St. John Vianney loved the penitents who came to his confessional so much that he couldn’t bear to give them the heavy penances required by the French Church – and most of Western Europe – at that time.
According to Fr. Patrice Chocholski, current rector of the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France where the saint lived and died, priests in 17th Century Western Europe were given a manual which outlined the penance they were to give for each sin! The priest was told to add these penances up and, at the end of each confession, present the penitent with a kind of bill!
“Sometimes, the ‘bill’ could be very heavy for people returning to the Church – to Christ,” said Fr. Patrice. “St. John Vianney said, ‘I will not betray the Church, but I cannot give the bill to these people so I will take the main penance on myself and leave them [my parishioners] only a little penance.’ ‘Tis love, no? It was out of pastoral charity.”
Is it any wonder that the saint slept only three hours a night and eventually died, Fr. Patrice believes, from the strain of all those penances.
In addition to heavy penances, penitents at that time were not given absolution until they returned to the priest and proved they had completed the proscribed penance. Of course, many never did!
However, according to Fr. Patrice, St. John Vianney would say, ‘The Lord shows us His love and trust when He gives us absolution on the same day. He trusts us and knows that in this trust we can change.’” So the beloved pastor gave absolution on the same day.
This was a new way of thinking, one taught in Rome by St. Alphonsus Liguori, who would became a doctor of the Church. At that time, the Jansenist heresy, which placed everyone under the heavy yoke of moral rigorism, was rampant throughout Western Europe. St. Alphonsus taught about God’s love and mercy, and a new way to confess.
Father Patrice says that the Pope at that time was so concerned about the “slippery slope” of Jansenism that he invited all the bishops in France to come to Rome for a year of formation. St. John Vianney’s own bishop was one of them. He returned to Ars as a proponent of this new way and Fr. Patrice says that St. John Vianney was among the first to embrace the changes.
But changes in the confessional weren’t the only reason St. John Vianney was so beloved.
Father Patrice says that in the 17th Century, Ars was well-known for wine, bars, and cabarets, which were little more than brothels. “Unfortunately, many children were generated. Boys were recognized by their parents, but the girls, no. So the orphan girls were thrown away and nobody cared for them.”
St. John Vianney opened a house for these poor orphan girls. With proper formation, he believed “they would become good mums and they would change society. He struggled to have these cabarets closed – and he succeeded!”
Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the saint’s crusades. St. John Vianney insisted, for example, that poor people, who worked seven days a week for little money, deserved “a day of rest.” The day was to be for family and, if possible, Mass. But the owners of the large farms in the area, who depended on this cheap seven-day-a-week labor, petitioned the bishop numerous times asking him to get rid of the humble priest.
Father Patrice said that one of the saint’s parishioners once came to him and said, “‘I’m ashamed to tell you that there is a petition against you and many parishioners have signed it.’ Do you know what St. John Vianney said? He said, ‘Show me this petition. I will sign it myself!’”
Father Patrice says that’s because St. John Vianney’s deepest desire was “to find a monastery or somewhere in the countryside where he could prepare himself for God’s judgement”. Father says the saint tried at least four times to escape his parish in the dead of the night, but each time hordes of people searched him out and begged him to hear their confessions. He eventually said, “In the country or in my parish, it’s the same noise. I will go back to my parish and listen to confessions and I will be a parish priest until the end of my life!”
Near the end of his life, the Emperor of France presented the popular priest with a medal of honor. He sold it the same day and gave the proceeds to the poor. When the bishop imposed on him to accept the mozzetta, a cape-like garment that comes to the elbows, which is given to designate a higher ranking prelate, he sold that too. When the bishop asked what he did with the mozzetta, the saint asked for another. Father Patrice said after seeing how much it fetched the first time, he intended to sell it again to help the poor!
“The most important thing for him was that healing take place in an encounter with Christ,” said Fr. Patrice. “He loved the holy sacraments and the sacramental encounter in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To prepare the people for confession he wanted them to collect themselves before the wounded love of Christ. He was sure Christ’s wounds would stir up the love of their hearts and they would repent and confess. He said the mercy of God it is like a mighty stream of water bringing with itself human hearts. The mercy of God is that you just have to open your heart and let the Good Lord love you and heal you.”
The story of St. John Vianney’s vocation is so powerful that it has influenced countless vocations – including the vocation of Father Patrice!
“I never thought of becoming a priest,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I had the privilege of reading ‘The Cure D’Ars: St. Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney’ by Abbe Francois Trouchu. I said, ‘That’s just beautiful.’ I think that my vocation is due, in part, to reading this book of St. John Vianney’s life.” (Find it here: http://bit.ly/2Kcj2j4.
Father Patrice says the rector of another famous shrine told him that same book influenced his own vocation and that St. John Paul II kept it by his bedside. Is it any wonder that this saint is known as the patron of parish priests – or that his body lies incorrupt?
St. John Vianney, help us, like you, to examine our consciences before the wounded Christ and to confess our sins as you advised your own parishioners to do – and please pray that we may follow in your charitable footsteps and become saints. Amen.