by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Just as most of our parishes have a patron saint, dioceses also have patron saints.
The principal patron for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Our secondary patron is St. Jean-Marie Vianney, also known as the Curé of Ars.
St. Jean-Marie Vianney was born in 1789 just before the beginning of the French Revolution. During his boyhood years in France, it was dangerous to be Catholic, much less a priest. Jean-Marie participated in clandestine Masses with his parents. The future saint was impressed by the heroism of the priests who risked their lives to offer Mass secretly for their people.
Jean-Marie eventually was given the opportunity to study for the priesthood, but he was not a very good student. The future patron of priests struggled, especially with mastering Latin. Ultimately, he achieved his dream of being ordained to the priesthood because of a kindly pastor, Father Balley, who tutored and advocated for the ordination of the future saint.
Overcoming tremendous difficulties, Jean-Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in August of 1815.
The first three years of his priesthood, Father Vianney assisted Father Balley with the pastoral care of his parishioners. After Father Balley’s death in 1818, the bishop assigned Father Vianney to Ars, the most obscure parish in the diocese.
Ars did not have a resident pastor for several years. The faith life in Ars was very tepid, Sunday Mass attendance was low and the moral conduct of the people left much to be desired.
Father Vianney was not a gifted orator or educator. Not pleased with Father Vianney’s challenging of the lack of piety and moral laxity of the community, several of the leaders of the town initiated a petition to the bishop requesting Father Vianney’s removal from Ars because of his poor preaching and lack of pastoral skills. One of his loyal supporters brought Father Vianney a copy of the petition. He read it carefully and then signed it.
The Curé of Ars did not have a strategic plan for the renewal of his parish. With determination, Father Vianney pursued his own holiness — striving to be a man of prayer, virtue and simplicity. Secondly, he prayed and fasted relentlessly for the conversion of his parishioners.
What his preaching lacked in eloquence was more than compensated for by his sincerity and clear teaching. Though critical of immoral behaviors, the Curé of Ars was kind and compassionate to individual sinners.
Slowly, the attendance at Mass began to grow as did the lines for the confessional. For many years, his daily schedule consisted in arriving at church at 1 a.m. to begin hearing confessions. At 6 a.m., he would lead the Angelus, followed by the celebration of Mass.
From 6:30 to 8 a.m., he would meet with parishioners. At 8 a.m., he would eat breakfast at the local orphanage. From 8:30 to 11 a.m., he would hear confessions. From 11 a.m. until noon, he would give a catechesis to the children at the orphanage.
At noon, he would lead the Angelus, followed by lunch. From 12:30 until 2 p.m., he would make sick calls. From 2 to 8 p.m., he would hear confessions again. At 10 p.m., after his personal prayer, he would depart from church to get a few hours of sleep to begin again.
By 1845, on average, 300 to 400 people came to Ars every day in order to go to confession to Father Vianney. The number of penitents was so great, it sometimes was a week’s wait to receive the sacrament of penance from Father Vianney.
By the last year of his life, more than 100,000 visitors came to Ars because of their desire to receive spiritual guidance and inspiration from the Curé of Ars.
Jean-Marie Vianney died Aug. 4, 1859. In the early years of the 20th century, the Curé of Ars’ body was exhumed as part of the process for his beatification. To the amazement of everyone, his heart was incorrupt. In May 1925, Pope Pius XI declared St. Jean-Marie Vianney a saint. And in 1928, he was declared the patron for parish priests.
The Knights of Columbus arranged for the relic of his heart to be brought to the United States for an extensive national pilgrimage. The relic was in the archdiocese on March 17 and 18. Impressive numbers of people from the archdiocese and beyond came to venerate the relic of St. Jean-Marie Vianney at Nativity, Curé of Ars and St. Michael parishes, as well as St. James Academy and Benedictine College.
It was amazing to witness the outpouring of devotion for this humble parish priest who dedicated his life to the conversion of his parishioners. I know it pleased St. Jean-Marie Vianney that so many, during the times of veneration of his incorrupt heart, took advantage of the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
Father Francis Trochu, a contemporary of the Curé of Ars, in his definitive biography described the secret of what made the priestly ministry of St. Jean-Marie Vianney so fruitful: “Long before the first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon, whilst Ars was as yet plunged in deep sleep, a flickering light might have been seen in the cemetery that surrounded the church. At that hour, Father Vianney, lantern in hand, passed from his house into the church. The good soldier of Jesus Christ was going to his post of intercessor for the people. He went straight up to the sanctuary, where he prostrated himself on the ground. There he poured out his heart, full of ardent desires, heavy already with many sorrows. During these silent hours of the night, he prayed aloud that the Lord would show pity to pastor and flock alike. My God, he pleaded, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please to lay upon me; yes, even for a hundred years am I prepared to endure the sharpest pains, only let my people be converted. And he bathed the pavement with his tears. At break of day, he was still at his post.”
St. Jean-Marie Vianney is a powerful example of what God can accomplish through one dedicated, fervent priest. Please pray for me and for all the priests of the archdiocese that we may strive to imitate St. Jean-Marie Vianney in his pursuit of personal holiness and his zeal for the conversion of souls.
May the visit of the heart of this great confessor also inspire all of us to pursue our own ongoing conversion by receiving frequently the sacrament of reconciliation!
St. Jean-Marie Vianney, pray for us!