St. Jean Vianney Shows Us How One Witness Can Change the Church

Rachel Forton

St. Jean Vianney Shows Us How One Witness Can Change the Church

I first learned about St. Jean Vianney in, of all places, Ars, France – where he spent most of his priestly life. As a student at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, I had the opportunity to take a pilgrimage/class to France and Italy. Midway through our trip, we found ourselves in Ars, where we were greeted by Dominican Sisters whose work is to pray and welcome visitors to Vianney’s Church. Sr. Marie-Christine was a young, joyful nun. She took us to the Parish Center where we learned about Vianney’s life, which was marked by prayer, reconciliation, and love of the Eucharist. The Sisters told us how Vianney and Bishop Loras (for whom my alma mater is named) had been friends, and how Vianney had frequently visited the Loras’ family home in Lyons. An older priest then took us into the Church in Ars. St. Jean Vianney spared no expense in building and furnishing the Church, where his love for God was evident in every detail. We were able to celebrate Mass in front of his incorrupt body. My curiosity about St. Jean Vianney was piqued. Who was this man, after whom so many seminaries around the world are named? Clearly, Vianney was a man of extraordinary holiness whose impact on the Church continues today.

His Early Life

Jean Vianney grew up in a devout Catholic family during the French Revolution. The tremendous challenges of Catholics in that time cannot be understated. This was a time when priests were being exiled and killed and the Church fell under the government of France. Despite the danger involved, Vianney’s devout parents often took in the priests to have Mass in secret in their home. In fact, Vianney had his First Communion in a basement in the context of an antireligious and anticlerical environment, which could hardly seem like the breeding ground for a vocation to the priesthood. However, from a young age, St. Jean Vianney loved to pray and had a strong devotion to Mary.

His vocation to the priesthood was marked by a series of obstacles standing in the way of ordination. For one, Jean Vianney was a poor student. He struggled greatly with Latin, resulting in failure of exams. Mathias Loras, who later became the first Bishop of Dubuque, Iowa, was a classmate of Vianney’s in seminary. Loras tutored Vianney in Latin, and he was eventually able to pass his exams and become a priest. Vianney was also ordered to join the French army. In a series of miraculous events, he missed his time window to join his troop because he was praying in the local Church. The soldier in charge of taking Vianney to join his troop was a deserter and actually led Vianney to a safe place where other deserters were hiding, where he lived for 14 months before he was able to safely rejoin the seminary.

His Earthly Mission

Shortly after his ordination, Jean Vianney was sent to a small town called Ars, not far from Lyons, France. Vianney labored to revive the Catholic community in Ars, which had not been practicing their faith. Vianney believed strongly in the central importance of the Eucharist. Prayer, for him, need be little more than being present with the Lord, loving Him and receiving His love. His spiritual life fueled his work with orphans and the poor. A lack of judgment made him a beloved, relatable priest who was able to really get through to his community and reach them exactly where they were.  It was evident from the beginning that this was a holy man who truly cared about the souls of all whom he encountered. 

A central part of St. Jean Vianney’s mission was calling the faithful back to God’s mercy in confession. He spent 16 hours a day in the confessional during the last ten years of his life. St. Jean Vianney built up the physical Church in Ars along with the spiritual Church out of a pure desire to praise God. He did this by coming to terms with his world as it was, rather than rejecting the contemporary world. He called people to repent, to pray, to observe religious rites; but he first loved them. When the young people of Ars fell into raucous behavior, Vianney adapted the celebration of certain feast days to include activities that were healthier and more appropriate – but still provided a chance for some fun. His own example of personal, transformative faith preached from the pulpit and the confessional inspired a community to return to Church. Vianney’s complete dedication and love for God helped the town of Ars – and eventually, people from all around France and beyond – to regain a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

What One Witness Can Do

St. Jean Vianney’s life is an interesting study in the lasting impact one individual can have on his community. Although the “de-Christianizing” of France at the time of Vianney’s life did sift through the countryside around Paris, Vianney was able to help the community return to a strong faith instead of moving toward anthropocentric views that strayed to atheism. His influence extended beyond Ars to include surrounding towns as pilgrims began to journey to Ars to have their confessions heard by Vianney. It is amazing to see what the witness of one person’s life for the Gospel can do to inspire those who have lost a sense of the transcendent. It seems there was hardly anyone who left St. Jean Vianney’s presence doubting that life had meaning and that the love of God is full, complete, and true.

Because he understood that life with God is infinitely more fulfilling than life without Him, St. Jean Vianney was able to win over many souls for God. He demonstrates that a true dedication to spreading the Good News can bring back a sense of wonder and awe to those who have left the faith. His own authenticity called others back to fulfillment in God because they could see his genuine joy. In St. Jean Vianney’s life, we see the beautiful power of the priesthood to inspire souls to reach for God – when lived out with a commitment to prayer, authenticity, and grace.

St. Jean Vianney, pray for our priests and seminarians, that their lives may be authentic reflections of the Good News that God is with us still today!