It was during a Mass celebrated secretly behind barred doors by an anti-Revolution priest in a home near Écully, close to his native parish, that Jean-Baptiste-Marie (John) Vianney received his First Communion (at the age of 13,) which strengthened him in his inmost desire.
“If I were a priest I could win many souls for God,” he said to himself and to his fond mother.
“I will be a priest,” he affirmed.
Vianney, the 4th of 6-children, was born on May 8th, 1786 at Dardilly, eight miles north-west of Lyons, in 1786. Almost as soon as he was able to walk, the child accompanied his parents into the fields where he tended the sheep and the cows. His peasant parents were among those who remained faithful Catholics during the revolution, giving hospitality to visiting priests.
Napoleon was fighting across Europe, but his success was paid for with torrents of French blood. More and yet more drafts had to be levied to fill the gaps made in his regiments by their very victories.
In 1806, young Vianney and others were summoned; two years went by, but in the autumn of 1809 he was summoned to join up, though as a Seminarist he was in reality exempt from conscription.
It would seem that his name was not on the official list of Church students supplied by the diocesan authorities. Someone had blundered. The recruiting officer would listen neither to expostulation nor to entreaty.
Young Vianney was destined for the armies in Spain. His parents tried to find a substitute. For the sum of 3,000 francs and a gratuity, a certain young man agreed to go in his stead but he withdrew at the last moment.
On October 26th Jean Baptiste entered the barracks at Lyons only to fall ill. From Lyons they sent him to a hospital at Roanne where the Nuns in charge nursed him back to a semblance of health. When, on January 6th, 1810, infantryman Vianney left the hospital, he found that his draft had set out long ago.
He was now considered a deserter so that his only care must be not to be discovered; he assumed the name Jerome Vincent.
He opened a school for the village children under that name. For a time, for the sake of greater security, he lived and slept in the shed attached to the farmhouse.
In 1810 an imperial decree granted an amnesty to all deserters of the years 1806 to 1810. Vianney was covered by the decree, so he returned home and to resume his studies. After overcoming his weakness in learning Latin, at the age of 29, on August 13, 1815, Vianney became a priest.
In 1818, Vianney was made Curé d’Ars (Parish Priest of Ars,) a village with a population of 200 not very far from Lyons.
He founded a sort of orphanage for destitute girls. It was called ‘The Providence’ and was the model of similar institutions established later all over France.
But the chief labor of the Vianney was the direction of souls. He had not been long at Ars when people began coming to him from other parishes, then from distant places, then from all parts of France, and finally from other countries.
As early as 1835, his bishop forbade him to attend the annual retreats of the diocesan clergy because of ‘the souls awaiting him yonder.’
During the last ten years of his life, he spent from sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional.
One day he was hearing confessions in the sacristy. All of a sudden he came to the door and told one of the men who acted as ushers to call a lady at the back of the church, telling him how he could identify her. However, the man failed to find her.
‘Run quickly, she is now in front of such a house.’ The man did as he was told and found the lady who was going away, disappointed at not having spoken to Vianney.
At times he came out of the confessional and summoned certain persons from among the crowd and those so selected declared that only a divine instinct could have told him of their peculiar and pressing need.
His advice was sought by bishops, priests, religious, young men and women in doubt as to their vocation, sinners, persons in all sorts of difficulties and the sick.
In 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached twenty thousand a year. The most distinguished persons visited Ars for the purpose of seeing the holy curé and hearing his daily instruction.
Vianney became ill. In the afternoon of August 2, 1859, he received the Last Sacraments: ‘How good God is,’ he said; ‘when we can no longer go to Him, He comes to us.’
At 2 o’clock in the morning of August 4th, 1859, whilst a fearful thunderstorm burst over Ars, and whilst M. Monnin read these words of the “Commendation of a Soul”: ‘May the holy angels of God come to meet him and conduct him into the heavenly Jerusalem,’ the Curé d’Ars gave up his soul to God.
Miracles associated with Vianney are of three classes: first, the obtaining of money for his charities and food for his orphans; secondly, supernatural knowledge of the past and future; thirdly, healing the sick, especially children.
He was beatified in 1905, and in the same year on April 12th he was declared patron saint of the priests of France by Pius X. In 1929, four years after his canonization, Pope Pius XI declared him ‘patron saint of the priests of the whole world’.
Pope John Paul II said no less by repeating three times that ‘The Cure of Ars remains an outstanding and unparalleled model for all nations both of the accomplishment of the ministry and the holiness of the minister’.
‘Oh, how great a reality lies in the priest!’ Jean-Marie Vianney would exclaim, for he can give God to men and men to God ; he is the witness of the tenderness of the Father for each person and the artisan of salvation.
The Curé d’Ars, an elder brother in the priesthood, is the saint to whom every priest in the world can come in order to entrust his ministry or his priestly life to the Cure’s intercession. (Lots of information here is from St John Vianney.)
Several schools and parishes were formed and named for St John Vianney. One such is the Parish and school in Enchanted Lake, in Kailua, Oahu, established in 1962.