Pope Benedict XVI recently announced that the year June 19, 2009 to June 19, 2010 would be the “Year of the Priest.” One of the reasons for this declaration is that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. The information below, taken from the textbook Marriage and Holy Orders, can be shared with your students. Also assign the questions that follow for journaling or discussion.

Some parishes are always considered “more desirable” than others, but for different reasons. For example, one priest may prefer an assignment in a parish with an upper-middle class socio-economic base because he knows that the parish’s ministries—including the outreach to the poor—will be more easily funded than in other parishes and he will be able to spend more time in the roles of preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and counseling people. However, another priest may prefer a parish with a poorer economic base because of his preference for living and working directly with people who have great needs.

Certainly the small parish at Ars, France, was not considered the most desirable of assignments when it was given to newly ordained Father Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney in 1818. The village had only forty houses, but four taverns. It was a farming community where people worked on Sunday and didn’t often go to church.

Father John Vianney made himself at home in Ars. He regularly visited the people in their homes and helped them in difficult times. When one of the taverns went out of business. Father John helped the owner raise money to buy his own farm. Then he tore the tavern down. The townspeople noticed some other things about their new priest. He seemed to spend most of the night in prayer. He gave away all of his clothing and much of the furniture in the rectory to the poor and ate only two potatoes per day explaining “some devils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.”

But what Father John Vianney became best known for in Ars and well beyond was the advice and counsel he offered people who came to him for confession. During the last ten years of his life, he spent from sixteen to eighteen hours per day in the confessional. In 1855, over 20,000 pilgrims came to Ars for Father John to hear their confession. He would hear up to three hundred confessions per day, sometimes being able to tell what sins were being withheld by the penitent. John Vianney’s life was his parish. He said of his parishioners at Ars:

My God, grant me the conversion of my parish. I am willing to suffer all my life whatsoever it may please you to lay upon me. Yes, even for a hundred years I am prepared to endure the sharpest pains; only let my people be converted.
Parish priests today are under the patronage of Saint John Vianney. He was canonized in 1925. The ministry of the parish priest depends somewhat on the priest’s personal interests and skills, but will in any case demand much time preparing for and celebrating the sacraments. One of the most crucial responsibilities a priest has for teaching the people is his Sunday homily. The priest prays about this reflection on the theme of the Scripture readings with special attention to the Gospel message during the week leading up to Sunday. His words connect not only the theme of the Scripture, but also must relate it to events in the parish and in the worldwide Church. To be able to effectively do this, part of each day is set aside for personal prayer.

Visiting the sick, visiting people in their homes, visiting children in a parish school or religious education program, and working with various parish committees and neighborhood organizations are all part of a priest’s daily ministry. He also helps to prepare catechumens for the sacraments and couples for marriage. He may counsel several couples who are having difficulties in their marriage. A required focus of ministry for all priests is paying special attention to the needs of the poor. When John Vianney was pastor in Ars in the years after the French Revolution, there were many young orphan girls wandering the streets as prostitutes. To combat this problem, Father John founded an orphanage across the road from the parish church. He would spend the noon hour at the orphanage offering catechetical instruction to the girls. Today, all Catholic parishes have formal and informal outreach to the poor. The pastor is often the one overseeing these efforts and he participates in them in a personal way as well.

The life of a parish priest is not an easy one. But it is rewarding, with most of the tangible benefits coming from their proximity to the Eucharist and other sacraments, the emphasis on personal prayer, and their special connection with the parishioners. Father Stephen Rossetti writes:
A consistent support and challenge for priests comes from the people of God. Their presence is an important way in which God is manifested to us. As we personally connect with the people whom we serve, we are affirmed, supported, challenged, and “stretched.”

  • Describe a parish priest you know who has woven his life well within the entire faith community.
  • How would you define a “desirable parish”?