Homily of Bishop Philip Boyce, Bishop of Raphoe at Mass to welcome the relics of St John Vianney to Knock Shrine
Since June 2009 we have been living in what Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated as a “Year for Priests”. It has given rise to much prayer to God for the faithfulness, interior renewal and holiness of priests. Yet this year has been marked with the revelation of the scandalous sins and crimes of those whose hands were anointed for a sacred service but who betrayed the trust placed in them by innocent children. Instead of leading them to God, they led them astray and ruined their lives. As the prophet Daniel laments and prays: “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face…To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness because we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws… O Lord hear; O Lord forgive; O Lord give heed and act.” (Daniel 9: 1,9-10.19)
Among the initiatives taken by the Irish Bishops for this Year for Priests there has been, at a national level, the visit of the relic of the heart of the Curé of Ars to Ireland. Its presence here at Knock Shrine today has brought us together to venerate the relics of this humble French priest who in 1929 was declared by Pope Pius XI the patron saint of parish priests worldwide. This pilgrimage and today’s acts of devotion will bring us nearer to the Good Shepherd himself, Christ Jesus our Lord, whom St John Mary Vianney served with utter devotion during all his priestly life.
John Mary Vianney, the Priest
John Mary Vianney was born on 8th May 1876 and grew up in the years following the French Revolution that saw the Church in France thrown into a state of spiritual and religious turmoil and society infiltrated with a secular and rationalistic culture. After a long struggle he was ordained a priest at the age of thirty.
He spent over forty years of his priestly life in one small parish, Ars that had only about seventy families. When he was sent there as Parish Priest, the Vicar General of the Diocese said to him: “Ars is now without a parish priest. There is not much love of God in this village. Your job is to instil some!” The new Curé was not daunted, but what he saw on arrival was a desolate scene: a run-down church with the altar untidy, the linen unwashed, the tabernacle empty, the sanctuary lamp with the light out. Nevertheless, he rang the little bell the following morning. Only a few parishioners came, more out of curiosity than devotion. But long before dawn that day one of the locals went to the church to see why a light was burning and found the new parish priest on his knees in front of the Cross. Things began to change in Ars.
In the Confessional
His confessional became the point of attraction during the following years. It was the epicentre of a spiritual earthquake that shook France and indeed Europe itself with a revolution of conversion and holiness. They flocked to Ars in their thousands. The holiness and dedication of his priestly life acted like a magnet. “People came to him from curiosity and returned to him from necessity: through him men learned the infinite value of the Sacrament of Penance.” (H. Gheon).
The holy Curé began his gruelling day hearing confessions some hours after midnight, stopping at six o’clock in the morning for the celebration of Mass. After his thanksgiving, he went into the confessional again until half past ten. There followed the recitation of his breviary, on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament, then some catechetical instruction and a meagre lunch. In the afternoon he was in the confessional again until eight in the evening, when he said the rosary from the pulpit. He would not have had more than four to five hours sleep at night. It was his daily routine, a gruelling one, a real martyrdom.
In the confessional he was full of compassion and encouragement for those who repented. He had a keen sense of sin. “I weep because you do not weep for your sins” he would say. At times he would add a penance himself to make reparation for the sins of others. Although trembling with cold during the winter and stifled with heat in summer within that confined space, he was always patient. He gave words of advice that were pertinent, but he did not keep his penitents for long. He did not attach his penitents to himself; he fully realised he was only a channel of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. He warned those who were thoughtless; he opened up the streams of divine mercy to those who were sincere. He was a priest through and through.
The Curé of Ars: a Model for us?
Some may shake their head and say that such a heroic life may be worthy of admiration, but is far beyond what any priest or lay person would be capable of today. He lived in a different time and culture.
Certainly, the harsh penances, the long hours every day in the confessional, the few hours of sleep each night, the relentless routine and the very special graces, personal to him alone, are all beyond us. But his charming humility despite his pastoral success, his gentleness and poverty of spirit, his patience with sinners, his fidelity to the confessional and to the Eucharist, his devout prayer life, his care for the sick and the poor, his perseverance in times of trial – all this is an example and encouragement for us. He reminds priests of the quintessential duties for which they were ordained. He reminds all of us of our God, introduces us into a higher world and teaches us what Christ loves.
In this sense, the relics of the heart of the Curé of Ars among us today can raise our thoughts to God, make us more keenly aware of the horror of sin, deepen our devotion to the Mass and lead us to draw waters of cleansing and renewal from the wells of salvation in the Sacrament of Penance. St John Vianney’s life can also inspire us priests to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord who called us to be faithful to our duties in the confessional, at the altar and with the sick and afflicted; in a word, to the work of saving souls. In a sense, we need not go outside our own parish. The Curé of Ars spent over forty years of his priestly life in one small parish that had only about 260 parishioners. Just think of what curacy in your own diocese that would have just that population! Imagine spending all but two years of your priestly life in that small area. Yet, it was there he became a Saint. People flocked to him. His confessional became a centre of reconciliation and renewal. From his close association with the Sacrifice of the Cross, he went from the altar to the confessional.
Pope Benedict XVI, in the Letter he wrote to proclaim the Year for Priests, says: “Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the [French] Revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence… By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and to offer forgiveness.”
Like him, the priest in the confessional can reveal to those who are lukewarm and insincere the horror of their sins that offend God so much. To those who are sincere and repentant, he can open the treasures of divine mercy and love. As the saintly Curé said: “The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, He already knows that you will sin again, yet He still forgives you. How great is the love of our God. He even forces himself to forget the future, so that He can grant us his forgiveness.”
And to all of you faithful people of God: I thank you for your prayer, your love and support for your priests. I thank you for asking the Lord of the harvest to send good labourers into his harvest. May your pilgrimage to Knock Shrine today and the Veneration of the Relics be a moment of grace for you. May the Lord grant your requests and make you experience the peace and encouragement that comes from a good Confession where you receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.
And you, all you priests and confessors who spend long hours in this demanding responsibility of hearing Confessions, day in day out, at Knock Shrine, may you like the Curé of Ars know the deep peace and joy at witnessing souls set free of guilt and returning to friendship with God.
And to all my brother priests: may the Curé of Ars, your Patron, inspire you with new energy. The waves of stormy criticism may lash against us, but the Lord of history is with his Church, as He was in Peter’s boat.
We need not be afraid or lose heart. Pope John Paul II called us at the beginning of the Millennium to “put out into the deep” for a catch: Duc in altum (Lk 5:4), words that ring out again inviting us “to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence. For ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ “(Heb.13:8)
Notes to editors:
- This homily was delivered in Knock Basilica on Tuesday 27 April at the Mass to welcome the relics of St John Vianney.
- The relics of St John Vianney arrived in Ireland on Sunday 25 April and have been venerated in Cork, Dublin, Knock and Armagh. They will return to the Shrine of Ars in France tomorrow. More than 1,000 people have attended each of the venues to venerate the relics.
- Further information on St John Vianney and on the visit is available as part of a special feature on www.catholicbishops.ie
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