When Saint John Vianney (1786-1889), the famous "Cure of Ars" and patron of parish priests (whom the Church commemorates today on this anniversary of his death) was sent to far-away Ars (population 230) as its pastor in 1817, his bishop warned him, "There is little love of God in that parish." As Ars' parish priest, Saint John Vianney (photo) devoted the rest of his life to trying to remedy that devastating description. Always aware of his own inadequacies, but identifying himself totally with his priestly vocation and devoting his days to the people committed to his care, he instructed 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." Celebrating Mass, he 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."
The bishop's devastating description of Ars was an indictment of the parishioners, of course, but even more so of the times they had just been living through - the French Revolution and its aftermath, a revolution inspired by an intense hatred for the Church, the likes of which Europe had not seen since the worst of the Roman Emperors. Churches had been desecrated and destroyed. Many bishops, priests, and religious had been massacred. John Vianney himself had received his First Communion in secret, since public celebration of Mass by priests loyal to the Church was illegal. All that had taken its toll, intensely amplifying the recognizably routine coolness and indifference of so many toward religion even in supposedly more religious times. Indeed, perhaps less consciously on the bishop's part, it was perhaps also an indictment of the Church's failures in the decisive period before the revolution.
Rebuilding the Church's communal and liturgical life in post-revolutionary 19th-century France was a great challenge, to which many - like Saint John Vianney - responded with great devotion and heroism. Even so, when World War I conscription caused young 20th-century Jesuit priests like Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard to encounter the widespread unbelief of a class of Frenchmen they had not previously encountered personally, it opened their eyes, Fessard recalled, "and when the war ended, there were among us Jesuits those who resolved that we would never again allow ourselves to be cut off from the real world in which we lived. ... How could we be witnesses to the gospel to the men of our times if we did not know those times and those men?" (On this, see Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics, Harvard U. Pr., 2021, pp. 34-35.) World War II would produce an analogous awakening, reflected, for example, in the founding of the famous Mission de France and the "worker-priests" movement and in the publication of Henri Godin's, La France pays de mission? (later translated into English as France Pagan?), a book which supposedly caused Cardinal Suhard of Paris to weep when he read it.
So the challenge today continues to be very much what it was for Saint John Vianney - to re-evangelize a society, in which there is "little love of God," a society which, while once at least nominally committed to Christian faith, has largely lost it. Of course, contrary to integralist fantasies, the social, cultural, and political changes of recent decades are, in large part, here to stay, especially 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 and beyond. Any contemporary "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 it also requires a comparably serious analysis of and confrontation with what was lacking before, a lack which failed to prepare the Church for the assaults that were so imminent. As Pope Saint John XXIII said just 10 days prior to his death: It is not that the Gospel changes, but that we are beginning to understand it better.
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