There is, however, a dimension of his priestly life and ministry that is at the very heart of his identity that shaped his zeal for souls and formulated his pastoral plan. His whole life and his strategy for the conversion of his parish and countless souls beyond its boundaries was founded on the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. He would often tell his people, “Attending Mass is the greatest action we can do.” He anticipated what the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) would say over one hundred years after his death in 1859 and what the Catechsim of the Catholic Church would teach thirty years after the Council – the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. (Lumen Gentium #11 and CCC #1324). St John Vianney clearly witnessed in his life that what happened at the altar at Mass gives purpose, meaning, and direction to our human existence. He taught his people, “Holy Communion and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are the two most efficacious actions to obtain the conversion of hearts.”
Why was St. John Vianney’s conviction concerning the centrality of the Eucharist in the lives of Christians so strong? First, I believe that it was his profound cooperation with God’s grace in his life. Second, it was the powerful witness of faith in his parents and the trying circumstances in which he grew up.
The future parish priest of Ars was born in 1786 and was formed in the Catholic Faith at a time of great turmoil in France. It was during the dark days of the French Revolution and the ensuing years of persecution of the Church that young John Vianney was nurtured in his relationship with God. During that time he would leave with his family in the middle of the night to attend the celebration of Mass in some isolated barn or private home when a priest would clandestinely minster to the people at the risk of being executed for offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The faithful would also have been guillotined if found there. They risked their own lives so important was the Mass to them. No price was too much to pay.
John Vianney was prepared for his First Holy Communion by two nuns whose religious community had been dissolved by the fiercely anti-Church government. Forced to abandon the religious habit, they secretly lived out their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience teaching children the Catholic Faith and the importance of the sacraments. Mass for his First Holy Communion was celebrated in secret in a house with people of the village serving as decoys outside the house feigning a noisy party while the Mass was being sung inside. The plot worked and the authorities remained oblivious to the encounter with Jesus that was unfolding inside. This certainly taught him that the Mass was worth any sacrifice! He began to treasure every reception of the Lord in Holy Communion as an audience with the King of heaven.
He endured many trials in following his vocation to the priesthood. As the parish priest of the out-of-the-way village of Ars, he preached what he knew to be true in his own life – the power of God’s love was found in the celebration of Mass and the reception of the Eucharistic Jesus. He told his people over and over again, “All the good works taken together do not equal the Sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the works of man and the Holy Mass is the work of God.” He knew that he had to personally witness to this outpouring of God’s love and mercy for His people at Mass. He would repeat, “The priest must have the same joy as the apostles in serving the Lord whom he holds in his hands.” He lived his life from one celebration of the Mass to the next celebration of the Mass. All he did in between drew strength and meaning from the Mass and went back in thanksgiving to God through the Mass.
When St. John Vianney went to the parish in Ars, there were few people who attended Mass even on Sunday and of them few received Holy Communion. At the end of his priestly service there, shortly before his death, the parish church was overflowing with people every morning at the 7:00 AM Mass. He would often say to his people gathered for Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, “He comes down on our altars where he awaits us night and day.” Obviously his people believed him.
During this time of our Eucharistic Revival we could learn a great deal from the profound and yet childlike faith of St. John Vianney. His courage in preaching the truth of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the dynamic power of His Sacrifice made present on the altar at Mass became the “pastoral plan” that packed his church and caused thousands and thousands of people each years from beyond his parish to come back to the Heart of Jesus. His own personal witness of holiness, faith and love for his people was the magnet that drew people of all walks of life, not to him, but to the Lord’s Presence in the Eucharist.
I know priests who have employed his strategy today in their parishes with great success. I think we should consider it during our Eucharistic Revival. Let us proclaim the truth of Christ’s Real Presence in love and Jesus will do the rest!
St. John Vianney, pray for us!
Most Reverend William J. Waltersheid
Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh