La miséricorde et le ministère du prêtre – Homélie du 6 juillet 2012
We have only to turn a few pages of the Gospel to realise that Jesus lived in close proximity with the sick. The lame, the blind, the deaf-mute, lepers… all came to him, begging to be healed. And yet, it was not to these illnesses that Jesus’ famous words referred: ?Those who are well have no need of a physician? (Mt 9:12).
The context of these words tells us that Jesus was, at the time, having a meal in the house of Matthew whom he had just called to follow him. Around the table, there were a great number of publicans. These were reputed to be dishonest in the exercise of their profession, tax collecting. They were sinners, proclaimed as such by public opinion! In answer to the Pharisees who condemned his dubious liaisons, Jesus replied by using words of the prophet Hosea: ?I desire mercy, not sacrifice? (Mt 9:12).
The point is this: as well as illnesses of the body, Jesus drew attention to sicknesses of the soul. Only mercy can cure these, and Jesus came into the world to heal us of them. What’s more, illnesses of the body have less dramatic consequences for human destiny than the invisible sicknesses of the soul. This is what is evoked in the curing of the paralytic. Speaking to some scribes who were standing by, Jesus said: ?That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins? ? turning to the paralytic, he said ? ?Rise, take up your bed and go home’? (Mt 9:6).
In this way, Jesus pointed to the fact that his power to heal the body announced a more fundamental power over the soul.
An ordained priest prolongs the action of Christ Himself. He has given the Lord his lips, his hands, his mind and his heart to Christ so as to continue the Lord’s healing work, the priest is therefore lead to give priority to the ministry of mercy.
In the history of the Church, John Mary Vianney remains the most exemplary witness to this ministry of mercy. As the years went by, the time he spent in the confessional took on extraordinary proportions in the exercise of his pastoral duties. It is estimated that he spent between 13 to 18 hours there every day, in all weathers, in scorching heat and freezing cold. In the last 25 years of his life, that is all he did.
?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? (John Paul II’s Letter to Priests, Maundy Thursday, 1986).
As we look at the life of John Mary Vianney, we see that in his practice of the ministry of mercy, there is something which deserves underlining: He perceived the immense effort required of the sinner to seek pardon. Acknowledging one’s sickness is already an ordeal. Undertaking to rid oneself of it, is a still greater one. Our natural movement is to put things off till later. A thousand reasons well up, pushing things into tomorrow. The son in the well-known parable waited till the very last moment ?- when he was literally famished ?- before deciding to undertake the journey home.
The Curé of Ars, who had a profound understanding of the human heart, one day had a strange idea. He did nothing less than build a door in the front of his parish church, slightly to one side; a door so narrow, so discrete, that even today you hardly notice it. Pushing it open, the person stepped directly into a confessional which was deliberately placed there. This was, in fact, the 5th confessional Fr Vianney had installed in his church, the four others were higher up the nave or behind the altar. The advantage of this new set-up was to allow people to come to confession completely incognito! It’s where those whom he called ?great sinners? could come and be open to mercy. This was an extremely delicate act on the part of a priest who felt within himself what it cost someone to enter a church ?- perhaps 30, 40, or 50 years after he o she had last set foot in one. In this way, the grace of Mercy was made available to the greatest number. This single invention tells us a great deal about the love of sinners which filled the heart of John Mary Vianney; he was like the Fr in the parable who waited on the doorstep, his eyes scrutinising the horizon for his son’s homecoming. John Mary Vianney used to say: ?It is not the sinner who turns back to God to ask for forgiveness; it is God Himself who runs after the sinner and brings them back to Himself? (Nodet p133).
The heart of this priest went out spontaneously ?- as of first importance ?- towards those who seemed furthest away.
?In this confessional?, he said, ?I could catch souls in flight!?
His acts gave concrete expression to God’s love for sinners. Mercy is, then, the surest remedy for the cure of the sicknesses of the soul, so it is absolutely necessary to draw as near as possible to those most in need of it. the Curé’s intense desire to offer God’s Mercy to sinners enabled him to find ways to give it.
There is no doubt that his reputation as a confessor is linked to his personal life of holiness. It was not unusual to hear the people of Ars say: ?We weren’t any better than other people, you know, but we would have been too ashamed to do bad things whilst living so close to a saint? (Monnin, t. 1, p.220).
Dealing with consciences
But, as well as this radiance of his holiness, there were other factors which came into play. One in particular seems to have had a significant role. The Curé of Ars could read hearts; he had a kind of intuition when dealing with consciences. Of course, it is difficult to know exactly what took place in the confessional between the priest and his penitents, so we have to proceed here with great caution. Yet, during the process for his canonisation, many witnesses testified that those who knelt beside the Curé had the experience of abruptly coming face-to-face with their lives. It was indeed often Fr Vianney himself who revealed a specific fault to a penitent.
One of the Curé’s biographers, Fr Alfred Monnin, tells of a man of immoral life who, being sick, went to Ars in the hope of being cured. On the advice of friends, this man accepted to go to confession. John Mary Vianney listened in silence, then asked him: ?Is that all?? ?Yes?, said the man. ?And yet,? the priest replied, ?you haven’t mentioned that on such-and-such a day, in such a place, you committed a very serious sin.? He then began telling the man the story of his life, better than he could have done himself.
Cases of this nature were frequent. John Mary Vianney often started by asking the routine question: ?When was your last confession?? Sometimes the penitent couldn’t remember anything about it at all! It was not unusual for the Curé himself, yet again, to give the answer: ?28 years ago, my friend, and you haven’t been to Communion since then?.
The keenness of the confessor’s insight deeply shocked the penitent whose experience was like that of the Samaritan woman in the Gospel. She heard Jesus not only tell her that she had no husband, but go on to unveil her whole life to her. Moments later, she was to speak to the people of her village with barely-disguised emotion: ?Come and see the man who told me all I ever did!? (Jn 4:29).
A penitent in Ars felt neither accusation nor condemnation; rather, he or she knew that God Himself was looking deeply into their life. All resistance, All forms of self-defence simply melted away: people opened themselves to the Light, without looking for excuses, get-outs, or self-justification. They suddenly found themselves before God, God had come looking for them in the very concrete circumstances of their life; that is where the person was encountered and saved! In this same Light, he or she was lead back to the essential truth of their being. This is why the grace of the sacrament had such a profound effect, deep within their soul. Everyone left the confessional reborn. God had passed by; He had acted! The penitent knew that God loved him just as they were.
Preaching the love of God
One of the first effects of Mercy is that we no longer hide from ourselves; we accept that God sees us in truth. In this experience of the Light penetrating us, we become aware of the immense goodness of God, and draw both the impetus we need to set off again and the strength to decide to change our lives!
Through the exercise of his ministry, John Mary Vianney showed that God’s Mercy did not lessen any of the demands of Truth, nor the costly effort inherent to it. Rather, he grasped the link between both, thanks to the profound balance which holiness gave his own life. He knew how to speak of Mercy like no other:
?How good God is,? he would say, ?his good Heart is an ocean of mercy. Therefore, no matter how great a sinner we may be, let us never give up hope of our salvation. It is so easy to be saved!?
?Our faults are as grains of sand compared with the Mercy of God.?
?God runs after the sinner and brings him back? (Fr Toccanier, The Process of Canonisation).
To those, however, who like to speak of how severe the Curé was, we should recall the simple yet very true judgement of an old peasant from Ars. He knew John Mary Vianney from when he came to the village. He said: ?Fr Vianney,preached above all on the love of God, the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our soul. When he spoke about sin, then he wept.?
John Mary Vianney had learnt to break with the spirit of Jansenism which had marked both his youth and the first years of his ministry in the contact with Fr Balley, the parish priest in Ecully. The Curé explained in his catechesis: ?The Jansenists do still have the sacraments, but they are of no use whatsoever, since they think they have to be too perfect to receive them. The Church wants only our salvation; this is why she tells us we must receive the sacraments? (Monnin, p. 327).
Nevertheless, Mercy is no saccharine virtue for which a blessing and absolution is all that is required. That would let people think there’s hardly any difference between good and evil, and that in the end ? as the French song says ? ?we’re all going to heaven anyway’. John Mary Vianney had an acute sense of the gravity of sin. This awareness was, for him, the consequence of something of prime importance: namely, the fact that he lived in continuous union with God. ?(Fr Vianney) admitted to me one day,? said Fr Athanasius, ?that he rarely forgot the presence of God.? Fr Toccanier sums up his interior life in these terms: ?God, nothing but God, God everywhere, God in everything ? this and nothing else was the life of the Curé of Ars!?
So, anything that turned someone away from God and every offence against the Lord were a source of suffering for Fr Vianney. It is true that he loved the sinner, but it is equally true that he had a horror of sin. He was also fully aware of his responsibility as a priest, a responsibility which often tormented him: ?Ah, had I known what it was to be a priest, instead of entering the seminary I would have fled to the Trappist Monastery? (Monnin t. 2, p 275).
A holy horror of sin
It pained him to see the pernicious effects of sin in human hearts: ?Sin obscures faith in souls just like thick fog hides the sun from our eyes: We know it is day time, but we can’t see the sun? (Nodet p.147).
?Oh! Jesus, give us a holy horror of our sins. Pour into our hearts a drop of that bitterness which flooded your own heart. If we cannot blot out our sins by the shedding of our blood, give us at least to weep over them? (Nodet p.143).
John Mary Vianney was fully aware of the drama of each human life, for in and through that drama, eternity is at stake! This conviction was so deeply-rooted in him that it gave direction to his spiritual life; it explains his practice of rigorous aestheticism for which he he is well known. His acts of penance were impressive in both their extent and their frequency. Some of his critics see in these acts, a pathological desire for suffering; rather, they were the expression of a profound truth: the will to become holy himself, in order to make others holy! Denying himself ? even in the search for some legitimate comfort ? was for the Curé of Ars a way of opening the doors of his life more widely to God. He said: ?In the practice of renunciation and sacrifice, there is only one way to give yourself to God: give yourself completely, without holding anything back. The little you do keep back will only hinder you and make you suffer … I often think I would love to lose myself utterly, and from now on only find myself in God? (Monnin, t. 2, p.631).
?Give oneself completely?: this is what was inscribed at the very heart of his ministry. He particularly stressed the renunciation of ones own will, saying: ?We only have one thing that belongs to us, our will. It’s the one thing we can draw from the depth of our being with which to pay homage to God. Therefore, be very sure that a single act of renunciation of the will pleases God more than 30 days fasting? (Monnin, t. 2, p 645).
And he didn’t hesitate to give very practical examples of what he meant: ?Deny yourself a conversation you want to have; do an act of charity that has nothing in it for yourself; go to bed two minutes later; get up, two minutes earlier; if you have to chose between two things, prefer the one which pleases you less? (Monnin, t. 2, p. 646).
Passion for priestly ministry
In all this, there was neither self-seeking, nor a type of self-harming; John Mary Vianney saw it all simply as the means by which God could take possession of his life. This way of living committed him to the following of Christ (sequela Christi) as the One who, out of love for his Father, accepted to humble himself. Such renunciation had nothing destructive about it; it was life-giving because it was inspired by love.
Committed to this path of Gospel radicality, the Curé of Ars could intercede for his people in all confidence and with great interior authenticity. This is why, when he arrived in Ars, he had but one plea at the foot of the tabernacle: ?My God, convert my parish, and I am ready to suffer all that you ask of me for the rest of my life.?
In implicating the whole of his person in this request, he united himself with the action of God: for only God could convert the heart of his parishioners. The Curé lived in complete solidarity with them. It was this that affected him so much in the later years of his ministry: the fact that he no longer had time to take care of his people. It was in the same spirit that he put up with interminable hours of confessions. He offered all he suffered in the confessional for the conversion of those who came seeking pardon for their sins. Some comments he made in private allow us to appreciate the trials he underwent. To a close priest-friend, he said: ?I am dying of boredom on this poor earth. My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. My ears hear only dreadful things which break my heart. I can’t go on. Tell me, would it be a grave sin to disobey my bishop and leave here quietly?? (Monnin, t. 2, p. 271).
?My God, how time drags when I am with sinners! When will I be with saints? People offend the Good Lord so much that one would be tempted to ask for the end of the world. When one thinks?, he added, weeping warm tears, ?when one thinks of such ingratitude towards the Good God, one is tempted to fly to the other side of the seas never to see it again? (Monnin, t. 2, p. 273-74).
The meaning he gave to his acts of mortification emerged clearly in the penance he proposed to those seeking absolution. Fr Toccanier said: ?I know that he only ever gave penitents such acts of penance as were proportionate to their weakness. That meant, in general, he gave quite small penances. He would later complete these with penance he did himself.?
Once, when such a penitent expressed his surprise at the little asked of him by the Curé, the priest replied: ?Away with you, my friend. I’ll do the rest myself.?
Fr Athanasius adds: ?The holy Curé once told me, ?A penitent asked why I was crying as I heard his confession. I cry, I said, because you are not crying!’?
His biographers say that the Curé was ?a mine of tenderness and mercy? in his contact with sinners. It is well-known that the time spent in the confessional covered the greatest part of his days, but the climate of mercy covered the whole of his existence. His whole life had become mercy. This is why he underlined the danger which threatened the priest in the exercise of his responsibility. He said: ?An awful thing ? for us priests ? is that the soul becomes sluggish. In the beginning, we are touched by the state of those who don’t love God. Later, we say: ?Here’s the ones who do their duty. Great!’ ?Here’s those who don’t come to the sacraments: Tough!’ And we leave it at that.?
With time, it’s true, indifference can replace the passion we once had to transmit the fruits of mercy. We end up being resigned! The concern for winning souls for Christ can even disappear all together. In the Curé of Ars, the passion for this ministry was so deep that he said, ?I will stay till the end of the world!? He was still hearing confessions only a few hours before his death!
Allow me to end with a few words from John Paul II, who had such an affinity with the holy Curé of Ars. This is what he said to priests on Holy Thursday, 1986, the year he visited Ars:
?The ministry of reconciliation undoubtedly remains the most difficult, the most delicate, the most taxing and the most demanding of all ? especially when priests are in short supply. It also presupposes on the part of the confessor great human qualities, above all an intense and sincere spiritual life; it is necessary that the priest himself should make regular use of this sacrament.
?Always be convinced of this, dear brother priests: the ministry of mercy is one of the most beautiful and consoling. It enables you to enlighten consciences, to forgive them and to give them fresh vigour in the name of the Lord Jesus. It enables you to be for them a spiritual physician and counsellor; it remains ?the irreplaceable manifestation and the test of the priestly ministry.’?
(Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday, 1986).
+ Guy Bagnard
Emeritus Bishop of Belley-Ars
Homily given in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, on the July 6 National Day of Prayer for the renewal of parish life and vocations, in the presence of the relic of the heart of St John Vianney.
(Bishop Bagnard pictured with translator Barbara Davies, the coordinator of the Department of the New Evangelisation of the Diocese of Shrewsbury. Photo: Mazur/CatholicChurch.org.uk)
Retrouvez les images de Coeur du Curé d’Ars en Angleterre sur le site de la Conférence épiscopale d’Angleterre et du Pays de Galles.