05 March 2008

"There is a holy man in Ars; go see him."

We made a pilgrimage to the sleepy town of Ars, made famous by its Curé, St. Jean Vianney. An hour and a half south of Dijon by train, we took a taxi from Villefranche through the rambling countryside to Ars, surrounded by farmhouses and fields, a still-small town despite the pilgrims who have flocked here since the life and death of the holy priest. We were delighted to discover our lodging place, La Maison St-Jean, run by Franciscan Sisters, was directly behind the Curé’s presbytery and the Basilica.

On the way to Ars…

La Maison St-Jean

View from our window. Although it had gotten up to 52 degrees, on a fluke, a passing snowstorm swirled through Ars for about 15 minutes, then disappeared as quickly as it had come. We could hear the children in the street shrieking with surprise.

To the left is the little shrine dedicated to the universal priestly patronage of St. Jean Vianney; behind it, the building with the green shutters is the current presbytery for the many priests who reside in Ars. To the right of the Basilica you can see the red bell tower of the original church, and directly before the Basilica is the brown rooftop of the Curé’s house.

From this passage to his garden and kitchen, le saint Curé made his short way across to the church and to the confessional, where the pilgrims were waiting (some for days). Sometimes, when a visitor had a particularly urgent need, or simply wanted to catch a glimpse of this holy priest, the visitor would wait in this passageway until the Curé came out.

On one occasion, a grieving widow found herself here with other pilgrims; On returning from the presbytery, smiling in welcome, St. Jean Vianney scanned his eyes over the crowd and immediately sensed this poor woman’s grief. He, who was known to have supernatural light, told her simply, “He is saved, Madame; he is saved. Between the bridge and the water, he was given the grace to make an act of contrition; it was obtained for him by Our Lady. He is in Purgatory, and he needs prayer; but he is saved.” The lady went away stunned and weeping with joy, her grief cured.

View of the Basilica from St. Jean Vianney’s garden

The Basilica is directly across the way from the Curé’s house

The Curé’s confessional, dismantled and placed behind glass after his death.

In addition to his mortifications (he wore a hairshirt day and night, and performed nightly penance for his pauvres pecheurs with a whip of chains), his extreme asceticism (it is said he did not eat, humanly speaking, enough to survive, and thus his very existence was a marvel), his apostolate was the confessional; there he shut himself up twelve to eighteen hours a day and heard, counseled, and absolved the thousands of penitents who came from all over France to unburden themselves to him. News of his fame spread throughout France by word-of-mouth: “There is a holy man in Ars; go see him.” As many as 20,000 pilgrims came per year to Ars.

St. Jean Vianney’s room, where he slept between two to four hours per night, frequently awakened by preternatural crashes and thundering made by the devil, furious that souls were being snatched away from him. The noises were so loud his neighbors in the surrounding farmhouses could hear them. The Curé endured these nightly furies for thirty-five years.

Although this was his proper bedroom, he often spent nights in a moldy side room where he would sleep on a rough straw mattress; he did this in penance for poor sinners.

His daily habillements

Although the Curé lived in humble simplicity and poverty, repairing his soutane with patches of black cloth, sleeping on a mattress of straw, and eating almost nothing, he insisted that the Mass be said with the utmost dignity and beauty, and thus ordered only the most ornate vestments, vessels, and altar pieces as he thought befitting Our Lord. During the consecration, he was known to shed an abundance of tears.

Three times the Curé tried to flee Ars, his highest desire to enclose himself in a monastery and spend his days alone adoring the Blessed Sacrament. Each time, he returned out of duty and obedience, and for love of the poor sinners who came seeking light and consolation from his confessional. In one attempt at flight, leaving at midnight, going some distance through the fields, he came across the stone cross he had first encountered upon arriving to Ars many years ago. There, at the foot of the cross, he remembered the souls he was leaving behind, and in tears, obedient, he returned. All told, he spent forty-one years in the village.

His kitchen, where he would receive guests

The presbytery garden

La Providence, St. Jean Vianney’s most cherished work. It became an orphanage and school for girls, who were taught the faith and given the love denied them by their own parents. Many of these girls, once grown, went to join the religious life. When the orphanage was shut down in 1847, it was one of the heaviest trials the Curé had to bear.

Behind the presbytery garden, the oven used to bake bread for the orphanage is located. One of St. Jean Vianney’s miracles took place here: the orphanage had been almost emptied of food, so the Curé prayed intensely that God would provide for his children. When the baker went to add water to the handful of flour remaining the next day, after kneading it, it rose and increased such that he was able to bake enough bread to feed all of the orphans.

During the Jubilee of 1843, a successful mission was preached by a fellow priest, and St. Jean Vianney erected this cross in honor of that day.

St. Jean Vianney’s deathbed; he continued to hear confessions up to three days before his death, when he was ordered to rest. He died at age 73, as simply and as humbly as he had lived.

St. Jean Vianney was declared the patron saint of all priests of France, and later the patron saint of priests everywhere. A shrine was built in honor of his universal patronage of his fellow servants at the Altar, and the guestbook within only welcomes the signatures of priests.

Inside the shrine, the Tabernacle is flanked by two golden angels, and the heart of John Vianney rests behind a glass case in the door.

View of the Basilica of St. Sixtus from a side allée. The original church, founded in the tenth century, was dedicated to Pope St. Sixtus. When the Curé arrived to Ars in 1818, it was in crumbling ruins. He rebuilt it, partly with material he purchased himself. After his death, a sumptuous cathedral was built in the Curé’s honor, which houses the incorrupt saint.

Buried in 1869, the Curé was exhumed in 1905, and his body was as fresh as the day it was interred.

St-Jean Vianney, priez pour nous!

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