Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
The Catholic Church concluded a few weeks ago the Year for Priests. It was also a year to celebrate the variety of ways of living the Franciscan life. Saint John Mary Vianney (1786-1859) serves as a good example of how Franciscan spirituality can animate the diocesan priesthood.
Born near Lyons shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, he was a deeply prayerful person. Soon after his ordination to the priesthood in 1815, he became a parish priest and earned a reputation for his humility and devotion to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The curé d’Ars, as he is still known now, is said to have spent up to 18 hours each day in the confessional, hearing people who had come from near and far to experience God’s mercy through the particular charism of this self-effacing man.
According to one account, he slept very little, rising during the night to hear confessions before 7 a.m. mass and returning to the confessional for most of the day and evening afterwards, except for brief periods to provide religious instruction and to visit the sick.
In an article in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, we read that “the chief labour of the curé d’Ars was the direction of souls.” From this, we see that he understood the full meaning of reconciliation. It is noted that “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. His direction was characterized by common sense and remarkable insight.”
Though he was clearly effective in ministry, Saint John Vianney was more naturally inclined toward the contemplative life. In fact, he considered leaving the diocesan priesthood several times, but his bishop insisted that he remain in service to the parish community, which he did in obedience.
While thoughts of leaving for a quieter, simpler life were on his mind, he met with a venerable Capuchin in Lyons. He expressed a desire to join the order but the friar counselled him to stay in parish life. Nonetheless, rumours spread that he was planning to leave the parish in favour of becoming a Capuchin Franciscan. As the curé d’Ars persisted in his request, he was told about and joined the Third Order of Saint Francis, known today as the Secular Franciscan Order.
Saint John recommended both private and liturgical prayer for everyone. His instruction on prayer appears in the Office of Readings in the breviary. In it, he expressed his admiration for Saint Francis and Saint Colette (See my January reflection on Saint Colette of Corbie.) He wrote, “Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Colette saw Our Lord and spoke to him as we speak to one another.”
The humble curé d’Ars, widely known for his pastoral zeal, died peacefully at the age of 73, exhausted by the pace of his ministry and the severity of his austerity. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI and made the patron of priests.
The Curé of Ars was very humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy”.
Benedict XVI, Letter proclaiming a Year for Priests
Quotation from “Le Sacerdoce, c’est l’amour du cœur de Jésus” in Le curé d’Ars : Sa pensée, Son cœur
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The association of the sacrament of reconciliation with Franciscan spirituality is no coincidence. Conversion is a pivotal concept in the life and writings of Saint Francis himself. Establishment of the order was part of a long-standing penitential movement. According to Raffaela Pazzelli, to understand penance as conversion and reconciliation as Saint Francis understood it, one must go all the way back to the prophets: To repent or convert means to return to the Lord (1 Sam 7:3). Conversion to God, therefore, means to turn one’s back on sin (Sir 17: 21-23.) Because human nature is what it is, this is a continuous process. Fr. Pazzelli is the author of an important work on the pre-Franciscan and Franciscan penitential movement, St. Francis and the Third Order.
He writes that modern scholars of “penitential spirituality” show how penance and conversion, or metanoia, which signifies a correction in the relationship with God by turning from vice to virtue, along with “works of mercy” have always been and must remain the characteristic elements of the spirituality of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, that is, the Secular Franciscan Order. He might have added that this is equally true for non-professed persons set on following the intuition of the poverello.
Saint Francis is the exemplar of penitential life. Aside from the romantic and eccentric elements, what is most enduring is the fascination that his admirers have for his authentic struggle with the meaning and value of Gospel teachings that flow from the earthly life of Christ, and his willingness to change his own life in accordance with the insights that developed along the path of conversion. The poverello soon understood Christianity to be no spectator sport. Once seized by grace and imbued with the wisdom of the Christian message, there was no genuine option for him but radical change. Saint Francis understood the penitential life as a process of correcting the errors that deny us the peace and joy to which we are heirs by faith.
His chief contribution, I believe, was to give us a deeper understanding of conversion as the fruit of penance. In effect, as Fr. Pazzelli points out, penance characterizes secular Franciscan life just as surely as minority marks the life of religious Franciscans. Indeed, the early brotherhood, before the formal foundation of the order, was made up of men who “confessed with simplicity to be penitents from Assisi.” (Legend of the Three Companions)
Heirs of that great movement of evangelical life which the poenitentes de Assisio embraced, learn to live your vocation…as brothers and sisters of penance with an enlightened sense of conversion and of continuous renewal.
Pope John Paul II
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The link made here between the Year for Priests and the spirituality of Saint Francis is particularly appropriate if one considers his fidelity to the priesthood. This is especially remarkable because this was an issue of definitive demarcation between the reform movement that he launched and those of countless others, most deemed heretical—the Cathari and the Waldesians, for instance. His loyalty, though evidently to priests, was in reality to the Eucharist, which he understood to be the food of Christian life.
Priests were necessary and blessed, according to his understanding, because—by their holy orders—they are indispensible agents of two marvellous sacraments, Eucharist and penance. As a reformer, however, he was not blind to human failure. No doubt he found it painful to observe just how worldly and inadequate church leaders were. Nonetheless, his devotion to God had to include a deep respect for priests who represent the charity and mercy of Jesus, at least sacramentally. In his Letter to All the Faithful, he wrote,
“We must also confess all our sins to a priest and receive from him the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…We should show respect for the clergy, not so much for them personally, if they are sinners, but by reason of their office, and their administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ which they sacrifice on the altar and who receive and administer to others.”
Priests and bishops, who live by evangelical principles, as modeled by Saint Francis, inspire us. They remind us of the always-relevant wisdom of the Gospel. Those who abuse the power vested in them by God not only discredit their office, they undermine the power of the Gospel that must be preached to be understood and applied by the faithful. Mostly, they must preach by the way they live. Saint Francis admonished his brothers with these words, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
Clearly, Saint John Mary Vianney got the message. This was his prayer, “My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you as often as I draw breath.” We have no vast corpus of his homilies; we do have compelling evidence that he embodied the sacred heart of Jesus in his actions, in his service to sinners. In this way, he also calls all the baptised to share in the priesthood of Jesus by radiating his mercy and love in humble yet tireless ways. He also reminds us that we are to do so in ways that are consistent with our own circumstances, with our own God-given gifts. His service was of a very particular nature: mostly in the sacrament of reconciliation. Priesthood was his broad vocational category—or form of life—but reconciliation between penitents and God was his particular vocation.
Each of us has a particular way in which we are called to serve as instruments of God’s peace. The prayer of Saint Francis reminds us of the many ways of doing this, whether by offering hope, love, light, joy, etc. Each of us has a particular way of doing this in accordance with our identity, charisms and mission. Each of us is called to discern that role amid the confusion, ambivalence and pressures of our lives.
Saint John Vianney would counsel prayer to assist in the determination and clarification of our part in the living narrative of Christianity. Prayer is, at its best, an open-hearted conversation with God who is the author of our identity, the source of our charisms and the dispatcher of our mission.
My children, your hearts are small, but prayer enlarges them and renders them capable of loving God.
Saint John Vianney, An Instruction on Prayer
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Through the inspiration of Saint John Vianney and Saint Francis of Assisi, may you faithfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus with simplicity of mind and humility of heart. May you find healing in forgiveness and reconciliation. May you find nourishment in communion with our loving Lord.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries