Who is your patron saint? We Catholics appreciate and rely on our patron saints as role models, intercessors, and—let’s be honest—trusted friends who are there to lend an ear when times are tough. Patron saints are yet another example of the fact that Catholicism is incarnational; that is, ours is not a faith of ideas in our heads. Rather, it is a faith founded on Jesus who became fully human while remaining fully divine, walked among us in the ups and downs of daily life, and thankfully continues to walk with us each day. In this family of believers, we are blessed to have friends and role models whom we call saints. The very name explains the reality. A saint is not a holy card or superhero. A saint is someone whose life is rooted in God. That is what holiness is—not a saccharine “holier than thou.” This being grounded in God is at the core of the person who then lives in a way that exemplifies this relationship with God in service to others, and so inspires us to do the same.
For priests—especially diocesan priests—one of our patron saints is Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, born in southern France in 1786, and whose feast we celebrate on August 4 each year. He was raised in the midst of the godlessness and, therefore, chaos—of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries sought to create a society of their own making, without God, which then became a society inimical to God. What resulted was not fraternité, egalité, and liberté, but a fractured society rather than fraternity, inequity rather than egality, and the deprivation of basic human rights which led to the guillotine. Does any of this sound familiar?
We are living in a society that has not only forgotten God, but is seeking to do away with Him as we make ourselves our god. The anger we see on a daily basis, the meteoric rise in crime, and the agenda driven legislation and rhetoric that denies the basic right to life of the unborn child; all these are our French Revolution, which leads to the guillotine of abortion and euthanasia. And that’s why we need to walk with St. Jean-Marie Vianney this summer.
Like most of your parish priests, Jean-Marie Vianney grew up in a working-class family that struggled to meet its bills, feed its children, and keep going in daily life. Like most of your parish priests, Jean-Marie Vianney grew up in a family where faith was the bedrock that kept them going amidst the ups and downs of their own lives and the life of France at that time. Jean-Marie had to work from an early age to help support the family, and his parents’ initial reaction to his desire to become a priest was a mixture of approval and concern. Studies were not easy for Jean-Marie, and it looked as if he might be rejected for the seminary. But there was something about this young man that made his superiors take a chance on him—a “brightness” of God’s spirit in the holiness of his life that shone more than the “book brightness” that is easier to measure.
Jean-Marie persevered through the difficulties and disappointments of his studies. In 1817, after only two years as an assistant in a parish, he was made pastor of the remote town of Ars—in the middle of nowhere, desperately poor, and suffering from the effects of the godlessness of the Revolution. The new pastor brought the experience of his family life to the life of his new family, his parish. He walked the streets of the village, journeyed out to those on the outskirts, engaged any and all whom he met in conversation, and remained steadfast to the truth of our Faith in the example of his own life. It was no new, radical, or innovative method—it was, after all, what Jesus did.
Following the example of Jesus, Jean-Marie healed the woundedness of Ars. He spent hours in the confessional imparting God’s forgiveness and hope with an empathy that made people realize their need for forgiveness and so want to confess and be absolved. Jean-Marie preached the great truths of the Faith with a simplicity and directness so that everyone would not only understand, but also be able to embrace and live a truly Catholic life. And because Jean-Marie walked the streets of Ars and the lanes of the local countryside, he knew and figured out how to answer the practical needs of his people, despite the challenges they faced together.
And all this is why St. Jean-Marie Vianney is the patron of parish priests. What Jesus did, what St. John Vianney continued, is what we as your parish priests are called to do each day.
In the three and a half years I have been Vicar for Clergy, a lot has happened. Sadly, we have all heard of the scandals and the sins, the low numbers and low morale, the uncertainty for the future and the way we all too often doubt ourselves. But what I’ve really come to appreciate is that the vast majority of our priests are the image of St. John Vianney— walking among the people, bringing the gift of Jesus’ forgiveness and hope, and working with them to answer the practical needs of our family of faith. My brother priests answer the call to service with inspiring courage and willingness.
Fittingly—or perhaps better said: yet another example of our incarnational Catholicism—August 5, the day following the Feast of St. Jean-Marie Vianney—is a feast of Our Lady, the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major at Rome. As with all the feasts of the dedications of churches, be they Roman basilicas or our own parish churches, we are not celebrating a building. What we celebrate is that we are a family of faith. Our family home, be it our parish church or the churches that are home to the universal family of faith we call Catholicism, is where this incarnational faith of ours is celebrated, nurtured, and lived. Jean-Marie Vianney took his name seriously. He knew that Mary is the model of true holiness, and with Her maternal help, true holiness is possible.
So, on August 4 and 5, please pray for your parish priests. Ask Mary, the Mother of Priests and the Mother of the Church, to keep our parish priests faithful, dedicated, and untiring in serving the family of the parish. And ask St. Jean-Marie Vianney to inspire our priests to true holiness by walking with us in our parishes, encouraging us in the confessional, and faithfully preaching that it is God who rules—not the French Revolution we’re re-living today.