St John Vianney, universally known as the Curé of Ars, was born in 1876 at Dardilly, near Lyons, in France, the fourth child of Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze. He grew up in the years after the French Revolution, at a time when the Catholic Church was effectively banned and the practice of the faith could only be carried out in secret.
In 1802 the Church was restored in France. When he turned 20, although he had spent his life on a farm and had very limited education, Jean Vianney went off to a school for ecclesiastical students to try to become a priest. Despite failing some exams, his spiritual capacities were recognized and he was encouraged to persevere. With the rise of Napoleon, however, he was twice drafted into the army and, while he managed to avoid service, he was unable to resume his studies for some time. He was eventually ordained a priest in 1815.
In 1818, after only three years as an assistant priest, Jean Vianney was made parish priest of Ars, a small isolated village, though not very far from Lyons. There he would spend the rest of his life, preaching, giving spiritual direction, celebrating the sacraments, caring for destitute children, hearing confessions, and showing great care and compassion for the people of the parish. He wrote: “The priest must always be ready to respond to the needs of souls…. He is not for himself, he is for you.”
Soon people began coming to him from nearby parishes, then from all parts of France, and – such was his extraordinary reputation – eventually from other countries. During the last ten years of his life he spent from sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional. His advice was sought by bishops, priests, religious, young men and women in doubt as to their vocation, sinners, persons in all sorts of difficulties, and the sick. In 1855 the number of pilgrims to the village of Ars had reached 20,000 a year.
His direction was characterized by common sense, remarkable insight, and great spiritual sensitivity. His preaching was simple in language, full of imagery drawn from daily life and country scenes, but breathing faith and the love of God. In his later years his voice was almost inaudible, but his presence continued to radiate the love of God.
He died at Ars in 1859, after more than forty years of service, and was canonized in 1925. In 1959 Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical letter, called Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, an encyclical on St John Vianney as a “rare example of a pastor acutely aware of his responsibilities … and a sign of courage for those who today experience the grace of being called to the priesthood”. In 1986 Pope John Paul II wrote a Holy Thursday letter to all Priests of the Church, reflecting on the matchless example of the Curé of Ars: “Rarely has a pastor been so acutely aware of his responsibilities, so consumed by a desire to wrest his people from the sins of their luke-warmness.”