by Brother Andrew MC
Rediscovering Henri Gheon’s ‘The Secret of the Cure d’Arc’ struck a vibrant chord in this priest’s heart. It is amazingly contemporary- or rather St John Vianney is.
John found himself priest in the parish of Ars where people where spiritually and morally deprived and impoverished. Godlessness, greed, drink, promiscuity, obsession with material possessions had stunted and warped their spiritual joy, freedom and spontaneity.
It was all very modern and trendy – taken for granted; but the young were brash and old beyond their years. Innocence, trust and genuine gaiety were the exception.
John Vianney came and saw, as a rare prophet, the oppression, the sterility, the ugliness that gripped the people from Ars. He didn’t want to dominate or manipulate. He wept over the people; he prayed for their conversion; he went to his pulpit and confronted them – not with the faults of others, but with their own. He faced them with the responsibility for their own lives and for the integrity and health of their children.
He preached not in anger or indignation, but with compassion over their sullied dignity and with his own tears;
“Does God exist or doesn’t He? If He exists we must honor him as He requires us to honor Him, or we shall be asked why.”
Gheon writes “…the Cure d’ Ars, the tenderest of hearts, the most merciful of men, the least made to hurl anathemas, through tenderness and mercy set out to preach the gospel of fear.”
It doesn’t really require much translation to apply the priest of Ars to our own day:
“Christ wept over Jerusalem… I wept over you. How can I help weeping my brethren? Hell exists. It is not my invention. God had told us. And you pay no heed… You blaspheme the Name of God. You spend your evenings in the cabarets. You steal from your neighbor’s field. You do a world of things which are offences against God. Do you think then that God does not see you? He sees you, my children, as I see you, I beg you: think of hell.”
Again Gheon comments “…He did not recite his sermon, he lived it – without anger, without violence, his voice and his eyes full of tears… He entered into the heart of his subject and into the heart of his hearers. He accused. He threatened – not merely vain words in the air. He demanded what we demanded… He demanded every iota that God demands. Surely this kind of thing passed reason? But he pronounced these words of terror so sadly and so gently that no one could be angry. What! It was necessary to change one’s life? That needed thinking about- it had been out of mind too long.”
The issue for priests today is not to make things easier – more deadening – for themselves or their people – but to weep tears for the terrible deprivation of people so ignorant of their own deepest meaning while they agonize in the torment of consequent brokenness and disconnectedness – to weep tears at the sight of broken, aimless children and youth helpless before the pressures of destruction oppressing them.
The tears and the warnings of this saint are not exclusively his. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Mary in her recent messages all echo and mirror the pleas and tears of Jesus himself.
It is hard to weep and warn. But the alternative is apathy, omission of duty, the turning away from the abused, lost and helpless little ones. Well did John Vianney weep and warm.
For priest, parent and teacher today the terrible question comes: Am I going to let my children agonize in hell – here in today’s hell at least, if I can’t stomach the idea of a future hell – or am I going to face it, take a stand to escape it.
The priest of Ars turned that little parish around. Ars was small, but it is our parishes today. It is our world today – lost in greed, permissiveness and a self-seeking that makes genuine lasting relationships almost the exception.
John changed Ars; but he was no giant. He could not handle his seminary studies. He couldn’t prepare his sermons. But he sensed vividly the deprivation of his people though the widespread disregard for God, His Love and His Law. He wept for this. He prayed. He took a stand with courage. Ars changed and he brought a renewal of spirit to the whole of France. It would be called Vianney’s renewal plan.
For us priests today the aspect of John that is more frightening even than his stark preaching is his own personal style of life and prayer.
He prayed long and hard. He lived an ascetical life of penance, fasting, and austerity. It was this that held him on his course and made him a pliable instrument and voice for God.
It is frightening and I for one feel incapable of imitating him. But I know that short of extremes there are tremendous, renewing, life giving steps I could take – have even begun to take.
The discipline of building a serious time for prayer into my day which I respect as I respect an appointment with the bishop, my sports, or an invitation to dinner, is possible.
It is possible for me now to take a stand before some area in my life that is discovered, to clean up some area in my life that is disordered, to clean up some area in my room, my time, my TV viewing.
Far short of the extreme austerity of Vianney, I can remove a bit of dead wood that would be let in light, air and space for new growth. A moment’s pause for prayer right now would bear immediate fruit.
Mother Teresa recently questioned a youth group: “How do we change? By praying. Prayer is joy, prayer is life, prayer is peace. You cannot explain it, you must experience it… Even when I feel like a ship without a compass, I must give myself to Him… “
Today a lot of priests feel like a ship without a compass. They are demoralized. They are made to feel useless in a world that is very professional, that ridicules God, the Church and their ministry, that is very often hostile and rejoices to see priests put down and humiliated. That was familiar territory for Christ, the great Priest, and for countless priests down the ages in hostile climates.
The Roman Synod has refused to go soft on the priesthood. It was moved by the Spirit not to cheapen it amid much talk of rights, self-image, power. Rather it called for a sacrificing service on the model of Christ the Priest.
John Vianney didn’t transform the people of Ars by offering them with the Gospel of Christ. Priests will give life to their people, liberate and nourish them along the same path. They will bring new life, joy and beauty to their parish.
They will thereby deliver themselves from the emptiness and demoralization, the lack of purpose and meaning that causes the void that nature and grace abhor and which invariably gets filled with abuses, deviations, perversity and ultimate death.
St John Vianney does scare us – as do the prophets and Jesus Himself – but, saint as he is, he calls us to the paradox, the contradiction, the awesome surprise that is nothing less than God among us in Christ – for ourselves, for the hungry, wounded and struggling people of our own particular Ars.
On writing letters as an example of a fruitful ministry and a source of mutual spiritual growth, Henri Nouwen says; “Giving less hours to the dark violent forces of contemporary entertainment and more to writing letters in the spirit of Jesus is a true discipline of friendship. During the quiet peaceful hours that we spend communicating God’s love to others in our letters, we build a new community and bring light into the world. This is what we still can do. I have little doubt that the fruits will be plentiful.”