“In admiring the virtues of the saints, we are only admiring the virtues of Christ.”
~~Saint John Marie Baptiste Vianney~~
Few people would think of Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) the Patron Saint of Parish Priests, as having a bad memory, or liking fireworks and marching bands, or having a sense of humor, or being poor in school. Yet, the holy man did have feet of clay—particularly the time he came home barefoot, because he had given his shoes to a poor man.
The Curé of Ars had five little known qualities that a former drunk and druggie can relate to, but he also had five qualities that I find very hard to measure up to: his self-discipline, miracles, sacrifice, holiness, along with his humility and lack of anger. However I still strive to emulate the saint who in life imitated our dear Lord, even though at times such a goal just seems hopelessly out of reach.
Being a Catholic convert, I think of my old life as my first life. Jesus gave me new life. That old life was wretched with my alcohol and drug use. That truth was brought home to me tragically last night as I went to a Wake for a friend whose life was cut short by complications from surgery that I think were exacerbated by her decade long addiction to legal prescription drugs. She died on Gaudete Sunday turning her married daughter, who is trying to conceive a child, into a font of tears on this most joyful season of light. I looked at my friend’s photographs of her younger days, next to her casket. She had bathing beauty good looks. She was a fiery and funny Sicilian woman who would give you anything, would give you the world. What a waste of a life I thought. Maybe even her death will be a gift to us, the living, and give some of us the inspiration to get off drugs or help others get off them. Please pray for them. However, through God’s grace, those demons were removed from me seventeen years ago. Such attainable grace was not accomplished by me, because I was in no way a nice guy. Gratefully, now with my new life I have come to know some of “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
One of those shining treasures is Saint John Vianney. I owe much to Father George Rutler who is my Pastor at the Church of Saint Michael in New York City, and the author of the extraordinary and almost mystical book The Curé D’Ars Today. I quote or paraphrase from it often in this column. Father Rutler’s learned and eloquent broadcasts on EWTN were instrumental in my conversion five years ago. For his inspiration, I am eternally grateful.
John Vianney is known for his sixteen hours a day in the Confessional, the 120,000 souls who made pilgrimages to Ars for a number of years, and his deeply holy statements such as: “How great is the priest! The priest will only be understood in heaven. Were he understood on earth, people would die, not of fear, but of love.”
However, there were five lesser known traits of John Vianney that I can relate to personally.
1. Sense of Humor. The Curé was pestered by the devil many times, particularly because of the heavenly work he was doing. “His resolution was adept: “I turn to God, I make the sign of the Cross, I address a few contemptuous words to the devil.” He dealt with the Prince of Lies with “ridicule, the subtlest and most violent theology of all. [It] is the one affliction that makes the angel of pride feel like hell.” He “nicknamed him a grappin, which is a little rake that scratches.” Once when the devil set Vianney’s bed on fire when he was away, he returned to say, “Oh you could do nothing to the bird so you disturbed the nest.” Then when several demons were howling and moving objects around him he said, “If you had any power, one of you would be sufficient. But Christ has hamstrung you, and so you try to frighten me by your numbers.”
Once during a confession, the room shook violently almost knocking the young student, Denis Chaland, and the Curé to the ground. The devil attacked the great saint physically many times in his lifetime. The Curé steadied the boy and told him, “It is nothing. It is only the devil.” He then told the young boy that he must become a priest, which he eventually did.
Vianney told a gossipy woman one time, “February is a good month for you. You have one day less to gossip.” And when a haughty woman asked him how to get to heaven he curtly replied, “Straight, like a cannonball.” He genuinely liked people and loved to tell jokes.
I have always thought myself a humorous person, although mostly in my own judgment. And my funny replies to adversaries have not been against the devil, although in some instances I’m not so sure it wasn’t the devil.
2. Bad Memory. Maybe he should also be the Patron Saint of Bad Memory, since he had trouble remembering his sermons. These incidents didn’t occur just in his older years—which is my problem along with too many beers and funny cigarettes in my younger years—but even as a young priest. He would write down his sermons, because he couldn’t remember them and sometimes would forget where he was on the page, and would “appear to literally sink down in the pulpit.”
At the end of his life his sermons got shorter and shorter and near the end, toothless, he would point to the Tabernacle and say, “’There he is. There he is.’ His followers thought that perhaps those sermons were his most eloquent.”
My bad memory is one of the reasons I don’t think I’m called to be a priest—along with being too old. But just the thought of me considering the priesthood would probably send the people from my hometown into howls of laughter. I can hear them now, “Him a priest? Of what?—the Budweiser and Weed Church!”
3. Liking Gaudy Things. While most people associate him with being so austere and ascetic, “once during a Corpus Christi Procession when a marching band showed up he literally shook with joy.” He was even known to use fireworks at such events.
I can relate to his enthusiasm for spectacle based upon my caving in occasionally to a football game or the Super Bowl or that most garish and tasteless spectacle of all, a presidential campaign. But certainly Vianney’s experiences were wholly for the glory of the Lord, while mine are just lurid curiosity and the love of two New York teams that at one time actually won some football games. The Curé also would go to any expense to beautify his church with beautiful shrines and vestments. Nothing was spared for the Lord.
4. Poor in School. Vianney grew up on a farm and was unfamiliar with books, although “he reverenced books and regarded them as almost magical tools.” He struggled in school. Once when he didn’t know the answer to a question, a boy named Loras hit him in the face. “Vianney dropped to his knees and begged forgiveness. It deeply shamed the boy who went on to become the missionary Bishop Loras who the people of Iowa would regard as a saint.”
In seminary, Vianney failed his tests the first time. His wise bishop, seeing the holiness in the man, had him retested. This time the tests were taken in his home town and not in Latin, but in his native French. Vianney did well.
I had trouble passing tests in college myself, but because I had not yet discovered the philosophical truth that if one goes to taverns instead of class, the questions on the test will look like Latin.
5. Love of learning about the Faith. Completely dispelling the myth that he was ignorant and barely educated, Vianney had many books and read them all, particularly by the Church Fathers. If he had a brief time for recreational reading he would read “The Annals of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.”
While I can’t say this would be my first choice for “chillin’ out,” I do love learning everything I can about the Faith. It is like exploring a new alternative universe that I have just discovered and I want to uncover every inch of it—the saints, the writings, the art, the stories. I feel like a kid in the candy aisle of my grandfather’s store. Catholic radio and TV are on day and night, or I’m reading the Catholic blogs, or reading the Catholic authors, especially Father Rutler and G.K. Chesterton—another of the pivotal writers in my conversion.
The More Difficult Attainable Traits
Despite many of the Curé’s attributes that I can relate to, there are some that seem difficult to attain.
6. His Self-discipline. Vianney existed on only two hours sleep a night, and maintained a daily diet of a few potatoes and some milk. I don’t think I could function on that regime more than one day, if that long. A medical doctor who examined him ten years before his death commented that medical science cannot explain how Vianney was alive. Vianney responded, “When you are working for heaven, you don’t die of starvation.”
I do eat frugally, and if my grandmother, rest her soul, who lived on a farm in Ten Mile, Missouri, could see one of my meals of soybeans, alfalfa sprouts, and sunflower seeds she would lock me in the cellar as a lunatic. “That boy has gone to eatin’ livestock feed!”
7. His Miracles. Saint John Vianney performed many miracles of healing, attributing all the miracles to Saint Philomena. Once a boy came into the church with a large growth on his face. The Curé touched the boy’s face, and immediately the growth disappeared. Another time the school he established to teach the children was running desperately low on food. The holy priest prayed, and the next morning the store room was almost bursting with wheat.
My own supernatural feats could be described only as “anti-miracles”. I single-handedly wrecked a career, a marriage, and a life with drink and drugs. However, the Lord only let me fall 90% of the way. He just wanted to get my attention, so I would let the Hound of Heaven in my front door.
8. His Sacrifice. Vianney worked for his parish twenty-two hours a day, never taking a day off in the forty-one years he was a priest. He would hear confessions for up to 16 hours a day. He offered light penances in the Confessional, and did the penances himself. Once when a man blithely read off a list of sins, the Cure started weeping. When the man asked him why he was crying the saint replied, “I weep because you do not weep.”
My sacrifices pale in comparison. If I give to others for twenty-two minutes, sometimes that’s a good day. But today I’ll try for twenty-three. If I think of complaining I remember the Curé D’Ars’ words to complainers, “The greatest cross is to have no cross.” Something else that the Curé said that comforts and inspires me these days, “Don’t be afraid of your burdens. The good Lord carries them with you.”
9. His Holiness. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney grew up during the French Revolution and the secularists had outlawed the Catholic Church, killing 100,000 souls, many of them bishops, priests, and nuns. Vianney’s encounter with a priest was with men who had to sneak into barns to say the Mass, and eventually Baptize and Confirm him. Vianney learned that “a priest is someone who would die to become one.” He said of the Eucharist “I throw myself at the foot of the Tabernacle like a dog at the foot of his Master.” Vianney says of prayer, “It is like two friends living together.”
Vianney discerned his vocation while still on the farm. I discerned my vocation (my “anti-vocation”) early too. I idolized my hard-drinking, and hilarious uncle, and wanted to be just like him. Thankfully, twenty-seven years ago, the Lord changed my hard-drinking to hard “coffee” drinking, and “Communion” drinking five years ago.
10. His Humility and Lack of Anger. The two character traits go hand in hand. His humor is a product of his humility also. Once a petition by the priests in the area to remove him from the priesthood, because of his ignorance, was mistakenly sent to him. The saint signed it himself. Soon the other priests were at his door for confession. Another time as a missioner priest the little holy man, barely five feet two inches tall, had to speak to a packed church. He simply says, “At first I felt unnerved by the spectacle. However I began to speak of the love of God, and apparently everything went well: everybody wept.” Near the end of his life he said, “Good gracious! I have spent thirty-six years in Ars and I have never been cross, and now I am too old to begin.”
With me, it takes about thirty-six minutes before I get cross at something. However, just a few years ago it was more like thirty-six seconds. The good God keeps chiseling away on the block of stone that I am, trying to carve me into His own image. I bring this up last because I keep forgetting it. Is that because of bad memory, or pride? I can feel myself getting irritated about it already. In these instances I just imagine Saint John Vianney smiling at me with “that face of Ars and of the world renewed, and that smile that is as old as creations first Sabbath.”
Then again, I am still a work in progress. As the little saint would say, “The good God is very good.”
© 2013 Jamey Brown. All rights reserved.