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St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.L. | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One

To Build a Fire, Fan the Coal

When a priest first arrives to a parish, especially in today's megaparishes, he is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and needs. Father Vianney's plan helps the parish priest to focus his energies. The Curé first focused on the families that were already strong in their faith and had resisted the waves of worldliness and indifference. This approach may seem counter intuitive. Why expend energy on people he already had? His answer is that they would become the fiery coals, which would dry out the damp the wood of the rest of the parish and help set it ablaze. His work had a ripple effect expanding outward from these initial families to more and more of the village and surrounding area.

In his efforts to galvanize the faithful, strong families also met a deep human need in the Curé of Ars: the need for support. He did not simply depend on himself, but needed people who would assist him in his efforts to convert the village, especially since his initial efforts elicited ridicule and criticism. These families would be there for him, speak well of him and begin setting the example for the rest of the parish to follow. This support was not a "cult of personality" around Vianney or because they were best friends rather their support came from the fact that he was their Curé and they both shared the Church's vision for the parish.

Back to Basics: Liturgy, Preaching and Catechesis

In the face of religious ignorance and lukewarm faith, Father Vianney dedicated himself to "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen gentium, n. 11), and began enhancing the worship of God on Sundays. He identified the lack of a God ward orientation in the people as the primary problem. Thus he set about to sanctify the Lord's Day to help the people reorder their priorities. Since people were not coming to Mass on Sundays, he began to beautify the parish church, making it attractive to people. The place of the Eucharist was to be a place of the beautiful. He even used his own money to purchase a new altar and statuary. He spared no expense in acquiring sumptuous vestments for the liturgy though he himself wore a threadbare cassock. He who was not finicky at what he ate was quite picky about the quality of materials that went into the parish church. Some may criticize this practice in that the money could be spent on the poor; however, we find the Curé just as generous with the poor. He would find it strange that we parish priests would lament the cost of marble for the sanctuary, and then vote pay increases for ourselves at presbyteral council meetings.

His manner of celebrating the Divine Mysteries was radiant. His love of the Mass could be read on his face. He was authentic, allowing himself to smile or weep however the mysteries moved him. He was reverent and precise. He did not strive after relevant liturgies; he strove for beautiful ones. Following the teaching of the Council of Trent, he strove to instill in his congregation a love and understanding of the liturgy and other sacred rites through his manner of celebrating and his preaching.

His preaching was clear and focused on the central mysteries of the faith. Most of the deacons in the discussion group mentioned that the Curé did not mince words in his preaching or teaching. He worked hard weaving his sermons through hours of study and it was not uncommon early on in his ministry for him to spend several hours per week preparing the Sunday sermon. After writing it out on the vestment table in the sacristy, he then struggled to commit it to memory. He used stories and images familiar to his people, especially agrarian ones, to illustrate his points. He spoke their language and used the colloquial expressions of his times.

Father Vianney's passion and personality also shone in his preaching. The personal intensity of his preaching was so great that it was not uncommon to see tears fall from his eyes or to hear him lose his voice. Depending on the need, his words came across as challenging or consoling. Once he was asked, "Monsieur le Curé why is it that you speak so softly when you pray and so loudly when you preach?" He replied, "Oh, the reason is that when I preach I speak to people who are either deaf or asleep, but when I pray, I speak to the good God who is not deaf' (p. 132). The pulpit also provided Father Vianney many opportunities for humility. Sometimes he got so lost in his delivery that he would simply stop and come down from the pulpit without finishing.

A common error has been spread about Vianney, which confuses his intellectual struggles with an anti-intellectual bent about him. It is true that Vianney struggled with Latin. Yet his Latin was undoubtedly better than most of ours today. Another reason for his academic struggles was that he did not go to the seminary until his mid twenties. As we know, it is easier to learn when we are young. Though he struggled academically, he was an intelligent man. During his ministry, Vianney maintained the habit of reading and studying until the demands of the confessional consumed the bulk of his waking time. When he died, he had over 300 books in his personal library--hardly evidence of an anti intellectual.

Along with beautifying the liturgy and working hard in preaching, he set about developing an organized approach to catechize the youth. Unfortunately First Communion had become but a formality and passing event in their lives. He used the wise tactics of a pastor to get them to come initially: "He who arrives first in church shall have a [holy] picture" (p. 128). He challenged parents to take responsibility for the spiritual life of their children, and did all the catechizing personally until an assistant was given to him some twenty seven years later. Obviously the small size of his parish allowed him to do it. After only a few years, it was known that the children of Ars knew their catechism better than any in the surrounding district.

Strike Problems at Their Root Causes

At first glance, the social problems in Ars were obvious: destitution, indifference, lack of charity, everyday life consumed by work, etc. The Curé of Ars, whether consciously or intuitively, understood these as symptoms of a much deeper cause. Social woes had their roots in a spiritual problem: the Lord was not the center of their lives.

St. John Vianney seemed to have a good grasp of the prophetic aspect of the priest's ministry. When he went about challenging the status quo of the village, he had the courage and fortitude to see it through because his life was first immersed in Christ through his own conversion, prayer and asceticism. As a result, the initial criticism and resistance that met him, though discouraging, did not sway him. Here one can see how his pastoral plan builds on itself: effective renewal in the parish is built upon the priest's inner life with Christ. Every parish priest who strives to be faithful to the Lord and the Church knows how difficult it is to follow through on changes in the face of criticism. We tend to feel hurt by what others say about us, and are tempted to water down the message or to back down from what needs to be done.

In a farming community such as Ars, Sunday had become a workday. The ringing of the church bell on Sunday morning was met with the rumbling of carts and the hammering of the anvil. The Curé took a colossal leap of faith and refused to give parishioners permission to work on Sunday, even during harvest time. The Lord even intervened for him in miraculous ways by bringing rain, or preventing it, while the people were in church. Another approach he used was making more of the Holy Days of obligation. The Holy Days can be especially effective in inculcating the God ward orientation when the regular workday is interrupted for worship.

Not only excessive work, but also tavern life was symptomatic of the spiritual problem. Great effort was exerted for work and pleasure, but not for God. This habit was shared by peasant and gentry alike. The taverns were places where the Lord's name was blasphemed, where habits of cursing and swearing festered, and where livelihoods were squandered. Perhaps in our own day the proliferation of porn shops and casinos would compare to tavern life in Ars. The Curé set about to close them. In the words of his biographer, Father Vianney was "ruthless" in his invective against them. However, he still cared for the welfare of the owners. When one complained to him that his preaching kept people away and was causing his financial ruin, the Curé gave the man enough money to close the tavern. One by one each owner closed his tavern and took up another occupation.

Father Vianney's efforts at closing the taverns had the consequence of eliminating the primary cause for poverty and destitution in Ars. When the people began living their lives centered on God and not on work and pleasure, the symptoms of destitution and loose living began to disappear. One deacon related that Vianney did not begin by saying, "I'm going to end poverty in Ars." Rather he began with a campaign to honor the Lord's Day. This point does not insinuate that it is "either or" solution: either focus on Sunday or act in a more direct manner to alleviate society's problems, but the solution is "both and." Without the primacy of orienting one's life toward God, however, the other efforts at societal reform, though noble, will not ultimately succeed. It should also be noted that his efforts required much time and patience. The rebuilding of respect for the Lord's Day and the closing of the taverns took eight years of ceaseless effort, and even so was not completely successful. Nevertheless, a majority did re center their lives on the Lord, and destitution largely disappeared.

After addressing excessive work and tavern life, Vianney began a campaign against dancing. Why dancing? Is Vianney simply revealing himself as prudish? Here again it is important to view his efforts through the lens of his time. He saw dancing as a symptom of a root problem. He saw that one enamored with dancing was unable to relish pure and simple pleasures, and dulled one's sense for spiritual realities. Immersion in video games, Internet and television in our times render the human spirit dull before the real and simple pleasures of human life. The issue, moreover, was not simply dancing, but the "party scene" that accompanied it. The dances in Ars were occasions for serious sin against chastity in which people used each other for pleasure, not love. Perhaps events like MTV's Spring Break, contraception or cohabitation may be dancing's correlative in our day. "There is not a commandment of God," he preached, "which dancing does not cause men to break" (p. 146). He took action as well. One day he met the fiddler as he was arriving at Ars to play for a dance. The Curé of Ars asked him what he was usually paid. Vianney gave him double so that the man went away satisfied, and the dance did not occur. Like his efforts against excessive work and tavern life, ending the dances took time and patience--25 years.

Plant the Good: Prayer and the Works of Mercy

Vianney's vigorous uprooting of evil had a purpose. He uprooted it in order to cultivate something much better: the life of the Kingdom. By degrees he led Mlle. d'Ars, the leading woman of the town, out of her Jansenistic tendencies, and she became a model Christian who was seen at daily Mass and serving the poor. Others began to follow her example, and before long, the Curé of Ars had a women's group called "the workers of the first hour." Younger girls began to join them and Father Vianney organized them into the "Confraternity of the Rosary." These women devoted themselves to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and works of charity in the town.

A few devout men also began to follow suit, and under Vianney's guidance they revived in the parish the ancient "Guild of the Blessed Sacrament." His biographer writes, "M. Vianney was rightly convinced that his people would not take up seriously the practice of religion until the day when he should have won over the youths and the men of the village" (p. 184). Although their daily work often prevented them from making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament each day, they became regular Sunday worshippers and often spent an hour in adoration after Vespers on Sunday.

Family prayer had all but died out in the village, and Vianney realized that most farmers and workers could not attend daily Mass in the morning. He introduced praying a rosary at the church in the evenings. In the parishioners' personal lives, he taught them to make a daily examination of conscience, do short spiritual reading, practice meditation, and make an offering of their daily sufferings. Father Vianney joined together with his neighboring priests to organize missions and confessions at each other's parishes. It was at these missions that the Curé of Ars' gift as a confessor was discovered.

The Curé of Ars complemented his efforts at prayer with the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. When St. John Vianney arrived in Ars, there was no real school. He recruited two young women of the parish and sent them, at his own expense, to be trained as schoolmistresses. He raised money himself to purchase a house, which would serve as a free school for girls. Vianney then turned his attention to the orphans and street children of the area who were usually reduced to begging, and opened an orphanage in the same home. The house soon needed to be expanded to keep up with demand. A true pastor, he bought some adjacent land, drew up construction plans himself, and even assisted the masons and carpenters. Over the years, many a young girl, arriving "often ...only half clad and covered with vermin," found safety, an education, virtue, faith, a spiritual mother in Catherine and a true spiritual father in their Curé" (p. 198). By 1841, this home accommodated between fifty to sixty girls.

Always a Priest

In this time of planting the good seed in ground where unnecessary labor, tavern life and dancing had once festered, the personal dedication and energy of the pastor of Ars never flagged. His biographer writes that "he never refused except when a thing was obviously impossible; all his life he spent himself for others, without ever counting the cost. A woman of Fareins, who was stricken with cancer, wished ...to behold once more the Curé d'Ars .... He set out at once, however, but lost his way, so that when he eventually reached Fareins he was covered with mud and worn out with fatigue. He would not consent to take anything, not even a glass of water.... After blessing and comforting the poor dying woman, the lowly priest made haste to return to his parish" (p. 193).

In the span of eight years, by the grace of God and his efforts, the Curé of Ars had instilled in the people the primacy of God in their lives, and cultivated in them dedication to prayer and the care of the poor. It is important to remember that in this pastoral plan, St. John Vianney was not unaffected. A true saint, he was not above it all. He suffered much in this plan, not only the physical suffering of his penances and sicknesses, the spiritual agony of temptations and preternatural harassment by the Devil, but also the anguish of heart and the weight of burden that only a pastor can feel. He also suffered much from the criticisms, denunciations and sometimes outright calumny of his brother priests.

Our group found no temerity in Vianney's priestly identity. He was singularly unapologetic about both his priesthood and his manhood. To convert the people of Ars, Vianney did not have to become a psychologist, a bureaucrat, or a social worker. The effectiveness of his plan also did not come from his charisma or "cult of personality." He was simply their priest, the Curé of Ars. All that was required was that he strive to become the man and priest Jesus had made him to be. Much more can be said about St. John Vianney's life and ministry. This article is intended simply to shed light on one small aspect of it as seen by a group of priests to be. For the priest who has the courage to implement it with the necessary adjustments to the present day, the plan has proven to produce much good fruit.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2005 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar

Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.

He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (T&TClark, 2009).

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