Monday, November 07, 2005

Retreat in Ars, France

St. John Vianney inspires retreatants from the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ

“In the Cure of Ars, we have an incomparable guide. He remains for all an unequalled model both of the carrying out of the ministry and of the holiness of the minister.”
Pope John Paul II

Who better to comment on priestly holiness than our beloved Pope John Paul II? In his 1986 Holy Thursday letter to priests, he cited St. John Vianney, or the Cure of Ars as he is more popularly known, as the model for priestly service and holiness. Explaining the remarkable attraction of John Vianney, Pope John Paul II wrote to his fellow priests: “What attracted them (the faithful) to him was not merely curiosity nor even a reputation justified by miracles and extraordinary cures, which the saint would wish to hide. It was much more the realization of meeting a saint, amazing for his penance, so close to God in prayer, remarkable for his peace and humility in the midst of popular acclaim, and above all so intuitive in responding to the inner disposition of souls and in freeing them from their burdens, especially in the confessional.”

John Vianney’s is a remarkable, indeed even improbable, story. With just two years of formal education before entering seminary, he struggled in his studies and it was only through the good sense of his bishop and the constant support and prayers of his pastor that John Marie Vianney was ordained a priest in 1815. Soon after, he was sent to the remote little village of Ars, situated along the Rhone River, a 30-minute drive from Lyon, France. His assignment was to one of the poorest, most run-down parishes in the diocese and it was there that he would exercise his priestly ministry over the next 40 years.

When he arrived in Ars, John Vianney found little religious practice and much indifference among its inhabitants, prompting his bishop to warn the young priest, “There is not much love of God in that parish; you will put some there.” Did he ever! His work as confessor, catechist and his holy example brought about a spiritual renewal that touched not only the people of his small parish but all of France and beyond. By the time of his death in 1859, over 100,000 people a year visited Ars, waiting days to go to confession to him and to listen to his simple preaching and catechetical instruction. The man who started his life as one who very few thought would ever amount to anything became, by the time of his death in 1859, the vehicle for thousands of conversions.

Just four years after his canonization in 1925, Pope Pius XI named him “Patron Saint of Parish Priests.” Ars has now become a major shrine in France, visited by over 500,000 pilgrims a year. Among them was a young Polish priest, Fr. Karol Wojtyla, who visited Ars in 1947. The next time he visited was in 1986 as Pope John Paul II, when he give a three-part meditation and homily on the essential role of the priest as the one who makes the work of salvation present everywhere in the world.

With the priestly model of St. John Vianney in mind, 33 priests, deacons and seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in Rome set off for Ars during Easter Week to make a retreat under the direction of Newark priest Fr. Frederick Miller. The retreatants included Fr. Peter West, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, Deacon Philip Sanders of the Archdiocese, and myself, an Archdiocesan seminarian who will be ordained to the Order of Deacon in October. The retreat was held at the Foyer Sacerdotal Jean Paul II, an international seminary built at the urging of Pope John Paul II after his 1986 visit.
The theme of the retreat was “The Holy Priesthood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, Exemplified in the Life of Saint John Vianney, Patron of Diocesan Priests” Addressing himself above all to those who would soon be ordained to the priesthood, Fr. Miller focused on exploring the dignity and duties of the priest, as one who is configured to and acts in the person of Jesus Christ. The retreatants heard meditations on Jesus as the Good Shepherd, on the ministry of the Word (evangelization, preaching, teaching), on the ministry of reconciliation, on the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the central role of the Eucharist in the priest’s life, as well as the prayer life of priests and the priest’s devotion to Mary.

The retreat also included daily Mass at the altar where the incorrupt body of St. John Vianney rests. By the end of the retreat, all of the retreatants felt themselves more prepared to exercise the ministry of the priesthood and they now had a new model in St. John Vianney, a wonderful example of how God works through those who dedicate their lives to Him and who seek to do His will. As Pope John Paul II said, “What an example of courage for those who today experience the grace of being called to the Priesthood!”

Left to right: Rev. Mr. Philip Sanders, Rev. Peter West, Brian Needles and Rev. Frederick Miller in St. John Vianney’s parish church in Ars, France.

Priests, deacons and seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in Rome at the altar of St. John Vianney.


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