The Role of a Priest - St. Jean-Marie Vianney

“A priest goes to heaven or a priest goes to hell with a thousand people behind him.”

-       St. Jean-Marie Vianney

This Sunday the Church celebrates the feast of St. Jean-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. He was born in central France in 1789 and grew up in the tumultuous years following the French Revolution. During his childhood it was illegal for priests to celebrate Mass, so he and his family went to secret Masses celebrated by faithful priests in people’s homes or barns. The courage of these priests instilled in him a great love for the priesthood.

By the time Jean-Marie was a teenager it was no longer illegal to celebrate Mass and he was able to begin his studies for the priesthood. He did not excel in his academic studies, but he persevered through the challenges placed before him and he was ordained a priest. He spent his first three years of priesthood as a vicar (assistant) working for Fr. Balley, but when the holy old pastor died, Fr. Jean-Marie was made the pastor of Ars, which was a small village of fewer than 250 people.

His early years as curé of Ars were marked by many challenges. The community was very apathetic and lukewarm in its faith. Most people had stopped going to church during the years of the revolution and did not return when the revolution ended. Most people preferred to spend their leisure time at the bars or being entertained, and few were interested in worshipping God. As Fr. Jean-Marie began to win some souls back to God, he experienced a lot of opposition. Some people told lies about him and spread rumours and others even threatened him with physical violence.

Eventually, however, he won over the little town, and word of his holiness began to spread. Pilgrims began travelling from across France to visit the Curé d’Ars and, especially, to go to him for confession. By the end of his life he was hearing confessions for 12-16 hours a day! His success in winning souls for God did, however, also prompt some jealousy among his brother priests. Once, there was a petition sent around to all of the priests asking them to vouch for Fr. Vianney’s unworthiness to be ministering as a priest. The petition accidentally found its way to the home of Fr. Jean-Marie, and, in his humility, he signed it. Of course, the bishop did not remove him from his ministry.

As St. Jean-Marie well knew, the priest is an intermediary between God and his people. Many people today are confused about what a priest is. They want many things from priests (e.g., comfort, encouragement, psychological help, fundraising solutions, etc.) and those things are all fine and good, but what is essential is that the priest makes God present. Most importantly, this is done through baptism, by which we become children of God, the celebration of the Eucharist, in which we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, and in confession, in which we receive the mercy of God.

St. Jean-Marie Vianney, pray that we will seek God above all else.

Scott Murray