Parish of St Matthew the Apostle,
Douglas, Isle of Man
Father Tom ponders …… St John Vianney and the call to be a priest
St John Vianney was born in 1786, near Lyons. Tradition has it that he struggled with academic work and had great difficulty in being ordained. Once ordained he founded an orphanage for girls and became internationally famous for his spiritual direction. He was known for his powerful sermons, personal example of holiness and his ability to perform miracles. He was said to be able to read souls in the confessional and predict future events. Between 1830 and 1845 an average of 300 people visited Ars every day to meet with him. To accommodate all these pilgrims, St. John Vianney slept only two hours per night. He also ate little, dressed in old clothes and slept on a hard bed. In 1874, Pope Pius IX declared him Venerable, and he was canonized a saint by Pius XI in 1925.
In the study of many priests you will find an image or icon of St John Vianney: a reminder that the call to be a parish priest is a vocation rather than a career with prospects. Look a little closer on the book shelf of a priest and you will probably find a copy of Percy Deamer’s, ‘The parson’s Handbook.’ The twelfth edition was published in 1932 and contained ‘practical direction both for ‘parsons’ (parish priests) and others as to the management of the parish church and its services according to the Anglican use, as ‘set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.’ If I followed his advice in this classic of a book, I would be having my afternoon nap and have been writing this article earlier on! Look again and you may find the wonderful book ‘The Chalice and the Sword’ by Ernest Raymond – now sadly out of print – or prints of Dr Pusey, Cardinal Newman and dear Fr Arthur Tooth who was imprisoned to hard-labour for putting two candlesticks on his altar.
What a very different world parish priests live in today. Social Services have taken over many of the institutions founded by these giants of the Church. Sundays are no longer a day of rest, it is another day for shopping or going to work. Like many professionals, our ‘uniform’ no longer indicates that we should be shown a little respect, rather it marks us out as a target for jeers and tired jokes. Our churches are no longer ‘sacred sites’ rather they are opportunities for vandalism and theft. The Sacrament of Reconciliation has been abandoned in favour of counsellors and happy pills. Last of all, parish priests seem to spend more and more time trying to raise money for ever increasing Diocesan Share at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch.
So, why get out of bed of a morning? In my mind’s eye I can still see the priest at the altar who changed my life without knowing it. What was it that enabled me to perceive what it was that God wanted of me? Like St John Vianney it was many years before I was ordained, but called I was. During that time life has not always been easy and there have been times when I still ask, ‘Why me?’ When I am not feeling sorry for myself I rejoice when I visit Manor Park School, the Sea Cadets, the Hospice, the privilege of celebrating the Sacraments and in particular offering the Mass. In return there is the humbling sensation when people thank me for taking a funeral, or for taking the time to visit them, pray for them and bringing them Holy Communion. These are the reasons for getting out of bed and because God chose me to do this in the name of his Son: bless, forgive, restore.
When I walk around our parish I continue in the footsteps of the giants of the Church of the past, St John Vianney, and those of my own time. I have been given a plot of land which God wants me to till and water until the time comes to move on again. However, this isn’t just up to me, it is about us all being committed to proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation. There is much for us to do together in Douglas and we have only just got off the starting-blocks. There is everything to be gained for the kingdom and it is ‘All for Jesus.’
With love and prayer.