Recapturing the spirit of St. John Vianney in a “sinless” age

Bishop Robert Vasa's picture

            This week’s liturgical observance of the memorial of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, on August 4 offered the opportunity to once again encourage prayer and even sacrifice for our clergy.

            It is no secret that priests are quite imperfect and often even seriously flawed. Some may manifest character flaws or even personality disorders. They are, after all, taken from among men for the service of God and so bring to the priesthood many of the same flaws and faults present in the general population.

            As we read in Hebrews, “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people” (5:1-3).

            Despite these shortcomings, however, I have every reason to believe that practically every priest, with very few exceptions, possesses a strong desire to be in proper relationship to God and to offer himself as a living sacrifice for the sake of the people entrusted to his pastoral care.

            Undoubtedly, it is not always clear that this is the case because this strong desire on his part often loses something in its translation to action. It can often happen as well that the faithful—failing to appreciate the depth of true love which their pastors manifest for them—focus much more on the flawed presentation than the love which drives it.

            Indeed it comes as no surprise to any pastor that St. John Vianney was severely abused and derided because he called his people to chastity when debauchery was the norm, to sobriety when drunkenness was rampant, to holiness when secularity was much more popular.

            Because he loved, however, he did not cease to challenge sinfulness and call his people to repentance. His determined love for souls cost him dearly. I strongly suspect that if St. John Vianney himself were in many of our American parishes, there would be an abundance of letters from concerned parishioners about the direction in which he was taking the parish.

            This in no way implies that letters about priests to chanceries all across this country are not sometimes warranted. It also in no way implies our priests are comparable to St. John. What it does imply is that most of us do not respond well when the sinfulness of our own lives is challenged. That goes for all of us.

            And yet the old adage about the need to “hate the sin but love the sinner” makes perfect pastoral sense, but the situation is often made very difficult when the sinner has such a solid affection for and attachment to and even defense of the sin that any attack on the sin—not the person, but the sin—is deemed an unjust and indefensible attack on the sinner!

            In some ways the adage has been revised for American sensibilities so that its present rendering might go something like: “Love the sinner, and you do that by condoning the sin.”

            It can also happen that what is determined to be sinful by the pastor—in accord with Church teaching—is not seen as sinful at all by a significant number of the faithful due to their improperly formed consciences or due to a false understanding of conscience.

            In turn this makes preaching about sin difficult. Understandably, it is all the more difficult when the priest senses that such preaching will likely fall on deaf ears. It is not at all uncommon to encounter members of the faithful whose personal conviction is that something which is really sinful—and in many cases seriously sinful—is not sinful at all for them.

            This is a clear symptom of a seriously defective formation and understanding of conscience. As the American view about the apparent acceptability of artificial contraception, homosexual unions, and abortion gets ever more firmly entrenched in our culture, the Catholic conscience is gradually eroded and thus fails to recognize any of these serious evils as sinful.

            This shows just one reason why there is need for prayer for our priests. We all want our priests to be holy, to be prayerful, to be devoted, to be pious, to be available, to be good administrators, to be good preachers, to be personable, to be affable, to be patient, to be accommodating, to be zealous, to be on time, to be all we want them to be, and we want them to be all of these things all of the time.

            We sometimes forget, however, that a man with great administrative skills may not be a good preacher. A man who is very pious may be more aloof and thus less personable. A man who is entirely affable may be, shall we say, administratively challenged. A man who is too available may frequently be late. A man who excels in patience may seem to lack zeal. Priests have defects and shortcomings. They all do. Again, they need prayer.

            St. John Vianney was a most remarkable pastor. He was enormously committed to prayer and spent many concentrated hours each day at prayer. When he was ridiculed and abused, he prayed all the harder. He devoted many hours, up to 16 each day for confessions. He was entirely committed to and focused on his primary duty, the salvation of souls.

            The face of the priesthood has changed significantly since the days of St. John Vianney, and it may appear that the demands placed on priests make the kind of single-hearted focus of St. John impossible. Yet I would argue that precisely because so much has changed since his time that it is his focus which we need to reflect upon and recapture.

            In closing, we sometimes forget that the first of the spiritual works of mercy is to admonish the sinner. This is directly related to the salvation of souls. If someone only and always admonished people for their sinfulness, we might cite for them the adage of St. Francis de Sales: You can catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than a barrel of vinegar.

            Yet the danger in our day is not a shortage of honey but rather the failure to call to deep conversion all those who are drawn to the honey.

            St. John Vianney, pray for us!