The Curé d’Ars, first published in 1927, is an excellent study of the life of St Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney and of his contribution to the Catholic cause in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The author, Fr Francis Trochu, whose life spanned a good part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, knew from a first hand experience what life in the post-Revolution France was like. He no doubt understood that the Revolution was preparing for the next major coup. Only this time the target was to be none other than the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
But God never leaves his children orphaned and always provides a remedy: The remedy God provided for the 19th century was the Curé d’Ars.
The following extracts are taken from Chapters II and III. Note that while these extracts describe specific historical events, these same events could well describe our Catholic past and, no doubt, our future.
In January, 1791, the civil constitution of the clergy began to be enforced in the province of Lyons. Jean-Marie had not yet completed his fifth year. Messire Jacques Rey, cure of Dardilly during the past thirty-nine years, was weak enough to take the schismatic oath. However, if we may believe local tradition, enlightened by the example of his curate and the neighbouring clergy, who refused the oath, he soon came to understand and disavow his fault. He continued for a time to reside in his parish, saying Mass in a private house. Eventually he retired to Lyons, and from there he went to Italy. The disappearance of M. Rey did not pass unnoticed, yet Dardilly was not as much upset as might have been expected. The church remained open because another cure was sent by the new bishop of Lyons, M. Lamourette, a friend of Mirabeau’s, who, without any brief from Rome, had been installed by the Constituent Assembly, in succession to the venerable Mrg. de Marbeuf. The new parish priest, like the new bishop, had duly taken the oath. But how were the good folk of Dardilly to suspect that the civil constitution, of which, perhaps, they did not so much as know the name, would lead to schism and heresy? There was no outward change in the ceremonies and customs with which they had so long been familiar. For a time, at least, these simple people did not scruple to assist at the Mass of the juror-priest. Matthieu Vianney and his family acted thus in all good faith.
After a while, however, their eyes were opened to realities. Though barely twelve years old at the time, Catherine, the eldest of the girls, was the first to scent danger. In the pulpit the new pastor did not speak quite like M. Rey, nor on the same topics. His sermons were interlarded with the words citizen, civism, and constitution. He so far forgot himself as to criticize his predecessors: “These people,” he used to say, “are no more parish priests than my shoe!” The congregation was more promiscuous and scantier than of yore: persons who were noted for their fervour were no longer seen in the church – where did they go to Mass on Sundays? – others, on the contrary, were there and occupied the best seats, who previously had hardly ever darkened the threshold of the sacred edifice. Catherine felt anxious, and she confided her secret fears to her mother.
In the meantime, a relative living at Ecully paid a visit to the Vianneys. “What are you doing?” she exclaimed on hearing that they attended the Mass of the juror; “all good priests have refused the oath, and in consequence are being hunted and persecuted and driven into exile. Happily at Ecully we still have some good priests. It is to these you must go. By taking the oath your new parish priest has separated himself from the Catholic Church; he is not your true shepherd and you cannot make yourselves his abettors.”
This staggering revelation drove Mme. Vianney almost frantic. She did not hesitate to speak to the unfortunate priest, reproaching him with having severed himself from the true Church. When she reminded him of the saying of the Gospel that the branch that is cut off from the vine shall be cast into the fire, the priest owned to the truth of her words: “True, madam, the vine is better than the branch.”
Marie Vianney must have informed her family of the state of affairs, because we are told that little Jean-Marie “showed his horror of sin from the day when he began to avoid the juror-priest.” From that moment the Vianneys ceased to attend the parish church…. In point of fact, the sacred edifice was soon closed altogether.
A cruel persecution was now raging. Priests who had refused the oath ran the risk of arrest and execution…. A reward of 100 francs was paid to anyone denouncing the [non juror-priests].
However, there still remained brave priests who did not abandon their flock. And so we read:
On certain days trusty messengers would arrive from Ecully and call on Catholic households. They brought information of the secret spot where, on the following night, the Holy Mysteries would be celebrated. As soon as darkness fell, the Vianneys set out in deepest silence. In his happiness at being allowed to accompany his parents, Jean-Marie stepped out bravely. “His brothers and sisters grumbled at times, thinking the distance too great; then their mother would say: ‘Can you not be like Jean-Marie, who is always the keenest of all?’ “.
When they reached the appointed place they were led into a barn or some retired room, where hardly a light was allowed. They saw kneeling at a plain table a tired-looking stranger of gentle mien. The stranger met the newcomers with outstretched hand. Then, in the farthest corner of the room, behind an improvised partition, the good priest, speaking in whispers, exercised his ministry of counsel, comfort, and pardon. Sometimes he would also have to bless marriages. And then followed the Mass, the Mass so keenly longed for by young and old.
The priest placed on the table the altar stone he had brought, the Missal, the chalice, and several small altar breads, for to-night he would not be the only communicant. Quickly he donned the sacred vestments, faded and crumpled in consequence of much hasty folding. Amid deep silence he began the prayers of the Liturgy: Introibo ad altare Dei. What fervour there was in his voice, what recollection, what emotion in the congregation! Sobs mingled with the prayers. It was like being at Mass in the Roman Catacombs, before arrest and martyrdom.
[How did the small Jean-Marie spend the days during] “those terrible months”? Twice daily he drove out the donkey, the cows, and the sheep to graze, leading by the hand his little sister Gothon…. [There, in those meadows] “he found time to pray to the good God and to think of his soul”. [His priestly vocation was being formed:] On reaching the meadow, brother and sister, obedient to their mother’s advice, went down upon their knees in order to dedicate to God the task they were about to perform…. Jean-Marie told [his sister] stories out of the Old and New Testament; he also taught her prayers and gave her sundry spiritual counsels….
On the bank of the stream there stood a willow tree, old and worm-eaten. In the hollow of the trunk Jean-Marie sometimes placed his little statue, and after surrounding it with moss, branches of trees and flowers, he knelt down to say his rosary. Thus did the river bank take the place of the church to which people no longer went to pray.
At other times he erected a kind of shrine for his statue. With clay from the river bank he constructed diminutive chapels or moulded effigies of saints and priests. He possessed a natural deftness which might have been greatly developed by intuition. In this way he made a statue of the Blessed Virgin, which was judged quite good; in fact, his father had it hardened in the oven, and it was long kept at the Vianneys’ house. As soon as the altar was ready, he and Gothon, with vague memories of processions and festivals now suppressed, sang together what snatches of religious canticles they could remember.
Other young shepherds [who] tended their flocks in the same district [came]…to look at the shrine. Jean-Marie replied to their questions without either embarrassment or annoyance. But how was it that these children, who were of the same age as our saint, were yet ignorant of the meaning of those images? Alas! less devout and attentive, they had already forgotten the beautiful ceremonies of Sundays and holidays. All unawares little Vianney became the teacher of these poor children. He constituted himself their catechist. Taking his stand before the rustic altar, he gave utterance to the thoughts that came to his mind in the silent hours of the night, and taught them the prayers he had learned at his mother’s knee…. A priestly vocation had sprung up in the peaceful vale of Chante-Merle!
The “congregation” proving somewhat restless, the sermon had of necessity to be short. But the youthful preacher bethought himself of other means by which he hoped to retain his audience. He organized processions. Thus it came about that in this unknown dale, whilst throughout France religious ceremonies were being suppressed, a band of children might have been seen walking in procession behind a cross formed of two sticks. The rosary was recited, and childish hymns were sung…”.
In closing the churches the Convention had sought to destroy divine worship; but it was unable to repress one of the most touching manifestations of religion – charity (p 11- 9).
The priests risked all to bring the sacraments to the people for the love of God; the people risked all to support the priests for the love of God.
The sad reality is that “France was now a missionary country; in some respects she was worse off than that. The need of some sort of organization was painfully felt” (p 23-24).
The heroic priests who remained “disguised and in hiding” had an organized approach:
All these priests lived at Ecully, lodging in separate houses, and by way of additional precaution they took up some trade, even though they may not have been keen in its pursuit. Thus M. Balley acted as a carpenter and M. Groboz as a cook. Their tools and implements furnished a plausible explanation of their movements. Moreover, they only went abroad at nightfall and avoided the highway when going to the house which had been selected for the celebration of Mass (p 24).
With what emotion and reverence did not little Vianney look up to these men as they stood at the altar? They had grown old before their time, and their faces bore the tell-tale traces of the labours and privations which they had endured for the love of souls (p 24).
And the little Vianney went on to become one of the greatest saints. If he is extraordinary, it is because he remained an ordinary Catholic at a time when it was politically incorrect to do so. And because God often uses the ordinary to achieve extraordinary results, He used the simple Curé to put the Revolution to shame.
Source: The Curé d’Ars St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney by Abbé Francis Trochu, Tan Books and Publishers, Illinois USA, 1977
P.S. The Curé d’Ars was a huge promoter of the Third Order of St Francis and literally brought it back to life in post-Revolution France.
Pax et Bonum
Sister Constance TOSF