Last week we focused on the importance of St. John Vianney’s longevity as pastor in Ars. Even though he was a holy, hardworking, amiable, and supremely self-sacrificing pastor, and even though Ars was a tiny parish of 60 families and 230 individuals, it still took him eight years of hard pastoral labor, prayer and penance to get most of his people just to come back to Sunday Mass. It took him ten years to get them regularly to receive the Sacrament of Penance, 25 years to root out the taverns that were robbing men of paychecks and sobriety, and 29 years to eliminate the debauched dances that were turning the hearts of the young from love to lust. Had the Curé of Ars not had the gift of pastoral stability in office to till the rough spiritual soil of the village, he would not have borne much fruit. The great transformation of the people of Ars required heroic priestly perseverance and much time.
It’s ironic, therefore, that the Curé of Ars most persistent temptation — and the one to which he was most vulnerable — was to abandon his post. The “Grappin,” who was unsuccessful in getting him to succumb to 35 years of nightly torments, almost succeeded in destroying his eventual pastoral harvest by persuading the laborer to take his hands off the plough. Fr. Vianney did not recognize until late in life this subtle and constant machination of the evil one, which he mistakenly thought was the will of God.
The first major temptation came in 1827. After nine years of work, Fr. Vianney was exhausted. He was continuously sick with a persistent fever accompanied by migraines. He was frustrated by the lack of success in his battle to eliminate the vices that were spiritually killing his people. He was worn down by the daily struggle to keep the orphanage and girls school he had established alive. Most challenging of all were the opposition and scandalous calumnies being hurled at him by those who opposed his work. He resolved that for his own good and the good of others it was probably better that he leave.
So he asked Bishop Devie to accept his resignation and permit him to go to a Trappist monastery so that he could dedicate himself unreservedly to a life of prayer and penance. The bishop admired him and certainly didn’t want to lose him. He also had a difficult situation in the village of Fareins, five times the size of Ars, where a heresy fueled by Jansenism had taken root. The bishop thought that a holy, ascetic pastor like Fr. Vianney might be able to bring the wayward people — who had taken to doing scourgings and crucifixions inside the Church— back to spiritual sanity. So the bishop offered him a transfer. The priest, somewhat disappointed that he would not be able to lay down his pastoral responsibilities for the life of a monk, hesitated, but eventually informed the bishop that he would accept the offer. A short time later, however, after more prayer, he asked the bishop to let him stay in Ars. “Here I am prepared to take charge of a large parish,” he said, “when I am hard put not to give way to despair in a small one!”
The next challenge happened in 1840, when the longing for solitude in a monastery and the temptation to flee the pastoral work for which he always considered himself ill-equipped became intense once again. He anticipated that his bishop would respond more favorably to his request if he actually wrote from the monastery than from Ars, so one dark night, at 2 am, he secretly left the rectory. After he had walked a few miles, however, he paused and asked, “Is it really the will of God that I am doing now? Is not the conversion of even one soul of greater value than all the prayers that I might say in solitude?” He recognized his desire to flee as a temptation and returned to the Church, where there was already a line of penitents awaiting him.
A few years later, in 1843, he experienced his fiercest temptation against perseverance in his priestly work in Ars. After he had almost died through — and was miraculously cured of — a case of pneumonia that was so severe that several doctors had given him only 30 minutes to live, he asked the bishop for two weeks to recuperate in his hometown of Dardilly. The 58 year old priest’s intention was not to return, but instead to write his bishop from his brother’s house begging once again for permission to head to a monastery, where he could prepare for death and weep over his “poor life.” He penned, “I am becoming more and more infirm. Unable to rest for long in bed, I am compelled to spend parts of the night in a chair. I have attacks of dizziness in the confessional, when I lose myself for two or three minutes at a time. Considering my infirmities and age, I should like to bid farewell to Ars forever, Monseigneur.”
The bishop once again did not want to “lose” his saintly priest, but also knew that if he simply refused, the temptation might just grow stronger. So as was done in 1830, he offered Fr. Vianney a choice: to return to Ars or to take one of two other posts, including one as chaplain at the shrine of Our Lady of Beaumont. The priest went on pilgrimage to the shrine anticipating that that would be where God would want him, but as he was serving the Mass of another priest, he saw in prayer that it was not God’s will to become chaplain there. He returned to Ars, where the people received him triumphantly.
The last temptation happened in 1853. Knowing that on account of his age and multiple health problems his death might not be far off, he asked his new bishop once again for permission to go to the Trappist Monastery of La Neylière. The bishop replied that if he gave permission, “it would be so big a sin that no one would give me absolution!” Fr. Vianney knew, therefore, that he would never receive permission, so he decided upon a plan to ask for forgiveness instead. He plotted to leave at midnight and just head to the monastery and write the bishop from there, asking that he accept his resignation. But his priest assistant, the brothers of the boys’ school, and his catechists caught on to the plot and met him as he was leaving. They offered to accompany him, until he realized they were just leading him around in circles. When he resolved to go on without him, they stole his breviary, so that he wouldn’t be able to pray his office. Their tricks worked, even though Fr. Vianney didn’t appreciate them. “I behaved like a child,” he said later. He returned to the Church to try to leave again.
A priest he very much respected sent him a letter saying that his “intemperate” longing for solitude was a temptation of the devil, and Fr. Vianney, looking back at decades worth of similar temptations, recognized that the priest was right. All his life, he saw, he had been fighting against it. Solitude was good; but that good was the enemy of something better.
Once, in describing the primacy of Christian charity, he had said, “You desire to pray to God and pass your day in the Church, but you imagine that it might be better to work for some poor people you know who are in great need.” He gave the conclusion: “The latter is more pleasing to God even than a day passed in front of the holy tabernacle.”
That was ultimately the story of his life. As good as his desire for solitude and for a life totally spent in front of the Lord in the tabernacle were, there was something more pleasing, which he realized only late in life: a life of charity for those who are in great need, as were the penitents, orphans and spiritually and materially indigent of Ars. That’s the life he lived as pastor of Ars, where, like Jesus, he loved his own to the end (Jn 13:1).
Fr. Landry’s article first appeared on April 23, 2010 in The Anchor, the Official Catholic Weekly Newspaper of the Fall River Diocese in Southeastern Massachusetts.