The story of St. John Vianney, as told by Madame Des Garrets
(Excerpted from the Vocation Lessons curriculum)
This is my country. It’s flat. It rains a lot. The soil doesn’t drain very well, so you will often see puddles everywhere. The rain also makes a lot of mist and fog. I have always thought it was beautiful, but it is also pretty plain.
My town, called Ars, is so small, some nearby towns don’t even know we’re here. Only forty families or so live here. Forty families and four bars. You can draw your own conclusions.
Until just a few years ago, the Catholic religion was outlawed; although it is possible to practice again, religion has not really made a comeback. It has been almost eighteen years since this town had a priest. The vestments for Mass have fallen apart. The church smells like mold. After the church closed, a local club used it for meetings, maybe even for occult magic. We don’t know. It is a mess.
The government made Sunday a work day. People might have been upset at first, but that was more than fifteen years ago. All the young people can barely remember when it used to be normal to go to Mass. The children cannot remember at all. Even if we had a priest, most of us would prefer to work or relax, rather than going to Sunday mass. There is no Catholic school, no religious education, and many children have not even been baptized.
Although it’s this small, Ars has the same problems as the worst city: domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism, plenty of violent language and blasphemy. It is not a place to raise children. It is not the worst town, just mediocre. In forty years, it’s likely that no one will be left to care about the things that matter.
Before the revolution, there were 60,000 priests in the country; now there are less than 25,000. One-third of those priests are over sixty. Since there are 30 million people in France, I can see why the bishop would not send a priest to Ars; there are too few priests and they are needed in bigger, more important cities. No one who wanted to do something with his life would ever stay here, let alone come here.
I’m praying for a miracle. My name is Mlle. Des Garets. I am almost seventy and the lady of the manor. I never married and have no children. I have some power and considerable wealth. I pray every day and I spend my life taking care of the poor and sick in this area. I have done something needed. But I could not do everything. I might have been able to teach the Faith, but there was only so much time. And even if I had taught the Faith, it would not have been enough. Because we need the sacraments—we need a priest! There will never be life without the Blessed Sacrament, and for that we need a priest. There will never be life if we are stuck in our sins—we need confession, and for that we need a priest.
We need a priest but not just any priest. We need someone who can be an outstanding leader, a magnificent orator, someone clever and brilliant. Would the Church waste a priest like that on us?
Our new priest came this February, 1818. I can guess why he has been sent. I suspect his superiors think him a priest that can be “wasted.” When he preaches, he sounds scratchy. He does not come from an educated family, and it is certain that he failed his seminary exams at least once. He got lost trying to get here. I’m depressed. I will help him; even if he is not the priest we need, he is a priest.
But if I could see the future, I would be ashamed of my doubts. We did not deserve this priest.
From his first arrival, our new priest tramped all over the area meeting people and talking to families. He was terribly poor—ate only bread and potatoes, sometimes eggs. He stayed poor on purpose to pray for us. He gave most of his furniture and his mattress away; he slept on the floor. He once prayed, “Lord, let me achieve the conversion of my parish, and I am ready to suffer whatever you decide all the rest of my life.”
He cleaned up the church and reopened it. He bought a new altar and new vestments with his own money. He hand-painted the woodwork. He brought back the Mass. He spent nights writing homilies; he memorized them so he could give them with proper feeling, although he always found memorizing extremely hard. He started a school for girls. He spent a lot of time encouraging the young women of the town to stand up for themselves and avoid dangerous situations with young men, like drinking at dance parties.
He began Sunday vespers, he trained the altar servers, and he dedicated the parish to Our Lady. He promoted a town-wide procession and celebration for the Feast of Corpus Christi. In the last year of his life, the mayor and the whole town planned a special gift for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The mayor got a brass band to play for the procession. When they began to play, they say our priest was so happy he could not even talk.
The main thing was the time he spent in the confessional. Sometimes he spent as many as 16 hours a day hearing confessions. One would have to try it to see how hard that would be—sitting in a chair with few breaks, no windows, nothing to read, just giving total attention to others, hour after hour. He was an amazing confessor. The kindest listener, the best advice. He was truly an alter Christus. Thousands of people were converted or returned to the faith. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to ask his advice. The last year of his life, more than 100,000 people traveled to our town just to go to confession.
It was not easy—three times, he tried to leave our town forever. He had a different plan each time, but each time he came back. After the third time, he decided once and for all that God would not let him go, and that he would live and die with us. He lived six more years. When he received the Last Sacraments, they say his words were: “Oh! It is sad to receive Holy Communion for the last time!”
Three hundred priests and thousands of others attended the funeral. This priest had been with us 41 years; he was the “Curé of Ars.” In French, curé is another word for priest. I like how it resembles the English word “cure.” That’s what Fr. John Vianney—St. John Vianney—was for us, our cure. The town of Ars was sick and dying, and he brought us back to life. He put us in touch with God, and God came back to Ars.
St. John Vianney is now the patron of all priests. He did struggle to pass his seminary exams. He did get sent to a seemingly impossible and unimportant assignment. And none of that seems to matter anymore. Fr. Vianney was incredibly happy and heroically holy. He saved us. He was just what Ars needed; he was what every town needs: a good priest.
Written by Gwen Adams as part of the 9th grade lesson on Priesthood in the Vocation Lessons curriculum.