I thought a time would come when people would rout me out of Ars with sticks, when the Bishop would suspend me, and I should end my days in prison. I see, however, that I am not worthy of such a grace.
Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars
Although chiefly remembered now for Vatican II, Saint Pope John XXIII in many ways was quite traditional in his Catholic piety, and no more so than in his personal devotion to Saint John Vianney, the famous Cure of Ars.
John Vianney was born into a world in 1786 where the Church was soon under attack by the first of the totalitarian regimes, Revolutionary France. His family remained loyal to the Faith, and helped priests on the run from the State. Young John saw these brave men as heroes as well as priests, and soon wished to join their ranks. He was hampered by his ill education and the fact that he simply wasn’t a very good student, no matter how hard he tried. He was ordained more as an act of Christian charity, and a recognition that he had a good heart and would try his best to be a good priest, than because of any success in his studies.
He was assigned to be the cure of the village of Ars, a town of only 230 people. The church was almost deserted, with most of the population of the town consisting of fallen away Catholics. He immediately began doing acts of reparation for the sins of his parishioners, and eventually won them back to the Faith through the example he set, his manifest goodness and his own invincible faith in God.
Each day he spent 11-16 hours in the confessional. He had the charism of often knowing the sins of his penitents before they spoke and giving them spiritual counsel that went directly to their souls. People began to flock to confess to him from the regions around Ars, then from the rest of France, and eventually the world. He could sometimes heal the sick, especially sick children, to whom he always gave kind attention.
The fame he won was completely unwanted by him. Four times he ran away from his parish, attempting to become a monk. Each time he came back because his people cried out for him. Jealous priests in his diocese on one occasion sent a petition around to other priests requesting that the Bishop remove Saint John on the grounds that he was too ignorant to be a pastor. The petition was sent to Ars by mistake, and Saint John unhesitatingly signed it and sent it on. One of the priests who started the petition came to him to beg his forgiveness. He said that there was nothing to forgive. He knew that he was too ignorant, and that he hoped the Bishop would send a better man to replace him.
By the time he died on August 4, 1859, Saint John had transformed Ars and the region around the village into an area filled with fervent Catholics. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and in 1929 he was made patron saint of parish priests.
On the centenary of his death, Saint Pope John XXIII penned a magnificent tribute to him:
SACERDOTII NOSTRI PRIMORDIA
ENCYCLICAL OF POPE JOHN XXIII ON ST. JOHN VIANNEY
AUGUST 1, 1959
To Our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other Local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See.
Venerable Brethren, Health and Apostolic Benediction.
When We think of the first days of Our priesthood, which were so full of joyous consolations, We are reminded of one event that moved Us to the very depths of Our soul: the sacred ceremonies that were carried out so majestically in the Basilica of St. Peter’s on January 8, 1905, when John Mary Baptist Vianney, a very humble French priest, was enrolled in the lists of the Blessed in Heaven. Our own ordination to the priesthood had taken place a few short months before, and it filled Us with wonder to see the delight of Our predecessor of happy memory, St. Pius X (who had once been the parish priest of the town of Salzano), as he offered this wonderful model of priestly virtues to all those entrusted with the care of souls, for their imitation. Now as We look back over the span of so many years, We never stop giving thanks to Our Redeemer for this wonderful blessing, which marked the beginning of Our priestly ministry and served as an effective heavenly incentive to virtue.