My dear people of St. Mary’s:
Last Sunday was the first time since 2016 that I was not in the parish on the weekend. I am very grateful to Fr. Augustine Fernando for covering for me while I was away. I went on my annual spiritual retreat that all priests and religious are required to make every year. I always look forward to mine, but this year my retreat was very special. Along with a group of four priest friends we made a retreat/pilgrimage to the town of Ars, in France, where the patron saint of parish priests lived, and worked, and died.
St. John-Marie-Baptiste Vianney was born in 1786, and grew up during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution. His entire childhood was marked by a vicious persecution of the Catholic Church throughout France. His first confession was made to a priest who masqueraded as an itinerant cook, and was heard next to the grandfather clock in his father’s simple farmhouse. In 1799, during the “Second Terror”, he received his First Holy Communion. A priest risked his life to celebrate Mass for the children and their families in secret. The ceremony was conducted before dawn, in a house with hay carts pulled in front of the windows so that no candle light could be seen from outside. It was in this setting that the young John Vianney determined that he would become a priest. He had almost no formal schooling, and he struggled considerably with Latin. Nevertheless, despite great difficulties in the seminary, he was finally ordained a diocesan priest on August 12, 1815, less than two months after the Battle of Waterloo. He served for two and a half years as a curate, before being named pastor of the parish of Ars. On February 9, 1818, he made his way to his new parish.
Ars was some 14 miles north of the city of Lyon. It was a small, humble village of only 230 inhabitants, mostly farmers. In assigning him there, the Vicar-General of the diocese had said to him: “There is not much love of God in that parish; you will have to bring some into it.”
On his way to his new parish, he got lost. Finding some boys playing, he asked them if they would show him the way. One boy, Antoine Givre, led him to the crest of a hill, overlooking the little town and the even smaller church. Upon being told it was the boundry of the parish, the new Curé of Ars bent down and kissed the ground. Then he prayed. Upon rising, he said something to the boy which has been remembered for two-hundred years. Pointing to the sky he said: “You have shown me the way to ars; now I will show you the way to heaven.”