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Who was the Curé of Ars?

on Friday, 19 June 2009. Posted in Saints & Blessed

The body of the Curé d'Ars
The body of St. John Mary Vianney is still exposed incorrupt in the Basilica of Ars.

As a priest, Saint John Mary Vianney took upon himself many of the projects parish priests take on. He set about to restore the parish church, he founded an orphanage and did acts of charity for the poor. He also did some pretty extraordinary things. He had supernatural knowledge of the future and the past, and he performed healing miracles, particularly on children. But it was in the basic duties of parish life that he excelled, namely preaching, offering spiritual direction, and, most notably, hearing confessions.

John Mary Vianney was born in Dardilly, near Leon, in 1786. His early faith formation took place within the context of the French Revolution, which pushed the practice of the Catholic faith underground. Later in his ministry, he would deal with the consequences of the revolution, which led many of the faithful to leave the Church.

The road to the priesthood wasn’t an easy path for Vianney. After finally getting his father’s permission to pursue his calling, he still needed to get caught up on his studies, as the revolution had interrupted his education. If he wanted to be a priest, he’d have to go back to school with children half his age to learn the basics of reading, writing, and Latin.

Almost nine years later, in 1815, Vianney was ordained. He was 29. Less than three years later, in 1818, the young priest was assigned as the assistant pastor of the church in Ars, a small country village located about 25 miles from Lyon in eastern France. This is where he would spend the rest of his priestly life.

Arriving in Ars, the young priest noticed the loss of Christian faith and morals around him, a lingering by-product of the French Revolution. Father Vianney soon began to awaken the faith of his parishioners through his preaching, but most of all by his prayer and his way of life. His notoriety as a holy priest grew slowly, and Father Vianney soon became known as, simply, the Curé d’Ars (parish priest of Ars).

By the 1830s, his popularity swelled to the extent that the holy priest became somewhat of a prisoner in the confessional, held there by the hundreds of faithful arriving daily to the village to see the holy curé. Between 1830 and 1845, sometimes as many as 300 people a day would pass through Ars for a chance to confess with Father Vianney.

Overwhelmed with his own sense of unworthiness and weakness in the face of such a great mission, the holy priest tried three times to escape, but all attempts failed. On the third attempt his parishioners actually sent out a search crew in the middle of the night to find him and put him back in the confessional. He stayed there until the wee hours of the morning – hearing confessions.

In 1853, a group of diocesan missionaries came to the aid of the overworked parish priest, who couldn’t seem to get out of his confessional, let alone out of his own parish to take a holiday. His own bishop even told him not to attend diocesan retreats, as Father Vianney had too many souls to attend to in Ars.

By 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached 20,000 a year, and some 100,000 in 1858. There are reports that during the last 10 years of his life, he spent as many as 18 hours a day in the confessional, and that toward the end of his life, he confessed up to 80,000 penitents a year.

Father Vianney spent the last five days of his life hearing his confessions from his deathbed. Exhausted, the Curé d’Ars died Aug. 4, 1859. He was 73.

The parish priest was beatified in 1905, and declared the patron of the priests of France that same year. He was canonized 20 years later in 1925, and declared the patron saint of all parish priests in 1929.

Taken from an article of Karna Swanson, editor of the English edition of zenit.org (June 19, 2009)