The Catholic University of America

October 6–7, 2009,

the School of Theology and Religious Studies and Theological College co-sponsored a symposium entitled "Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium: 'Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests'"

St. John Vianney: Agent of change and conversion

By Rev. Melvin C. Blanchette, S.S., Rector, Theological College of the Catholic University of America

One would have to stumble accidentally on the village of Ars-sur-Formans. The village is too small, too insignificant and too far off the beaten path to attract the interest of the average visitor or tourist to France. Ars rests west of Lyons between Clermont-Ferrand, home of the Michelin Tire Company, and Limoges, the village that has produced world-renowned porcelain since the 19th century.

While the village remains small in size, it looms large within the world Catholic because it is the site of the principal ministerial activity of a saint. And not just any saint. Ars is forever associated with the life and ministry of Jean-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of diocesan priests.

Born in Dardilly in 1786, Jean-Marie inherited many of the turbulent social effects of the French Revolution. His public education was meager and his early religious experiences — his first confession in 1794 and his first Communion in 1796 — were virtually clandestine events because of the family’s ideological support of Church and clergy in the increasingly anti-clerical post-Revolutionary years. Hence, few ever could have guessed that the lad with a nominal formal education who herded cattle to assist his family financially and who, as a young adult shunned military service and sought asylum, would eventually so profoundly influence the life, the spirituality and the ministry of Catholic priests throughout the world.

St. John Vianney is revered and venerated for many aspects of life. His prayer was intense, his asceticism severe by many standards. The saint’s daily regimen was an extraordinary example of self-donation as a gift to God and to the parish community he served. Of the many priestly activities for which he is both known and noted, in the popular mind none may exceed his ministry in the confessional. The saint is known to have been given the ability “to read hearts,” a gift rendered to a precious few. It is reported that in the 1830s and the early 1840s during his life in the parish in Ars as many as 300 people a day would flock to the village to present themselves to the curé in the confessional in order to seek not only God’s forgiveness but also St. John Vianney’s pastoral touch, his encouragement, his spiritual direction and care.

Many senior priests today will recount stories of years past when long hours were spent in the confessional on a Saturday afternoon or evening, particularly during the season of Lent or Advent or in anticipation of a major feast in the Church’s liturgical calendar. Frequent sacramental confession was not only an expectation in the life of a “good Catholic;” being shriven regularly was, in fact, a practice. While there may be fewer Catholics frequenting the sacrament today in relation to 20 or 30 years ago, the reality of the sacrament remains immutable: the penitent seeks certain reconciliation with God and with the community of the faithful and, simultaneously, expresses a firm desire for a metanoia, a change of heart.

Of all the contingencies that we experience as human beings, change is perhaps the one reality for which we are least prepared. Any change has the potential to thrill or to threaten us, to uplift or to upset us. A true, genuine change of heart literally impacts the core of our very being.

Experience teaches us that we can exercise control over certain changes in our individual lives and in the created world in which we live. Experience also teaches us that total control of the physical, the personal and even the social environments in which we live and function is beyond our grasp. We humans enjoy the marvelous and mysterious ability to choose to integrate the reality of change into our lives in such a way that we arrive at and achieve a certain level of harmony and serenity in a world that is constantly changing at a pace faster than we many times are able grasp and comprehend. Or we can choose to remain victims of our situations whatever they may be, allowing change to master and even manipulate us. Frequently our lives are a patchwork pattern of both possibilities.

Adjusting and adapting to external changes can be a challenge in its own right. Moving into in a new house, learning to use a new piece of technology, protecting our loved ones and our property from fire, storm and pestilence continually require us to muster energies that confront or integrate or reject change in us. Initiating a new relationship, adjusting to the loss of a job, grieving the death of a loved one all exact an inner toll on us. These events demand an internal adjustment and change or these changes will overcome and defeat us. That which does not change dies; that which changes reflects life to one degree or another.

While the Church embraces and cherishes eternal truths which do not change — God is love or God is Triune, for example — the manner in which we receive these truths, the methods through which we integrate these realities and the style in which we live out these truths change with each breath we draw.

Why, might we ask, do we associate the phenomenon of change so markedly with the Curé of Ars? After all, an entire day in the confessional, a diet of potatoes, simple dress and a hard bed for little sleep hardly seem to constitute a lifestyle that attracts many. The answer to the questions is at one and the same time simple yet profound.

Simply stated, the love of God and the desire to serve fellow mankind are noble ideals, and they inspire many to dedicate their lives to the welfare of others in countless ways. Such dedication and service effect changes. The actor changes; the receiver changes; society is changed.

Saint John understood in the most simple of terms that when one opens one’s heart to the inscrutable and mysterious movements of the Holy Spirit, one is changed. From the inside outward. Genuine change begins not just in the mind but in the heart and soul as well. It begins in that hallowed sanctuary first and foremost because that is where God has chosen to dwell. And if God is all that God is attributed to be, then God can cause and bring to fruition the most astounding changes. Saint John Vianney knew and experienced this in the routine of countless hours administering the sacrament of reconciliation. We would tire of this regimen. We would grow bored and irritable, cranky to say the least. The saint saw it as utterly salvific — not only for himself but for those to whom he ministered.

Personal growth in any form is change. Personal growth in abandonment to and in union with God’s spirit is sheer, unadulterated holiness. Like the curé, each and every priest is called to an extraordinary level of holiness, and this constant change of life must take place simultaneously in the priest’s heart and soul as well as in his activity, his ministry, his lifestyle. It is for these reasons among others that Pope Pius IX declared the curé venerable in 1874 and that Pope Pius XI declared him a saint in 1925. In 1929, he was declared to be the patron of priests, particularly parish priests.
Blessed John XIII issued an encyclical letter on August 1, 1959, titled Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia. It is a letter on the life and ministry of Saint John Vianney. It was this very pontiff who earlier in that same year, in announcing the Second Vatican Council, reminded us that the Church is semper reformanda. It is the nature of the Church to change, not just occasionally or frequently, but continually and forever. Exhibiting so frequently and in so many ways the image of structural rigidity and societal immutability, the Church can never forget that the life she lives is Trinitarian, therefore communal, and the Bread which she dispenses is nothing less than living bread (John 6:35).

As the Church changes, the priest must be the focal point of that change. While the call to holiness is the vocation of all Christians, and the care for the countless activities and outreaches of the Church in borne by many worldwide, the priest’s role and ministry is unique. Constantly plumbing the depths of the sacred scriptures, knowledgeable and articulate in expressing the teachings of the Church, committed to presiding at liturgical celebrations as the Second Vatican Council proposed and teaches, and always reading the needs of the larger community, the priest is the agent of stability and simultaneously change in the Church. This mode of life is captured in the oft-used but accurate phrase: sentire cum ecclesia.

Blessed John XXIII extolled the virtues and priestly characteristics of Saint John Vianney. He pointed out the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the priest and in the life of the community (Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, §45). Our scriptural, magisterial and theological traditions assist us in understanding that in the Eucharist we are invited to marvel at and to believe not only in the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The real purpose of this unique gift is the changing, the conversion, the absorption and the incorporation of the praying assembly — ultimately of all people — into the Body of Christ.

Personal growth, development, the desire and the ability to change form the fulcrum on which to a great extent the growth, the development and the vitality of the Church is found. If the Church is to express her true nature – that of change and growth as the Body of Christ – the priest must always be open to the myriad changes brought about in his heart by the grace and power of Christ. And this because the priest must keenly be aware that he as an individual is absorbed into the larger body of the presbyterate and into the even larger community of the Church. The priest does not live for himself but for the life and growth of the community in Christ. His life is as communal as is the very nature of God. This communal style of life demands continual change as only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. St. Paul teaches most poignantly when he says, “Have this mind in you which is in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2:5)

Such a mind, such a heart, such a life that assimilates and guides personal and communal change is the life to which each priest is called and to which he is ordained. In the 21st century this is a life-giving challenge for the priest and all who relate to him in his life and ministry.


In the spirit of the called-for dialog of the year, CUA is interviewing 12 alumni about their experiences in the priesthood. A new interview will appear on the 19th of each month. Click to view all interviews.

Deacon Thomas Gillespie
Click to view audio slideshow
Deacon Thomas Gillespie
Theological College Seminarian
S.T.B. 2010

Rev. David Werning
Click to view audio slideshow
Rev. David Werning
Pastor, Our Lady of Victory
S.T.B. 1998

Rev. Raymond C. O'Brien
Click to view audio slideshow
Rev. Raymond C. O'Brien
Professor, Columbus School of Law
M.Ch.A. 1975
D.Min. 1985

Rev. Mario E. Dorsonville
Click to view audio slideshow
Rev. Mario E. Dorsonville
Vice President for Mission and Director of Immigrant and Refugee Services, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
D.Min. 1996

Most Rev. Francisco Gonzàlez, S.F.
Click to view audio slideshow
Most Rev. Francisco Gonzàlez, S.F.
Auxiliary bishop, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
M.A. 1967