Monday, August 4, is the feast of St. John Vianney. Born on May 8, in 1786, Jean Marie Vianney is often referred to as the Cure’d’Ars, (“Pastor” of Ars). He was the fourth of six children born to Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze, poor peasants with a strong faith who lived in Dardilly, a small town eight miles from Lyon, France.
While many are familiar with Jean Vianney’s great work as a priest in the small town of Ars, I suspect few consider that he lived and served in the aftermath of the tumultuous and pivotal events of the French Revolution. Jean Vianney’s entire life was marked by its tragic events.
Three years after Jean Vianney was born the French Revolution began. By the time he was four years old, the Churches in France were served only by apostate priests who swore allegiance to the new state church. Priests who refused to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were deported or imprisoned. The Vianneys, who were devout Catholics, travelled to distant farms to attend Mass which was celebrated clandestinely by loyal priests who risked their lives to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy and dispense the sacraments to the faithful. While Revolutionaries were organizing the hunt for priests and sending them and their faithful to the prisons, Jean Marie was studying his catechism in secret. It was during a Mass, celebrated quietly behind barred doors by an anti-Revolution priest in a home near his native parish, that Jean Marie celebrated his First Holy Communion at age 13.
The Catholic Church was re-established in France in 1802; four years later, in 1806, Jean Marie, now 20 years old, was allowed to leave the family farm to attend school in the nearby village of Ecully where he was taught by the Abbe Balley. Vianney struggled with school, especially Latin, but persevered nonetheless. His studies were interrupted in 1809 when he was drafted into Napoleon’s army. Under normal circumstances, as an ecclesiastical student, he would have been exempt but Napoleon had withdrawn the exemption in certain dioceses because of his need for soldiers. Two days before Jean Marie was to report for duty he became ill and was hospitalized. Upon his release he was sent to join another group of soldiers however, was left behind when he went into a Church to pray. Instead of catching up with his troop he went with a companion into the mountains near the village of Les Noes, where he lived for fourteen months. There he assumed the name of Jerome Vincent.
An imperial decree proclaimed in March 1810 granted amnesty to all deserters which enabled Vianney to return to Ecully where he resumed his studies. He was tonsured in 1811 and in 1812 entered the minor seminary at Verrieres-en-Forenz. In the Autumn of 1813 Vianney was sent to major seminary in Lyons but was considered too slow a learner so was returned to Ecully. His teacher and mentor, Abbe Balley, successfully persuaded the Vicars General that Jean Marie’s piety was great enough to compensate for his ignorance and in August, 1815, Jean Marie Vianney was finally ordained a priest. Shortly after the death of Abbe Balley in 1818, Jean Marie was appointed parish priest for the town of Ars, a town of approximately 230 inhabitants, a town known for its taverns, dances and drunkenness.
As a parish priest, Vianney realized that the Revolution’s aftermath had resulted in religious ignorance and indifference, due to the devastation wrought on the Catholic Church in France.
The French government’s longtime association with the Roman Catholic Church began when Charlemagne (768-814) became the first emperor to receive a papal coronation in the year, 800. France was hailed by Rome as the Church’s “eldest daughter” and the King had dedicated “our person, our state, our crown, and our subjects” to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the Catholic Church in France—known as the Gallican Church— was enormously powerful. As the official religion of France, nearly the entire population was Catholic. The Church owned approximately six percent of land throughout France, and its abbeys, Churches, monasteries and convents, as well as the schools, hospitals and other institutions it operated, constituted a visible reminder of the Church’s dominance in French society. The Catholic Church was also permitted to collect a tithe, worth a nominal one-tenth of agricultural production and was exempt from direct taxation on its earnings. Nobles filled the higher ranks of the French Catholic Church, creating strong government-Church ties. As one of the three estates, or social classes, governing France, the Church wielded considerable political power disproportionate to the number of its representatives. It is interesting to note that local parish priests did not enjoy a share of the wealth and prestige of the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy and often struggled to get by.
By 1789 tension was percolating due of the inequality of wealth and privilege enjoyed by the nobility and high ranking clergy. Because of the Church’s historical association with the nobility and absolute rule in France, the institution itself was suspect. Perceived as an extension of the aristocracy, the Church found itself in a vulnerable position. On August 4, 1789 the Church gave up its tithe and Church property was declared to be at the disposal of the state. Monasteries and property were confiscated and sold. In 1790 the National Assembly drafted a Civil Constitution of the Clergy, whose very name reflected the state’s new control of Church affairs. It redrew the boundaries of the diocese according to state administrative lines, it declared that priests were now employees of the state and that henceforth, they and bishops would be elected by citizens. On November 27 of the same year, the Assembly further decreed that all clergy must make a public oath of loyalty to the Constitution, rather than to the Pope, or surrender their salary and position. This oath became a referendum on whether one’s first allegiance was to Catholicism or to the Revolution. Figures vary but it is estimated that over 50 percent of parish clergy swore their loyalty to the Constitution. Those who took the oath became known as “jurors” while those who refused were labelled “non-jurors” or “refractory” priests.
Because of the Pope’s disapproval of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Church’s association with the Ancien Regime (the old order), there was growing sentiment in France that to be pro-Gallican also meant one was against the Revolution. Fearing for their safety, the majority of Church officials fled the country and those who remained ran the risk of being attacked, arrested, or put to death. In April, 1792 the Assembly banned all forms of religious dress, seeking to abolish this visible reminder of the Ancien Regime. Later, in the same month, the Assembly suppressed all remaining religious orders, including those staffing schools and hospitals and ordered remaining non-juror priests to leave or be arrested and deported. Concern peaked on September 2 when news arrived that the fortress town of Verdun, near Paris, had fallen to the allied Prussian forces.
Parisians, imagining that imprisoned counter-revolutionaries were preparing to break out and join the enemy, dispensed their own “justice” by descending upon the city’s prisons and, over the course of several days, slaughtered over 1200 prisoners, including 200 priests. These “September Massacres” made clear the distrust that would prevent any accommodation between the Church and the new Republic which was proclaimed on September 22, 1792.
The new Republic government, known as, The Convention, responded to growing civil unrest and ongoing overseas threats with “The Reign of Terror.” The Revolutionary Tribunal, established on March 10, 1793, resolved to demonstrate that persons of danger to the Republic were being identified and punished. Laws of September 1793 and June 1794, targeting ‘enemies of liberty’ and ‘enemies of the people’, resulted in mounting numbers of priests and nuns being arrested and placed on trial. Their crimes included not only counter-revolutionary activity but also “fanaticism” and possession of items used in the celebration of Mass; again demonstrating the suspicion now attached to religious worship. Only a small percentage of priests and religious were guillotined but their trials, designed to set an example, garnered further support for counter revolutionary forces in the Vendee and other parts of Western France and drove religious practice underground.
With the arrival of “The Reign of Terror” and the Revolutionary Tribunal it became clear that the government intended to remove the Catholic Church from France. Cults were established to replace Christianity. Under the leadership of Robespierre, during the height of “The Reign of Terror,” Notre Dame Cathedral was turned into a pagan temple, the Temple of Reason. He introduced the “Cult of Supreme Being” which attempted to infuse a new moral code based solely on the values of the revolution.
Although the Constitutional Church had been permitted to continue its work, the Convention now considered Catholicism, in any form, suspicious. Its association with Ancien Regime France, its adherence to values not of the Revolution’s making and the private nature of worship were considered incompatible with the values of the Republic. From this view sprung a movement referred to as “de-christianization”, which aimed to excise religion altogether from French society. Constitutional priests were advised to abandon the priesthood and were encouraged, and in some cases, forced, to marry. Any priest that continued to practice, whether Constitutional or refractory, now faced arrest and deportation. In October, 1793, public worship was forbidden and over the next few months all visible signs of Christianity were removed. Church bells were pulled down and melted, ostensibly to help with the war effort. Crosses were taken from Churches and cemeteries, and statues, relics and works of art, were seized and sometimes destroyed. On November 23, 1793, Churches still open were converted into warehouses, manufacturing sites or stables. Streets and other public places bearing the names of saints were given new, Republican themed names, and time itself was recast to further repudiate France’s Christian past. The Republic replaced the Gregorian calendar with its own. The Revolutionary calendar began with the advent of the French Republic (Year 1) and the names of its months reflected the seasons. A new ten-day week eliminated Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Although such measures were unevenly applied, and in many cases met with considerable local opposition, they reinforced the message that Christianity had no place in the Republic.
Between June 10 and July 21, 1794, “The Terror” reached its peak. Within these weeks the Revolutionary Tribunal had 2, 554 persons guillotined. Later in 1794, Robespierre was executed and France moved to a new government and a thaw towards religious practice.
In 1799 Napoleon assumed power and in 1802 he signed a Concordat with Rome in an attempt to reconcile. However, additions to it, made without consultation with Rome, kept control of the Church in the hands of the French government. In 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France, he took the crown from Pope Pius VII and placed it on his head himself, symbolizing France’s independence from papal control.
Predictably, relations with Rome deteriorated culminating in what Geoffrey Ellis describes in, Religion According to Napoleon, “one of the most extraordinary conflicts between temporal power and spiritual authority history has ever known.” Napoleon was eventually excommunicated and in retaliation, Napoleon had Pope Pius VII arrested and taken to France as his prisoner, first in Savona, 1809-1812, and then in Fontainebleau, where he remained until 1814.
The French Revolution was a watershed event for the Catholic Church, not just in France but gradually across all Europe. The Revolution represents a key development in its secularization. The removal of Catholic institutions and their personnel forced religious worship into the private sphere and increased the involvement of the laity, trends that would also mark the religious revival that took place in France in the nineteenth century.
This was the landscape in which Jean Marie Vianney lived and served and ultimately, transformed. As a result of the revolutionary wars and Napoleonic era, France’s grave economic woes gripped the country and countless woman and girls roamed the streets. In 1824 Jean Marie, aided by two women, Catherine Lassagne and Benedicta Lardet, established an orphanage, La Providence, for these young girls.
Despite obstacles and the prevalence of secularism, Jean Vianney’s small town of Ars was, little by little, converted and transformed. The tenor of the town and its inhabitants changed so noticeably and to the extent that it was observed by outsiders. There was no more working on Sundays and the small Church building became increasingly full. In 1827, Jean Marie cried out to his parishioners with his heart full of joy: “Ars, my brothers and sisters, is no longer, Ars!” for the village had undergone a fundamental change.
Of the taverns St. Jean railed: “The tavern is the devil’s own shop, the school where hell retails its dogmas, the market where souls are bartered, the place where families are broken up, where health is undermined, where quarrels are started and murders committed!”
Jean Marie would often cry in the Confessional and once, when he was asked why he wept, he replied, “My friend, I weep because you do not.”
On August 4, 1859 the priest who only wanted to win souls for God gave up his own. In 1925 he was canonized and placed on the index of Saints.
Abbe Balley, Jean Vianney’s teacher and mentor, had been his greatest inspiration. Despite the dangers of the Revolution, Abbe Balley remained steadfast in his faith and practice of it. Jean Vianney wrought a French revolution of his own. The poor boy from Dardilly, ordained a priest through compassion and in charge of an isolated parish; the one who prepared himself to die every day, who understood the strange logic of God who chooses the little to challenge the mighty, it was this man, Jean Marie Vianney, who became a teacher and model, even for those who sit on the Chair of Peter, who are inspired by him and hold him up for emulation to the entire Church. St. Jean Vianney, pray for us.