Thomas Griffin 8/4/21 (For Crisis Magazine)
“If there were only three like you in France, I would not be able to set foot there,” said Satan to a future saint serving as a parish priest. St. John Vianney (1786-1859), also known as the Curé of Ars, is the patron saint of parish priests, and his deep sanctity sheds light on what the Catholic Church desperately needs to focus on if her members desire to literally renew the face of the earth.
Catholics can often over-romanticize the lives of saints and sugarcoat the difficulties they had to experience. There was much revival needed in Vianney’s era. The Enlightenment (1715-1789) ended when he was three years old, but its effects continued to change European society for generations. He also endured the French Revolution (1789-1799) as a young boy. The gradual collapse of the American Church and the confusion of our age pales in comparison to the outright denial of faith from the Enlightenment and the heinous persecutions of the French Revolution.
All that being said, denial of the importance of faith and even outright persecution are not foreign to our times. St. John Vianney can teach Catholics tremendous lessons for how we ought to look for hope and carve out pathways forward in our own time. No Catholic can ignore the call for continual conversion, especially when the world appears to laugh at the very idea of faith.
Salvation, redemption, and renewal come only from the sanctity that Christ can give and nothing else. The Curé of Ars shows us how to become sanctified. He was most known as a director of souls who would spend countless hours a day in the confessional while always being willing to speak with pilgrims who traveled from around the world to see him.
In the Catechetical Instructions, Vianney writes at length about what is needed for salvation. He focuses, primarily, on the call to pray and love. These two simple words contain the antidote for an age drowning in confusion spread by leadership, vitriol between believers, and rampant rises in disbelief among Christ’s flock.
“My little children, reflect on these words: the Christian’s treasure is not on earth but in heaven. Our thoughts, then ought to be directed to where our treasure is. This is the glorious duty of man: to pray and to love. If you pray and love, that is where a man’s happiness lies.”
Becoming a person of prayer and love in the midst of our tumultuous times is no easy task. Confusion from our shepherds and tanking statistics regarding faith and Sunday worship—along with the growing awareness that our country and culture are vehemently against the very fabric of the Catholic Church—can leave many to despair. In the midst of all these facts, we must remember where our treasure is and how it is to be uncovered.
Prayer and charity serve as the roadmap, but they are not as ambiguous as they sound. Thankfully, St. John Vianney does not leave these words open to abstract notions; he grounds them in the practical. The chaos of our time will only be eradicated by an authentic mysticism and love that is grounded in Christ’s actions and will result in the reaping of a bountiful harvest of renewal.
The Curé of Ars personified this truth in a dramatic but humble fashion. His love and prayer were powerful because of their connection to the Lord. That intimacy allowed him to transform belief in France. “Prayer,” he noted “is nothing else but union with God.” When a man is vigilant in prayer, he obtains “a light that surrounds him with marvelous brightness. In this intimate union, God and the soul are fused together like two bits of wax that no one can ever pull apart.”
“Our prayer is incense that gives God the greatest pleasure,” not because the Lord needs us but simply because He desires proximity with our hearts. St. John Vianney exclaims to the world that conversion and deeper faith can only be the consequence of individuals becoming “other Christ’s.”
“My little children, your hearts are small, but prayer stretches them and makes them capable of loving God. When we pray properly, sorrows disappear like snow before the sun.” Prayer leads to loving action and it creates an enduring attitude to accept the reality of evil around us while standing firm in the reality that Christ has “conquered the world” (John 16:33).
Here, the Curé of Ars provides the ingredients to living as a saint. So many in our times view the saints as impossible models of life whose shoes we could never walk in. St. John Vianney issues the declaration of the saints: pray and love. When we immerse ourselves in true, authentic, and honest conversation with God, we are transformed into His likeness. Prayer becomes the mode by which we encounter Christ and the practice by which we learn to love as He loves us.
Our words in prayer “rise to God like incense,” then He hears our words and brings us to Himself. The simplicity of life that Christ calls us to, and that the Curé of Ars lived out, is too often overlooked by contemporary Catholics. We do not need to create a new Catholicism; we need to rediscover that prayer works and that charity is everything.
Prayer and charity are not the first steps in discipleship nor are they arbitrary realities reserved for children. Vianney’s witness and holiness personify all that Christ is asking of us and all that is needed to sanctify the world. Prayer is not an option and love is not an empty word. Love enables our hearts “to be stretched” so we are more able to love God and neighbor despite the challenges of our age.
St. John Vianney is pleading with us to pray intimately and immensely with God, to love Him profoundly, and to bring His love to the world—because even Satan knows that it only takes a few holy ones to remove evil’s footprints from the earth.
Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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