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St Jean Vianney - Cure d'Ars and Patron Saint of All Priests

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
19 Jun 2009

On the 150th year after the death of Saint Jean - Marie Vianney and on his August 4 Feast Day, the Pontiff will proclaim the nineteenth century Priest as Patron Saint of All Priests of the World.

"St Jean - Marie Vianney represents a true example of a priest at the service of the flock for Christ," Pope Benedict XVI said of the slight French priest recognized for his pastoral work and the sixteen to eighteen hours a day he spent in the confessional.

Widely known to Catholics throughout the world as Curé d’Ars, or the Parish Priest of Ars, a small town near Lyons, the humble French priest reignited and restored the faith of villagers in the tumultuous years following the French Revolution when the Catholic Church had almost been destroyed.

In 1790, the bloody Revolution had forced many priests into hiding and to celebrate the Mass in secret. As a child, St Jean had continued attending Mass even though the Government had decreed the practice illegal. Travelling to distant farms with his family to pray in secret, St Jean recognised that the priests were risking their lives and saw them as the true heroes of the era.

During each Mass, windows were covered so the light from candles could not be seen and this was how the young St Jean made his first Communion.

With France’s education also destroyed in the aftermath of the Revolution, the young boy was taught to read and write by his sister and it was not until 1802, when St Jean was a teenager, that schools began to reappear and religion was restored to France.

By 1805, 19 year old St Jean knew his vocation was to be a priest and he persuaded his father to let him leave the family farm and attend a school where young boys were educated and prepared for the priesthood. At 10 and 11, his fellow classmates were much younger and had a quick grasp of their lessons. But with no formal school, St Jean struggled, particularly with Latin.  He refused to give up but his studies were abruptly interrupted in 1809 when he was unceremoniously drafted into Napoleon’s Army to fight against the Spanish.

The conscription was a mistake as those studying theology for the priesthood were supposed to be exempt. Instead of complaining, St Jean obeyed his orders. But on the morning he was due to leave, he left his church after praying, only to discover his unit had left without him. Arrested as a deserter he was later sent back to the barracks at Lyons. There, together with others, he fell behind and following a young man who offered to guide him, found himself in the mountains surrounded by deserters. Hidden there for the next year and a half, he took an assumed name and opened a school for the village children.

Finally in 1810, the Napoleonic wars were at an end and he was able to resume his studies. He was ordained a priest in 1815.

Appointed pastor of the remote village of Ars, he was appalled to discover that Sunday was no longer regarded as a day for contemplation and religion, but that in the wake of the Revolution, was now used as a day to drink and party at the local tavern.

St Jean was convinced his calling was to bring his parishioners back to God and with his sermons, comfort and succour the villagers began returning to the Church in droves. His sermons became known not only nationally but internationally and pilgrims travelled vast distances to hear him. By 1855 the numbers of people crowding into the tiny town to listen to St Jean’s sermons and attend confession had reached 20,000 a year.

Although exhausted , St Jean persisted with his work and won the hearts of all he met. His charity, humility and work with orphans, the sick and the poor became legendary and in 1874, 15 years after his death at age 73, Pope Pius IX proclaimed him Venerable. Then in 1925, he was canonized by Pope Pius XI.

He was later made Patron Saint of Parish Priests and this year will become Patron Saint of All Priests of the world..

St Jean’s incorrupt body is entombed above the main altar in the Basilica at Ars, France. However for the inauguration of the Year of the Priest on June 19 by the Holy Father, his relics were taken to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome where  this humble parish priest, known for his deep recollection and devotion, will be visited by many thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.

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