By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
The simple man who turned a revolution on its head
Placeholder Image
On Friday, we priests of the Stockton Diocese capped off a conference on more effective leadership.  As any pastor will tell you, balancing the varied demands of ministry is very difficult, and as any one of our parishioners is more than happy to remind us, we can always lead in more effective ways.

On Thursday evening, we marked the closing of the year dedicated (in the Catholic Church) to priestly ministry with a special mass in the Cathedral.

As we gathered with three hundred believers from across the valley, front and center was not only the Crucifix, and not only the altar of sacrifice, but as well a very unusual relic.  In a gold vessel with round glass windows, set between two tall candles, it remained there, a silent reminder of our calling.

As you may already know, a relic is a physical reminder of a holy person who has passed on to their reward.  Whether an article of clothing, a prayer book or rosary, or even part of their hair or body, this tangible means of remembering the mortal presence of the saints can bring with it more than simply inspiration.  In the Bible, pieces of cloth which had touched Paul’s skin had the power to cure the sick and drive out demons (Acts 19:12), a woman touching Jesus’ garment was healed dramatically (Luke 8:40-48), others who did the same were healed (Matthew 14:36) and even the shadow of St. Peter passing over the sick carried supernatural anointing (Acts 5:15).

I remember, in my childhood, how hysterical crowds of teenage girls went after the Beatles’ clothing.  If you visit most homes today, you’ll find any number of things carrying sentimental value because they were connected to someone deeply loved or of great fame and importance.  So as I gazed at that relic in the golden container before us on Thursday, I understood that the Church was just reminding us that all of Creation is meant to be sacred.

An incorrupt human heart
It was a human heart, incorrupt.  It had belonged to St. Jean-Marie Vianney.

Born just three years before the French Revolution of 1789, little Jean was a devout child who would struggle with his studies throughout his youth.

But one thing became clear to him early on: the new regime had enthroned the new god, “Reason”, and soon turned with bloodthirsty, paranoiac, and ultimately insane vengeance against any and all perceived enemies of the Revolution.  From June 27, 1793 until July 27, 1794, thousands of suspected “enemies” were exiled, imprisoned, or guillotined.  Among these were the vast majority of bishops, priests, and religious brothers and sisters who had served the Catholics of France, and now refused to compromise their faith.

Jean-Marie eventually was conscripted into military service. Napoleon’s army, in its campaign against Spain, needed all the recruits it could muster.

He would doubtless have perished in battle, given his temperament, but he never made it there.  Having stopped to pray that morning, he missed the departure of his regiment.  And on the road later that day, trying to catch up with the soldiers under the penalty of desertion, he was met by a young man who led him, rather than to battle, to a hideaway of military deserters.

Fourteen months later, he braced himself and returned home.  Terrified, his father urged him to turn himself in, but his younger brother offered himself in Jean-Marie’s stead, and by serving in the military redeemed his brother.

Finally, after innumerable difficulties in his studies, Jean-Marie was blessed by another intervention.  A mentor saw in his simplicity an extraordinary holiness, and intervened so that the high academic standards were waived.

Ordained at the age of 29, Vianney was soon assigned in 1818 to a remote village named Ars, not far from Lyons.  The authorities, both of church and of the anti-Catholic government, thought he wouldn’t do much harm in the little parish.  As it turned out, his intense devotion and his freedom from the need for human approval gave him the courage to confront the worldly lifestyle and pagan mentality of his parishioners.  With time, he prevailed.

He founded an orphanage, “Providence”, with minimal support and hardly any funding.  They lived, indeed, entirely by providence.  He challenged his people to convert.  At first, no one showed up for confessions.  He went out to challenge them in their homes.  By 1835, Ars became France’s capital for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  He pleaded with his flock to put an end to their excessive drinking, their provocative dancing, their immodest dress, their gossip and their infidelity.  By the time he died at 73, Ars had become a famous place of pilgrimage, in which people lived holy lives.

On October 3rd, 1874, the Curé of Ars was proclaimed Venerable by Pius IX and on January 8, 1905, he was enrolled among the Blessed.  Pope Pius X proposed him as a model to the parochial clergy; he remains to this day the patron saint of all parish priests.  Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1925.

On that sweltering Friday in Rome, when on June 11 we 15,000 priests from around the world gathered with our bishops, cardinals, and the Holy Father Benedict XVI, Saint Jean-Marie Vianney was there with us.  Hung high on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the portrait of his smiling face beamed down upon us, welcoming us, and calling us all to humble service.

A strange patron, I thought, for priests so burdened with administrative details, with organization and paperwork and meetings beyond numbering.

We who must maintain financial accounts and answer to the IRS, who run parishes far, far larger than was the entire town of Ars, who fly from place to place and drive countless miles in the fulfillment of our duties;  -we who study for years, at times completing major degrees before moving into the multiple ministries that enable the modern church to carry out its mission…

The heart of a saint
What could we learn, in our complicated pastoral tasks, from this “Curé”?

There are many more sophisticated saints who could serve as role-models.

But then again, as I sat there Thursday night among dozens of other priests during that mass of re-dedication, listening to the homily given by the one who currently serves as the Curé of Ars - that is, to the pastor of that very same church where Jean-Marie Vianney served, the bearer of the heart and of the message from the heart of that humble revolutionary - I couldn’t help but remember that beloved Quaker song: “’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free…” and recall my first inspiration when I first heard God calling.

And, gazing upon that miniature purple heart, set like velvet in its humble throne of glass and metal, displayed on a wooden table before the altar of our beautiful Cathedral, I couldn’t help feeling something stirring in my own pastor’s heart.  It was as if I heard once again, from within me, the words of St. Paul to Timothy: “…I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God bestowed when my hands were laid on you.  The Spirit God has given us is no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise.

“Therefore, never be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake, but with the strength which comes from God bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails.”  (2 Timothy 1:6-8)

What made this particularly moving, beyond the scriptures and the music and the Eucharist and the presence of my bishop, brother priests, and many faithful Catholics from far and wide, was the fact that, nearly fifteen years ago, I had laid prostrate on the floor just ten feet from where I was sitting.

Then, it was Bishop Montrose - may he rest in peace - who, on behalf of the entire Church, ordained us three to ministry, challenging us to holiness.

But another sacred encounter came back to mind: just five days before, on Saturday, July 10, I sat in the Gallo Performing Arts Center, in the chair belonging to Mary Gallo, not far from our Bishop, to watch an inspiring dramatic presentation on the life of St. Jean-Marie Vianney.  Next to me sat the current Curé of Ars.  In a black bag he held was the heart of the saint.  Unseen, I put my hand over that heart.  I could swear it was beating.