Theology of the Heart- Life of the Saints
Saint John MarIE Baptist Vianney
Cure of Ars (1786-1859)
written by SCTJM
Feast Day: August 4
Novena to St.
John Vianney and
Litany to St. John Vianney,
General Audience by H.H Benedict XVI
Since the Sun of Justice disappeared from man’s perspective,
Holy Church has been illuminated by the resplendent light of
Less than a century ago, a small French village of Ars was for many
years the home to all religious life in the country. Between the
years of 1818 and 1859, its name was on the lips of many people, its
influence was great, and pilgrims came so frequently it was
necessary for the train company of the area to open a special office
in the city of Lyons to help with the traffic from this village of
Who caused all this? A simple, but incomparable priest whose life we
will examine in this story: St. John Vianney.
Saint John was born on May 8th, 1786 in the town of Dardilly,
France, and baptized the same day. He was the fourth of eight
brothers. Like many other saints, St. John came from very Christian
parents. His father owned a farm and his mother was a native of the
village of Ecully, located close to the city of Lyons. It is an
error to see the Vianney family as ignorant. Both the parents and
children spent without a doubt arduous days working in the fields
and vineyards, but the fact that for several centuries these lands
belonged to the Vianney family inspired in the family a legitimate
pride and esteem from those who knew them. A family virtue was the
kindness and help rendered to the poor, as no beggar was turned away
from their doors. Because of this, the family was privileged to give
lodging to Saint Benedict Labre when this ‘patron of the beggars’
passed through the village of Dardilly on one of his pilgrimages to
Since childhood his parents would take him to the farm where he
learned to be a shepherd. The farm was his favorite place; the
flowers, the trees, and all of nature spoke to him about God whom he
found in his innermost being. He would go frequently underneath the
big shade trees to make a small altar and place an image of Our Lady
there, which he would always carry with him, and would do so all his
life. At Mary’s feet he would open his heart in prayer and
confidence as a small child. He had the custom of doing the sign of
the Cross every time the clock struck a new hour. On other occasions
he would call his shepherd friends and share with them the things he
would learn about the Lord from his mother. She taught him the first
classes of catechism. He later shared this with the villagers of Ars,
as catechism was one of his greatest ministries as a priest.
In 1790, France was going through a great crisis, the French
Revolution. Under the pretext of implementing “liberty, equality,
and fraternity,” it actually opened up a massive persecution taking
many men and women to death by guillotine, including many priests
and religious. The priests had to disguise themselves, often
changing their living quarters, in order to minister to the people
of God who continued to be faithful. Among these priests, two are
very important in the life and vocation of St. John Vianney: Father
Balley and Fatherr Groboz, both of whom worked in Ecculy. One was a
baker and the other a cook.
During this time, St. John received his First Holy Communion in his
mother’s house. Trying not to attract attention to the authorities,
carts of hay were loaded and unloaded in front of the windows during
the ceremony to avoid any conflict. St. John, who was just 13 years
old, had tears rolling down his cheeks when he received Our Lord.
During all his life he would always talk about this special day of
his First Holy Communion, and he especially safeguarded the rosary
his mother gave him as a gift for this occasion.
of the Church
Bonaparte gradually took power, the Church obtained some liberty.
For a short time St. John assisted a school in the town, but as he
grew older, the fields demanded his work. In these long hours of
work, he received the conviction to be a priest. He said to himself:
“ If I’m a priest I can win many souls for God.” He shared this
thought with his mother, who offered her support, but his father
gave him great struggles. Two years passed before his father
accepted his son’s inspiration to be a priest.
The Archbishop of Lyons, the uncle of Napoleon, knew his first
obligation was to obtain candidates for the priesthood. He
established in each parish a campaign to promote vocations. Father
Balley, who was at the time the Pastor in Ecculy, opened a small
school in the rectory to form young men that felt the vocational
call. It was the opportunity for St. John; he was able to attend the
school of Father Balley and stay in his aunt’s house. Even his
father saw the advantages of the opportunity and gave him
permission. St. John was now 20 years old.
Many say that he was clumsy, if not stupid. However, this was not
too far from reality. His judgment was never mistaken, but his
memory was poor. He said of himself that he was unable to retain
anything in his mind. Seeing the difficulty in retaining his
studies, especially Latin grammar, he almost returned home in
desperation. Father Balley grasped the danger of his student and
asked him to make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Saint Francis
Regis in Louvesc. The pilgrimage made a difference in the life of
St. John Vianney, allowing him to progress sufficiently, saving him
from too much discouragement and preventing him from leaving the
Napoleon’s hunger for power was insatiable. He went forth to
conquer all of Europe, and because of this numerous people lost
their lives in the army. This lack of soldiers made him recruit more
soldiers. In 1806 St. John’s class was called in for recruitment.
Two years passed and in the autumn of 1809 St. John was called to
enlist in the army, even though he was exempted since he was a
seminarian. It seemed that the name of our saint was not in the
official student listing of the Church which was given to the
authorities by the Diocese.
The young Vianney was sent to the Spanish regime. His parents tried
to find someone who could substitute him. For the sum of 3,000
francs a young man volunteered in his place, but changed his mind at
the last moment.
On October 26th, St. John entered the barricades of Lyons only to
get sick. From here he was sent to the hospital in Roanne where a
nurse helped him recover his health. On January 6th, 1810, St. John
left the hospital, only to encounter the news that his group had
left him behind. Now he had to try and catch up to them.
Winter time was very harsh, and he was assailed by high fever,
impeding him to continue his journey. Entering a shed to look for
shelter, he sat on his sack and started to pray the rosary. Some
time later he would say of this experience that “perhaps I have
never prayed with so much confidence.” All of a sudden, a stranger
approached him and asked what he was doing there. St. John told him
his story and at that moment, the stranger grabbed his bag and asked
him to follow him. They reached the house of a farmer, staying there
for several days until his fever ceased. While in bed it crossed his
mind for the first time the reality that he had deserted the army.
He knew Mayor Paul Fayot who was dedicated to hiding deserters and
so he went to him for help. Not being able to accommodate him, Paul
Fayot sent him to the house of his cousin Caludine Fayot, a widow
with three children. From this moment on Vianney adopted the name
Jerome Vincent. He even opened up a school for the children of the
village under this name .
In 1810 an imperial decree granted amnesty to all deserters between
the years 1806-1810. St. John was covered by this decree. Therefore,
he was free to return home and finish his studies. Divine Providence
and the Blessed Mother had saved him.
His mother died shortly after this happy reunion. Now he was 24
years old and time was passing by. On May 28th, 1811 he received the
tonsure. Father Balley, seeing the need for him to continue his
regular studies, sent him to the Minor Seminary of Verrieres. Here
the young Vianney suffered much and had a lot of work, but he was
never outstanding as a philosopher.
Difficulties with the studies
In October 1813, he entered the Major Seminary of Lyons. His
inadequate knowledge of Latin made it impossible to understand what
the professors were saying or how to respond to the questions given
At the end of his first term, he was asked to leave. His pain and
discouragement were intense. For some time he thought about going to
one of the religious congregations nearby, but once again Father
Balley came to his rescue and he was given private tutoring in
Ecculy. However, the examination prior to ordination was not
satisfactory. A private examination was given to him at the rectory
of Ecculy. This proved to be more satisfactory and sufficed, judging
that his moral qualities overcame any academic deficiency.
On August 13th, 1815, St. John Vianney was elevated to the
priesthood at 29 years old. “This ineffable dignity,” he frequently
would say, “the priest will only be able to understand in heaven.”
His first Mass was in the Seminary Chapel in Grenoble.
Upon his return to Ecculy he was over joyed to learn that he would
be the helper of his dear friend and teacher, Father Balley.
However, the diocesan authorities determined for a time that Fr.
Vianney should not have the faculties for confession, he who spent
most of his life in the confessional. Fr. Balley spoke on his behalf
to the ecclesiastical authorities and he himself was his first
His sister Margarita would say: “ He did not preach well yet, but
the people would go in masses when it was his turn to preach.”
On December 17th, 1817, his dear friend Father Balley died in his
arms, someone for whom he cried as if it had been his father.
St. John Vianney, who was so detached from material things, had
preserved until the end of his life a small mirror belonging to his
teacher and father, because he would say “ it reflected his face.”
Shortly after the death of Father Balley, Vianney was assigned to
the village of Ars, a small isolated town where it was thought that
his intellectual limitations would do no harm.
of Ars: 1818-1859.
The small village of Ars is found on a wavy plain, with a small
hill in the center where the Church stands. In the year 1815 forty
houses existed. The Church and the rectory near the valley were
In the clerical circles, Ars was seen as a type of Siberia. The
district was awkward, the spiritual desolation was greater than the
material. In the first few days of February 1818, Father Vianney
received official notification of his transfer to Ars. The General
Vicar said to him: “ There is not much love in that parish, you will
instill some.” On February 9th, Father Vianney set out to the place
which would become for the next 41 years the area of his most
surprising and unprecedented activity.
He walked 38 kilometers from Ecculy to Ars. A carriage followed
along with a wooden bed, some clothing, and books belonging to
Father Balley. As he approached the small village, he commented how
small it was and said a prophesy at the same time : “The parish will
not be capable of holding the multitudes that will come here.”
The majority of the habitants of the village sought the pleasures of
the world and did not have much faith, even though a small group of
devout, fervent people remained. Among the devout was a lady of the
largest house of Ars, Mdm. des Garets, who divided her time between
prayer and works of charity.
Upon arrival, the first preoccupation of Fr. Vianney was to make
contact with his flock. He visited each house of the parish. During
these days he still had time to walk through the prairie with his
breviary(prayer book) in his hands and with his hat under his arm.
To win the friendship of the people he would speak to them about the
harvest, the time of year, their families, etc. Above everything he
would pray and accompanied them with the most austere penances. He
made his own instruments of penance. His bed was the floor since he
had given away his bed from Ecculy. He would also go days without
eating. Until 1827, no one did domestic work in the rectory. His
main dish was potatoes, and on occasion a boiled egg. One time he
admitted trying to live on grass, but he said later that such a diet
He said: “ The devil does not fear much discipline and instruments
of discipline (hair shirts), what he really fears is the reduction
of food, drink, and sleep.”
The Holy Cure of Ars enjoyed the beauty of the prairies and the
trees, but he loved very much the beauty of the House of God in the
solemnities of the Church. He started by buying a new altar, with
his own savings, and he himself painted the woodwork on the walls.
He made it a goal to restore and give greater splendor to what he
called: “The furniture of the House of God.” He purchased the best
embroidery, fabric, and texture to make the priestly vestments for
the Lord which are still admired today in Ars.
The most disastrous consequence of the revolution was the
religious ignorance of the people. The Holy Cure resolved to do all
possible to remedy this deplorable state of people’s hearts.
However, his sermons and instructions cost him much pain: his memory
would not allow him to retain anything. Therefore, he would stay
long nights in the small rectory composing and memorizing his
sermons for Sundays. At times he would work seven straight hours on
A parishioner asked him once why was it that when he preached he
talked so loud, and when he prayed, he prayed so soft. He answered:
“Oh, when I preach I speak to people that apparently are deaf or
asleep, but in prayer I talk to God who is not deaf.”
He had more pity on the children than the adults and started to
group them together in the rectory and in the Church as early as
6:00 am since their work in the fields began early. He was well
disciplined and made them know the catechism word for word. In those
days profanation of Sundays was common and men would spend the
mornings working in the fields, and in the afternoons and evenings
they would attend dances and bars. St. John Vianney worked hard
against these evils.
“The Tavern,” declared the Saint in one of his sermons, “is the
house of the devil, the market where the souls are lost, where
family harmony is broken, where fights start, and assassinations are
committed. The devil does not care much for the owners of the
taverns; he despises them and spits them out.”
So great was the influence of the Cure of Ars that the time came
where all the taverns of Ars had to close down due to a lack of
customers. In subsequent times, modest hotels were opened to
accommodate strangers, something the Holy Cure was not opposed to.
He was committed with more eagerness to eliminate the frequenting of
dances as a means of a distraction. He knew well they were a source
of falling into grave sin. To prevent this he revived the custom of
praying vespers on Sunday. He was so strict about this that, at
times, he would reject absolution to people who resisted and
continued the custom.
Because of this reason he won for himself many enemies that would
slander him, but the Holy Cure took all this lightly and did not put
his heart on it.
Two years passed when the news arrived that Fr. Vianney would be
the Cure of Salles in Beaujolais. The entire village of Ars was
appalled by the news. A lady of Ars even wrote a letter stating she
would strangle the General Vicar.
To assure their future, the town people requested that their village
be erected as a regular parish and their pastor be the Cure of Ars.
Father Vianney was installed as pastor because up until this time he
had only been a chaplain which are easier to relocate than are
This same year the Holy Cure of Ars initiated the various works in
the Church. A tower was constructed and various side chapels. One of
them was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary where he would
celebrate Mass in honor of the Holy Virgin every Saturday for 40
years. The Church was also enriched with many images and pictures.
He wanted to have good schools in the village and he began by
opening a free school for girls under the name “Providence.” Since
1827 he only received indigent girls in the boarding school. He had
to find food for them, and in more than one occasion the Lord
intervened miraculously, multiplying the grain or the flour. During
20 years he went to have dinner in this house.
After two and a half years, Sundays were respected as the day of the
Lord. The entire village went to vespers.
The Cure of Ars loved the ceremonies in the Church. He personally
trained the altar servers. His favorite feast was Corpus Christi. On
this feast day he would spend less time in the confessional and
would go around the town admiring the decorations; he himself took
part in the procession the Blessed Sacrament.
The last Feast Day of Corpus Christi he celebrated took place 40
days before his death, and unknowingly, the town’s mayor contracted
a music band. Upon hearing the first songs from the band, the saint
burst into tears of joyand at the end of the celebration he had no
words to express and appreciate this gift from God.
His tender love for the Blessed Mother moved him to consecrate his
Parish to the Queen of Heaven. At the entrance of the Church he
placed a statue of Mary which is still in the same place today.
When Pope Pius IX defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception,
our saint asked the people of the village to illuminate their houses
at night, and the Church bells rang for hours. Upon seeing the light
coming from Ars the nearby towns thought the village was burning and
rushed to help. Today a silver hat is placed near the image of Mary
with the names of all the parishioners of Ars.
Attacked by the forces of hell
It was expected that the devil would be furious at the triumph
of faith and conversion and at the holiness of God’s instrument. For
a period of 35 years the Holy Cure of Ars was assaulted and bothered
physically by the devil.
The ordinary occupation of the devil which God permits is
temptation. The devil can also attack souls in various other ways:
a) Harassment: extraordinary action by the devil who seeks to
frighten by means of horrible apparitions or sounds.
b) Obsession: it can be external when the devil acts in the external
senses of the body or internal when it influences the imagination
c) Possession: when the devil takes control of our entire organism.
The Cure of Ars suffered the first, harassments. The attacks of the
devil started in the winter of 1824. Horrible sounds and noisy
screams where heard outside his door coming from the small garden in
the front. At first, Fr. Vianney thought it was someone roaming
around wanting to steal. The following night he asked a parishioner
to stay with him.
After midnight strong and loud noises where heard against the front
door, it seems as if several heavy carts were going through the
rooms. Mr. Andre took his pistol, looked out the window, but saw
nothing, only the light of the moon. He said: “ For 15 minutes the
house trembled and my legs also did.” He never stayed in the house
This happened almost every night. It also occurred when the holy
priest was not in town. One morning the devil set his bed on fire.
The saint was getting ready for Holy Mass when he heard someone
screaming “ fire, fire.” The only thing he did was give the keys of
the room to those who were going to extinguish the fire and he left
since he knew the devil wanted to prevent Holy Mass.
The only thing he said was: “ That villain, not able to trap the
bird, sets fire on his cage.” Today the pilgrims can see over the
saints bed a picture frame with the marks of the flames on the
glass. For hours the devil would make sounds like glass breaking,
whistling, horses trotting, even screams below the saint’s window
saying: “ Vianney, Vianney, eat potatoes.”
The devil’s purpose of all this was not to allow the saint to sleep
so he can get tired and not spend all those hours in the
confessional where he would save so many souls. By the year 1845 the
attacks ceased almost completely. The perseverance of the saint
against these trials was rewarded by the Lord in an extraordinary
way, granting him the grace to expel demons from possessed people.
We can say the holy priest spent his life in a continuous battle
with sin in his priestly ministry in the confessional. The miracle
of Ars was the confessional.
Thousands came to the village of Ars to see the holy priest,
especially to confess with him.
The influx of pilgrims started in the year 1827. Since 1828, the
holy priest was not able to leave even for a day.
He was not exempt from criticism, his work and love for the poor
were attributed as avarice. Some critics said they were able to see
in him hypocrisy and a secret desire to excel. His meekness and
humility overcame all this criticism.
On one occasion, his professional competence was even doubted by his
own brother priests. The bishop of the diocese sent his General
Vicar to investigate and give a report. The report given to the
bishop was more than favorable. This helped to give an account of
his life. The confessional was his habitual dwelling place, he would
spend 11- 12 hours in the confessional.
The pilgrimages reached its highest point in 1845 with 300-400 daily
visitors. On the last year of the holy priest’s life the number of
pilgrims reached to an surprising amount of 100 - 120 thousand
No priestly ministry is so exhausting for the flesh and the spirit
than sitting in the confessional. Only God knows the miracles of
grace that occurred in the confessional of St. John Vianney, which
is in the same place where he left it in St. Catherine’s Chapel or
in the sacristy where he had also heard confessions.
His way of dealing with souls was with infinite gentleness. His
exhortations were brief, direct, and to the point.
The Cure of Ars also had the gift of prophecy. On May 14th, 1854,
the bishop of Ullathorne called the saint and asked him to pray for
England. The bishop of Birmingham narrates that the holy man said
with extraordinary conviction: “ Monseigneur, I believe the Church
in England will be restored to its full splendor.”
He also had great devotion to St. Philomena, calling her “ my agent
with God.” He constructed a chapel in her honor and also a
On one occasion he became very ill. Seeing his end approaching he
promised St. Philomena to offer 100 Masses in her honor in his
sanctuary. During the offering of his first Mass, he entered in
ecstasy and was heard murmuring: “ Philomena,” and repeated it
several times. Coming out of ecstasy he exclaimed: “ I’m healed,”
and attributed his healing to St. Philomena.
Escape from Ars
A temptation followed him almost all his life in Ars, the desire
to be in solitude. With all sincerity, Fr. Vianney felt incapable
for his office in Ars. The year before his death he said to a
missionary: “ You don’t know what it is to be a priest of souls in
God’s tribunal.” In 1851 he pleaded to the bishop to allow him to
resign. On three occasions he left the village, but always returned.
41 years passed since the first day the Cure arrived at Ars.
They were many active and indescribable years. After 1858 he said
frequently: “ We are leaving, we are to die, and very soon.” There
is no doubt he knew his end was near.
In July 1859, a very devout woman from St. Etienne came for
confession. On her departure he said to her: “We will see each other
again in three weeks.” Both died around the same time, and met in
another much more joyful world.
The month of July 1859 was extremely hot; the pilgrims would faint
in great numbers, but the saint of Ars remained in the confessional.
July 29th was the last day he appeared in the Church. He entered the
confessional that morning about 1:00am. After fainting several
times, he was asked to go rest. At 11:00 he gave catechism for the
last time. That evening he crawled to his room with much difficulty.
One of the Christian Brothers helped him get in bed, but the saint
requested to be alone.
Approximately one hour after midnight he asked for help: “ It is my
poor end, call my confessor. ”The illness progressed rapidly. In the
afternoon of August 2nd, he received the last sacraments: “ How good
is God- when we no longer can go to Him, He comes to us.”
Twenty priests with lighted candles escorted the Blessed Sacrament,
but the heat was so suffocating that the candles had to be turned
off. With tears in his eyes he said: “ How sad it is to receive Holy
Communion for the last time.”
On the evening of August 3rd, his bishop arrived. The saint
recognized him, but was unable to utter a word.
The end was approaching. At 2:00 am, Saturday August 4th, 1859, when
a storm struck the village of Ars, the Bishop M. Monnin read these
words: “ May the holy angels of God come for you and lead you to the
heavenly Jerusalem.” The Cure of Ars commended his soul to God.
On January 8th, 1905, Pope Pius X beatified the Cure of Ars on the
Feast Day of Pentecost. On May 31st, 1925, in the presence of a
great multitude, Pope Pius XI pronounced the solemn sentence: “ We
declare John Baptist Vianney to be a saint and to be written in the
catalogue of the saints.”
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