Bishop Glen John Provost shared the following reflection with the priests of the Diocese of Lake Charles at the beginning of the Year for Priests. It is reprinted here in hopes that these humble thoughts might be of some assistance to all who seek to grow in the spiritual life.
In proclaiming this Year for Priests, Pope Benedict XVI stated that the intent of the Year was “to deepen the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a more forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world” (Letter “Proclaiming a Year for Priests”, June 16, 2009). It is worth our while to reflect on this intention.
As St. John Vianney so well pointed out, “The great misfortune for us parish priests… is that our souls grow tepid.” There are many reasons for this indifference, but let us not talk of them. I think we know what they are already. Rather, let us concentrate on what St. John Vianney did to counteract indifference in his own priestly life. St. John Vianney knew, as Pope Paul VI so correctly observed, that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41, quoted in “Proclaiming a Year for Priests” of Pope Benedict XVI).
The town to which his bishop sent him was in a sad state. In the words of his bishop, “There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put it there.” In confronting non-practicing parishioners, St. John Vianney lived a radical life. Today his penitential practices appear extreme, but he was living in extreme times - as we do today - that required extreme “witnesses.” His prayer was intense, his mortifications courageous, his priestly zeal total, and his love for the Gospel consuming. In this way he showed his lack of indifference and his great love for God.
I remember traveling to Ars many years ago on pilgrimage. I had celebrated Mass in the parish church, using the chalice of the holy Curé. As I turned to leave, an old French gentleman stopped me to hear his confession. So we stepped into the confessional where St. John Vianney had spent hours of his day absolving, as Christ had intended his priests to do. This moment made a deep impression on me. Having just celebrated Mass, I now celebrated the Sacrament of forgiveness that is the particular duty of the priest. How many souls had returned to Christ in that hallowed place? How many broken lives had been healed by the ministry of the good Curé, a zealous priest who thought more of others than he did of himself? Indeed, it was a humbling experience and continues to be so.
At the recent United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meeting, a bishop friend of mine and I were reflecting on some matters being discussed. Being an historian, he placed the Church in the modern age in perspective. He said that these days in the history of the Church reminded him of early 19th century France, the era in which St. John Vianney found himself. How so? That country had just experienced the social and religious upheaval of the French Revolution.
Consequently the society was becoming more and more secular. In response the Church became more and more countercultural. What he said helped me understand St. John Vianney a little better.
St. John Vianney, to offer an “incisive witness to the Gospel” in his own day, undertook with God’s help an intense “interior renewal,” to quote Pope Benedict’s own words announcing the Year for Priests. In a period of history, characterized by “a culture of death”, self-indulgent, materialistic, and profoundly selfish while proclaiming to be sensitive, priests need to be holy along with the parishioners whom they instruct in holiness. For this to happen, there must be “interior renewal.”
For renewal, there must be in the daily life of the priest prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Mass, devout celebration of the sacraments of the Church, the rosary, spiritual reading, meditation, faithful praying of the Liturgy of Hours, as well as regular confession, consultation with a spiritual director, a yearly retreat, and monthly recollection. If these are not in place in priests’ lives, then everything else we do is trivialized. How can we prepare a homily, if we have not prayed? How can we counsel a married couple to fidelity, if we have not been faithful ourselves to what is required? How can we live a chaste or obedient life, if we have not examined our consciences?
There is much that could be said about the legacy of St. John Vianney, but of his life one thing is sure. He embraced his duties with complete zeal and did so because he loved. In his own remarkable words: “Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love.”