ST JOHN MARY VIANNEY AND ST VINCENT de PAUL
AND THE PRIESTHOOD TODAY
When the Curé d’Ars, as St John Mary Vianney is universally known and lovingly invoked, was born, the French Revolution was three years away. The French Revolution, terrible though it was, managed to purify the Church in France, which had become truly degraded. As one French bishop said after the French Revolution. “If we had talked more of Christ than the supreme being we might not have found ourselves in such a predicament.” Louis XVI, who was given a name of a high ranking ecclesiastic for the vacant see of Paris remarked “ The Archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God”. I am, I have to admit giving both these quotes from memory, as I do not have the books to hand, but it shows how bad things were for France when the Curé d’Ars was something of a toddler.
Over two centuries earlier that other great French priest, and like St. John Mary a peasant, namely Vincent de Paul had a request from his relatives to help one of his great nephews to become a priest. He refused their request, for he himself felt it would have been better for him to have been a simple peasant farmer than become a priest. I know the feeling well, though I think I would have made a very poor peasant farmer, as my family on my father’s side are French, but not from the peasantry; so I think I would have been a useless farmer. However that is not the point. Let us hear what Vincent says:
“The priests of today have great reason to fear the judgments of God, for, in addition to their own sins, they will have to render an account of those of their own people.” His great nephew would be better to remain a peasant rather than embark upon a priestly vocation “in which eternal loss seems inevitable for those who dare to enter it without a vocation....As I do not see that there is any certain sign of his having been called by God, I beg you to recommend him to strive to earn his own living....This is the best advice I can give him. Priests who live as most priests are living at the present day, are the greatest enemies of the Church of God.”
Quite what religious vocations directors and diocesan vocations directors would make of Vincent’s words is hard to know. What is interesting is that Vincent was making these remarks as the great mystical revival was sweeping through France in the wake of such great mystics as Benet Canfield, the great English Capuchin mystic, whose teachings had such a profound effect on a whole school of mystics in 17th century France. And with him were Madame Acarie, Pierre de Berulle, the founder of the Oratorians in France, St. Francis de Sales, St. John Eudes, and last and not least Vincent himself. It was golden age for France, which harks back to the days of the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It was utterly different from the terrible times in which St. John Mary was growing up.
The priesthood in the West, and most probably in much of other newly evangelized parts of the World will be in much the same state as both Vincent and the good Curé d’Ars found it. How can the priesthood be renewed, simply by the realization that each priest must, and more so than the laity, model himself as far as is possible on the life of Christ. However useless or sinful or mediocre he might feel, he must rely totally on Christ in the power of his Holy Spirit to transform him.
What is necessary is that priests must be humble. They must not lord it over the laity, must not be ambitious, and must not exude that fairly revolting air of professionalism that seems to turn priests into something akin to second rate bureaucrats, and third rate businessmen. In Vincent, the great apostle of charity and the real pioneer of the seminary system, even though our own Cardinal Reginald Pole, if he had lived longer, might have created something similar, and in the Curé d’Ars the simple parish priest, who was one of the greatest confessors of all time, parochial clergy have two magnificent examples to choose from. What made these two men such great priests was humility, a virtue seldom found in most priests, and which this priest has been trying to acquire for 25 years as a priest, and 31 years as a religious, and is not doing a very good job, but it is the only way that a priest can be truly effective.
Christ came to serve and not to be served. He did not ask us priests to be efficient, business like or successful, he asked us to be humble, holy and approachable. If we can manage the first and the third of these requirements, then the holiness will follow, but spare me the professional priest, the respectable priest, the society priest, the games show host priest, the political priest, be he on the left or the right, and give me the luminous figure of the Curé d’Ars preaching with utter love and total conviction, and not only spending hour upon hour in the confessional, but also directing works of charity, thus transforming the French Church in the 19th Century which was to produce so many wonderful and strikingly individual saints.
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