Monday, August 4, 2014

The Cure of Ars and the New Evangelization

At Mass today, I began by saying Saint John Vianney lived from 1886 to 1759. The congregation kindly pretended not to notice my mistake! (His correct dates, of course, are 1786-1889). 

In preparation for today's feast, I re-read what I wrote on this site four years ago - I have little to add to what I wrote then. I am, however, maybe even more struck by the warning Saint John Vianney got from his bishop when he was first sent to Ars as pastor in 1817: "There is little love of God in that parish." What a discouraging assignment that bishop made Ars out to be! And what an indictment!

But an indictment of whom exactly? Of the parishioners, presumably! But surely also of the circumstances, of the times they had just been living through - the French Revolution and its aftermath! The Revolution and all that followed it are all complicated historical phenomena, of course, involving multiple causes and consequences. But one crucial component of the movement of the time was an intense hatred for the Church, the likes of which Europe had not seen since the worst of the Roman Emperors! All that took its toll, intensely amplifying the recognizably routine coolness and indifference of so many toward religion even in supposedly more religious times.

But surely it was also an indictment (perhaps unconsciously so on the bishop's part) of the clergy's and of the clergy's failures - especially in the decisive period before the Revolution. Of course, there had been good and holy priests before the Revolution too - even in the rationalistic 18th century! But certainly Saint John Vianney stood out as an alternative to a good deal of what had passed for pastoral care prior to the Revolution. By the end of his life, he had acquired quite a reputation, as penitents flocked to Ars from all over France to confess to him. But at least as important, I think, was the extent to which the love of God had grown right there in that remote parish. That it wasn't easy for him we know. The fact that four times during his tenure there he was tempted to escape tells us a lot about the challenges he faced!

Saint John Vianney is already the patron saint of priests and parish clergy. And that's certainly enough for any one saint! Still, I think he would also make an excellent patron for the New Evangelization. What makes the "New Evangelization" new, after all, is the challenge to re-evangelize a society which was once publicly committed to Christian faith. Even were it possible simply to go back in time to, say, 50 or 60 years ago, however, that would not be sufficient to meet the challenge. Of course, one cannot go back in any case. That type of traditionalism is just a fantasy. For better or for worse, the social, cultural, and political changes of recent decades are here to stay, at least insofar as their consequences are concerned - just as the consequences of the French Revolution continued to transform French society long after Robespierre and even under the restored Bourbons! The New Evangelization certainly requires some serious analysis of and confrontation with the secularizing forces that have been empowered by the changes of the recent decades.  But any New Evangelization also requires a comparably serious analysis of and confrontation with what was lacking before - what was lacking and so failed to prepare for the assaults that were so imminent.

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