From June 2009 through June 2010, the Church observed a special "Year for Pirests," intended to deepen priests' commitment for the sake of a more forceful and effective witness to the Gospel in today's world. The year began in Rome with the Pope venerating the relic of the heart of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), the patron saint of priests and parish clergy, who died 158 years ago today.
That very year, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, his famous novel about the French Revoluton, which begins with the now familiar sentence, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Into that turbulent "worst of times," John Vianney was born just three years before the Revolution - a movement inspired by a hatred for the Church, the likes of which Europe had not seen since the worst of the Roman Emperors. Churches were desecrated and destroyed; and bishops, priests, and religious were massacred. Young John Vianney received his First Holy Communion in secret, since public celebration of Mass by priests loyal to the Church was illegal.
After the Emperor Napoleon had restored some semblance of peace between Church and State, 20-year old John Vianney went to school to study for the priesthood. He failed the seminary admission test, but somehow managed on his second try. Even then, he was such a poor student that his continuance was in question. The Vicar General of the diocese finally asked the seminary rector, "Is Monsieur Vianney good?" The rector replied, "He is a model of goodness." To that, the Vicar General then replied: "Let him be ordained. The grace of God will do the rest." Commenting later on John Vianney's difficulties as a student, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the founder of the Paulist Fathers believed he recognized "the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit at work" in John Vianney's difficulties. Indeed, Hecker likened himself to John Vianney in how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards.
The damage done by the revolutionary "worst of times" was eminently evident in the little village of Ars (population 230), to which John. Vianney was sent as pastor in 1817. His bishop warned him, "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? Obviously of the French Revolution and the terrible damage it had inflicted upon 19th-century religious life - intensely amplifying the routine coolness and indifference of so many ordinary people 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 Church'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.
And so in Ars, "the worst of times" eventually became "the best of times" - thanks to John Vianney's complete identification with his priestly vocation. Always aware of his own inadequacies, but obedient to the Church that had called him to be a pastor and devoted to the people committed to his care, he sought to harmonize his own life with the holiness he was called to embody as a priest, instructing his parishioners by the personal witness of his life. "There are no two ways of serving God," he explained. "There is only one: serve him as he desires to be served."
Those who watched him celebrate Mass said "it was not possible to find a finer example of worship." John Vianney was said to have "gazed upon the Host with immense love." He believed the fervor of a priest depended on the Mass. "My God," he famously said, "how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine." By his example, he helped his parishioners to pray. "One need not say much to pray well," he told them. "We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. that is the best prayer."