Known as the “Curé d’Ars”, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was born on 8 May 1786 in France in the town of Dardilly, near Lyons. His devout Catholic parents were farmers, and from an early age, John worked in the fields. Without formal education, as a young man he was functionally illiterate; but thanks to his mother’s teaching, Vianney was able to memorise and understand numerous prayers, and live a devout religious life.
At that time in France, the winds of Revolution were blowing. Young John made his Confession at home, rather than in a church, to a “non-juring” priest – that is, a priest who had not sworn loyalty to the revolutionary government. The same priest gave him his First Communion in a barn, during an “underground” Mass. At the age of 17, John Vianney felt the call to the priesthood. “If I am to be a priest,” he said, “I will win many souls for God.”
But the path to ordination was not an easy one. It was only thanks to some wise priests – including Father Balley, the parish priest of d’Écully, that he finally received Holy Orders on 13 February 1815, at the age of 29.
If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die: not of fear, but of love.St. John Marie Vianney
Three years later, in 1818, Father John Vianney was sent to the town of Ars, which, with just 230 residents, was little more than a small French village. Here the young priest dedicated all his efforts to the spiritual care of the faithful. He visited the poorest families, restored the village church, organized patronal feast days. He also founded La Providence, a home for girls.
But it was for his dedication to the Sacrament of Confession that the Curé of Ars is best known. He was always available to hear Confessions and offer forgiveness, spending up to sixteen hours a day in the confessional. Crowds of penitents travelled from every part of France to make their Confession to the holy priest. In time, Ars became known as “the great hospital of souls.” St John Vianney himself would keep vigils and fast to assist the expiation of the sins of the faithful. “I’ll tell you my recipe,” he told one of his confreres. “I give sinners a small penance, and the rest I do in their place.”
Having given his whole life for God and his parishioners, John Vianney died on 4 August 1859. He was 73 years old. His relics can be found in Ars, in the sanctuary dedicated to him, which is visited by some 450,000 pilgrims every year. He was beatified by Pope St Pius X in 1905, and canonized twenty years later by Pope Pius XI. In 1929, the same Pope proclaimed him the “heavenly patron of all parish priests throughout the world.” During the centenary of his death in 1959, Pope St John XXIII dedicated an encyclical to St John Vianney, pointing him out as exemplary model for priests. Fifty years later, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a “Year of Priests” on the 150th anniversary of his birthday into heaven, in order “to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world.”