St. John Vianney and the Meaning of the Priesthood

Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at Holy Innocents Church in New York City for the memorial of St. John Vianney (4/8 August 202/OF & EF calendars).

In this month of August, we celebrate the liturgical memorial of the patron of parish priests, St. John Vianney. I thought it might be useful to reflect a bit on the meaning of the Sacred Priesthood, from the perspective of the significance of fortitude, celibacy, and perseverance.

First, a priest must be a man of fortitude or courage. St. Paul is a clear example of that; we find it throughout his ministry but in a rather dramatic way in his Epistle to the Galatians, wherein he chides the Galatians for “so quickly deserting him who called you” (1:6) and asks if all his efforts and the initial positive response of the Galatians have been “in vain” (3:4). Tough language, no doubt, yet powerful, because it was not written from anger or disgust, but from deep fatherly concern. This is not simply a matter of truth-telling, nor of the priest expressing his personal disapproval. Rather, a shepherd of souls has a duty to correct errors in Christian charity.  This is a key pastoral lesson for any priest: We must never be afraid to speak the truth of Christ, only making sure that it is done out of love and in a loving way. Vianney, too, a truly devoted father of souls, admonished his wayward, non-observant flock.

In the present pontificate, we have heard much about the process of “accompaniment,” which is surely important. Accompaniment, however, does not mean silence in the face of bad or misguided thoughts or behavior. In those situations, accompaniment means providing guidance and direction. Anything less is pastoral nonfeasance or malfeasance.

The finest example of holy accompaniment is found in the charming and moving Emmaus pericope (Lk 24). Those two confused disciples thought they had the story of Jesus clear, but they were wrong. The Risen Lord “accompanies” them along the road by explaining to them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that pertain to His passion, death and resurrection. He corrects their misunderstanding and brings them to the truth, which must be the goal of all accompaniment.

In a very strange expression, St. Paul speaks of an apparent experience of the Galatians, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” To what is he referring? To be sure, the Galatians were not present on Calvary. Nor could he be talking about their beholding an image of the crucifixion, for we know that the crucifixion was too painful for the early Christians to depict; we would have to wait a couple of centuries for crucifixion scenes to appear. No, I believe that Paul is calling their attention to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which they did indeed witness, in an unbloody manner, the re-presentation of Calvary. After all, didn’t St. Paul have to remind the wayward Corinthians: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26)?

Priests serve as dispensatores mysteriorum Dei (dispensers of the mysteries of God) (1 Cor 4:1). We are to be men who daily offer sacrifice in union with our Great High Priest, striving always to be worthy ministers of the Sacred Mysteries by celebrating the rites of the Church in faithfulness to the liturgical books and in a spirit of humble, joyful service. On the day of our ordination, the bishop presented us with the gifts of bread and wine, uttering these powerful words: “Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the cross.”

Our offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, is incomplete if the only time we offer sacrifice is at the altar. No, the sacrifice of the altar requires the constant sacrifice of one’s life — for Christ and for His holy people. And one of the most important aspects of such a life is that of our chaste celibacy, in imitation of the ever-chaste Bridegroom of the Church. St. Paul VI spoke of celibacy as “the jewel of the priesthood.” That jewel must be handled with all the care that it needs and deserves. As Pope Benedict XVI opened the Year for Priests in 2009, for the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, he observed: “His chastity, too, was that demanded of a priest for his ministry. It could be said that it was a chastity suited to one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who contemplates it blissfully and with that same bliss offers it to his flock.” Priestly chastity is no mere “discipline”; it is conformity to the life of our Eternal High Priest.

The Gospel according to St. Luke shows us frequently how Our Lord praises the virtue of persistence or perseverance (e.g., 11:5–13). In Luke 9:62, Jesus castigates anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back. In the same way, a priest must heed the counsel of the sacred author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (12:1-2), Jesus the Priest, in whose priesthood we share.

I once asked a professional ice skater how he is able to make all those thrilling pirouettes and always land in exactly the right spot. He said: “You have to pick some still point on the horizon, and every time you turn, you have to keep finding that still point. If you lose sight of the still point, you will land on your rear end!” Or, consider the motto of the Carthusian Order: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” (“The Cross stands steady while the earth turns”). So much in this simple phrase. The still point for us priests is Christ at the altar. We must make that our unfailing focus.

Of course, what we have been talking about is the gift of perseverance. Many years ago, I visited a holy nun who had taught me algebra in high school; she was living out her last years in the infirmary of her Congregation’s motherhouse. As I was leaving, she asked me to give her my blessing and to pray that she would have the gift of final perseverance. Stunned by her plea, I replied: “Sister, after seventy years of religious life, you are worried about perseverance?” “Dear, dear Father,” she said, “it never gets easier. Actually, at times, it seems to get harder the older I get.” Along with perseverance, then, we must guard against presumption, for fidelity “never gets easier.”

As Benedict XVI greatly desired to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the passing to glory of the Curé of Ars, so too did St. John XXIII for the centennial; he, too, was a pope who loved the priesthood and loved priests. It was not an accident that within the very first year of his pontificate, he offered the Universal Church an encyclical on the priesthood, Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the death of John Vianney. Toward the end of that letter, the sainted Pope made this observation:

Priests often find themselves in difficult circumstances. This is not surprising; for those who hate the Church always show their hostility by trying to harm and deceive her sacred ministers; as the Curé of Ars himself admitted, those who want to overthrow religion always try in their hatred to strike at priests first of all. (n. 112)

Sounds like it was written for our times, doesn’t it?

Then il Papa buono (“the good Pope,” as the Italians nicknamed him), gave us priests firm reason to be confident in the face of trials by offering a supernatural understanding of our vocation. He writes:

But even in the face of these serious difficulties, priests who are ardent in their devotion to God enjoy a real, sublime happiness from an awareness of their own position, for they know that they have been called by the Divine Savior to offer their help in a most holy work, which will have an effect on the redemption of the souls of men and on the growth of the Mystical Body of Christ. (n. 113)

Focus and determination are highlighted in the Pope’s very realistic reflection.

Nearly 150 years ago, preaching on the occasion of the opening of the first seminary in England after the Protestant Reformation, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman felt compelled to warn the seminarians of the scandal possible through clerical infidelity: “. . . . with cheap newspapers day by day conveying the news of every court, great and small, to every home or even cottage, it is plain that we are at the mercy of even one unworthy member or false brother.” (emphasis added)1 Today, he would add, “television and internet.”

Pope Benedict explained the reasoning behind his proclamation of a Year for Priests in this way:

This Year, meant to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a stronger and more incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world, will conclude on the same Solemnity in 2010. “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus,” the saintly Curé of Ars would often say. This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as “friends of Christ,” whom he has called by name, chosen and sent?

Since the media delight in highlighting clerical infidelity, it is all the more important for all the People of God to “praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests.”

St. John Vianney, pray for us priests, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ our Great High Priest.

  1. “The Infidelity of the Future,” 2 October 1873.
Avatar About Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

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