09 March 2008

Le Curé D'Ars

St. Jean Marie Vianney’s life spanned a period of incredible turmoil, a time that saw no less than seven revolutions: born just before the Terror, he lived through the First Republic, the First Empire under Napoleon, the restoration of the House of Bourbon under Louis XVIII and Charles X, the July Monarchy that placed Louis Philippe d’Orléans on the throne, the Second Republic, and finally, the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Much of this political upheaval must have seemed very distant, however, to this priest in his country parish, whose days were spent confined within the walls of his confessional counseling and absolving the thousands who came to him.

The first official biography of the saint was written by Monsignor Trochu, published in France in 1925. I had the good fortune to read this inspiring work before our little pilgrimage to Ars. I translate portions below:

It was in the saddest days of 1794, a small distance from a suburb in Lyon called Dardilly. A troop of children amused themselves in a glen in Chante-Merle, a verdant crease between two hills. But how was it that children’s games could still exist in an epoch when all seemed to breathe sadness and grief? There had been formerly on the pathways of Dardilly calvaries built by pious forebears; destroyed on order of the revolutionary proconsul of Lyon, the famous Fouché, the crosses lay in the grass. The closed church was without a priest, without Mass, without the Eucharist; the tabernacle lamp no longer shone in the profaned sanctuary, the clock no longer rang… Yet the children were happy!

After having frolicked the length of the humble brook of the Planches which, among the iris, watercress, and mint, snaked to the bottom of Chante-Merle, all the little ones held silence. They were seated around a grassy knoll where one of them stood standing, ready, as it were, to address some words. And, in effect, the young boy (he was hardly eight years old) began to preach to his friends.

“To preach” is the word, for he repeated some verses from the gospel, some pious stories which were only snippets of sermons. Where thus had little Jean-Marie Vianney (thus was the name of this child) learned these things? Was it at catechism? By no means! Father Rey, the curé of Dardilly, had refused in 1791 to take the sacrilegious oath to the Constitution; the faithful priest was exiled in Italy. Jean-Marie only knew some of the catechism from what he had learned from his mother or from Catherine, his eldest sister.

But he had followed his parents, during the night, into the distant hills where some priests, hidden in disguise, could still celebrate the Mass. And there, with a great desire for instruction, he listened to these confessors of the faith who braved death to administer the sacraments and to give religious instruction to the persecuted Catholics.

One of those in Vianney’s audience, François Duclos, recounted later that the young Vianney preached principally on the obedience that a child should have towards his parents. He recommended also to all his friends, employed for the most part in keeping cows and sheep, never to get angry neither to quarrel among themselves, and to avoid rough talk and above all never to blaspheme.

Naturally, our young preacher repeated himself often, but it was in order to cry aloud, with the conviction of a true apostle, “Oh! My children, be good, be very good. Truly love the good God!” And although he called boys older than he by four or five years mixed in the audience “my children,” no one thought to laugh.

A repository was built in the hollow of an old willow tree. On some moss, among branches and flowers, stood a statuette of the Holy Virgin. This statuette belonged to Jean-Marie. This was his only treasure; having received it as a gift from his pious mother, he always carried it with him. All the children knelt before the roughly made altar. The “celebrant” commenced the Pater and the Ave that the “assembly of the faithful” together recited.

*******
Consecrated to the Holy Virgin before his birth, baptized the same day as he came into the world, May 8, 1786, Jean-Marie Vianney, fourth child of Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluse, his wife, was, from his first months, the favorite of his mother. As if she had had the presentiment of the exalted destiny of this little child, she applied herself with greater vigor in forming his spirit and his heart.

The little innocent was hardly twelve months old when already, before taking meals, she made him trace the sign of the cross with his little hand. And the child became so accustomed to it that he refused to eat or drink unless it was done.

Still quite young, he loved to join in with the family during evening prayer, which was recited together in front of the large chimney. And he would not go to sleep if his good mother did not embrace him and commend him to his guardian angel.

He had already grasped that religious truth must be lived out and practiced. Marguerite, the youngest of his sisters, reported that, around the age of four, one calm afternoon, Jean-Marie disappeared from the house and for some time, his mother, more and more worried, searched for him without finding him. In a moment, she trembled at the thought that he had fallen into the deep pool where the cattle drank. Finally, searching the stable more attentively, O surprise! She saw the little one profoundly recollected, kneeling in a dark corner before his statue of the Virgin, which he held elevated in his joined hands! The child was already tasting the sweetness of prayer and, to better savor it, had sought solitude.


To be continued...
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