It was the last weekend in October, 1999, and my friends and I were on a four-day break from classes at Franciscan University’s Austrian campus. We had journeyed half-way across Europe to Normandy, France, stopping first in Bayeux on that Thursday to see the magnificent 11th-century cathedral and its eponymous, world-famous “tapestry“.
After a night spent trying to sleep in a sodden pasture with far-too-curious horses, we arose on Friday and headed off to tour the D-Day beaches at Arromanches. It was a sober draught of history as we surveyed the near-impossible angle of approach taken by the Allied Forces, probed the bullet holes in cliff bunkers with our fingers, and walked the craters left by mortars, still deep enough, half a century later, to swallow a man.
That evening, my friends and I parted ways, they on their way to Lourdes, and me to Ars, home of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. Leaving the bucolic serenity of Normandy behind, I caught an afternoon train back to Paris, where I was forced to spend the night in the station. I had a ticket for the morning, but was forced by security personnel out of the warm waiting area and into a subterranean level which was brutally cold, uninviting, and filled with the city’s homeless and drifters. The obviously intoxicated night duty station-master staggered over to me and asked after my ticket, then sternly directed me in chemically-slurred and heavily-accented English not to leave that area of the station before morning if I wanted to reach my destination. I tried to sleep on a bench, but couldn’t. Instead, I whiled away the hours shivering beneath layers that did little to ward off the chill.
When morning finally came, it was with great relief that I boarded the train to Macon. It was a TGV, absolutely packed, and looked for all the world like a grounded spacecraft. The cramped rail cars soon departed, whisking their passengers through the French countryside at speeds in excess of 200 mph. In a little over two hours, we had covered 450 miles, and I found myself in a station in the outskirts of Lyon. It was, I must admit, one of the most exquisite days I have ever seen, the rural French countryside looking like some idyllic portrait of agrarian life. And yet, as much as I wanted to drink it in, I dozed off in spite of myself. It had been three nights since I had had any real sleep, and I was running on fumes.
When I finally finished making my connections and arrived in Villefrance-sur-Saone, I set out on foot to try to find the little town of Ars. I was wearing heavy work boots and a large hiking pack, but the guidebooks led me to believe it was only a five mile walk, and I figured I could manage. There were no road signs, so I did my best, lacking any ability whatsoever to speak French, to ask the locals which way I should go. They were all tremendously friendly and willing to help, and each and every one of them pointed me in a different direction, all of them wrong. After almost 2 hours of walking, and with no success at hitchhiking, I finally wound up right back on the same road they had turned me away from when I had first asked for help. It was, as it turned out, the right way.
There are times during extended periods of travel when the adventurer, at first intrepid, grows oppressively weary, and wants nothing more than to be at home, in a soft chair, with something nice to eat and a glass of something strong. This was how I was feeling, rosary in hand and thumb extended in the hopes of catching the attention of one of the few passing cars, when at last a kindly old man took pity on me and pulled over to let me in. We were unable to communicate with words, but he took my meaning and understood my need, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I let his little Peugeot do the hard work of pilgrimage on my behalf.
After all my wandering on foot, the car ride to Ars felt incredibly brief. I thanked the man and hurried into the church, expecting to be late, but it was worse than I had feared. The Mass had started almost an hour earlier than I had expected. The good news was that the homily must have been quite long, because the offertory had only just begun. After the morning’s troubles, I was more than a little consoled at the prospect of receiving communion.
The church was very antiquated, but beautiful in an odd, rustic sort of way. It was far smaller than I had expected upon entrance, but further toward the apse it opened into a much larger and more magnificent structure — a basilica built after the death of its illustrious pastor. The little sainted Curé must have been smiling down from heaven, because the parish was packed for Mass, which was one of his most ardent desires. At communion as I approached the altar, there to my right was his body, encased in glass, largely incorrupt. I was surprised to see in person just how small Saint Jean Vianney was. He looked to be no larger than that of a boy of about twelve years of age. My American sensibilities being what they were, it was also strange to see his body so displayed, placed just above the altar. But he was indeed a man worthy of great admiration by the faithful. It was a well-known fact that his deep piety caused Satan often to attack him bodily, and the devil once revealed that had there been even three men like him on the Earth, his (Satan’s) kingdom in this world would have been broken.
Who was this great and powerful saint, tucked away in this far corner of the world?
Saint Jean-Marie Vianney was born on May 8th, 1786, in Dardilly, France. He was the third of six children, and his parents were poor farmers. When he was just a toddler, the French Revolution was raging across the country, and apostate priests who had signed the civil constitution of the clergy were the norm. Those who refused were either exiled or killed, and the Vianneys, devout family that they were, were forced to attend clandestine Masses, sometimes travelling long distances to do so. From an early age, Jean-Marie had insatiable desire for God and love of souls. When he was older, he worked as a shepherd, recognizing at last a late vocation at the age of 20.
Though he struggled tremendously with his studies — especially Latin — his devotion to Our Lord was beyond compare. After many trials and challenges, he was ordained on Sunday, August 13th, 1815, the lone recipient of Holy Orders that thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the chapel of the Grand Séminaire of Grenoble. He was 29 years old.
“Oh! how great is the priest,” he later wrote, “The priest will only be understood in heaven. Were he understood on earth, people would die, not of fear, but of love.”
It was a sentiment he had been expressing since childhood. “If I were a priest, ” he would say to his mother (who, sadly, did not live to see him ordained), “I should wish to win many souls to God.”
After his ordination, he returned to Ecully, where he had been stationed as a deacon prior to his ordination. Upon his return he had been made vicaire of the parish, and continued to establish for himself a reputation of exceptional piety, even becoming the confessor and spiritual director to the pastor there. In February, 1818, he was given a new commission: to go to take over the care of the parish at Ars. According to Abbé Francis Trochu’s biography of the great saint (from which the blockquotes to follow will all be taken) this assignment carried a certain subtext, though St. Jean-Marie gave no indication that he was aware of it:
Not for a moment did [Abbé Vianney] stop to consider whether there was any truth in the statement often made that M. Courbon was in the habit of sending to the parishes of the départment of the Ain, “which was held to be a kind of Siberia for the clergy of Lyons, those subjects that appeared the least promising.” In utter single-mindedness he called upon the Vicar-General, who, after signing the document that appointed him, remarked: “There is not much love for God in that parish; you will bring some into it.” The Abbé Vianney protested that he had no other desire.
Abbé Trochu’s description of Ars as its new Curé found it is not particularly uplifting:
In this year of grace, 1818, the village wore a sad and wretched aspect. All there was to be seen were some forty low houses, built of clay and scattered amid the orchards; halfway up one side of the valley stood a church, if one could grace with such a name a yellowish structure pierced by quite common windows and surmounted by five beams, four upright and one cross beam, which supported the sadly cracked bell. In accordance with ancient custom, the dead were buried by the side of the sacred edifice. Behind the apse was a small square planted with twenty-two splendid walnut-trees. Hard by the church stood the presbytery, which was no better than a peasant’s house. In front of it lay a small yard a few square feet in size. […] As a result of bad roads, Ars seemed, as it were, lost in an inaccessible wilderness. In the fullest sense of the word, it was but a hole. Its inhabitants hardly ever left it, Nature having made them stay-at-homes.
Like my own attempt to reach the little town, Saint Jean-Marie’s was similarly met with difficulty. He got quite lost trying to get to his new assignment.
The new curé experienced some difficulty in finding his parish. A mist had obliterated the landscape, so that it was impossible to make out distant objects. After passing the village of Toussieux, where no one seemed able to offer further guidance, the travellers lost their way completely. Eventually they espied through the haze some children tending their flocks. M. Vianney approached them, but as the little shepherds only spoke the local patois, they were unable to understand him. He asked them to show him the way to the château of Ars, under an impression that it was situated within the village itself. He repeated his question, and at last the most intelligent of the children, a boy of the name of Antoine Givre, put the stranger on the right road. “My young friend,” said the priest, by way of thanking the lad, “you have shown me the way to Ars; I shall show you the way to heaven.” The young shepherd added that the spot where they stood marked the boundary of the parish. On hearing this the new curé knelt down to pray.
This was the theme of his life: showing people the way to heaven. The indifference toward religion that he encountered in the little town of Ars caused him great pain, so he set himself to building relationships with his flock, encouraging those who were already living well, bringing back those who were not, and doing penance on behalf of those who would not do it for themselves. He impressed them with his piety, and as Abbé Trochu wrote, “they beheld M. Vianney at the altar, radiant and, as it were, transfigured, saying Mass with a solemnity they had not witnessed before.”
There is too much in his life that is praiseworthy to recount with any justice here. Suffice to say, he was a true priest, a man willing to suffer and endure the greatest hardships as a joyous gift, if only the souls entrusted to his care would be converted. His penances on behalf of his parishioners left him at times bloody and faint. He lived on little food and even less sleep. His days and many of his nights were spent in the Church, if not offering the sacraments then spent in prayer for his people. Perhaps his greatest gift was his love for the sacrament of confession, where his piety and God’s grace and mercy made it possible for him to read the souls of penitents. In time, people would come from great distances to confess to the priest who could see even their most hidden sins, and he would sit in the confessional for up to 18 hours a day, hearing the confessions of some 300 people at a time.
He spent little time in his presbytery, but when he did, he lived simply. For years, he subsisted only on a single daily meal of boiled potatoes, and even this meager fare was often left to sit long enough that they grew moldy, though he would still consume them. Once, when his sister visited and saw what he had to eat, she would not touch the food. He protested, “They are not a bit spoilt; I find them still quite good.”
At other times M. Vianney himself cooked, in his famous saucepan, enough potatoes to last him a whole week. When they were boiled he put them in a kind of iron basket, which he suspended from the wall. When he felt the pangs of hunger he took out one or two — to eat three would have been, according to him, “solely for the pleasure of eating.” He ate them cold, even when, towards the end of the week, they were covered with a musty down. At other times he cooked an egg on the hot cinders, or baked a few indigestible matefaims made of flour mixed with salt and water.
In the precious few hours the Curé might have had to get much-needed sleep, Satan would often come, abusing him mentally and physically throughout the night.
Once resolved upon upsetting M. Vianney’s outward tranquility, the devil began with some rather trivial vexations. Every night the poor Curé heard the curtains of his bedstead being rent. In the beginning, he imagined that he had to do only with common rodents. He placed a pitchfork near the head of his bed. Useless precaution: the more he shook the curtains in order to frighten off the rats, the louder became the sounds of rending, and in the morning, when he expected to find them in shreds, the curtains were undamaged. This game lasted for quite a while.
Soon, in the silence of the night, blows were struck against doors, shouts were heard in the yard in front of the presbytery. Perhaps they were the act of thieves, who were after the rich offerings of the Vicomte d’Ars, which were kept in the large cupboard in the attic! M. Vianney boldly came downstairs, but saw nothing.
These attacks grew increasingly vicious, with loud noises and voices and sensations giving way to taunts and roaring abuse, even sometimes leading to the Saint being tossed around in his bed. This of course left the poor Curé increasingly exhausted during his long days in the confessional.
It was indeed a battle, and in order to fight it the holy man had no other resource than patience and prayer. “I sometimes asked him,” his confessor relates, “how he repelled those attacks. He replied: ‘I turn to God; I make the sign of the cross; I address a few contemptuous words to the devil. I have noticed, moreover, that the tumult is greater and the assaults more numerous if, on the following day, some big sinner is due to come.’ “
This knowledge was his comfort during sleepless nights. But the devil was persistent. Once, his entire room was inexplicably set on fire while he was busy in the parish church, though despite the panic of his parishioners, he remained unconcerned, and continued what he was doing without bothering to go and assess the damage. A visiting missionary recounted the event:
The bed, the tester, the curtains of the bed, and everything near — everything had been consumed. The fire had only halted in front of the reliquary of St. Philomena, which had been placed on a chest of drawers. From that point it had drawn a line from top to bottom with geometrical accuracy, destroying everything on this side of the holy relic and sparing all on the other. As the fire had started without cause, so it died out in like manner, and it is very remarkable, and in some ways miraculous, that the flames had not spread from the heavy serge hangings to the floor of the upper storey, which was very low, old, and very dry, and which would have blazed like straw.
At noon, when M. le Curé came to see me at the Providence, we spoke of the event. I told him that it was universally looked upon as a bad joke of the devil, and I asked him whether he really thought that the evil one had something to do with it. He replied very positively and with the greatest composure: ‘Oh! my friend, that is plain enough. He is angry; that is a good sign; we shall see many sinners.’ As a matter of fact, there followed an extraordinary influx of people into Ars, which lasted for several days.”
This was what St. Jean Vianney did: go toe to toe with the devil for the salvation of men. For thirty years he suffered these attacks and made reparation without even taking the human comforts that would be necessary to sustain any other man. For thirty years he persevered, giving guidance, aiding in the discovery of vocations, distributing the sacraments. He was not just the Curé of Ars, he was a Curé of souls.
After a lifetime of unsurpassed holiness and inexplicable miracles, he died on August 4, 1859, at the age of 73. He was beatified by Pope St. Pius X in 1905. Since was the model parish priest, going far above and beyond the call of duty for the well-being of his flock, Pope St. Pius recommended him as the patron saint of parochial clergy. He was canonized in 1925, by Pope Pius XI.
In the new liturgical calendar, his feast day was celebrated on the anniversary of his death, the 4th of August; in the old calendar, it is celebrated today.
I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to visit the little parish of Ars. After learning more about the Curé’s voluntary embrace of pain and penance, I am almost ashamed to have even recounted the trivial inconveniences I suffered along the way there as part of my story. St. Jean-Marie Vianney is a truly remarkable saint, and in a time when we so desperately need holy priests, one whose patronage we should all earnestly seek.
St. John-Marie Vianney, Ora pro nobis!
Originally published on August 8, 2014.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.