St. Jean Vianney: A Lesson in Living with Tradition

Come Confirmation time, looking for a patron can be quite the task. Not that some saints are less worthy of respect than others (hyperdulia to the Virgin Mary aside). But if one aims to go beyond the suggested list and avoid random selection, it is clear that some – based on their personal attributes – will be a better fit than others.

In my case, I had several. St. Thomas Aquinas appealed to my affinity for academics; St. Thomas More appealed to my sense of martyrdom, law, and authority. Knowing the people in my age group back then, my gravitation towards these male figures was already odd enough.

Yet, by mere chance, I stumbled onto the Wikipedia page of the Curé of Ars. And looking at his life, I was instantly drawn to him…so much so that he ultimately became my confirmation saint.

After years of commemorating his feast (the last time on Friday), I still don’t understand why it formed so quickly. But this mystery is even more puzzling given that, on paper, he stands out as the complete opposite of an intellectual:

    • He failed his Latin courses in seminary, partially stemming from the instability of the French Revolution and its effects on his education (especially as he was born into a recusant family).
    • If I read Abbé Trochu’s book correctly, one of Vianney’s main literary/devotional influences was a French translation of Alban Butler‘s Lives of the Saints. He would also have read other works related to his priestly training like “the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Dictionnaire de théologie of [Nicolas Sylvestre] Bergier, the spiritual treatises of [Alphonsus?] Rodriguez, and the sermon books of [Jean?] Le Jeune, [Claude] Joly, and [Canon] Bonnardel.” But while staunchly orthodox, he was almost always more interested in moral practice than moral theory (compared to his friend and contemporary, Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, O.P.). [1]
    • And while the Curé’s sermons are useful for various reasons, some of their content – particularly his warnings against dancing – make him sound like another firebrand preacher to the contemporary ear. (In real life, his personality was very meek, and he often went into tangents during Sunday Mass.) [2][3]

But a closer look reveals that this simple man was actually quite complex:

He conversed with perfect ease with persons of the highest rank [as well as the lowest]…. “A gentle and frank gaiety and a delightful ease characterized his relations with his friends.” … [But Vianney also] was very observant:  many a shaft of mordant wit might he have dashed off, but he always refrained from doing so. However, “in the freedom of familiar conversation he occasionally dropped remarks of…piquancy; observations that were not devoid of a certain delicate irony.” These sallies never wounded because their sting was softened by the merry tone of his voice and the kindly expression of his face. [4]

And it is true that in the aftermath of the Revolution, he – through his poverty and asceticism – attempted to revive the traditional Faith in his parish. [5] (Abbé Vianney was particularly known for promoting Mass, daily prayer, Confession, and the Holy Eucharist.) But he was also known for his efforts to help the poor; he was given the Legion d’honneur partially due to his work with orphans – although he expressly tried to refuse the award.

Finally, consider this episode:

M. l’Abbé Denavit, one of the professors of Saint-Irénée of Lyons, came to Ars…in the hope of finding [Vianney] at fault…. He waited where the saint would have to cross the short distance between the church and the presbytery, and addressed him as follows: “Monsieur le Curé, I am one of those in charge of the Grande Séminaire of Lyons. I should be grateful if you would give me some advice to help me to acquit myself well.”


M. Vianney smiled rather cryptically, looked straight into the eyes of his interlocutor, and speaking in Latin, so as not to be understood by the bystanders, he said: “Declina a malo et fac bonum.” Having said it, he turned his attention to others. [6]

Thus, despite the circumstances, I – as a Catholic of a philosophical bent – am ever grateful for his example.

For in my experience, I have seen people return to the Faith – and specifically to traditionalism – via four main paths:  beauty, structure, continuity, and thought. All of them are, of course, important for Christian living. Yet, for those of us fond of the intellectual life, the Curé’s life reminds us that prayer, charity, and action – especially those done with joy – are what ultimately draw people to Christ.

Of course, this is not to say that intellectuals – or even traditionalists – cannot be charitable. (This, for example, is something to strive for – whether in Gabon or in the U.S.) For those who are weak (such as yours truly), it is important to stay away from near occasions of sin – especially when temptation is just an instant click away. And it is true that there are many complaints to be had about the state of the Church, although the circumstances may vary from age to age.

But raised in the wake of a secularist revolt, the Curé knew he had to go beyond critique; he had to do what was needed to try to convert every soul. What Vianney did not know through books, he knew through prayer and reflection (assisted by the gift of reading men’s hearts). What he couldn’t preach via words, he preached through example. And when he couldn’t reach the soul through deeds, he reached them through personal sacrifice and tears.

In this way, combined with his sense of prudence, he managed to both guard his parish against sin and open his doors to those who struggled – despite his unlearnèd status.

Similarly, any return of Catholic orthodoxy (and the fullness of our tradition) must not only draw from past thought – it must draw in the simple as much as the scholarly. In the attempt to regroup, it must not fully isolate itself from the world; in a spirit of charity and justice, it must also reach out to those in material and/or spiritual poverty. And most importantly for the traditionalist who wishes to bring Christ into this secular age….

One must not only deliberate; one must do!

[1]  François Trochu, The Curé d’Ars, trans. Ernest Graf (TAN Books, 1992), 74; 139-140.

[2] A free online list of St. Jean Vianney’s homilies can be found here. Having seen some of them, they should be taken seriously by Catholics given: 1.) his earnest pleas for conversion, 2.) his positive recommendations for Eucharistic adoration and other devotions, and 3.) his admonishments against Hell and sin…among other reasons.

For a more authoritative set of sermons, feel free to buy from TAN Books or Mediatrix Press (thanks to Rick Yoder for the second recommendation).

[3] To be fair, his remarks against dances in the 1800s should be read in light of his admonitions against immodesty (yours truly can think of several modern equivalents, unfortunately). Not having read all of his work, I am not sure what he would think about dancing in general. However, such hesitation exists not only as some Puritan concern … even St. Francis de Sales mentions this tension between fun, virtue, and vice in the Introduction to the Devout Life.

[4] Trochu, 445; 461; 464. Although Abbé Trochu’s work is a rather plain hagiography (but an important one, given that he draws upon various official documents), the Curé’s snark appears almost as often as his kind, humble nature and his zeal for souls.

[5] I must note that when I say “traditional Faith” in the context of this sentence, I’m talking more about any orthodox religious practices done in France before the advent of the French Revolution. To call Abbé Vianney a “traditionalist Catholic” (i.e. a supporter of pre-Vatican II practices and/or ideals) as opposed to an orthodox Catholic (which he rightly was!) would be very anachronistic.

[6] ibid., 538-539.

(Cover Image:  Wikimedia Commons – please note that this picture was taken not in the actual basilica at Ars-sur-Formans but at another French church. I had to use this due to copyright concerns at the time of publication.)


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