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Saint John Vianney 
hearing confessions:

"I Weep Because YOU
Do Not Weep"

Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, to give him his full name, was a religious personality of unusual force. He knew nothing about this and that, he knew only one thing. To the incomparable exclusion of everything else he addressed himself to the Divine. He accepted his obligation to holiness at an early age, and it took complete possession of him. Every word he uttered was spoken out of the world of religiousness. He brought to a conclusion an achievement which it would be hard for anyone to imitate. From this man there emanated an influence which cannot be overlooked, and the results of which cannot be contested even by scoffers.

St. John Vianney's mother was a woman of great piety, and she led him into the way of religion at an early age. "I owe a debt to my mother," said the priest of Ars, and added, "virtue goes easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done."

St. John's was one of the many instances of those men who had before their eyes the model of a pious mother, whose influence can often last for a lifetime. In spite of his lively disposition, he admitted much later on in life, that "when I was young, I did not know evil; I was first acquainted with it in the confessional, from the mouths of sinners."

The Curé of Ars Converts His Parish

St. John Vianney, who only after much toil and trouble had been admitted to the priesthood, achieved something which many priests would like to have done, but which is granted to scarcely any. Not overnight, but little by little, the tiny hamlet of Ars underwent a change. The people of Ars were unable to remain aloof for long from the grace which radiated from the remarkable personality of their priest.

It took St. John Vianney ten whole years to renew Ars, but the community changed so noticeably and to such an extent that it was observed even by outsiders. There was no more working on Sundays, the church was filled more and more every year, and drunkenness fell off. In the end the taverns had to close their doors since they had no more customers; and even domestic squabbles abated.

Honesty became the principal characteristic. "Ars is no longer Ars," as St. John Vianney himself wrote; for it had undergone a fundamental change. Under his guidance the little village became a community of pious people, to whom all his labors were directed. It is truly astounding to reflect upon what St. John Vianney, with a staff of trained assistants, was able to achieve in the village in the space of a few years. What an immense amount of endeavor underlay his work will best be appreciated by anyone who has had to convert only a few drunkards to sanity.

He Shows Us the Way

The explanation of this mysterious transformation of the village of Ars can only be grasped in the remarkable manner that this simple priest realized that a man must always begin with himself, and that even the rebirth of a community can only be achieved by its renewing itself. We must expect nothing of men which we do not first ask of ourselves.

On the basis of this perception St. John Vianney set to work, in the first place upon himself, so that he could attain the ideal which he demanded of his parishioners in his own person. He took his own religious obligations with the greatest seriousness, and did not care whether the people noticed this or not. And finally the inhabitants of Ars said to each other: "Our priest always does what he says, himself; he practices what he preaches. Never have we seen him allow himself any form of relaxation."

The priest of Ars subjected himself to a strict fast. In this way he sought to reduce the requirements of his life to a minimum. One meal sufficed him for the whole day. He foreswore all wine, and normally ate only a little black bread and one or two potatoes cooked in water: he would prepare sufficient of these to last him the whole week, keeping them in an earthenware pan, and often they were covered with a coating of mold.

Frequently he fasted for a whole day until, overcome, he would collapse from physical weakness. In view of this mode of life he had no need, of course, of a housekeeper – apart from the fact that his house stood almost empty anyway. Since he considered that his self-mortification was all too inadequate, he had a special penitential garment made, which he wore next to his skin, and which, by reason of the constant friction against his body, was soon stained a reddish brown. For the most part he slept on a bare mattress – when he was not sleeping on a bundle of firewood down in the cellar.

With an iron-tipped scourge, which he would wear out in two weeks, he was in the habit of lashing his naked back mercilessly every day until blood began to spurt out and he collapsed to the ground with a dull moan. Yet this practice of St. John Vianney's, which approaches sheer folly, bears a striking resemblance to the words of Jesus: "But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting." (Matt. 17:20)

St. John did not scourge himself for his own amusement, he sought to do penance for the guilty. His asceticism was an act of expiation for others. "My friend, here is my cure: I shall give you a small penance, and the rest I shall do for you myself," said the priest of Ars. This act of expiation on behalf of his parish is the meaning underlying the frightful self-mortification which he practiced.

Whoever considers the blood-flecked walls of St. John Vianney's bedroom for any length of time, and reflects upon them again and again, will suddenly realize that the solution to the mystery of the transformation of Ars is to be found conclusively in the fantastic battles of penance which were played out in this memorable room. What went on here wrought the complete renovation of the village.

The devil was so angry at St. John Vianney that he set his bed on fire. The Holy Curé of Ars was attacked many times by the devil but St. John always won. The devil said that if there were three more people like the Curé of Ars on earth at the same time, the devil's empire over the world would be ended.

The Lives of the Saints Inspired Him

The priest of Ars had a second goal which he sought to attain through his heroic asceticism. The only subject matter which St. John Vianney really grasped in the course of his education was the lives of the Saints. He read so much and so long on this theme, and became so intoxicated by the wonderful world it portrayed that suddenly he seemed himself to have walked out of the pages of the book as an incarnation of the legendary figures.

The ideal of holiness enchanted him. This was the theme which underlay his sermons, but which he often expressed so awkwardly that one might well think he was talking of morality instead of holiness. "We must practice mortification. For this is the path which all the Saints have followed," he said from the pulpit. He placed himself in that great tradition which leads the way to holiness through personal sacrifice.

"If we are not now Saints, it is a great misfortune for us: therefore we must be so. But so long as we have no love in our hearts we shall never be Saints." The Saint, to him, was not an exceptional man before whom we should marvel, but a possibility which was open to all Christians, even to a feeble village priest who could not get on at the seminary. Unmistakably did he declare in his sermons that "to be a Christian and to live in sin is a monstrous contradiction. A Christian must be holy."

Simplicity of Heart

St. John Vianney, whose acquaintance with theology was meager, had by no means normal perceptions about holiness. With his Christian simplicity he had clearly thought much on these things and understood them intuitively, with his heart, while they are usually denied to the understanding of educated men. He drew special attention to the fact that in the Bible no reference is made to any miracles performed by John the Baptist, Mary or Joseph. "Thus you see that holiness does not consist in doing great things, but in truly obeying the commandments of God, and in fulfilling His instructions according to the condition in which He has been pleased to place us."

For the priest of Ars there was one goal only – to follow the Saints. Everything else seemed pale to him compared with this. "We must never lose sight of the fact that we are either Saints or outcasts, that we must live for Heaven or for hell; there is no middle path in this." St. John Vianney himself moved irresistibly nearer to a state of holiness. And the people of Ars began to realize more and more vividly, "Our priest is a Saint!" And it was before the Saint and not the zealot that they bowed down. It was the hidden Saint in Vianney who brought about the transformation of the village, as a peasant of Ars once said: "Oh, we are no different from other people. But we would be utterly ashamed if we were to commit such sins with a Saint in our midst."

People Flock to Him

The conversion of the whole parish was too unusual an occurrence for it to remain unknown. From the year 1827, there began the famous stream of pilgrims to Ars. People went to Ars from all parts of France, from Belgium, from England and even from America. The principal motive which led all these crowds of pilgrims to the priest of Ars was purely the desire to be confessed by him and to receive spiritual counsel from him.

They were driven to his thronged confessional by the longing to meet once and for all a priest who knew all about the reality of the soul. The priest of Ars possessed the ability to see the human soul in its nakedness, freed of its body. This grace is only rarely bestowed on men. He never put his nose into the spiritual affairs of other people. He was entirely free from inquisitiveness. Like St. Francis de Sales, he had the gift of "seeing everything and not looking at anyone."

He Read Souls Like a Book

In confessing people this strange man, who had a fundamental knowledge of sin, strove after one thing only: to save souls. This was his ardent desire, and for the sake of it he suffered all the tortures of his daylong confinement in the confessional. This great Saint heard confessions from 13 to 17 hours a day, and could tell a penitent's sins even when they were withheld. In order to save souls one must be possessed of that holy love of men which consumed the priest of Ars. He would often weep in the confessional and when he was asked why he wept, he would reply: "My friend, I weep because you do not weep."

St. John Vianney possessed the gift of being able to understand the soul of a man in an instant, and without any lengthy explanations, to feel at once what spiritual trouble was afflicting it. How well did he understand the wayward, pusillanimous heart of man! With a very few words he knew how to bring comfort to the sorely tempted soul, he swiftly and decisively answered the most complicated questions of conscience, and gave counsels which invariably revealed a complete understanding of the situation in question. The priest of Ars penetrated right into the emotions and feelings of his spiritual children and could read their souls as though in a book. He had a clear-sighted vision which often enabled him to foretell to a man what would happen to him in the future. This intuitive understanding overpowered the people who visited his confessional, and to whom he granted a word of pardon.

The life of St. John Vianney is the story of a humble and holy man who barely succeeded in becoming a priest, but who converted thousands of sinners. The devil often attacked him physically and set fire to his bed. The evil one once revealed to St. John Vianney that if there were three such men as he, alive at one time, his kingdom (the devil's) would be destroyed.