St John Marie Baptiste Vianney
Patron Saint of Parish Clergy
It is one of the strange realities of God's way that what is a huge church in Blackpool is named after a tiny, humble and poor man born in the centre of France during the French Revolution. In worldly terms John Vianney achieved very little in his life, but in human terms many thousands of people, from all walks of life and from many countries, have been grateful to him bringing them closer to God.
He was born on May 8, 1786 in the village of Dardilly in France. He was part of a poor farming community who needed to spend so much time on the land that the children had no time for schooling. The French Revolution had a devastating effect on the Church and the spiritual life of parishes but John was always aware of God’s presence and his memory of his first Holy Communion, in his family kitchen (due to the revolution), was just one of his spiritual highlights.
As the revolution passed John Vianney wanted to support the people in coming closer to God and he wanted to be a priest. He joined the seminary at Lyon but found, at the outbreak of the war between Napoleon and Spain, he was conscripted – this was a mistake, really, because Church students were usually exempt! John agreed to go – but then missed the garrison leaving the area and found himself classed as a deserter and had to hide. Ultimately John’s brother enlisted which allowed John to return to his studies – John’s brother never returned from the war and this knowledge remained with him throughout his life. At the seminary John found academic life continually difficult as all the subjects were taught through Latin which he found impossible. The ecclesiastical authorities regarded his difficulties as a reflection of a dim mind and he was invited to leave the seminary.
Once again God seems to have intervened as a priest friend saw more in John, continued to train him for the priesthood through his native French language and eventually persuaded the Diocesan authorities to accept his spiritual strengths in qualifying him for ordination as a priest. John Vianney was ordained priest in 1815.
Even after ordination the bishop and advisors doubted Fr John’s abilities and sent him to a small and poor “backwater” parish in the village of Ars some miles north of Lyons. John was happy to approach the parish of 230 souls and when he met a local shepherd said “you showed me the way to Ars; I will show you the way to heaven”. Ars, like many parts of France, was showing the results of the Revolution in a ruined church and a people who had neglected God. In the years that followed John Vianney simply represented Christ in the village and reminded the people of God’s presence.
And so John Vianney, the “Curé d’Ars”, lived out his vocation living frugally (mainly on potatoes), preaching the love of God, opening a home for orphaned girls and being a priest. However he is best known for calling people to God’s forgiveness. He often spent 14 to 18 hours a day in the confessional forgiving people in God’s name as they came from all over France, Europe and the world.