The French Revolution and its aftermath had a devastating effect on religion in France. Under the ideology of the revolution, religion was attacked and the priesthood forbidden. In the years following people became pre-occupied with the practical business of re-constructing their lives and found solace in other pursuits. The country was in disarray, Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney brought an important, distinctive contribution to the revival of religion.
Born into a peasant family. He received little education and, in the upheavals of the 1790s, worked on his uncle’s farm at Ecully. Although church was discouraged Jean-Marie felt called to the priesthood. His academic limitations hampered him, and then he was conscripted into the Napoleonic army. He deserted and only resumed his studies after a general amnesty in 1810. After a great struggle he was ordained in 1815. Three years later, at the age of 30, he was appointed as Priest to the little village of Ars, a remote and insignificant place north of Lyons. He lived out the rest of his life there.
There had been no effective ministry there for years, so he had to rebuild the parish virtually from nothing. He visited his parishioners; he re-established education for the children and set up an orphanage for girls; but above all he set out to redeem his congregation from their sins. He followed a rigid self-discipline, and in his early years at Ars attacked the dancing and drinking of the locals in an effort to reform the parish. He used the confessional as a means of correcting people’s habits. In the confessional he read hearts like a book. He faced some bitter opposition, but he won, transforming the village by 1827. Shining through the rigour and discipline was a profound love for people. He placed great stress on the love and mercy of God.
By 1827 the Abbé Vianney was widely regarded as a priest of deep devotion and spiritual skill. People began arriving at Ars from further afield, seeking the counsel of the Curé d’Ars, as increasingly he was simply known. The pressure on him, compounded by his own disregard of his health and comfort, made for an enormous spiritual burden. People also came to expect miracles of him, but he simply attributed these to St Philomena.
Eventually Lyons railway station had a separate booking office for trains to Ars, and in 1853 it was calculated that 20,000 people a year were visiting him. Those who could not visit in person wrote to him. Even though he could not answer all the letters in person, he determined the general scope of the replies. During his later years he spent up to 16 hours a day in the confessional. He would have dearly loved to leave the parish and devote himself to solitary prayer, but was not given permission by his bishop and the villagers to leave. He died, worn out by his self-denying life-style and devoted ministry to those who came to him. In 1929 he was designated the patron saint of parish priests.
DIED: 4 August 1859, Ars (North of Lyons), France.