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The Heart of a Priest
St. John Vianney
Father Patrice Chocholski is the successor of St. John Vianney as the pastor of the Parish of St. Sixtus in Ars, France. In July of 2018, Fr. Patrice brought the relic of the heart of St. John Vianney to the United States on a pilgrimage sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. The relic was venerated in many cathedrals, parish churches, seminaries, and religious houses across the United States.1
In a television interview aired on EWTN on July 4, 2018,2 the rector of the Basilica of St. John Vianney revealed a fact that, at that moment, he had not yet told his parishioners in Ars. As part of the preparation for the pilgrimage, the heart of John Vianney was examined by a team of medical professionals to determine if the relic might be adversely affected by the travel and different weather conditions. In examining the heart, the doctors discovered a fact that up until that point in time had been unknown. They reported that there was a wound in the heart of John Vianney. The lesion in the heart tissue indicated that he had suffered a heart attack that had never been diagnosed. He survived the heart attack since the wound was sufficiently healed so that he was able to live with the damage. There is no indication when he may have suffered this attack. All we know is that John Vianney, like Our Lord, had a wounded heart.
There is an incident in the life of John Vianney that has been largely overlooked even by his principle biographers. It is an event that reveals another, deeper, and more painful wound in the heart of the Cure of Ars. I suspect that somehow it may be the key that opens up the secret of the holiness of this remarkable saint.
God called John Vianney to the priesthood at a very difficult moment in the history of the Church in France. The call came during the dark years of the French Revolution. Vianney had grown up in a fractured society that provided him with little formal education. He had been raised in a time of schism in the French Church. His parents chose to worship in the persecuted, underground Church that had remained loyal to Rome. Since it was a crime to belong to this underground Church, Vianney received his first Holy Communion at a clandestine Mass celebrated in a barn. As a child and adolescent, he only knew priests who risked their lives by offering Mass for Catholics who refused to join the schismatic Church of the revolutionaries. It was during this time of persecution that he felt the call to the priesthood. Important to note: John Vianney’s father, a hard-working farmer, opposed his choice of the priesthood.
As soon as some semblance of order was restored in France by the Emperor Napoleon and the Church was given freedom to function freely, Vianney, who had been accepted to the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of Lyon, was drafted into Napoleon’s army. Because of an administrative mistake made by chancery officials someone forgot to put his name on the list of the seminarians exempt from the draft.
Because of illness and personal ineptitude, perhaps because he spent a lot of time with the Blessed Sacrament in churches he passed on the way, John Vianney lagged behind his battalion and was listed among the deserters. For the next fourteen months, he lived as a criminal with an assumed identity among strangers in a remote mountain village.
When granted amnesty because of his brother’s enlistment in the army in his place, Vianney returned home. He expected a warm welcome from his family. On his arrival, his father, Matthew, informed him that his younger brother, Francis, who had been drafted to take his place in the army had died on the battlefields of Spain. He also told John that his mother, believing that both of her sons had died at war, herself died of a broken heart. Blaming John for the death of his wife and son Francis, Matthew Vianney slammed the door in John’s face. He told him to go to the village cemetery to see what evil he had brought upon his once-happy family as a result of his desertion from the army. John was never welcomed back into his father’s house. He begged his father repeatedly for forgiveness. There is no evidence that the forgiveness was ever granted.
Imagine what it would feel like to be rejected by your father and blamed for the death of your mother and younger brother? John Vianney knew in his conscience that he had not intended any sin in his desertion from the army. He had not even intended to desert! If anything, his fault was in being a klutz. I looked up the meaning of the Yiddish word klutz in the dictionary. Literally it means a block of wood. (Later in life, some of his seminary professors may have seen him in this way too.) Synonyms include nincompoop, blockhead, dolt, and clod.
I am not sure that the future saint was any or all of that, but even if he was, he was not the malicious murderer of his mother and brother that his father made him out to be. The question remains: how does a man live with such an accusation, with such rejection, and with the refusal of forgiveness? Brokenhearted, he left his father’s house never to return. He headed for the nearby village of Ecully where he took up residence with his spiritual father, Abbe Balley. From there he began his difficult road to the priesthood.
John Vianney had to make a decision of utmost importance. Would he spend the rest of his life blaming himself for a crime that he did not commit? He could easily have done that by plunging into the ice-cold waters of the heresy of Jansenism that flooded segments of the French Church. He could focus on the transcendent majesty of God and ignore the littleness, the humility of the Incarnation. He could maximize Divine Justice and minimize Divine Mercy in his relationship with God. He could neurotically deprive himself of food and drink and sleep and make every aspect of his life a torture chamber. He could indulge the vengeful image of God of the Jansenists in morbid scrupulosity and self-loathing. He might have acted out the rejection he experienced at home through a variety of different sins, including even the possibility of sexual deviations. We, fallen men and women, are ingenious in the ways we devise to torment ourselves and others.
On the other hand, Vianney had the option, as we all do, of finding salvation in the crucified Christ. Vianney believed that on the Cross Jesus saw him, knew him, and loved him with all of his human weaknesses and sins. He was certain that Jesus felt what he felt when his father rejected him. He also knew that Jesus lovingly suffered for the personal sins that may have resulted from that rejection.
There was a wonderful transformation that became evident in John Vianney after a decade or so of priestly service. He had taken the route of Jansenism for a long time. He imposed Jansenism’s rigorism on his people — especially in the confessional. Somehow, he realized that even though he had always been a faithful priest, he was somehow going in the wrong direction.
How did this change happen? There is no clear explanation of which I am aware. He had heard many mission preachers influenced by the kinder approach of St. Alphonsus Ligouri. He confessed his sins and sought guidance from some of these priests. He began to read the moral theology of St. Alphonsus. He spent long hours in prayer. He had devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady. He found a heavenly friend is St. Philomena. Whatever happen, whenever it happened, the Holy Spirit prompted Vianney to open the wound in his heart to the love of Christ. In this experience, the Spirit of God created the heart of a priest in the wounded heart of John Vianney. It was then that the pilgrimage of penitents to Ars began. People started coming from far and wide to open their hearts to him. They never stopped coming!
Perhaps these words of St. John of the Cross best describe the transformation of Vianney. He writes in his Living Flame of Love:
When a wound of love [of Christ] touches a soul that has already been wounded by its own sins and miseries, that soul becomes wounded by love. At the same instant all of these wounds of the soul that came from other causes suddenly become wounds of love.3
Saint John of the Cross does not say that all wounds are healed. He says, rather, that wounds caused in a person by his or her sins or by the sins of others can be transformed by Christ’s love into sources of love.
Vianney’s father had slammed the door of his home in his face. Vianney, now a priest-father with a tender heart, started an orphanage and school for young girls of the vicinity who had nowhere else to go and no one to love them. He began a school for the boys of the parish. He fed all the homeless poor who crossed his path. His home was never closed to anyone. There were many days when he had nothing to eat because he had given his food away to the indigent. He was also known to exchange his coat, sweater, and shoes with poor people.
His brother priests were embarrassed by the appearance of him. He wore a tattered cassock. He was often disheveled. He did not appear properly groomed. The neighboring pastors composed a petition asking the bishop to remove him as pastor of Ars. They failed to mention that they were jealous of the fact that many, if not most, of their parishioners went to him for confession! One of the priests who composed the petition — another klutz — left a copy of it on the dining room table in Ars by mistake. What did John Vianney do when he found and read the petition? He signed it!
The true miracle in Vianney’s life was what happened in his confessional. Following the Gallican method of hearing confessions that was taught to him in the seminary of the Archdiocese of Lyon, Vianney often denied people absolution. He would impose heavy penances, penances not unlike those imposed on public sinners in the ancient Church. Most of the time, the people had to leave the confessional, do the penance and then return for absolution.
After what we might call his conversion, people continued to find in him a priest who held firmly to all of the moral teachings of Jesus and his Church. There was no compromise in him. He called everyone to sincere conversion. However, through grace, he divested himself of the residual harshness of Jansenism, he was now eager to be the conduit of Jesus’s absolutely gratuitous mercy. The Spirit filled him with charisms to help his people feel loved in confession, and so spill everything out without hesitation to him. Often, he manifested the gift of reading hearts. Sometimes, he uncovered the human wounds that triggered habitual sins. Always he was a father who understood and loved his children.
The wound inflicted on him by his earthy father who refused to forgive him became the source of an inner impulse to bring mercy to all, especially those who were furthest from God. He often said that he felt a river of mercy flowing through him. Fatherless, he became the father of everyone who crossed his path. Whatever happened in his confessional, those who came were overwhelmed by the merciful love of a father. During the last two decades of the saint’s life, 20,000 people came to Ars each year to confess to him. Most people waited on line for a week to open their hearts to Jesus in the presence of Father John Vianney.
On occasion, he would ask people if they had had their bath that day! Before they had a chance to answer him, he would say, “I have had my bath this morning in God’s love.” It was this daily bath that transformed his wounds caused by sin and human misery into wounds of love. St. John Vianney envisioned the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a bath in God’s love — a bath that brings forgiveness and transformation. It is a bath that transforms wounds of sin into wounds of love.
The visit of the heart of St. John Vianney has inspired priests to make resolutions: First, to make better use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We all have human wounds that Jesus wants to transform into sources of love in the holy bath of this sacrament. The saint’s visit challenged priests to be fathers, teachers, and physicians in the confessional, always manifesting the understanding and love of the crucified Christ. Many priests were inspired by the visit of Vianney’s heart on the American pilgrimage to schedule more time each week for confession in the parishes. The Holy Spirit and the Saint of Ars will come to our aid in this humble and hidden endeavor that will renew the Church. The renewal of the Sacrament of Penance might even reverse the vocation crisis that has become critical.
I end with Vianney’s prayer for the love of God which reveals the heart of a priest who has been transformed by that love.
I love you, O my God, and my only desire is to love you until the last breath of my life. I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you, than live without loving you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally. 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. Amen.
- On May 4, 2019, the relic of the Heart of Vianney visited Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Newark. The original form of this essay was a conference presented by the author to the seminarians, and to priests and faithful of the Archdiocese who had come to venerate the relic. ↩
- I am indebted to Fr. Chochowski for many of the insights in this conference. The entire interview is worth viewing: youtube.com/watch?v=MfNV-OXQXo0. ↩
- John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love, 2.660. ↩
Fr. Frederick L. Miller, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is presently Spiritual Director of the College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at Seton Hall University. He is also an adjunct professor of Systematic Theology at the major seminary. Fr. Miller has taught theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, and Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.