St John Vianney
Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney was born on May 8th, 1786 as the son of a poor farmer in the village of Dardilly near Lyons, France three years before the French Revolution. Few would have realised this young Jean would stage his own revolution within The Church - one which would set the model for the importance of the parish priest and foster numerous vocations to the priesthood at a time when The Church was greatly persecuted and misunderstood. Jean witnessed firsthand the slaughter of the clergy and the exile of many of the priests he longed to work with. During his childhood he worked as a shepherd and didn't get any education until he was 20 years old when he began studying for the priesthood under the saintly Abbe Balley at Ecully.
Jean was not learned and because this was reflected in his poor grades he was not protected from being drafted into military service by Napoleon's army in 1808. Less than a year later, realising the folly of war, Jean deserted and returned home in hiding. In 1810, Napoleon realising the populace was turning against him and his military campaigns, granted an amnesty to all deserters and so Jean was able to return to his studies from hiding and tonsured as a seminarian.
Jean had always felt a call to the priesthood. His eventual entry into the seminary and especially the study of Latin however proved to be very difficult and he twice failed his examination before finally being ordained as a priest in 1815 at Grenoble through the sponsorship of the kindly Abbe Balley and a spoken examination in his native French by the Vicar-General. Thought to be incompetent, Jean was placed under the direction of the Abbe in the neighbouring village where he remained until the Abbe's death in 1817 . In1818, Jean was transfered to the remote tiny village of Ars-sur-Formans (Ars) to be the parish priest.
Here he lived a very ascetic life, ate the simplest food, wore old clothing and slept only two hours each night on a hard bed. His first priority was to reinstill the reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and then reignite the flame of involvement in a parish that had become exceedingly indifferent. He waged a constant war on over-spending, eventually winning over the entire village though not before impassioned bouts with enemies who wanted to cling to the good life. But Fr Vianney won out, opening a school for girls, a shelter for orphans and a shrine to Saint Philomena which drew enermous throngs as a place of pilgrimage. Manybelieved it was not the shrine the crowds were attracted to but rather the humble example of the simple and holy parish priest. The number of parishoners grew rapidly, as the word spread that this holy man could see into people's souls. People began coming to him from other parishes, then from all parts of France, and finally from other countries. Throughout France and the Christian world he soon became known as the "Cure d'Ars" (the Cure of Ars).
By the year 1855, Fr Vianney was hearing as many as 20'000 confessions a year, spending 13 to 16 hours a day in the confessional. Though he was laughed at by many of his peers and some of the villagers for his ignorance of the things of 'this world', Fr Vianney had the unique gift of reading souls and the confessional became his classroom where he was the master teacher. His direction was characterised by common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge. As the news continued to spread, the sick were brought to Ars and many were miraculously cured.
As befits a holy man, the more one strives for sanctity the more Satan assaults and for 30 years, Fr Vianney claimed to experience frequent attacks by the devil. Voices, strange noises, threats, furniture being thrown about and many other demonic assaults took place almost every night. Besides all this external suffering, Fr Vianney had physical ailments such as severe headaches, rheumatism, toothaches, fever and exhaustion. Every time the Bishop sought to transfer him, the parishoners would protest to the Bishop causing him to back down. Fr Vianney himself desired to be admitted to the contemplative life as a Carthusian, and despite three attempts always he was brought back by his vocation to tender to his parishoners. His fame spread throughout Europe and in 1843 he was awarded the Legion of Honour by his countrymen, which he promptly sold and gave the money to the poor.
The heroic self-sacrifice of Fr Vianney eventually led to his death. At the age of 73 he began to have fainting spells. By the end of July he could no longer rise from his bed. Four days later on August 4th, 1859, Fr Vianney died peacefully among his people.
This humble and holy saint truly believed in the power of prayer, saying "Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there, if you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws up into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that."
Fr Vianney died in 1859 and was declared 'Venerable' in 1874 when his body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt, although the flesh had dried up and darkened. To this day the incorrupt body can be seen, encased in glass on a marble altar in Ars. In 1905 Fr Vianney was declared 'Blessed' and finally in 1925 was canonised Saint Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney by His Holiness Pope Pius XI and four years later proclaimed "patron of parish priests".