Trials of a Shepherd
Do the biographers of the Curé of Ars exaggerate his lack of learning? Certainly they speak at length about it, but Msgr. Trochu, whose voluminous work on the Curé is perhaps the best of the biographies of the humble priest, has this to say about Abbé Vianney's examination with a view to his ordination to the priesthood: "The learned examiner questioned Abbé Vianney for more than an hour on the most difficult questions of moral theology. He was pleased with his answers, and even astonished at his clearness and accuracy."1
There is no question that student Vianney had made his preparation for the priesthood under extreme difficulty. The wars of Napoleon had drained the manhood of the country. There was a great dearth of vocations to the priesthood, and the candidates who offered themselves were seldom given what we would esteem as adequate training. The young Vianney was very frank in admitting that there were certain gaps in his knowledge. At the same time there is an intimation of less than adequate training in the words of the Vicar General when he received from Abbé Bochard, the examiner of Vianney, the report of the final examination of Jean-Marie. "It is not only learned priests that the Church needs," said the Vicar General, "but, still more, devoted priests."
Vianney's Sponsor Dies
We have made note of the fact that Abbé Vianney's first appointment was to the parish of Ecully, where he was under the guidance of his good friend and sponsor, M. Bailey, the Curé of Ecully. He patterned his priestly life after the example of this great man who was to him a kindly father rather than a stern taskmaster. M. Bailey led a prayerful penitential life, "eating little but always hospitable, never wasting a moment." He was an excellent model to his assistant. He reminded the young priest that he must not neglect the Rituel de Toulon, which must be reviewed thoroughly before he applied for faculties.
Jean-Marie spent much time in preparing his sermons, but even his sister Gothon, who walked over from Dardilly to hear him, expressed herself as not much impressed by his sermons. After some months M. Bailey obtained faculties for his curate, and he immediately took over a great part of the work in the confessional. M. Bailey fell victim to an ulcer which grew gradually worse and caused his death in December, 1817. Jean-Marie never forgot his guide and counselor, and his words are M. Bailey's best eulogy : "I have encountered some beautiful souls in my time, but none so fine as his."
The death of his friend marked the end of an epoch in the life of Abbé Vianney. Within a few months, February 9, 1818, the young curate was appointed a parish priest of Ars, an obscure village in the countryside north of Lyon. Here, in the providence of God, he was to undertake the great work in the care of souls that would occupy his every moment during the forty-one years of his pastorate in Ars.
His "Instinct of Conquest"
To his love of God and of souls, the Curé of Ars brought what has been aptly called "the instinct of conquest." In his analysis of pastoral devotedness, Bishop Hedley says that it "seems to consist of three qualities: the love of God, the love of souls, and what I may call the instinct of conquest." The shepherd of souls will accept no compromise where the interests of eternal souls are at stake. Abbé Vianney had come to Ars with some knowledge of the sad condition of religion there. He knew that a number of his parishioners were ignorant of the most elementary notions of the catechism. "This was especially true," writes Trochu, "of those who had grown up during the [French] Revolution that is, the young men and women between the ages of twenty five and thirty five. It was they who were the chief causes of scandal. Some of them went so far as to boast of their conduct, openly asserting that they saw no harm in their dances, their profanation of the Sunday, and other disorders. How were these wandering sheep to be brought back to the fold? The new pastor was painfully aware of his helplessness; he did not lose heart, however God and time would work for him . . .
"M. Vianney was well aware that the most formidable obstacle that lay in his way was the inertness of a population that did not wish to be disturbed in its habits of life. He had been received in every house. Those who were faithful in attending Sunday Mass would go on doing so, but he must not ask for more.
"He, however, would not leave them undisturbed in their sluggish tranquility. Conscious of his responsibility towards his flock, he was fully resolved to give them no peace until the day when abuses should have vanished from the parish. He would indeed pray and do penance, but he would likewise speak and act."
The new Curé joined constant penance to constant prayer for his parishioners. If they would not pray, he would pray for them; if they would not do penance, he would offer his penance for them. His biographers tell us that this first period of his work at Ars was the most austere of his whole life. He ate little, and sometimes days would go by without him touching food. His friends and parishioners were generous in sending him victuals, but he distributed them to the poor. He prepared boiled potatoes sufficient for a week, and ate them only occasionally.
Campaign against Indifference and Ignorance
His first objective was to train all the members of his parish to the proper observance of the Lord's day. Many did not go to Mass at all; others failed to comply with their obligation on the slightest pretext. The Curé resolved to make his humble church more attractive. Within a short period of time he had thoroughly restored the old church at Ars. It was his joy to help in the erection of as beautiful an altar as possible. He insisted constantly on having the best for the service of God in His church.
The zealous Curé came to the conclusion that the great misfortune of his flock was their ignorance of religion and the indifference that resulted therefrom. Their faith was blurred, obscure, dull. This sad state flowed from their ignorance, but he made them see that willful ignorance is a sin. "We are convinced," he declared from the pulpit, "that this sin alone causes the loss of more souls than all the other sins together, because he who is ignorant does not realize the harm he does by his sin, nor the great good he thus forfeits."
It was necessary to include the youth of the village in his program of instruction. When only six or seven years of age the children of Ars were made to tend the sheep and cattle. A boy of twelve or older was expected to help his father, for agricultural laborers were scarce. Little wonder that very few of the children could read. At first, few came to the catechism lessons, and then only during the winter months. In his zeal the Curé gathered together these unhappy children as early as six o'clock every weekday morning that they might prepare themselves properly for their first Communion. He cajoled the children into regular attendance at catechism through offering prizes. In fact, he stopped at nothing to provide regular instruction for every one of his parishioners in need of it, and he ceased catechizing in person only when sent an assistant in 1945. For twenty-seven years he worked alone with no thought of himself or his own comfort.
The Abbé Tailhades relates that he began with impressive reflections that sometimes moved his listeners to tears. After the recitation he gave further explanation, if necessary, and thus made certain that every pupil understood the lesson. He required strict attention and, though he inflicted slight punishments for infractions, "his chief object was to encourage them, and by his gentleness to inspire them with that filial affection which includes perfect reverence." On Sunday he admitted all his parishioners to these lessons and he insisted that they, too, pay strict attention. Their teacher never wearied of repeating the same thing again and again, and thus fixing it in the memory as well as the understanding. Little wonder that the children of Ars achieved a reputation for themselves in their own immediate district because of their excellent mastery of the catechism. Pupils who failed were made to take supplementary catechism lessons, and were not admitted to their first Communion until they gave proof of satisfactory knowledge. M. Vianney would not hesitate to keep "them back for another year, whatever might be their age."
Vianney as Preacher
His zeal for the instruction of the adult population of his parish forced him to spend many hours in the preparation of his sermon. Though he talked hesitatingly at first, his command of language improved with practice, and the day would come when many prominent persons, including great orators and great prelates, would sit at his feet to learn wisdom.
Abbé Vianney sought inspiration at the foot of the altar. He prayed to his Master that he might imitate Him in the simplicity of his presentation of the most sublime truths. But success did not always crown his effort. After hours of writing and study, his memory, never retentive, sometimes failed him. "In the pulpit," writes the village schoolmaster, "he sometimes got so lost that he had to come down without finishing his discourse." This humiliation did not discourage him. He knew that in the pulpit a priest fulfills one of the most sacred duties of his important office, and this conviction filled him with zeal and courage. He was not an orator in the ordinary acceptance of that term, but his utter naturalness in voice and gesture drew people to him.
We who read of his ignorance of the arts of human eloquence and of his many long sermons to eager audiences, desire to know the secret of his success. An analysis is impossible here, for the dabitur vobis is involved and this defies analysis and is not governed by rules. In his preaching he gave heed to St. Paul's injunction to Titus: "Rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith." Only the ardor of the Curé's zeal explained or excused the vigor of his language. Strict with himself, he demanded much of others. His strong language was characteristic of the period in which he lived, for the evil tree of Jansenism, though prostrate on the ground, hid many a dangerous root. It is recorded by Abbé Martin that the pulpits of the neighboring churches resounded with like accents; good pastors everywhere sought to guard their people from all forms of hazard to the faith.
The Curé realized that spiritual husbandry must plant as well as root up. He sought to ground his flock in the practice of its religion. If some desecrated the Sunday or blasphemed, he called them to strict account: "You poor people, how wretched you are! Pursue your wonted way! go on! but all you may expect is hell." One frank farmer said the Curé's sermons are always good, but they are always on hell.
Campaign against Local Disorders
A change came with the passing of the years. "As he grew older," writes Sheppard, "the severity of his earlier years as a priest diminished. He learned that there was another, and more approved, school besides that of Msgr. Joly de Choin and his Rituel do Toulon. Abbé Raymond . . . procured for him Gousset's French translation and adaptation of St. Alphonsus' moral theology."2 In his mature years it was only in very exceptional cases that he deferred absolution for long periods. This was a far cry from the rigor of his youth when he was known to refuse absolution for as much as six years in the case of a young lady who would not entirely give up her participation in dancing.
In his early pastorate in Ars, so historians tell us, he gave eight years of ceaseless efforts to eliminating every profanation of the Sunday. He even journeyed into the fields on Sunday that he might catch some of the offenders red-handed. His apostolate was finally rewarded; for the overwhelming majority of the people of Ars the Sunday became indeed the Lord's day. The evils of dancing gave him stronger opposition, and success over that source of sin cost the holy priest twenty-five years of effort. He spoke frequently of dancing as "the rope by which the devil drags the greatest number of souls into the abyss of hell." By the year 1830 dances had been suppressed as regards the center of the village, but complete and final victory crowned his efforts only at the close of a mission in 1847.
The scandalous dress of women called for stern measures, for many women violated the most elementary rules of modesty. In one of his sermons he called to account "that mother who can think of nothing but her daughter. She is far more concerned whether her bonnet is put on properly than whether the child has given her heart to God. She beseeches her daughter not to be unsociable to be gracious to everybody so as to form acquaintances and eventually to 'get off.' Soon the girl's one aim will be to attract. Her extravagant and indecent dress proclaims her to be a tool by means of which hell seeks the ruin of souls. Only at the judgment-seat of God will such a one know the number of crimes of which she has been the cause." Mindful of his words, the women and girls of Ars began to practice modesty and reserve, and became an edification to the thousands of pilgrims who flocked to that favored village.
M. Vianney was wise enough to know that he who denounces popular vices and disorders challenges opposition. "If a priest is determined not to lose his soul," the exclaimed, "so soon as any disorder arises in the parish he must trample under foot all human considerations as well as the fear of the contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even where he is certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit. A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times."
Victim of Gossip
The Curé did not mince words, and he incurred the ill will of some of his parishioners who were not ready to give up their vices and correct their faults. These offenders slandered him and tried to distort everything he said to their own purposes. Seven of his parishioners, displeased with his strictures, summoned him to quit the village. Certainly the incident caused M. Vianney much pain. A blow of a more serious nature soon followed. Catherine Lassagne wrote an official account of this latter incident: "On the occasion of a village scandal a wretched girl, having lost her honour, had become a mother in a house close to the presbytery some criminals sought to tarnish the reputation of the servant of God. It was but a rumour, utterly baseless, for it was not possible to detect in his conduct anything that could have risen to the veriest shadow of a suspicion."
Little wonder that the Curé was so depressed by this wicked gossip that he decided to quit the parish. Others dissuaded him on the plea that he would thus give a measure of plausibility to these infamous rumors. We see in this trial that God was molding His servant for more severe trials that lay before him. He was gently teaching His faithful priest that the cross must not make him lose his inward peace. In his unshakable faith the Curé never yielded to discouragement. Sickness cause to add to his sufferings, and as he reached his fortieth year he contracted a fever that never left him. It was at this point that he was offered the parish of Fariens, but he declined it.
Pilgrimages to Ars Begin; Some Strange Reactions
In the work of restoring the church, Abbé Vianney had unwittingly made everything ready for the famous pilgrimage to Ars. Pilgrimage was the term applied to "that endless procession of strangers of every nation, saints and sinners, who came to seek health, light, and change of heart from one whom, long before the infallible decrees of the Apostolic See, they delighted in calling the saint."
By 1828 Abbé Vianney was busy all day ministering to the members of the pilgrimage, but it is worthy of note that he set aside a certain specified time each day to minister to the members of his own parish. Many who came claimed a miracle, but the Curé attributed all marvels that occurred at Ars to the intercession of St. Philomena, a virgin martyr of the primitive Church, to whom he had great devotion.
Today the clergy urge their parishioners to undertake a pilgrimage to a given shrine. This was not so at Ars. At any rate, remarked Sheppard, the local clergy were opposed to people going there and endeavored to persuade them from it. They evinced, says Sheppard, an attitude not unknown in clerical circles, namely, distrust of anything that rose above the mediocrity of their own methods and ideals. Some of the clergy sent out a circular letter, later to be submitted to the bishop, in which they denounced Abbé Vianney. A copy of the document came into his hands; he signed his name on it and dispatched it to the bishop, remarking, "Now they have my signature, the evidence against the culprit is complete." This denunciation did not diminish the flood of pilgrims. They came in hundreds, and later in thousands. It is estimated that 120,000 made the journey to Ars in the last year of Abbé Vianney's life.
The bishop sent his Vicar General to investigate the charges filed against Abbé Vianney by his fellow priests. The Abbé himself spoke not a word in his defense. He explained simply that the pilgrims came of their own accord and that he went in search of no one. He requested that the burden of the care of souls be taken from his unworthy shoulders. This the bishop refused to do. Need we say that the investigation furnished abundant vindication of the holy priest? To his accusers the bishop said, "I do not know whether he is learned or not, but what I do know very well is that the Holy Ghost enlightens him."
His Final Years
From 1824 to 1858 the Curé of Ars was subjected to the molestations of the evil one. The devil began with some rather trivial vexations. At first the Curé did not realize that he had to deal with the spirit of darkness. Alarmed by the manifestations, he appealed to the mayor for protection. No personal violence was done to the Curé and he soon adjusted himself to the various phenomena through which the evil one manifested his presence. The holy man noticed that violent tumult was the devil's prelude to the arrival of big sinners in Ars. "Grappin" was the nickname he gave his visitor, but Grappin's visits never discouraged the Curé. In the last year of his life he was no longer subject to the annoyance of his visits.
In 1845 Abbé Raymond began a term of eight years as curate to the Curé. It is correct to say that he was an aggressive, bumptious, ambitious individual; he was a great trial to Abbé Vianney during all the years he retained his post. Yet the good Curé spoke of him in high terms to the bishop and asked that "his beloved M. Raymond" be left with him a little longer. Later the curate suffered a change of heart and said his only regret was not to have profited by the example of the good Curé.
As we close this essay it seems that many things vital to the story have been omitted. The Curé gave his life for the welfare of souls, and wrought his own salvation through his work for others. Yearning always for solitude and the contemplative life, he resisted this yearning as if it were a temptation and lived a most active life. With utter confidence in the Master whom he served, he gave himself generously to all who came to him for help. The Master is his exceeding great reward.
- The Curé d'Ars, by Abbé Francis Trochu, translated by Dom Ernest Graf, O.S.B. (The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland; 1953).
- Portrait of a Parish Priest, by Lancelot C. Sheppard (The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland; 1958).
© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.
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