Thirty miles south of Macon, France, the fast TGV trains traveling at 200 miles per hour flashes under national highway D904. Travelers in the cars, intent with their newspapers and digital devices, seldom notice the hillside town of Ars-sur-Formans two miles distant. But in its day, the village of Ars was the home of most revered priest in France.
In the 1790s, at the time of the French revolution, the inhabitants of the village numbered 200, mostly farmers, few of them able to read or write. But even Ars was caught up in the firestorm of change. A young priest assigned here had been forced to renounce his ministry by young thugs from a neighboring town and for the next twenty years the hamlet had remained without a priest. Then one day a thin-featured man in peasant shoes, a rough-woven cassock, and wearing a tri-cornered hat, walked up the dusty road and announced that he had been assigned here as new pastor or “cure’.” Father Jean did not seem much of a catch. Born of a farming family some twenty miles from Ars, he had barely completed two year’s of theology and understood little Latin. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney served here from 1818 until his death 41 years later.
Today, there is very little to Ars. The original parish church was rebuilt as a tiny basilica, gewgawed, heavy and dark, in one corner of which is to be seen the warn bench on which Father Vianney sat to hear confessions. In a nearby house were the small rooms in which he ate and slept. Two days before our visit, Alice and I had been to the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, a mammoth monument backing up against the altar of the nation, adorned by brilliantly colored French flags.
Ars was even more of a backwater village in 1818, but it had not escaped the intellectual ferment of its day. For much of the preceding century, civil leaders and much of the middle class had been caught up in the fervor of the enlightenment, an intellectual movement that emphasized individual autonomy while disparaging the customs of religion. The “enlightened” ways of thinking penetrated even to village life where anti-religious articles from newspapers were frequently read aloud in the drinking halls. The result was that the practice of the sacraments had entirely ceased in some levels. A churchman wrote of Paris in 1825: “Hardly an eighth of the population practices its religion and it is questionable whether there are 10,000 practicing Catholics.”
When Father Jean arrived in the hamlet of Ars, the situation was disturbing. Most of the young adults, born during the revolution or during the Napoleonic era, had never been instructed in religion, and the practice of the faith was generally ignored. The new pastor seemed not to notice. Rising at four in the morning to pray, painstakingly writing out and memorizing his sermons, and visiting the households of his parish were he discussed the weather, the crops and things of daily life, Father Jean went about his work. The village could barely afford the upkeep of a priest, but he seemed to have no material needs, subsisting largely on potatoes and crusts of bread. Furniture that had been donated to him, he soon gave away to the poor. For the first few years parish records show that Ars celebrated two to three wedding a year, and almost the same number of baptisms. In time the level of religious life improved, children appeared at his weekly catechism classes, and attendance at Sunday Mass increased. Word spread of the holy priest at Ars, and nearby parishes began making annual pilgrimages to the little village to have their confessions heard by the pastor. In the spirit of the times, he was not considered an easy confessor. Penitents who did not convince him of their resolve to amend their life were refused absolution, yet many came to receive his blessing if nothing more.
Confession then and today remains a difficult sacrament. It calls us to acknowledge personal guilt in a world all to disposed to blame any shortcoming on anyone but ourselves: circumstances, nature, our genetics. To confess “bless my Father for I have sinned” does not come easily. Yet even a saintly figure such as the pastor of Ars was the first to admit that he was a sinner, and without such example, we might ignore the issue entirely.
For the remainder of his life Father Jean did little more than preach the word of God and administer the sacraments. He seldom left the village. Meanwhile his fame as a confessor spread through the country and men and women who had avoided the sacraments for years, flocked to confess their sins. By 1835, the village was crowded with pilgrims, some at times sleeping in open fields when the town’s small hotels could not hold them. Travel agents in the nearby metropolis of Lyon advised pilgrims arriving by train, that as many as 8 days of waiting in line were often needed to meet with Father Jean, and five stage coaches a day were needed to transport penitents to and from the village.
Sleeping only three hours a day, the frail priest began hearing confessions at midnight and remaining in the confessional an average of 14 hours a day. Along the town’s main street, small shops carried holy cards and mementos of the pastor, Father Jean continued to live a life of poverty, and only with reluctance agreed to own a second cassock. At all times he comported himself with a simplicity and kindness that won over the hardest hearts. During the final year of his life, it was estimated that 100,000 people came to Ars seeking forgiveness for their shortcomings.
When Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney died on August 4, 1859 the news of his death was telegraphed throughout France and at his funeral 300 priests and religious were in attendance. The country priest was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XI on May 31, 1925, and in 1929 the same pope designated him as patron saint of pastors throughout the world. When Pope John XXIII, chose to write an encyclical on the theme of priestly service in 1959, he did so by reflecting on the life and virtues of the Pastor of Ars .
We spent the night at a campground at the edge of town, hearing the distant trains full of busy pragmatic people, rushing on to their next destination. Ars was a full stop: a reminder that there are deeper, truer things in life than motion and distraction. Reflecting on the day, I wrote in my journal: “The simple, worn confessional bench and the poverty of his room testifies more to the mystery of the human heart than all the palaces of Paris.”