Saint John Vianney and the Heart of a Priest

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In 2009, the Archdiocese of Washington opened the Year for Priests in a special way as I ordained seven new priests, men from different walks of life who heard and answered God’s call to priesthood.

In proclaiming that Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the unique role and identity of the priest.  The Holy Father had the opening of the Year for Priests coincide with the 150th anniversary of the death of Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of priests.  Pope Benedict said that, like Saint John Vianney, the priest today is “to embody Christ’s presence and to bear witness to his saving mercy,” so that the priest “continues the work of redemption on earth.”

In some ways, Saint John Vianney, whose feast day we celebrate today, might seem a surprising choice to be priests’ patron saint.  He almost didn’t make it out of the seminary after struggling with his studies, especially Latin. The son of a farmer who once worked as a shepherd boy, he was sent to serve as a parish priest in a remote village, Ars, in his native France.  Yet as the years passed, he became famous for his holiness, first in France then around the world, and crowds of people came to Ars to attend his Masses and line up for Confession.  The holy priest reportedly heard Confessions for 12-16 hours a day.

Pope Benedict encouraged today’s priests to use Saint John Vianney as a model of priesthood, recognizing holy priests as an incredible gift of God that calls for a renewed commitment each day to living a holy life.  The saint once wrote, “Oh my God, if my tongue is not able to say every day that I love you, I want at least my heart to repeat it to you as many times as I take a breath.”

In holding up Saint John Vianney as a role model, the pope reminded today’s priests that they are called to pattern their lives after Christ the Priest, so that everything we do, all of our ministry offers a visible sign of God’s love to the world.

At the installation of every pastor, I make it a point of highlighting the promises that a priest makes on his ordination day.  These pledges become a frame of reference for each priest’s pastoral ministry.  Thus, when at ordination we promise to mirror Christ to the best of our ability we do so precisely to bear witness to the enduring presence of Christ in the Church today.

Christ is the true, invisible head of his Body which is the Church.  Yet, just as that Body of Christ is made visible and manifest in all of the members throughout the world, so, too, is it manifest in the presence of Christ, the head of the Church – specifically in the priesthood – which carries on the ministry of Christ.

In explaining how the priest can function as Christ, the Church speaks of the priesthood as an identification with Christ on the most fundamental level.  In the reception of Holy Orders, priests are “consecrated to God in a new way.”  They become “living instruments of Christ, the Eternal Priest,” so that they may be able to “accomplish his wonderful work of reuniting the whole society of men with heavenly power” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 12).

With his holiness, his simplicity, and his love for Christ that radiated in his love for his flock, Saint John Vianney’s pastoral approach truly reflected the presence of Christ among the people he served.

In his life that spanned the tumult of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the Cure of Ars served faithfully as a parish priest and touched countless hearts in a time marked by increasing secularism and indifference, two challenges faced by today’s priests.  Saint John Vianney once said, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus,” and that love made him a model priest for his time and ours.