The Irish Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010
St John Vianney can be an inspiration to Irish Catholics today, writes PHILIP BOYCE
THE IRISH Bishops’ Conference has arranged to have the relics of St John Mary Vianney, the patron saint for priests – known as the Curé of Ars – to be brought to Ireland for a four-day visit. It is is an opportunity for the whole church in this country to pray for priests.
The relics will make visits to Cork, Dublin, Knock and Armagh before returning to France on April 29th. There will be various ceremonies at each location as well as opportunities for veneration of the relic. In honouring John Vianney we are drawing closer to the God of John Vianney, the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:3), the one whom we all seek.
What is it about this saint that inspires us? Just outside Ars, near Lyons, is a statue commemorating his arrival there as parish priest in 1818. As he approached the village, he asked for directions. When he was given the information, he said gratefully, “You have shown me the way to Ars; now I will show you the way to Heaven.”
At that time Ars had a population of about 250 inhabitants. By the time he died in 1859 Ars was already a place of pilgrimage and renewal in the church with people flocking to pray with the famous parish priest and experience the mercy of God that he witnessed to, particularly in the confessional.
The life of this humble man was remarkable. The difficulties he had to overcome in order to be ordained a priest, his academic struggles, the obstacle of a dreaded military service, his extreme asceticism, his selfless generosity, his demanding and challenging preaching, the miracles associated with his pastoral service, his simple and direct style, all point to an extraordinary life and ministry.
Parish life in post-Napoleonic rural France was far from easy. The aggressive secularism, the fierce anti-clericalism and the spiritual decline following on the French Revolution meant that his ministry required perseverance and imagination, as well as deep spiritual resources. He addressed this with utter dedication and complete trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
In June 2009, the 150th anniversary of his death, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a Year for Priests aimed at deepening “the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a more forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world”.
Without this interior renewal the ministry and life of the priest is cut off from the very lifeblood that will sustain it.
In recent years the priesthood in Ireland has come under rigorous scrutiny. Scandals and a failure by bishops and religious superiors to deal adequately with them have sullied the outstanding work done by countless priests.
In his comprehensive Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, published on March 20th, Pope Benedict expressly mentions the discouragement and sense of abandonment that might be felt by priests as a result of being “tainted by association” with the terrible wrongdoing of other priests.
Also Pope Benedict commends to us John Mary Vianney and mentions his intercession for the priesthood. The Curé of Ars remarked that “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”.
Naturally, this love is not confined to the ministerial priesthood but is reflected in the priesthood of all the baptised.
No priest exists in isolation. Each is part of a community of believers. All are in need of continual renewal.
While John Mary Vianney clearly was a man of his generation we can still return to his life as a valuable source for reflection and inspiration. His life of prayer and penance, tireless service, care of the forgotten and ministry of Divine Mercy, all bring us deeper into the mystery of the love of the heart of Jesus revealed in the priesthood.
Bishop Philip Boyce is Bishop of Raphoe and chairman of the Episcopal Council for Clergy