vianney is a saint for today. His message was prophetic. His whole being spoke not only in the pulpit, but also in the confessional, and on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament. Not everyone welcomed his message, especially at first. There were those who disdained him, those who murmured against him, those who criticized and maligned him.
In every age, the Holy Spirit raises up prophets: saints in whose hearts burns a fire capable of renewing the priesthood and the Church. Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, the third figure in this week’s triptych of Eucharistic holiness, was one of these. After having celebrated Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Saint Peter Julian Eymard, and the Curé of Ars, how can we not respond generously to Our Lord who in the mystery of the Eucharist waits to show us His Face and desires to draw us to His Heart?