August 15, 2018
Dear Wounded Fathers,
On this brokenhearted day, your minds should turn to Ars, that small and despairing French town. The response to this swallowing red-tide of Church evil can be found in there. There, in the secret of its wavy countryside, your comeback lay.
Every answer to this omnibus of hierarchical and priestly evil, every path forward, every resolution, every push to a new Catholic way can be found by looking into the eyes of that short, malnourished priest who pastored there - the Cure d’ Ars- St. John Vianney. The greatest priest in history.
Father, this of course is no time for trite and stupid catchphrases – but the Cure’really does offer the cure. But you have to ask yourself: do you want it?
I beg you – please think of the Cure d’ Ars today, our Church’s lone canonized parish priest. It might settle your nerves some – some– as you consider the broken Pennsylvanian souls who’ve inherited what seems hell’s stigmata from wicked men who called themselves priests. As you await the full exposure and final liquidation of the finely-tuned underworld of active priestly homosexuality, look to Ars – where pinholes of light point to the path forward.
I know firsthand the power of Ars. When this past winter I began to prepare to write my book, The Priest I Needto be published next year, I understood I needed to begin a comprehensive study of the priest-saints. So, I read biographies of the great ones - St. John Neumann, St. Philip Neri, St. Damien of Molokai, St. Padre Pio, St. John Paul the Great and St. Josemaria Escriva - in an attempt to perceive what priestly greatness looked like. I immediately found that meditative biographical studies of priest-saints are like studying boxing by fist-fighting Sonny Liston. If you care about such things, reading the lives of priest-saints will make a chronic point of humiliating you. If you’re a man, it will emasculate you and cause you to zombie around for a bit, which I was doing for much of the winter.
But why? The heroic and holy reasons are too numerous – but I can point precisely to the origin of my wintertime emasculation. It occurred as a gradual unfolding while reading Lancelot C. Sheppard’s antique, burnt-orange biography, Portrait of A Parish Priest, St. John Vianney, the Cure d’ Ars. In piecemeal fashion, I began to recognize what true martyrdom looks like lived out. Arguably the greatest proof of love for Jesus Christ and his Church is the surrendering of one’s own physical life - because the martyr’s blood always becomes a signpost to those left in his or her wake. The act points directly to what unfolded on the cross. Witnesses never forget the martyr.
But in the life of the Cure d’ Ars, I saw another side of martyrdom—the daily, unremitting grind of it. Since reading his biography, I’ve come to believe that the slow-motion martyrdoms of a priest holds an even higher degree of heroism. An arrow penetrating the heart is neat and swift. Sixteen hours of hearing daily confessions is, I believe, of even higher form.
Vianney’s home, in a very real way, had become his cramped, wooden confessional. For most of the 41 years of his priesthood, he arose at 1 a.m. to the peak of bells to begin his day, where he processed to his claustrophobic, splintered home. He knew hundreds of burdened souls had traveled from distant towns, awaiting his absolution in the moonlight.
The paradoxical, brutal fruit of real romance—and Vianney knew this interior reality as intimately as anyone—is the daily and simple deaths for one’s lover. All the priest-saints knew this. Their vocation to edify, transform and save souls meant doing battle with evil.
Aware of this battle, Vianney vouchsafed severer fasts, denied sleep, increased already fervent prayer, celebrated Mass with blistering fevers, endured suffocating summertime heat in his confessional and gave away money, provisions, attire, time, and whatever else he conceived of to rid his flock of sin. His stamina to save souls, simply, was of supernatural origin.
The Paris-to-Lyon railway line opened a special window for the thousands of souls that wanted to get to Ars and encounter this mystic priest. They were often forced to wait three days and sleep outdoors. They flooded to Ars because they sensed there was a Father there, one who would suffer, and even die for them.
Vianney was the true shepherd Christ spoke of in the Gospel of John. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. A hired man who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep,” (John 10:14).
Blood was found on Vianney’s bedroom wall and bedsheets—mortifications to ward off constant visits from demons, who smeared feces on his crucifix and other holy objects, among other unkindnesses. Satan may have hated Vianney more than any other saint in history because the humble and hard-charging country priest had the wisdom to make a lifetime of absolving sin. For this reason, Satan also continually brutalized Padre Pio.
But like Pio, Vianney began to anticipate, embrace, and eventually love his physical, spiritual and psychological confrontations with Satan—because Vianney began to beat him. It is said that the devil screamed at Vianney in a fit of revelatory rage one evening: “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.”
Imagine that, Father.
At some point, many of you may have tried to imitate the holy work that had taken place in Ars.Perhaps some of you knew it the moment you dropped down—nose and kneecaps to the cold marble floor to feel the weight of your anointed moment—as your bishop touched supernaturality into you. If your mind wason St. Vianney that day, I have to imagine as you made your way back to your feet, that one of your first thoughts was, Now, it’s time to die.
That thought is the lone appropriate answer to overcoming this hell you’re swimming in today. Each day Vianney cracked himself open so Jesus might fully pour His sanctifying graces within him—so the saint in turn could pour those same graces into his flock—virtually every hour of every day of his life.
He walked the village with a catechism tucked beneath his arm and taught catechism to the children under his care. Father, do you teach CCD, RCIA, Pre-Cana and catechism?
He opened a school for orphans and visited and taught them every day. Vianney knew that whenever the Church’s children were orphaned by indifferent shepherds, their faith was in peril of never fully forming. Father, how often is it that you visit and teach children at the nearby Catholic school?
He prayedthe Divine Office seven times a day. Father?
He fasted, almost constantly, for his flock. Father?
Vianney celebrated Mass each day of his life and heard more confessions than any priest in the history of the world. Father, how often do you offer confessions at your parish? How often do you go to confession?
He repeatedly converted atheists, prostitutes, skeptics and wounded lambs in his confessional, a wooden shack that had become a shrine. “If I were given the chance, I would remain [in the confessional] until the end of the world,” he said.
Father, is it your practice to open the confessional 45 minutes a week?
Father, the only rebound and holy response to this evil is simply to oblige your duty—to become holy. The rebound will not be found in continuing an established orthodox or liberal or in-between or nice-guy-priest approach—or whatever other comfortable role you’ve tattooed to your identity. The sole answer is to become holy. Holy priests make for holy parishioners.
There’s so much work to be done. But here’s a start:
1. At Mass this Sunday, after you address the Pennsylvania grand jury mess in your homily, announce to your parish you’re instituting Forty Hours of solemn devotion in front of the Blessed Sacrament as reparation for Church sins by the end of September—with confessions available for all.
2. Institute the Hail Mary and/or Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel following each weekday and Sunday Mass. Although this addition is not part of the Mass, tell your parishioners you’ve installed it as a means to guard your parish and their souls from evil.
3. Allow your flock to pray for the sanctification of your priesthood, leading them in a Nine-Day Novena for priests. Later on this fall, lead them in rosaries and litanies of the saints or litanies to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, et al. Earning back the moral authority of a fractured Church will be tough, but this tried-and-true approach of scheduled week-night parish prayer will help.
4. Host a Town Hall and take the arrows. During halftime, while your parishioners are simmering down, announce that you will now offer confessions after each daily Mass.
5. Gather together 12 disciples of your parish with apostolic zeal (this list doesn’t have to include those on your parish staff) and ask them what measures should be taken to make your parish mission-based and evangelically-charged.
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he asked his apostles to become martyrs, which 11 did. The Greek origin of the word “witness” is “martyr.” In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus spoke his final words to his first priests: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … even to the remotest parts of the earth.”
He was requesting they die so others might live. And each knew it right then. This command to die was one the priest-saints didn’t dare stray from, even in their most fragile state. They prayed over it, wept because of it, cultivated it deep within themselves, and stood up again and again to become mortified.
“Unless the hands of the priest are scarred hands, Christ’s mercies do not so readily pass through them,” Archbishop Fulton Sheen said. “Blessings, power, healing, and influence get clogged. … no priest begets a vocation or makes a convert or sanctifies a soul except under the shadow of the cross.”
Vianney and the collared heroes of the past knew priestly physicality and suffering, uncommon holiness and a constant contemplation of the divine created a heroism that Satan simply could not overcome. Satan went back to hell a perennial loser after spending time around these guys.
Without Satan bumping around, perhaps that’s what helped ugly little Ars to become the holiest town in the world.
Lastly, Father, here’s something I noticed in reading about Vianney: it seemed the divine detail that rested deep within his him was this: I must die so others might live. He knew his parishioners were caught up in a war until the end of time. Satan wanted those souls under his care. So did God. And Vianney knew a bachelorhood-type of priesthood wasn’t going to cut it. He knew it was pathetic ammunition to defeat Satan.
I’ll pray, Father, that you beat Satan back now.
Be Vianney. Be the Cure.
Beneath her mantle,
Kevin Wells firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin Wells is a Catholic evangelist, writer and author of Burst: A Story of God’s Grace When Life Falls Apart (Servant). The Archdiocese of Washington named him its James Cardinal Hickey National Figure Award winner for his work in evangelization and youth. He’s proudest of being President of the Monsignor Thomas Wells Society, a long-running organization that honors his martyred uncle as it financially and prayerfully supports seminarians and priests. Kevin is a former sports writer and Major League Baseball writer who lives in Millersville, Maryland with his wife and three children.