The Life of Blessed John Marie Vianney, Chapter I, Childhood and Youth of the Saintly Curé

Jean Baptist Marie Vianney, afterwards to become famous as the curé of Ars, was born May 8th, 1786, at Dardilly, in the South of France, not far from the City of Lyons, and was the fourth child of humble country folks.

His father, Mathieu Vianney, and his mother, Marie Beluse, possessed some land adjoining their simple dwelling. Despite the fact that they were not rich they practiced the greatest hospitality toward the poor and needy. With joyful wonder the youthful Jean beheld, evening after evening, a number of poor and needy wayfarers entertained at the family meal. Not infrequently the elder Vianney would bestow his own share upon some belated arrival. This noble example made a profound impression upon the boy’s pious disposition. Of his own accord he would go out to greet the needy travelers, opening the door for them and otherwise assisting them, and would even carry their torn garments to his mother, in order that she might mend them. By other kindly service he showed his sympathy with the poor and distressed who made their way to his father’s house.

Jean had inbibed a love of piety with his mother’s milk. The names of Jesus and Mary were the very first words to pass his baby lips. The first movement of his little hands, taught him by his mother, was to make the sign of the cross. Even as a child of four or five years Jean would retire to a place of solitude where, as the record says, “he spoke with the angel guardian.”

As he grew up he occupied himself with the work of the farm, minding the cattle and doing other humble work. When in after years his name was mentioned with pious admiration by numberless Christians, Father Vianney was wont to recall his early years, saying: “How happy was I, when I only had to care for my three sheep and my donkey. Then indeed I could pray to God according to my heart’s desire.”

Just as the boy arrived at the age of reason the churches of France, in consequence of the outbreak of the Revolution, were closed, and the priests banished. This was a severe trial for so devout a child, for at that early age he was sensible of the high importance of the Apostolic teaching, and in his eagerness to promote the love of God he gathered the village children about him and preached impressive sermons to them in his simple but earnest way.

The young missionary became acquainted in those evil days with many worthy priests, men who counted the threats and fury of the revolutionary heroes as nothing, when it was a question of saving souls and so unnoticed the fervent desire took possession of the boy’s soul that he might one day be a priest and work for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. It was during those darkest hours for the Church in France, that Jean, with a number of other children, met in private to be prepared for the reception of his First Holy Communion. With what holy rapture did he approach the table of the Lord. That event was ever held in cherished remembrance by all who participated in it.

Many years elapsed from the day the youth received his First Holy Communion to that other day when he began his studies for the priesthood. Divine Providence willed, first of all, that his piety should be trained under the guidance of his good and worthy parents. His daily work was divided between prayer and work, or, to speak more correctly, his work was a continuous prayer. The life of his Divine Master, with its miracles and sufferings, supplied him with inexhaustible material for meditation. At the close of the day’s work and in the company of his mother and sister Catherine, he read the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the Saints.

Being an extremely diligent and painstaking worker, and because of his uniform meekness of character, he was a great favorite at home as well as among his companions outside. Even upon boys who took no pains to be good, Jean’s purity of heart made such an impression that they would cease their disedifying conversation whenever he approached.

Meanwhile Jean had hoped and prayed that he might become a priest, but he completed his seventeenth year without having yet begun his education so necessary to the fulfillment of his desire. Such a result seemed to be all the more impossible of accomplishment inasmuch as his father declared point_blank that he had no money to spare for his son’s education.

In 1805, however, a ray of light appeared. The churches were re- opened following the conclusion of the concordat, and the Rev. Father Bailey, one of the zealous missionaries of the period, was appointed pastor of Ecully, a village adjacent to Dardilly. One of his early works wras the establishment of a seminary for the education of youth for the priesthood. With his father’s approval, Jean, then 19 years old, presented himself to Father Bailey. The latter had been aware for a long time of the young man’s great piety, received him most kindly and admitted him as a student.

Thus it came about that Jean sat in class with boys much younger than he was. Had he been under instruction sooner it would not have been so very hard for him to learn, as he had a fair capacity for ordinary studies. But because he was only beginning at an age when most youths have already mastered the rudiments, his studies occasioned him much trouble; he was slow to learn and what he did learn he retained only imperfectly. The study of Latin was for him particularly difficult.

In his need he turned to the Blessed Virgin and to Saint Francis Regis, the Apostle of Vivarais, to whom he had been devoted since childhood. He undertook a pilgrimage to the latter’s tomb at Louvesc to beseech his help. His faithful confidence was rewarded and from that time on he experienced fewer difficulties in his studies. When, in after years, Jean was appointed pastor at Ars, he gratefully remembered the saint’s assistance and brought his statue into the parish church and zealously promoted devotion to him.

Hardly had Jean begun his studies when an unfortunate obstacle arose. Napoleon I, at that time holding the destiny of France in his hands, needed troops for his Spanish campaign. These were raised by conscription, and notwithstanding the pleadings of his relatives and of several influential persons, Jean was drawn for military service. The sorrow which he experienced at this sudden interruption in his studies was so acute that he became seriously ill and had to be taken to the hospital, first at Lyons and later at Roanne, the troops meantime having departed for the Pyrenees. As a matter of fact it came about that after a long absence from home, Jean was enabled to return to his native village without having performed any actual military services.

In 1812, after close application to his studies, Jean was so far advanced as to be permitted to commence the study of philosophy at Verrieres. He was now in his twenty-seventh year, and there found himself one of two hundred pupils, all younger than he. Another bitter trial now awaited him, for, a few weeks afterwards, he was declared disqualified to take the course in philosophy in the Latin tongue, and with six other students he had to attend this course in the French language.

Not infrequently he was made the butt of his fellow students’ ridicule, yet he was never aroused to anger. Instead, these annoyances only served to increase his acts of devotion. Still greater trials, however, were in store for him. Before being admitted into the great seminary of Lyons to make his preparation for Holy Orders, he was required to submit to an examination in philosophy. This took place in the presence of the archbishop and his council. When the questions, presented in Latin, were put to him his memory wholly failed, and in sheer confusion he could answer nothing, so overawed was he by the presence of the distinguished visitors. Accordingly, he alone of all the candidates was dismissed as unfit to enter the seminary. Imagine how hard a blow this must have been to Jean. All his work of the preceding eight years appeared to have been unsuccessful.

In that time of trial Vianney’s confidence in God remained unshaken and he was rewarded by finding a friend in the person of his old pastor, Father Bailey, who, better acquainted with the character and qualifications of his protege, induced the authorities to examine Jean privately the following day. This examination was held before the vicar-general of the archdiocese and the regent of the theological seminary, and was so satisfactory that Jean was now permitted to enter the seminary for the course of theology, in 1814.

As an inmate of the seminary his career was remarkable more for the piety of his life than for the brilliancy of his intellect. The regent, however, who recognized Vianney’s sterling worth, gave him for his room-mate a fellow student of marked ability who took pains to assist Vianney in his studies, and thus aided, Jean advanced toward the time of his ordination. At that time, 1814, there was a great need of priests and, for this reason, it was planned that Vianney, with other alumni should receive subdeacon’s orders in the approaching month of July. But the authorities hesitated. How could they admit to the higher orders one so poorly qualified? This question the vicar- general saw fit to settle for himself, and, after examining Vianney thoroughly, he announced with complacency: “You know as much as many a country pastor.”

The vicar-general, however, had previously conferred with the superior of the seminary and had asked him: “Is young Vianney pious? Is he devoted to the Blessed Virgin?” The authorities were able to assure him fully upon these points. “Then,” said the vicar-general, “I will receive him. Divine grace will do the rest.” Thus, on July 2d, 1814, Vianney received subdeacon’s orders and about twelve month’s later those of deacon. In August, of the year 1815, he was raised to the dignity of the priesthood by the bishop of Grenoble, representing the archbishop of Lyons, who was at that time in Rome.

Vianney was then twenty-nine years old. The bishop had expressed the hope that the newly ordained would prove to be an efficient laborer in the Master’s vineyard. Divine Providence, however, had much more than this in store for the newly consecrated priest, for he was to become a model, whom Holy Church was one day to present to the entire clergy of the Catholic world for imitation.

The Blessed Vianney, in his humility, constantly realized and lamented his imperfections. The sublime ideals of the priesthood and in particular those of a pastor charged with the care of souls living in the world, were ever present to him. Later in life he declared that a true pastor should ever be guided by two principles: (1), he should never permit himself to think that he can accomplish nothing in his parish, no matter for how long a time his efforts may have appeared unfruitful and, (2), he should never consider that he has done enough, no matter how much he may have accomplished.

In order to perfect himself Father Vianney took another course in moral theology from the pious and experienced Father Bailey. To him Jean Baptist Vianney was appointed vicar. He lived with him in the parish house and took a zealous part in his pastor’s practices and mortifications. They read the breviary together and, during the day, frequently united in expressions of ardent love to the good God. Together they spent hours at a time in adoration before the Tabernacle. In company with his pastor, Father Vianney took his scanty meal, and his little income passed entirely into the hands of the poor. Articles of clothing which had been given to him for his own use went the same way. He was literally possessed of nothing except the clothes which he wore. With his worthy pastor he made daily visits to the poor and needy of the village and neighborhood, comforting and relieving them as much as possible. It took only a short time for his old friend and pastor, Father Bailey, to realize that he was entertaining a saint.

In December, 1817, Father Bailey was taken from his parishioners by death. It was generally hoped that Vicar Vianney would be his successor, but God had other designs. Before the question was settled, death had removed the pastor of the little village of Ars who had only recently taken charge. Thereupon, the vicar-general of the archdiocese sent Father Vianney there, saying, as he wished him Godspeed: “My friend, you are going to a small parish where very little of the love of God can be seen. You are now to enkindle the flame of Divine charity there!”

Most assuredly the vicar-general, in speaking thus, did not dream that in a few decades the little village of Ars would become a glowing hearth of Divine love, spreading its warmth over the entire country.