Skip to comments.Praying People into the Confessional (the example of St. John Vianney)
Posted on 05/01/2010 1:38:52 PM PDT by NYer
A few weeks ago, when I began this miniseries on St. John Vianney as a confessor, I asked why so many men and women from throughout France made enormous sacrifices to get to the barely accessible hamlet of Ars to go to confession. I replied at the time with the words of one of the several hundred thousand reconciled sinners who had made such a pilgrimage: they came to Ars because there was something truly special about the confessor. They believed they were encountering “God in a man,” someone whose radiant holiness gave them a glimpse of the irresistible beauty of God’s merciful love.
That explanation is no doubt true from the subjective perspective of many of the penitents. But I don’t think it’s an exhaustive explanation. While only God knows all the reasons why St. John Vianney’s confessional was teeming while so many other confessionals in France were vacant, it seems plausible that the fundamental reason was that God himself was drawing them there. I like to think, moreover, that one of the reasons God was moving his sons and daughters to confess to this simple priest in a tiny village was because St. John Vianney “earned” and “deserved” them far more than other priests.
God, who cannot be outdone in generosity, seemed reward the constant prayers and heroic sacrifices of St. John Vianney for the conversion of others. Just as no other confessor in history has heard so many confessions for so many years as the Curé of Ars, so probably no other priest prayed and sacrificed as much for the conversion necessary to bring sinners to the confessional.
As I’ve noted in previous columns, when the future patron saint of priests arrived in Ars, the practice of the faith was quite weak. His confessional was, for the most part, dormant. Rather than deter or discourage him, this absence of fidelity on the part of others spurred him on. He would spend most of the night in his Church alone with the Lord, begging, “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish! I consent to suffer whatever you wish for as long as I live.” He would fast and do other types of bodily penance in prayerful reparation to God for the sins others were not confessing. He would wait patiently in his confessional, praying for those who should be on the other side, but who, for one reason or another, had not yet come to conversion. He did this for a decade before there was a steady flow of penitents.
Even after he began to be overwhelmed by the number of penitents, however, he kept praying and doing sacrifices for the conversion of others. While in most matters he was reticent about his own interior life, in terms of his praying for sinners, he was very open, because he wanted to enlist others in the effort to imitate him in praying for those in need of God’s mercy.
“I can’t stop praying for poor sinners who are on the road to hell,” he once said. “If they come to die in that state, they will be lost for all eternity. What a pity! We have to pray for sinners!” He said that praying for sinners was the “most beautiful and useful of prayers” because “the just are on the way to heaven, the souls of purgatory are sure to enter there, but the poor sinners” will be lost forever. He said that all devotions are good but “there is no better one” than such prayer for sinners.
“What souls we can convert by our prayers,” he said on another occasion. Paraphrasing the Lord’s words to the Prophet Ezekiel, he added, “The one who saves a soul from hell saves this soul and his own as well.” He passed these truths on to all who would listen, because he knew that one did not have to be a priest absolving sins in God’s name in the confessional to save sinners; by God’s design, one could also do so through prayer.
When he talked about praying for sinners, he wasn’t describing merely a short invocation, but a serious program of persistent supplication. When a parishioner asked him how more effectively to pray for sinners, the patron saint of priests responded with a list of things that seem to have an autobiographical tone to them. “One can offer himself as a victim for 8-15 days for the conversion of sinners. One can suffer cold, heat, deprive oneself of looking at something, go visit someone who would appreciate it, make a novena, attend daily Mass for this intention in places where it is possible. Not only would one contribute to God’s glory by this holy practice [of praying for sinners], but one would obtain an abundance of grace.”
To a brother priest who complained that his efforts to get his people to return to the Sacrament of Penance through his ministry in the pulpit had so far borne little fruit, St. John Vianney replied, with a response that likely featured much self-revelation, “You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline [a self-imposed penitential scourging]? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain.”
Whenever someone he met refused to repent, the Curé of Ars redoubled his prayers and penances for that person’s conversion. He would, moreover, do “preventative” prayer and penance prior to the scheduled debauched dances (the vogues) to beg God’s grace to help people falling in sin. He would also do post-confessional prayer and sacrifice for reconciled sinners, giving them easier penances and doing the rest himself, so that no one would be afraid to return to the sacrament of God’s mercy because of the fear of a harsh penance.
He prayed so much and so insistently precisely because he was convinced that the conversion of some from the state of mortal sin to grace was a true miracle that only God can work. “A great miracle is needed to raise a poor soul in that state,” he taught in one of his catechism lessons. “Yes, a greater miracle than what the Lord did to raise Lazarus!” To resuscitate a dead body pales, he thought, to resurrecting a soul from death; every absolution is in fact a resurrection, when God the Father says to his prodigal son, “My son was dead and has come back to life again.” St. John Vianney never lost the wonder of being God’s instrument for these most important miracles. When his fame began to grow through his being the instrument for some miraculous bodily cures, he downplayed their significance, saying that the “body is so very little” and adding, “It is a beautiful thought, my children, that we have a sacrament that heals the wounds of our soul!”
St. John Vianney’s existence, like Christ’s before him, became one great prayer for the miracle of the conversion of sinners. “I am only content,” he said, “when I’m praying for sinners.” One of the reasons for his was that he knew, by what seems to be a divine intimation, that such prayer pleased God immensely. “The good God has made me see,” he said to one of his friends, “how much he loves that I pray for poor sinners. … I don’t know if it were really a voice I heard or a dream, but, whatever it was, it woke me up and told me that to save a soul in the state of sin is more pleasing to God than all sacrifices. For that reason, I do all my resolutions for penance.”
His heroic praying for sinners was the prehistory for so many of the miracles of conversion that took place in his confessional. His confessional had the longest continuous lines in Church history because he prayed more than anyone in history that people would get in that line of salvation.
His example is an inspiration to all priests and faithful to imitate him in this prayer. The same Lord who was pleased to answer his persevering pleas so lavishly stands ready to respond to ours.
How much it please our Lord, that we, along with Him, so greatly desires the conversion of sinners. That we have pity upon their souls because we know what waits for them in the afterlife if they do not convert! We can pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet daily or many times during the day. We can offer EVERYTHING, and with gladness deprive ourselves of some legitimate pleasure for some soul who is in need. We can make the Seven Offerings of the Precious Blood for sinners and pray continuously around the clock while we are awake just by saying, Jesus, Mary, I love You, save souls. The closer we are to God, the more we will care about the salvation of souls and the more ardent we are in our efforts. This desire pleases our Lord greatly, and we participate in carrying our crosses after him by denying ourselves willingly. Make sacrifices of everything you can. Dont eat seconds, dont drink anything with sugar in it, fast from television that is mindless, instead watch something that educates you in the Faith. Listen to Catholic CDs. Once you make your Morning Offering prayer, everything becomes an offering, a prayerful action. Even changing diapers for the conversion of women who are pregnant and considering abortion!
There are so many things that can be done for the conversion of sinners. Thank you for this article, Father. I think I have some of the spirit of St. John Vianney, I feel this need to pray for sinners all the time, knowing how much confession will do them good! I live in an area of town in which many people do not even know about God and they live that way. I feel I have been placed here precisely for that reason, to pray and offer supplications for them. Lets everyone do our part to help convert sinners. It is a work of mercy, and Jesus said,Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Lets be soul harvesters for Him, and I am sure that He will provide for us in our spiritual necessity when we need it!
How truly appropriate.
We can follow the example of St. John Vianney by praying for those around us. I recall an article written by Peggy Noonan in that period immediately following 9-11. She was commuting home on the subway and exploring the faces of the strangers who were her subway car companions. She took out her rosary and began praying for them. There are so many people in need of prayer, especially those who do not know how to pray. Use your time at work and home to pray for these souls. While driving to work in the morning, I pray for the souls in purgatory who have no one left on earth to pray for them; for those undergoing surgery, along with their families, the surgeons and aides; for those in emergency rooms, confused and frightened; for those serving our country overseas; for those in dangerous situations; for the victims of abortion - the mothers and their families; ...
there is an unlimited number of people who need our prayers. I also use time walking from one office to another at work to pray for various souls. You can do it too. St. Therese of Lisieux decided to not waste one moment of her time on earth but to use it to pray for souls and worship God.
What a beautiful post (and comment!) to start out this month of Mary.
Thank you for the post and ping. May we all grow deeper in our understanding of prayer, through the merits of this simple soul.
Our priest recently had a statue of St. John Vianney installed at the front of the church. He incorporated St. John into his homily last Sunday. The associate pastor put together a really nice booklet on the life of St. John Vianney including some good quotes and prayers. Is it any wonder vocations at our parish are booming? :)
That's the way to do it! With smaller families, every effort must be taken at the parish level to instruct youth through the example of the saints. The Catholic Church is growing ... but we need more priests. God bless your pastor for the inspiration to install a statue of St. John Vianney and tell the parishioners about his life of self sacrifice. No priest ... no Eucharist. It's just that simple.
When I took my older son to confession before his First Communion, there was a huge line waiting and only Father Eddie to handle it :) He had to continue hearing confessions after the 5pm Saturday Mass. They have increased the number of days confession is heard from one to three. It’s a very heartening trend!
Was that only for the children or also for their parents?
I am in a very small parish ... only 40 families. Among the many hats I wear is that of Director for Religious Education. Let me tell you, it is a huge struggle to get the parents to set the example for their children to follow. I still recall one young boy who came for First Penance. His family sat in the pew and directed him towards the confessional. The poor child was traumatized and began to cry. I looked towards his father and told him to go in .. to set the example. He responded with the usual sarcastic comment - "If I go in, I'll be there forever". This was before I was appointed Director for Rel Ed and I wanted to smack him so hard. Needless to say, the child has never returned, nor has his father.
In my parish, on display, there is the icon painting of Jesus being the high priest, wearing the vestments of a priest. To the right side is St John Vianney, on the left, Melkezedek from the Bible OT.
Do you also have perpetual adoration?
They say the hallmarks of a good church are the length of the Confessional lines and the number of vocations from your parish.
From your testimony, it would seem you are in a fantastic parish. Pray that we may all have priests like yours, perpetual adoration and tons of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life.
The Year of the Priest
We thank you, God our Father, for those who have responded to your call to priestly ministry.
Accept this prayer we offer on their behalf: Fill your priests with the sure knowledge of your love.
Open their hearts to the power and consolation of the Holy Spirit.
Lead them to new depths of union with your Son.
Increase in them profound faith in the Sacraments they celebrate as they nourish, strengthen and heal us.
Lord Jesus Christ, grant that these, your priests, may inspire us to strive for holiness by the power of their example, as men of prayer who ponder your word and follow your will.
O Mary, Mother of Christ and our mother, guard with your maternal care these chosen ones, so dear to the Heart of your Son.
Intercede for our priests, that offering the Sacrifice of your Son, they may be conformed more each day to the image of your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saint John Vianney, universal patron of priests, pray for us and our priests
That is the icon in question! :)
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