The Curé of Ars

JEAN-MARIE VIANNEY WAS BORN on May 8, 1786 at Dardilly, in the province of the Rhone and about eight miles from Lyons. His parents were small farmers. They had six children, of whom Jean-Marie was the third.

Three years later the French Revolution broke out. By the time that Jean-Marie was four years old the churches in France were served only by apostate priests who swore allegiance to the new state church. Priests who refused to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were deported or put to death. Among the mere three bishops who conformed was the astute scallywag Talleyrand.

The Vianneys, who were good Catholics, went to distant farms to hear Mass, celebrated clandestinely by loyal priests who risked their lives to bring the sacraments to their flocks. From the very beginning, then, the practice of religion was, in the boy’s mind, associated with heroism. Even Jean-Marie’s instruction for his First Communion had to be carried out in secret by two laicised nuns. The ceremony itself took place in 1799 in a private house at Ecully. While Mass was being celebrated the windows of the drawing room were shuttered so that the light of the candles should not be seen.

The boy was naturally pious. His chief pleasure was prayer and his favourite recreation "playing at churches", when he instructed his companions in the rudiments of religion. Some of us, remembering the boyhood of A. J. Cronin’s bishop in The Keys of the Kingdom, might be tempted to call him a milk sop. But there were two differences between Jean-Marie and the future bishop: the young Jean-Marie really meant what he said and he spoke the truth at a time when it was dangerous to speak it, even in play. And hasn’t contemporary history shown that playing at soldiers is not as sensible as the down-to-earth believe? Anyway, the boy said brave and important things in those early sermons. For example, he pointed out that it was a sin to beat beasts in anger. This is a truth which is still not said enough from more formal pulpits, and not only from those in Latin countries.

In 1802 a Concordat between Napoleon and the Pope reestablished the Catholic religion in France. Jean-Marie was then sixteen and helped his father on the farm, watching the sheep and tilling the soil. A year later he became conscious of his vocation, but it was not until he was nineteen that his father al lowed him to leave the farm and be tutored in Latin by M. Bailey, the Curé of Ecully.

Most of M. Bailey’s pupils were boys of between eleven and twelve, who learned easily. Jean-Marie, who, owing to the re cent lack of elementary school teachers, had had only a crude and interrupted education in French, was easily the dunce of the class. He found it almost impossible to memorise declensions and conjugations, let alone understand the differences between se and ipse and the gerund and the gerundive. In spite of his desire to be a priest he would have given up the struggle if M. Bailey had not had the patience to encourage him to persevere.

But the young man had other difficulties to overcome be fore he became a priest. In 1809 he was called up for military service with Napoleon’s armies in Spain. The calling up was a mistake, as, in the archdiocese of Lyons, even theological students studying privately were exempt from conscription; but Jean-Marie had to obey. Through a series of mischances the young man became a deserter instead of a soldier, and it was not until January 1811, when Napoleon granted an amnesty, that he was able to begin his studies again. By this time he was nearly twenty-five years old.

For eighteen months the not so young Vianney crammed Latin with M. Bailey in his presbytery at Ecully. Boning up on irregular verbs, however, was not enough. Although in those days only one year of philosophy and two of theology were required of candidates for the priesthood, for Jean-Marie’s poor head these were more than enough. In the autumn of 1812 he went to the preparatory seminary of Verriéres, near Montbrison, where, although the oldest student and not much younger than the professor, he came out bottom of a class of two hundred. This was largely due to his ignorance of Latin, but even when he was examined in French, he was still bottom. Although he bore cheerfully with the mockery of his fellow students he had, as he said years later in a smiling understatement, "to suffer a little" at Verrières.

He did so badly in theology at the Seminary of St. Irénée in Lyons that after five months he was asked to leave. M. Bailey, however, undertook to coach him privately, and Jean-Marie was allowed to sit the May examinations. Again he lost his head as soon as he was questioned in Latin and failed to pass. The examiner’s concession that they would not prevent him seeking admission to another diocese scarcely consoled him.

But M. Bailey came again to his rescue. The Curé of Ecully persuaded the superior of the seminary to examine Vianney privately and in French. This time the young man answered correctly and the Vicar-General decided that the candidate’s manifest piety must be considered to compensate for his equally evident lack of Latin. Accordingly Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney[1] was ordained sub-deacon on July 2, 1814, by Msgr. Simon, Bishop of Grenoble. He completed his last year of studies privately with M. Bailey. He was ordained deacon on June 23, 1815, and priest on August 13th of the same year. For this last ordination he walked one hundred kilometres from Ecully to Grenoble through territory infested by Austrian in vaders. Because he was the only ordinand and from a strange diocese, the clergy apologised to Msgr. Simon. "It’s not any trouble to ordain a good priest", the Bishop answered.

The abbé Vianney’s first appointment was as curate at Ecully to his benefactor and tutor, M. Balley; but, because of his incompetence in moral theology, his faculties as a confessor were not granted him till several months later. Although, according to his sister, the young priest was not very eloquent, the church was always crowded when he preached. And later, when his faculties were accorded, his confessional was besieged.

M. Bailey was a saintly man who had remained in France during the penal days, exercising his ministry at the risk of his life. He wore a hair-shirt and scarcely ate at meals. Such an example impressed his curate, who also procured a hair-shirt and ate the same mildewy potatoes as M. Bailey. Each reported the other to the Vicar-General for excessive mortification. Between rector and curate it was a race toward holiness.

The abbé Vianney remained for three years at Ecully, carrying out the heavier of the parochial duties and completing his studies. He became so popular that, when M. Bailey died in December 1817, the parishioners petitioned the Vicar-General to appoint the curate rector. But the Vicar-General had other plans for the parish and for M. Vianney. At the beginning of February 1818 he summoned the young priest. "Thirty miles from here, my dear friend," he said, "in the district of Trévoux in the Dombes, the village Ars is without a Curé. The church there is a chapel-of-ease, serving about two hundred souls. There’s not much love of God in this village. Your job will be to instill it."

The last two sentences contained the operative words. If Saxon and Celtic Catholics are often embarrassed when they meet Latin Catholics, one of the reasons is because French villages are not, and have not been since 1789 at least, like Irish villages. Ars did not resemble Ballymacsnod. Although, to judge by the parochial records, the village was moderately pious in the eighteenth century, by 1818 only a few Christian families remained; the rest had either forgotten their religion or, having grown up during the officially godless days of the revolution, had never known it.

The abbé Vianney, in the words of his biographer, Msgr. Trochu, had almost "a physical impression of this" as he approached Ars on the evening of February 9, 1818. He came on foot, his meagre luggage following him in a cart. Because of the mist he lost his way and had to ask a young shepherd to show him the road. When at last he caught sight of the lights of the village he fell on his knees and invoked his guardian angel. Then he made straight for the church.

The church consisted of a narrow nave and a tawdry altar. The sanctuary lamp was extinguished and the tabernacle empty. There were no side chapels. The revolutionaries had pulled down the steeple, and the bell now hung precariously between insecure iron supports. Next morning M. Vianney rang the Angelus himself on the groggy bell and said Mass at an early hour; a few women attended, some out of piety, more out of curiosity.

Until Ars became a proper parish in 1821, M. Vianney was really only the vicaire or curate of Ars and under the authority of the Curé of the neighbouring village of Misérieux. The appointment was not well paid nor were there many perquisites: his salary was five hundred francs or a hundred dollars a year; the parish accounts might show a surplus of thirteen francs or a deficit of thirty-five francs. The presbytery, however, had five rooms, all of which had been comfortably furnished by the Châtelaine of Ars. Of this furniture the abbé kept only a bed, two old tables, a sideboard, a few chairs and a frying pan; the rest he returned to Mademoiselle d’Ars.

For the new Curé was convinced that there were only two ways of converting the village: by exhortation and by himself doing penance for his parishioners. He began with the latter. He gave his mattress to a beggar; he slept on the floor in a damp room downstairs or in the attic or on a board in his bed with a log for a pillow; he scourged himself with an iron chain; he ate scarcely anything, two or three mouldy potatoes in the middle of the day, and sometimes he went for two or three days without eating at all; he rose shortly after midnight and made his way to the church, where he remained kneeling without support until it was time for him to say his Mass.

To a modern and predatory age, anxious to avoid discomfort at all costs, the abbé Vianney’s mortifications will seem pointless, cruel, stupid, and perhaps even perversely masochistic. But in his Perennial Philosophy Mr. Aldous Huxley shows that it is only to the austere that a mystical knowledge of God is granted. He says that we do not know why this should be so; we know only that it is the rule. Catholic theologians, however, think that they know why it is the rule, and that is because all earthly suffering, supernaturally accepted, is a prolongation or completion of the Atonement. Sceptics will, of course, reject such an explanation. Mr. Somerset Maugham holds that suffering debases rather than ennobles the sufferer. Mr. Graham Greene, however, comes nearer the truth when he makes his whisky priest say in The Power and the Glory: "Saints talk about the beauty of suffering. Well, we are not saints, you and I. Suffering to us is just ugly. Stench and crowding and pain. . . . It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye. . ." [2]

In other words, all depends upon the disposition of the sufferer. The argument of the theologians, however, that suffering, properly accepted, is rewarded even in this life is backed by results. The abbé Vianney was to have proof of this. Years later, when he had converted his parish and "Ars was no longer Ars", he said to a priest who was distressed by the tepidity of his own parishioners: "You’ve preached? You’ve prayed? Have you fasted? Have you scourged yourself? Have you slept on bare boards? As long as you haven’t done that you’ve no right to complain."

The abbé discovered that there were three main evils in his parish: religious ignorance, pleasure-seeking, and Sunday work. He set out to combat all three, and he condemned them forcibly from the pulpit. Benedictines will be glad to learn that, although he relied chiefly on penance and preaching, he did not neglect the liturgy. Although all through his life he wore his cassocks till they fell off him, he bought, with the aid of the Chátelaine, the finest vestments he could find in Lyons. "An old cassock goes well with a beautiful chasuble", he said, knowing that each was worn for a different purpose. He paid for a new high altar out of his own slender funds. Even the indifferent came out to see. And M. Vianney preached to them.

At first his sermons caused him a great deal of trouble: he wrote them out and memorized them. "If a pastor wishes to avoid damnation," he thundered at the congregation, "he must, if there is scandal in the parish, overcome motives of human respect and the fear of being despised or hated by his parishioners; and, were he certain of being killed when he got down from the pulpit, that must not stop him." The abbé Vianney preached as well as practised what he preached. "Away with you, reprobate fathers and mothers, down with you to hell, where the anger of God awaits you and the good deeds you have done in letting your children go gallivanting. Away with you. They won’t be long in joining you." Contemporary Redemptorists could scarcely be more menacing.

It would be interesting to know what the Curé would have made of the boogie-woogie or the bebop. "Why," Msgr. Trochu asks, "this condemnation of an exercise which St. Francis of Sales calls ‘an indifferent thing’?" The Curé’s biographer gives the Bishop’s own answer: because "according to the normal manner in which that exercise takes place, it’s a steep and slithery slide down toward evil, and consequently dangerous and perilous." The Curé spoke with a vehemence which may make us smile: "The devil surrounds a dance as a wall surrounds a garden." But was the Curé so very far wrong? A glance at the photographs in a society weekly of illustrious de generates attending hunt balls may lead us to suspect that he was not. Even if there is no direct connection between nuclear fission and the can-can, a generation which sends its bravest to die while wealthy imbeciles gamble and consume strawberries out of season at Deauvile seems to deserve the destruction which threatens it.

Naturally the abbé Vianney did not win his battle quickly or without opposition; but within ten years public dancing, semi public boozing, and even clandestine Sunday work had ceased in Ars. And it was not only the "sights that dazzle" which had disappeared. The villagers no longer stole, swore, or gave false measure. When the Bishop came to visit the parish he found that the children of Ars were the best instructed in the diocese.

The abbé Vianney, however, didn’t always threaten, and as he grew older he threatened less. He gradually gave up writing his sermons and finished by preaching extempore. Thus very few of his words remain to us, and such we owe to the good memories of his listeners.

My children, as soon as one sees a small stain on one’s soul, one must act like a person who takes good care of a crystal globe. If he sees that the globe has become a little dusty, he sponges it and the globe is again clear and shining. My children, it’s just like a person with a slight illness: he doesn’t need to go to the doctor: he can get well all alone. He’s got a headache: he’s only got to go to bed. But if it’s a serious illness or a dangerous sore, he needs the doctor. And after the doctor, the medicines. When one falls into grave sin, one needs the doctor, who is the priest, and the medicine, which is confession.

You’ve heard it all before, of course, and probably dozed off in the middle? A simple metaphor and rather jejune? The Curé would probably have agreed. He knew that he was no great preacher. When Lacordaire preached at vespers in the Curé’s church in 1845 the abbé Vianney, who himself had preached at high Mass, said next day: "You know the saying: extremes meet. Well, that’s what happened yesterday in the pulpit of Ars, when you saw extreme knowledge and extreme ignorance."

But nobody ever went to sleep during the Curé’s sermons and nobody ever found them trite or platitudinous. His words moved as even the great Dominican’s never did. To understand their power one would require to have heard the abbé Vianney say them. Perhaps the secret was that those simple words were said by a very holy man who meant every syllable of them. Strong men wept when they heard the Curé preach, and the haughty became humble.

The Curé himself wept when he preached, and he smiled when he spoke of things which made him happy. And he wept or smiled as he said Mass, according to whether he was sad or glad. His demeanour at the altar was perfect: every word was properly pronounced, every gesture clear; there was no rushing back to the centre of the altar muttering the "per omnia saecula saeculorum" of the last postcommunion as he went. He went neither too quickly nor too slowly. Thirty minutes ab amictu ad amictum was the Curé’s time, and his aspect during those thirty minutes often converted unbelievers.

In Ars the school was open only for three months in winter, and not at all in summer when the children worked in the fields. The teacher was a farm hand. The abbé Vianney under took both the religious and secular instruction of the children and combined the two by teaching them to read the catechism. He held his catechism classes every day, at six o’clock in the morning, and punctuality was encouraged by rewarding the first child to arrive with a holy picture. None of the Curé’s pupils would have been able to pass their baccalauréat, but the education which he gave them was sufficient for the rough life they had to lead. From a worldly as well as a religious point of view, the Curé was probably right: his own secular knowledge was too limited for him to produce scholarship in others, and it is the half-educated who work the most harm in the world; both the simple and the learned share the wisdom of humility. Indeed, the ineptitudes of the popular press would suggest that it is a mistake to teach the majority of people to read at all.

Because he disapproved of boys and girls being educated together, the Curé founded a girls’ school, which was later known as "La Providence". In 1823 he chose two young girls of the parish, Catherine Lassagne and Benoîte Lardet, and sent them to the nuns of St. Joseph at Fareins, to learn to be teachers. Next year he bought, with money inherited from his father and with donations received for that purpose, a house near the church, and opened his school.

As no fees were charged the Curé soon had plenty of pupils. Girls came from neighbouring villages as well. At first the parents provided the bedding and the food; but in 1827 the success of the school was so great that the abbé Vianney decided to establish an orphanage under the same roof. After that only orphans were taken in as boarders and children of well-off parents were accepted only as day pupils. Generally the orphans came at the age of eight and left when they had made their First Communion, but often girls of nineteen or twenty years were sheltered until work was found for them. All the money the Curé had inherited from his father went into the school and for the rest the Curé relied on subscriptions. The Curé ran this school until 1847, when it was transferred to the nuns of St. Joseph.

It was at "La Providence" that the Curé’s famous "catechisms" took place. At eleven o’clock every day the abbé Vianney visited the school to instruct the children in religion. When the pilgrimages began adults came to hear him and soon there were crowds in the street. In 1845 these instructions were transferred to the church, where every morning the Curé mounted a low pulpit and preached a short sermon.

Even in a cynical country like France it was natural that such zeal should impress the Curé’s parishioners. There was none of the "Do as I say, but don’t do as I do" about M. Vianney. Although the application of military metaphor and simile to religion has been overworked by the hymnologists, one can not but compare the Curé with a good modern general who is always in the front line with his troops. And the Curé’s front line was his church. Except when called away on duty he was never out of it. He went there in the middle of the night. He recited there his office on his knees. He practised all the heroisms. He scarcely ate. He mortified himself. He was stern in the pulpit, gentle in conversation. He gave to the poor.

If European Christians hadn’t been such tightwads, the philosophy of communism and its bogus benevolence would never have been invented. The inadequacy of our past charity is the cause of our present troubles. M. Vianney’s charity was never inadequate. To be able to help others according to the fullness of their needs he practised an apostolic poverty. Until he took his scrappy mid-day meal at "La Providence" he generally did his own cooking. As long as he had the time he mended his own clothes. He never polished his boots, because he wished to humble his feet. He gave to the poor not of his surplus but what he himself required. At Ecully when he was presented with a new pair of breeches he gave them to a beg gar and wore instead the beggar’s. He gave his mattress and his cloak to tramps. He wore the same cassock the whole year round.

Soon the report of the Curé’s holiness began to spread. People from the surrounding countryside came to hear him and he was asked to preach in neighbouring villages. He preached missions in Vilefranche-sur-Saône, Trévoux, Montmerle, Saint Trivier, Saint Bernard, Savigneux, Misérieux. At the forty hours’ adoration at Limas he was embarrassed to find prelates and ecclesiastics assembled to hear him.

To the end of his life the poor Curé could never understand the reason for his own fame. And to begin with, many of his colleagues couldn’t understand it either. An abbé Borjon wrote to him: "Monsieur le Curé, a man with as little theology as yourself ought never to enter a confessional." The Curé of Ars replied:

My very dear and respected colleague, how right I am to love you. You alone really know me. As you are good and charitable enough to deign to take an interest in my poor soul, help me to obtain the favour for which I have been asking for so long, so that I may be moved from a post I am unworthy to fill because of my ignorance and retire into obscurity to atone for my wretched life.

This long and awkward sentence was written without irony, but with humility, and its recipient was touched. Fortunately, M. Vianney had his bishop behind him. One day when a priest said to Msgr. Devie: "The Curé of Ars is looked upon as being rather uneducated", the Bishop answered: "I don’t know whether he is educated or not, but what I do know is the Holy Spirit makes a point of enlightening him."

The boozers in the cabarets also attacked him. Furious at the interruption of their pleasures, they spread rumours that the Curé’s pallor was not due to asceticism but to the practice of vice. They sang lewd songs under his window at night. They spattered his door with filth. They said that he was the father of a prostitute’s child. These tales reached the Bishop, who felt obliged to send the Curé of Trévoux to conduct an enquiry. Although the slanders were all disproved, the Curé suffered greatly.

To these troubles were added the nightly visitations of the devil, whose operations are now so evident that his existence has been discredited. For thirty-four years, from 1824 to 1858, the Curé’s scanty sleep was disturbed by manifestations similar to those now ascribed to poltergeists. The chairs in his room were moved about, the furniture rocked, curtains were ripped, bears growled, dogs howled, and the Curé’s bed was pulled across the floor. In the end the abbé Vianney came to bear these visitations with a smile. They were always the prelude to the conversion of a notorious sinner, he said.

In 1827, what was later known as the pilgrimage began. At first the visitors numbered about twenty a day and came from the surrounding district. Most of them came to make their confessions to the Curé and to receive Holy Communion from his hand, but some came out of curiosity, to crane their necks at the saint as they would have craned them at the bearded woman at the fair or a pair of Siamese twins. Their number increased gradually, as did also the distance which they travelled. From 1830 to 1859 four hundred strangers arrived daily in Ars and the majority came from pious motives, to confess to the Curé. Special coaches had to be arranged to transport such numbers. As a pilgrim had to wait several days before his turn came to enter the Curé’s confessional, the Paris-Lyons-Méditerranée Railway issued cheap weekly return tickets from Lyons to Ars. By 1855 there was a daily service of two horse buses between Lyons and Ars, and two other buses met the Paris train at Villefranche. Other pilgrims came in private carriages, others in boats along the Saône and others on foot. Among them was Msgr. Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham, England. It was a sort of holy free-for-all: prelates, priests, monks, nuns, aristocrats, commoners, society women, intellectuals, and peasants came to seek counsel of the man who still called himself "the least important priest in the diocese of Belley".

All day the church was crowded, and from the small hours of the morning. People queued for the sacraments as they were later, when progress had got going properly, to queue for soap, nylons, and bread. People knelt in the side chapels,[3] behind the high altar, in the sanctuary, or stood on the steps of the church. Penitents had to pay substitutes to keep their place for them while they went to lunch. Bishops waited their turn like any body else. Only the sick and the disabled were allowed the privilege of jumping the queue, and their presence the abbé Vianney seemed to discern by intuition, opening the door of his confessional and calling them out of the crowd. New hotels had to be opened to accommodate the pilgrims at night, although in summer many of them slept in the fields.

The Curé devoted the greater part of the day to the pilgrims. He began hearing confessions at one o’clock in the morning and sometimes at midnight. He went on hearing them until six or seven o’clock, when he said his Mass. As soon as he had finished his thanksgiving he entered his confessional again and remained there till half-past ten, when he recited prime, terce, sext, and none on his knees in front of the high altar. At eleven o’clock he preached a catechetical instruction, after which he heard more confessions. At noon he lunched, standing up, at "La Providence" on a bowl of soup or milk and a few grammes of dry bread.[4] After visiting the sick he went back to the church, recited vespers and compline and heard confessions until seven or eight o’clock, when he said the Rosary in the pulpit. Five hours later he was back in the church, beginning another day’s work. And this went on, day in, day out, for more than thirty years.

It is not astonishing that such a routine should tire even a saint. Physically and morally, sitting in a confessional is the most wearying part of a priest’s duties. Henry Morton Robin son’s Father Fermoyle was so flat out after his first four hours’ spell in the church of St. Margaret’s, Malden, that he had to take aspirin. The abbé Vianney never took aspirin, and not only because aspirin had not yet been invented; and he sat in his confessional, not for four hours once a week, but for from sixteen to eighteen hours a day. In winter the church was like ice and in summer it was baking hot. But in freezing cold or in sweltering heat, M. Vianney sat in his little box listening to the unvaried tale of man’s ignominy.

This existence was all the harder for the Curé because he was a natural solitary and had always desired to lead a life of contemplation. "Il y aura toujours de la solitude pour ceux qui en seront dignes", says Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. For the Curé of Ars there was not. Worn out and ill, he tried to escape three times. In 1840, after writing to the Bishop, he set out by night for the Trappist monastery of Saint Lieu at Septfons, but changed his mind on the way and returned to his church in time to hear the next day’s confessions. In 1843, after double pneumonia, the Bishop granted him a transfer to Notre Dame de Beaumont, but when, on his way there, the Curé reached his native village of Dardilly he found that the pilgrims had followed him: he had to ask the Archbishop of Lyons for faculties and shut himself up in the confessional of his old parish church. He went on to Notre Dame de Beaumont, said Mass there, and returned to Ars. Ten years later he again tried to steal away by night to join a contemplative order but was stopped on the road by a crowd of parishioners and pilgrims who had learned of his intentions.

What was the secret of the Curé’s power? To the unreflecting he may suggest the modern hot gospeller. Such a parallel cannot validly be drawn because, unlike Elmer Gantry, the Curé of Ars had got his doctrine right and was sober and well-mannered. What he said to his penitents was simple and untheatrical. To a priest who had committed a venial sin he said: "What a pity!" and to a religious: "Love God." Once again, what mattered was not what the Curé said but the way he said it. With recidivists, however, he was energetic. "My son, you are damned", he would say to such. But the Curé had a gift which is given to few confessors: he could reveal to penitents sins which they themselves had forgotten, or wished to conceal. "Ah, there you are", he greeted a woman through the grille. "You’re the one who refused to go and fetch your husband back from hospital."

This intuition extended sometimes to a knowledge of the future. To a girl, whose brother had run away from home, he said: "Tell your mother that her son is quite well. He’s working underground with decent people, far from her and from his home. But don’t worry, either of you. He’ll come back to you on a feast day." Five or six years later, on the evening of the Assumption, the young man returned and told his mother that he had been working down a mine in Montceau-les-Mines. To future religious the Curé foretold their vocation and to others the approaching deaths of their relatives.

Unlike many other saints, the abbé Vianney accomplished miracles during his lifetime. The first two took place at "La Providence". In 1829 the wheat, which was then stored in the attic of the presbytery, ran out. The Curé couldn’t hope for any help from his parishioners, because the harvest had been bad. He placed under the few grains of wheat which remained a relic of St. Francis Regis, to whom he had already had re course when unable to learn Latin, and prayed. "Go and tidy up the remainder of the wheat in the attic", he said to the school cook. When the cook went to the attic she found it full of wheat, piled up in the shape of a cone. A little later, when there was enough flour in the house to bake only three loaves, the Curé told the cook to put it in the mixing bowl; when water was added there was enough dough to bake ten big twenty-pound loaves.

When such miracles became known the Curé’s modesty was disturbed. Convinced that he was an unworthy priest, he could not bring himself to believe that miracles could be operated through his intercession, and he was unwilling that others should attribute them to a merit which he was certain he didn’t possess. He himself ascribed them to the intercession of St. Phiomena, an early child martyr, recently canonised, who, he was sure, had been responsible for his own recovery from double pneumonia in 1843. "Go and pray before St. Phiomena’s altar", he told the sick, to make sure that their recovery would be ascribed to what he honestly considered the proper source.

A woman, who had suffered from tubercular laryngitis for eight years, came to Ars: because of her illness she couldn’t speak and had to use signs or write on a slate instead. It was by the latter means that she informed the Curé of her illness. "Go and lay your slate on St. Phiomena’s altar", the abbé Vianney told her. She did so and was cured. A mother carried her paralysed son of eight into the sacristy for M. Vianney to bless. "That boy’s too heavy for you to carry", the Curé said. "Put him down and go and pray to St. Philomena." Clutching his mother’s hand, the boy staggered to the saint’s altar and knelt there. Three quarters of an hour later he was completely cured.

So many similar miracles took place that in the end the abbé Vianney had to ask the saint to work them in the sick person’s own parish, so that his own person might not become too notorious, for the hand of the child martyr was not always visible. One day a semi-paralysed woman on crutches approached the Curé as he was leaving the church for "La Providence". "Well, walk", the Curé said. The woman hesitated. "Do as you’re told", the abbé Vianney’s curate said. The woman let go of her crutches and walked. "And take your crutches with you", the Curé called after her in an attempt to hide the miracle from the crowd. On February I, 1850, a woman, deaf and blind as a result of brain fever, was brought before M. Vianney. He blessed her and at once she both saw and heard. "Your eyes are healed but you’ll become deaf again for another twelve years; such is God’s will", the Curé told her. The woman’s ears closed at once. On January 18, 1862, two years and five months after the Curé’s death, she recovered her hearing.

However, it was not only because of his humility that the Curé wanted to hide his miracles; it was also because he himself considered that people’s souls were more important than their bodies and that the afflictions of the latter were often a means of acquiring merit. This doctrine will offend an age in which progress seems to be measured in terms of the number of comforts one can cram into a transatlantic airplane. Of course, the fact that one philosophy is obviously false does not prove that its counterpart must be right. Even the normally worldly must be tempted to approve anchorites when they listen to crooners or watch fat women waddling into beauty parlours. It is the Curé’s own life that is the best answer to those who would question his wisdom; and the conversions that he made, no less than his miracles of healing, are a testimony to the favours which are granted to the integrally unworldly.

Even so humble a man as the Curé d’Ars must have known that it was himself that so many pilgrims came from so far to see. But he was never proud in word or thought. There was in him none of the vanity which one of the characters in Mr. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden says "leers even cynically in the humility of the saint". M. Vianney was so humble that he was unaware of his own humility. "It’s a terrible thing to have to appear before God as a parish priest", he used to say, and almost gave way to despair at the thought that no parish priest had ever been canonised. I don’t suppose that he had heard of the contention of St. Odo of Cluny that the floor of hell is paved with the bald pates of clergymen. Nor had any need to know of this warning, any more than was he required to have read St. Thomas’ Summa. The Curé knew his theology intuitively and his virtues were as natural as his knowledge. If pilgrims came to Ars, he argued, and if conversions and miracles took place through the unworthy agency of so unimportant a priest as himself, it was only in order that the power of God might be more clearly shown.

Worldly honours came to the Curé although he tried to avoid them. In 1852 the new Bishop made an unexpected visit. The Curé hurried out of his confessional to offer incense and holy water to his ordinary and made a short speech of welcome. But when the Bishop tried to invest him with a Canon’s cape he protested. "Give it to my curate", he said. "It will suit him better than me." The new Canon had to be invested by force, and as soon as the Bishop had gone he sold the cape for fifty francs, which he gave to the poor. His cross of the Legion of Honour was seen by the public for the first time when it was placed on his coffin.

His humility was constantly put to proof. During the last twenty years at least of his life he must have known that he was considered a saint. The indiscreet deportment of many of the pilgrims could have left him in no doubt. Vulgar collectors of relics snipped pieces off his cassock as he passed through the throng and stole his breviary or his catechism from the pulpit when he preached. When he went to the barber he had to pick up the locks of his hair which had been cut off and burn them in his fireplace. Although he never allowed himself to be photographed, his portrait was on sale throughout the village. The Curé tolerated this only because it was a means for the shopkeepers to earn their livelihood. "They’ve made a new picture of me", he said one day to Catherine Lassagne. "It’s me all right this time. I look stupid, as stupid as a goose."

Until the pilgrimages began to swell in 1830 the Curé’s duties were not heavy, but after that they became overwhelming. For thirteen years, until his illness in 1843, he spent sixteen or eighteen hours a day in the confessional, preached, said his office, and carried out his ordinary work as a parish priest without a curate. And when the Bishop did send him a curate, he sent him a bumptious oaf an abbé Raymond, who had recently been Curé of Savigneux and now thought that he had been appointed Curé of Ars. He signed as such in the baptismal register. He even contradicted the abbé Vianney publicly from the pulpit. How did the Curé take it? "I regret only one thing," he said later about the abbé Raymond, "and that is that I didn’t learn more from his example; I count, however, on the tender and fatherly affection which he bore me."

The wickedness of the world hurt the Curé because he saw it as a deliberate laceration of the goodness of God. As he sat in his confessional he wept that men could be so mean. And as he suffered in his soul so he suffered in his body. On his left arm he wore an iron band with four spikes on the inside. For fifteen years he was tortured from acute neuralgia contracted through deliberately sleeping in a damp room in the presbytery. Lack of exercise brought on fainting fits which made it necessary for him to be bled once a year. He had such violent toothaches that he had to ask the schoolteacher to pull out several of his teeth with pliers. In the confessional his headaches were so severe that he often had to sit with a poultice on his forehead. And still he wore his hair-shirt and scourged himself in his room.

Toward the end of his life his sufferings became more and more terrible. He kept fainting in the confessional, and in the pulpit his voice was so feeble that the congregation could scarcely hear what he was saying. They could, however, see him weeping and smiling as he preached, and occasionally they were rewarded with an audible and slightly acidulous witticism. "The Emperor has done fine things, but he’s forgotten some thing. He ought to have made doors larger so that crinolines could get through."

Such a rebuke may recall the Hibernian fulminations of the 1920s against the scantiness rather than the volume of apparel. And indeed the Curé of Ars ruled his parish a l’irlandaise and was almost certainly the only priest in France who could do so. He was conscious, too, of his own power. "Listen, we’re not in England", he said to a female busybody who was trying to show him how to run the parish. "In England it is Queen Victoria who gives orders; here it is I."

For during the last years of his life the Curé encountered none of the opposition by which he had been faced when he first came to Ars. Quite apart from the fact that the worldly tolerate sanctity more readily in the old than in the young, the heroism of his life had made even the most recalcitrant love him. And among the new righteous there were perhaps some who kept the Commandments more to please their Curé than to please God. In 1818 there were few men in the parish who made their Easter duties; in 1859 there were fewer who failed to make them.

During the thirty years in which the Curé sat day and night in his confessional philosophies were being hatched which were to rock the world even more than the French Revolution of 1789. Darwin was preparing The Orzgin of Species and Ernest Renan left the Church. In his high house in Passy, Honoré de Balzac was writing his La Comédie Humaine, and the first rail ways were built. Two more revolutions took place in France. Slowly but surely science, scepticism, disillusionment, speed, and greed were setting the stage for the tragedies of 1914 and 1939.

As he went to and fro between his church and his presbytery the Curé must have heard some echo of the rumblings in the outside world. Some even say that he foretold the war of 1914, but whether this is true or false he must have known that men were marching toward disaster. His remedy was simple, and he preached it with his lips and with his life: the practice of integral Christianity. He was a parish priest and his pulpit was in Ars, but to the people of Ars he told the truth with such simple sincerity that people from all over the world came to listen to him.

In the last seven months of his life a hundred thousand pilgrims came to Ars. His "catechisms", Msgr. Trochu says, were a long string of exclamations and tears. He could speak only with difficulty and his feeble words were cut short by coughing fits. He was too ill to scourge himself any more. In his bed he lay sleepless, but he still rose at midnight and went across to the church to hear confessions. On the feast of Corpus Christi he was too weak to carry the Blessed Sacrament in procession, but could only hold the monstrance in his hands to bless the people. And still he wept as he wondered: "I do not know if I have carried out properly the functions of my ministry."

He foretold that his death would take place at the beginning of August, 1859. On July 29, although very ill, he rose at one o’clock and went down to the church. During the day the heat was so intense that he fainted several times in the confessional and had to be taken out of the church to get air. At eleven o’clock, before preaching his "catechism", he asked for a little wine and drank it from the hollow of his hand. When he climbed up into his little pulpit his voice was so frail that nobody could hear what he was saying; but the congregation knew that he was talking about the Eucharist, because he kept looking at the tabernacle.

At one o’clock the next morning he knocked on the floor of his room. Catherine Lassagne came running. "It’s my poor end", he said. "Go and fetch the Curé of Jassans." He was so ill that he did not protest when they slid a proper mattress on top of his pallet of straw. He swallowed all the medicines they gave him. The only complaint he made was when a nun flapped away the flies from his forehead. "Leave me alone with my poor flies", he said. "Sin’s the only thing that worries me."

He made his confession humbly and coherently to the Curé of Jassans. At three o’clock in the afternoon he received Viaticum. A procession of twenty priests carrying lighted tapers preceded the Blessed Sacrament. When they knelt round the bed the heat was so great that they had to extinguish the candies. The abbé Vianney wept. "It is sad to receive Communion for the last time," he said.

But even on his deathbed he was not allowed the solitude which he desired so greatly. People came with rosaries and medals to be blessed, and to be blessed themselves. Unable to speak, the Curé raised his hand and made a feeble sign of the cross.

On August 3 he was still alive. At seven o’clock that evening the Bishop of Belley came. The Curé was too ill to speak and could only smile. The Bishop kissed him and went down into the church to pray for him. At two o’clock the next morning Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney, Curé of Ars for more than forty-one years, died; he was seventy-three years old.

Miracles continued to be wrought through the intercession of the Curé of Ars after his death. He was beatified on January 8, 1905, and canonised on May 31, 1925, a fortnight after St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Although this juxtaposition may have been accidental, the lesson seems clear. In an age whose selfishness and rationalism led inevitably to the tragedies of today, both Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney and St. Thérèse of Lisieux lived by sacrifice and faith. To those who contend that their example has been without effect Maxence van der Meersch cites the resignation, the courage and the fortitude which mil lions have acquired through praying at their tombs. It is true that if we all lived as they wanted us to live there might be no radios, refrigerators, or air conditioned movie houses; but there might also be no bomber airplanes and no angry poor to train their cannon on civiisation.


[1] Jean-Marie Vianney took the additional name of Baptiste when he was confirmed.

[2] Viking, 1946.

[3] These were added by M. Vianney when he enlarged the church.

[4] Until 1834, he completed all his morning activities without breaking his fast until he had this noon meal, sometimes twelve hours after rising.

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