St. John Vianney, whose feast day is Aug. 4, is also known as St. Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney and the Cure of Ars. He was born in 1786 in Lyons, France, into a devout Catholic family. It was a time of terrible upheaval. The French Revolution was under way, churches were being closed and priests were being killed.
Young John spent much of his youth on the farm as a shepherd boy. He was inspired by a good and holy priest, experienced a call by God and enrolled in the seminary, but the road to ordination was extremely difficult. It was interrupted by illness and military service.
When he was able to resume his studies, they did not come easily. Latin was difficult for him to grasp, and because courses were taught in Latin, he “flunked out” and was dismissed. Fortunately, a local priest, Father Abbe Balley, tutored him and told seminary officials, “His goodness was sufficient to offset his deficiencies in learning.” The priest’s recommendation was accepted and John was ordained a priest in 1815 at the age of 29.
Father Vianney spent the first two years of his priesthood (1815-1817) as the associate pastor and understudy of Father Balley, his mentor. Then in 1817 Father Vianney was appointed pastor of a small parish in Ars, France, a remote village with a population of approximately 230, and he served in Ars for the next 42 years until his death in 1859 at the age of 73.
Father Vianney was the “Cure” or “Curate” of Ars, the pastor or priest responsible for the care of the faithful. He visited the homes of his parishioners and was a kindly man who loved his people. He also was an animated preacher, denouncing religious indifference, immorality, immodesty, drunkenness and dishonesty.
Despite his shortcomings as a student, he proved an effective teacher and expertly explained the fundamentals of the faith with the catechism. He spent long hours in prayer himself and taught people to talk with God in much the same way that two friends talk back and forth. He had a heart for the poor and established an orphanage.
Father Vianney proved to be such an effective spiritual counselor that his reputation spread widely. He is one of the greatest confessors in church history, often hearing confessions for 10 to 12 hours per day in the wintertime and up to 16 hours per day during the summer months.
Father Vianney practiced rigorous penance and self-mortification, primarily through extended fasts which caused him to be thin and gaunt in appearance. Over the second half of his life he suffered greatly: spiritual attacks from the devil; belittling and accusatory comments from members of the clergy; and personal self-doubt because of what he called “my ignorance.”
He died in 1859, and in 1925 Pope Pius XI both canonized John Vianney as a saint and named him the patron of parish priests.