Today, our Church celebrates the Holy Curé of Ars as the patron saint of all priests. St John Vianney failed his entrance exams to the seminary, as the French Revolution interrupted his basic education, while the Napoleonic Wars pulled him away midway through seminary. What he lacked in academia, he made up in virtue. He was ordained and was assigned to Ars — a village of 230 people who had abandoned the faith.
As parents, catechists, and spiritual mentors, we find a friend in the devout and humble Vianney. We find ourselves ill-equipped for the task of shepherding souls. Those entrusted to our care simply don’t want to open up to us, and we don’t know how to reach out to them.
So, we ask: How did a simple yet holy John Vianney defy the odds to become an effective minister of the Gospel? How, then, can we emulate him to bring Christ to those we have been called to shepherd — ill-equipped as we are?
The secret lies in the 4Ps he practiced as a shepherd of souls: prayer, penance, patience, and passion.
For a shepherd, prayer serves two purposes. The first is to attune our hearts to the Lord’s voice and so discern how we ought to reach out. As the holy Curé once said:
“It annoys us to turn our minds away from external affairs; we don’t know what we really ought to do. What we need is deep reflection, together with prayer and an intimate union with God.” — St John Vianney
Secondly, we should also pray for the conversion of others even before we begin to make our own efforts. As he often remarked:
“How many people we can call back to God by our prayers!” — St John Vianney
Fr Vianney often fasted, kept vigils, and slept on the floor. This practice of penance — more accurately called mortification of the flesh — serves a twofold purpose. Mortification firstly conditions us to die to our own human nature, which too often “shouts the thing to do,” as an old-school hymn once put it. In this way, we can better discern God’s soft promptings. Mortification also serves as a form of intercession, integrating flesh and spirit as we pray for their conversion.
Be discreet about your penance. Fr Vianney didn’t sleep on the steps of the church for all to see, but on the hard floor in the privacy of his own room. In the same way, do not turn your penance into a spectacle for those whom you serve, or it will come off as emotional blackmail. Also, keep your penance moderate, and avoid this practice if you seek pleasure or pride from it, or if you struggle with scrupulosity. If in doubt, consult a spiritual director.
“You have offered humble prayers to God, you have wept, you have groaned, you have sighed. Have you added fasts, vigils, sleeping on the floor, castigation of your body? Until you have done all of these, do not think that you have tried everything.” – St John Vianney
Fr Vianney was resolute but never forceful. When he first arrived in Ars and made his house visits, he chatted with the villagers about their real and lived experiences. And as they warmed up to him, he slipped in a pearl or two about the faith. It was in this patient and gentle way that Fr Vianney slowly won over souls for Christ.
So too must we be patient with those whom we serve. The saying “more haste, less speed” applies especially to the work of the soul. If our faith in God is strong enough that we desire to bring others to him, we should also trust in his plans for them.
“If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour” — Ps 127:1
Fr Vianney spent some 15 hours in the confessional each day. Towards the end of his life, he heard Confession from 80,000 penitents per year, according to some accounts. Fr Vianney was undoubtedly driven by a sincere love for his sheep and a strong conviction about the sacred task he undertook.
If we are to share St John Vianney’s passion for souls, we too must sincerely love our sheep and be ourselves convicted that God is the highest good. We can attain this interior disposition through prayer and penance, by which we taste God’s goodness and share more intimately in Christ’s love for others.
In spite of our shortcomings, God has called us to be parents, catechists, and spiritual mentors, giving us St John Vianney as a companion and example. Aided by his prayers and imitating his 4Ps, let us embrace our calling to be shepherds after the heart of God.
Written by Louis of VITA Scribes.
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