On the memorial of St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of priests, I’ve decided to pull a few passages from a letter to priests that was published by Pope John Paul II on Holy Thursday of 1986. In this letter, the Pope reflected on the Curé D’ Ars and the value of his example for priests today.
The depth of his love for Christ and for souls
The Cure of Ars is a model of priestly zeal for all pastors. The secret of his generosity is to be found without doubt in his love for God, lived without limits, in constant response to the love made manifest in Christ crucified. This is where he bases his desire to do everything to save the souls ransomed by Christ at such a great price, and to bring them back to the love of God. Let us recall one of those pithy sayings which he had the knack of uttering: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.” In his sermons and catechesis he continually returned to that love: “O my God, I prefer to die loving you than to live a single instant without loving you… I love you, my divine Savior, because you were crucified for us… because you have me crucified for you.” For the sake of Christ, he seeks to conform himself exactly to the radical demands that Jesus in the Gospels puts before the disciples whom he sends out: prayer, poverty, humility, self-denial, voluntary penance. And, like Christ, he has a love for his flock that leads him to extreme pastoral commitment and self-sacrifice. Rarely has a pastor been so acutely aware of his responsibilities, so consumed by a desire to wrest his people from the sins of their lukewarmness. “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish: I consent to suffer whatever you wish, for as long as I live.” Dear brother priests, nourished by the Second Vatican Council which has felicitously placed the priest’s consecration within the framework of his pastoral mission, let us join Saint John Mary Vianney and seek the dynamism of our pastoral zeal in the Heart of Jesus, in his love for souls. If we do not draw from the same source, our ministry risks bearing little fruit!
The specific ministry of the priest
Saint John Mary Vianney gives an eloquent answer to certain questionings of the priest’s identity, which have manifested themselves in the course of the last twenty years; in fact it seems that today a more balanced position is being reached. The priest always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the Priest. It is not the world which determines his status, as though it depended on changing needs or ideas about social roles. The priest is marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ, in order to share in his function as the one Mediator and Redeemer. So, because of this fundamental bond, there opens before the priest the immense field of the service of souls, for their salvation in Christ and in the Church. This service must be completely inspired by love of souls in imitation of Christ who gives his life for them. It is God’s wish that all people should be saved, and that none of the little ones should be lost (cf. Mt 18:14). “The priest must always be ready to respond to the needs of souls,” said the Cure of Ars. “He is not for himself, he is for you.” The priest is for the laity: he animates them and supports them in the exercise of the common priesthood of the baptized—so well illustrated by the Second Vatican Council—which consists in their making their lives a spiritual offering, in witnessing to the Christian spirit in the family, in taking charge of the temporal sphere and sharing in the evangelization of their brethren. But the service of the priest belongs to another order. He is ordained to act in the name of Christ the Head, to bring people into the new life made accessible by Christ, to dispense to them the mysteries—the Word, forgiveness, the Bread of Life—to gather them into his body, to help them to form themselves from within, to live and to act according to the saving plan of God. In a word, our identity as priests is manifested in the “creative” exercise of the love for souls communicated by Christ Jesus. Attempts to make the priest more like the laity are damaging to the Church. This does not mean in any way that the priest can remain remote from the human concerns of the laity: he must be very near to them, as John Mary Vianney was, but as a priest, always in a perspective which is that of their salvation and of the progress of the Kingdom of God. He is the witness and the dispenser of a life other than earthly life (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 3). It is essential to the Church that the identity of the priest be safeguarded, with its vertical dimension. The life and personality of the Cure of Ars are a particularly enlightening and vigorous illustration of this.
His intimate configuration to Christ and his solidarity with sinners
Saint John Mary Vianney did not content himself with the ritual carrying out of the activities of his ministry. It was his heart and his life which he sought to conform to Christ. Prayer was the soul of his life: silent and contemplative prayer, generally in his church at the foot of the tabernacle. Through Christ, his soul opened to the three divine Persons, to whom he would entrust “his poor soul” in his last will and testament. “He kept a constant union with God in the middle of an extremely busy life.” And he did not neglect the office or the rosary. He turned spontaneously to the Virgin. His poverty was extraordinary. He literally stripped himself of everything for the poor. And he shunned honors. Chastity shone in his face. He knew the value of purity in order “to rediscover the source of love which is God.” Obedience to Christ consisted, for John Mary Vianney, in obedience to the Church and especially to the Bishop. This obedience took the form of accepting the heavy charge of being a parish priest, which often frightened him. But the Gospel insists especially on renouncing self, on accepting the Cross. Many were the crosses which presented themselves to the Cure of Ars in the course of his ministry: calumny on the part of the people, being misunderstood by an assistant priest or other confreres, contradictions, and also a mysterious struggle against the powers of hell, and sometimes even the temptation to despair in the midst of spiritual darkness. Nonetheless he did not content himself with just accepting these trials without complaining; he went beyond them by mortification, imposing on himself continual fasts and many other rugged practices in order to “reduce his body to servitude,” as Saint Paul says. But what we must see clearly in this penance, which our age unhappily has little taste for, are his motives: love of God and the conversion of sinners. Thus he asks a discouraged fellow priest: “You have prayed…, you have wept…, but have you fasted, have you kept vigil…?” Here we are close to the warning Jesus gave to the Apostles: “But this kind is cast out only by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). In a word, John Mary Vianney sanctified himself so as to be more able to sanctify others. Of course, conversion remains the secret of hearts, which are free in their actions, and the secret of God’s grace. By his ministry, the priest can only enlighten people, guide them in the internal forum and give them the sacraments. The sacraments are of course actions of Christ, and their effectiveness is not diminished by the imperfection or unworthiness of the minister. But the results depend also on the dispositions of those who receive them, and these are greatly assisted by the personal holiness of the priest, by his perceptible witness, as also by the mysterious exchange of merits in the Communion of Saints. Saint Paul said: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). John Mary Vianney in a sense wished to force God to grant these graces of conversion, not only by his prayer but by the sacrifice of his whole life. He wished to love God for those who did not love him, and even to do the penance which they would not do. He was truly a pastor completely at one with his sinful people. Dear brother priests, let us not be afraid of this very personal commitment—marked by asceticism and inspired by love—which God asks of us for the proper exercise of our Priesthood. Let us remember the recent reflections of the Synodal Fathers: “It seems to us that in the difficulties of today God wishes to teach us more deeply the value, importance and central place of the Cross of Jesus Christ.” In the priest, Christ relives his Passion, for the sake of souls. Let us give thanks to God who thus permits us to share in the Redemption, in our hearts and in our flesh! For all these reasons, Saint John Mary Vianney never ceases to be a witness, ever living, ever relevant, to the truth about the priestly vocation and service. We recall the convincing way in which he spoke of the greatness of the priest and of the absolute need for him. Those who are already priests, those who are preparing for the Priesthood and those who will be called to it must fix their eyes on his example and follow it. The faithful too will more clearly grasp, thanks to him, the mystery of the Priesthood of their priests. No, the figure of the Cure of Ars does not fade.
Letter of Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests – June 16, 2009
Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII on Saint John Vianney – August 1, 1959