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As we draw closer to his Feast Day, I remember my own arrival
to Ars, a little over a year ago, as part of a diocesan pilgrimage for the closing
of the Year for Priests, and how joyful and fun that day was. There were over
10,000 of us, coming from all the dioceses of the Central/Eastern part of France,
converging on the village of Ars, in dozen and dozen of buses for a one day
retreat. Our group had decided to get off the bus for the last 3 miles and walked
through the countryside, which is what we did, walking and singing pass the
lovely fields of mustard flowers, the green woods and the gentle rolling hills.
Every diocese had been given a color scarf and ours was gold and it felt exciting
to be part of such a large group with a common intent. We were on a journey
to Ars to honor and celebrate the good that "le Curé d'Ars" did - and is still
doing thanks to the communion of saints - in this little village which was changed
forever 150 years ago.
I have known and loved Saint Jean Vianney for quite a long time. I think that one of the first thing that attracted me to him, when I was a child, was to learn that he himself struggled with Latin and right there, a personal connection was established! I heard about Ars although I never went there while growing up but this little village is not far from where I was born, Roanne, which is less than 50 miles away, and which is where I spent my early childhood before moving to the French Alps. My grand-mother (who gave me the foundations of the faith) spoke often about the Curé d'Ars and told me the amazing life story of this very humble priest.
As we were approaching Ars on this sunny afternoon of May 2010, I wondered if he had been on this very country road 150 years ago? It is entirely possible that it is the one he took the day when he tried to "run away" from his parish and from its heavy toll… I found it very endearing to know that he (almost) walked away from it all. I know that he turned around and came back so I see this incident as a tribute to his courage and fortitude, his perseverance. I found this moment of faltering as another personal connection with him. The importance is not in the wavering, in the hesitations or in the doubts, but in what we do with them, and I just love the fact that he came back and persisted.
Fortitude? Yes, that is the right word and it is a word not used frequently nowadays…
My grand mother used to tell me about the long lines of people waiting outside the confessional booth. It is mentioned in all the books written about him and it is definitively a hallmark of his pastoral work. He brought many souls closer to God in helping them to confess and understand their sins. He drew people to Ars just to confess (just as Padre Pio did in Italy a century later). He inspired so much trust and hope in all these people that they were willing to wait for hours on end. This charism of his is very close to "spiritual direction", it is the ability to assist people through their own hesitations and awkwardness, to help them understand what they have done and failed to do, to see it all under the light of God's judgment and God's love. It is quite a blessing of perspicacity and charity to be able to help others like he did, softening their hearts and opening up their wills to repentance. Because the truth is that the process of repentance brings much hope, it brings interior peace and healing, it opens up many doors, it is truly a grace filled moment… And Saint Jean Vianney had this amazing gift to be able to guess people's thoughts before they had even fully articulated them, he would help them probe their own conscience and search their own memory, and gently but firmly bring it all together like pieces of a puzzle. Under his guidance, everything would become coherent and meaningful.
Repentance? Yes, that is the right word and it is another word not used often nowadays…
I read how upset he was about the drinking and dancing that went on in Ars. He knew that it is often through these types of entertainment that the tempter gets a foothold in our life. The Curé d'Ars used to resent the fascination that such activities held on the youth of Ars or the addiction that compelled husbands to go out and drink their pay away. He never downplayed these forms of entertainment as innocent fun. I must admit that I wonder what he would say today where there is a whole industry born out of our craving for "entertainment" and feeding into our consumer habits, whether it be TV, movies, videos games, computers, music, iPods, iTunes, blackberries or Netflix… Once, I read a book about the negative impact of a society addicted to distractions and the title said it all: "Amusing ourselves to death"…
Entertainment! Here is a word we are all familiar with nowadays, there is no escaping it.
When I was reading about the Curé d'Ars spending hours in that cramped and stiffly hot confessional, I wanted to bring him a little pillow for his back! But then I remembered how he eschewed comfort. He used to take the mattress out of his bed before going to sleep and he only ate the bare necessity, which was often a steady diet of potato pancakes. This is possibly what is the hardest thing for me to grasp in regards to the Curé d'Ars. I understand part of it only. I understand that seeking comfort or material wellbeing is not bad in itself and that he was only practicing self-denial the way I am able to do it (on a much smaller scale!) during Lent: as a physical mean to spiritual growth, as an effort to grow in the love of God and love of neighbor by denying the love of self. I understand this in my head and in my heart but the flesh is weak… I assume that because the Curé d'Ars was holy, his entire life was much more prepared than mine to "live" his faith. I get glimpse of what it must be and it is entirely possible that it is not just the flesh that is weak but the will. And I do know that the will can be trained and exercised, just like a muscle. For that matter, I remember that when Mother Teresa arrived in San Francisco to open a center for her Daughters, she insisted on taking the new carpet out saying that if they did not live like the poor they wanted to serve, they would not be able to understand them and love them.
Comfort! Here is a word we are all familiar with nowadays, there is no denying it.
The Curé d'Ars was the most humble and generous soul in that particular place at that particular time. His own faithfulness, humility and zeal for strengthening our souls live on today. The saints are the champions of the faith and God puts them in our path for our own good. In this global village of ours which is unfolding today, the challenges and the joys are the same than in Ars 150 years ago, there is still the possibility to bring extraordinary goodness out of ordinary but courageous efforts and there is still the need to resist the constant avalanche of distractions and the misuse of comfort.
He himself was very much aware of the true source of his gifts and his successes and he always assigned them to God and to the intercession of the Holy Mother of God or Ste Philomena, never to his own merits or efforts. And that is because he had such a clear understanding of the role of the priesthood as shepherds of souls and because he knew the goal of our lives here on earth.
As Pope Benedict XVI said at the opening of the Year for Priests: "Who, therefore, saves the world and man? The only answer we can give is: Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ, crucified and resurrected. And where is the mystery realized of the death and resurrection of Christ, which brings salvation? In the action of Christ through the Church, in particular in the sacrament of reconciliation, in which from the death of sin one returns to the new life… it is also necessary, following the example of the Holy Curé d'Ars, to be available, generous and attentive in giving the faithful the treasure of grace that God has placed in our hands, and of which we are not the "owners" but custodians and administrators.
Saint Jean Vianney,
increase our fortitude and renew our repentance,
help us resist distractions and give up some comfort,
for the life of the world and the life of our souls!
Copyright ©2011 Michèle Szekely