St. John Vianney was an extremist. Ordained to the priesthood in 1815 at age 29 -- a late vocation mainly because of his lack of academic ability -- he was sent to the French village of Ars.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the people of the village had strayed far from the church and lived a most dissolute lifestyle. But with his own lifestyle of poverty, prayer and a love of the Lord, the Cure of Ars slowly brought the people back to God.
He lived a life of intense renunciation, going through one six-year period eating nothing but boiled potatoes. He often spent 18 hours a day hearing confessions. Today, that would be time spent alone. But in 19th century France, people came from far and wide to have their confessions heard by the Cure of Ars.
He had horrible wrestling matches with the devil in which he was physically attacked and household items were smashed. His brother priests thought Vianney was a lunatic. But Pope Pius XI decided otherwise, canonizing him in 1925 and, four years later, making him the patron saint of parish priests.
All the baptized are called to holiness, but most especially priests. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Gregory Nazianzus who gave one reason for this special call: "We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others."
The Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests goes on at some length about the call to priests to live holy lives. It adds another reason to that given in the Catechism for priests to be holy: "They are consecrated to God in a new way in their ordination and are made the living instruments of Christ the eternal priest" (no. 12).
Indeed the holiness of the priest is the key to the fruitfulness of his ministry. "God ordinarily prefers to show his wonders through those men who are more submissive to the impulse and guidance of the Holy Spirit," wrote the fathers of Vatican II. So it was with St. John Vianney. During his lifetime, he brought thousands of people back to God.
But not only ought the priest to be holy, but his very work fosters his holiness. Priests are ministers of both the Word of God and the sacred mysteries. To be a faithful minister of the Word, one must read the Word of God and meditate on it. Such meditation should prompt an examination of one's own life and a desire to live it in ways that are ever more faithful to Christ and his church.
As ministers of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, priests "are invited to imitate what they handle," according to Vatican II. As Christ willingly accepted punishment for sins he did not commit, so should his ministers. A willing embrace of suffering and mortification goes strongly against the grain for any human being. Our nature rebels against it. But a holy person seeks to overcome that rebellion of the flesh and to accept suffering for the sake of building up God's kingdom.
Today, as during several eras of the church's history, the public image of the priesthood has been scarred by the scandalous actions of a small percentage of priests. Many things can be said about this. One -- and it is a point made by the Catechism -- is that the holiness of God's gift of the priesthood is not defiled by the unworthiness of his ministers. The priesthood is holy, even if some priests are not.
Second is that the vast majority of priests are striving to live out their call to holiness with some significant degree of success. Third is that this is a time of purification. With God's help, the current crisis will lead us to a new era where the radiant holiness of the priesthood is again widely evident even to human perception.
We should not expect priests to live on boiled potatoes or mimic the other mortifications of St. John Vianney. In fact, the council stated that the faithful have a duty to see that provision is made for priests to have a decent livelihood.
But Vianney did embody the most important characteristic of the holy priest -- he renounced everything so that his people might have eternal life. It is a stirring example of service, one that is far more evident among the priesthood than our daily newspapers and TV news programs would sometimes have us believe.
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