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May 8 Jean Vianney rebuilding souls in the ashes of Revolution

The French Revolution became a concerted and violent attempt to build a new Society. Their attempts to De-Christianise the culture were concerted, rewriting the Calendar, abolishing festivals such as Easter and Christmas and substituting them with Festivals of Reason and Liberty.

The persecution of the Church was widespread and as The Revolution evolved into The Terror so much was destroyed, until the revolutionaries turned on themselves. Napoleans concordat re-established the Church and Jean Vianney was outstanding as a rebuilder of souls. His ministry of reconciliation attracted international attention.


France was in a time of great turmoil and transition. Only three years after John Vianney was born the French Revolution had begun with a general assembly representing the three estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). This Third Estate formed a National Assembly which lead to the French Revolution. The abolition of the ‘ancien regime’, the church and the monarchy, was precipitated by the Storming of the Bastille (a fortress which acted as a royal prison in the heart of Paris). A draft constitution was prepared with the title of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which had been inspired by the American Declaration of Independence which had been written thirteen years earlier. The author of the new constitution, Lafayette was assisted by Thomas Jefferson. It was a shift from the feudal world into the emerging modern world and soon led to the cancellation of tithes due to the church and feudal dues to aristocratic landowners.

Church property was confiscated and the state assumed responsibilities such as paying the clergy and caring for the poor, the sick and the orphaned. Religious orders and monasteries were dissolved, while monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life. Clergy were required to swear loyalty to the new Civil Constitution but only 24% complied. As this denied the pope authority over the French Church, the majority refused. Popular resistance against state interference, was strong in Normandy, Brittany and the Vendée, where the civilian population turned against the revolution.

The architects of the revolution were attempting to rewrite society, replacing the monarchy with the French First Republic and introduced a new calendar, with 1792 becoming "Year One". This was in effect an attempt to de-Christianise France but underestimate the depth of its roots. In October 1793, the Christian calendar was replaced and Festivals of Liberty, Reason, and the Supreme Being were scheduled. New forms of moral religion emerged, including the deistic Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheistic Cult of Reason. By Easter 1794, few of France's forty thousand churches remained open; many had been closed, sold, destroyed, or converted to other uses.

The revolution had entered the phase described as the Terror as mob rule was accelerating. In order to deal with counter-revolutionaries, the guillotine was invented by a physician as a quicker, more efficient and more distinctive form of execution. Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was instrumental in passing a law that required all sentences of death to be carried out by “means of a machine.” This was done so that the privilege of execution by decapitation would no longer be confined to the nobles and the process of execution would be as painless as possible. In reality it represented vengeance, Louis XVI was beheaded as the last King of France with Marie Antoinette. In his final months the King was referred to as Citizen Louis Capet.

The Reign of Terror began as a cynical way to harness revolutionary fervour, but quickly degenerated into the settlement of personal grievances. Victims of revolutionary violence, whether religious or not, were popularly treated as Christian martyrs, and the places where they were killed became pilgrimage destinations. The Guillotine soon became a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors sold programmes listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people came day after day and vied for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings. Parents often brought their children. By the end of the Terror, an estimated 17,000 people had been decapitated by the guillotine, including many of the early revolutionary leaders including the infamous Maximilien Robespierre. By the end the crowds had thinned drastically. Repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.

The anticlerical Terror forced many loyal priests to hide from the regime in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. The Vianneys. travelled to distant farms to attend Masses celebrated by priests on the run. Realizing that such priests risked their lives day by day, a young John began to look upon them as heroes. He received his First Communion catechism instructions in a private home by two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. He made his First Communion at the age of 13 in a neighbour’s kitchen; during the Mass, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside.

The Catholic Church was re-established in France in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in religious peace throughout the country, culminating in a Concordat. By this time, Vianney longed for an education. He was 20 when his father allowed him to leave the farm to be taught at a "presbytery-school" in the neighboring village. Vianney struggled especially with Latin, since his education had been interrupted by the French Revolution. After a lengthy battle with the books, John was ordained. In 1818, he was appointed parish priest of the parish of Ars, a town of 230 inhabitants. As parish priest, Vianney realized that the Revolution's aftermath had resulted in religious ignorance and indifference. At the time, Sundays in rural areas were spent working in the fields, or dancing and drinking in taverns. Pastorally committed and inventive he established La Providence, a home for girls, but he became famous for his work as a spend 11 to 12 hours daily in Winter reconciling people with God. In the summer months this time was increased to 16 hours.

Vianney came to be known internationally, and people from distant places began travelling to consult him as early as 1827. By the time he had been in the parish thirty years, the number of pilgrims had reached 20,000 a year. During the last ten years of his life, he spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional. Many stories if his uncanny knowledge only lead to more people seeking him out. In one account we are told "...a woman...told....Vianney that she was devastated because her husband had committed suicide. She wanted to approach the great priest but his line often lasted for hours and she could not reach him. She was ready to give up and in a moment of mystical insight that only a great saint can receive,...Vianney exclaimed through the crowd, “He is saved!” The woman was incredulous so the saint repeated, stressing each word, “I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.” This mystical insight into peoples inner lives and turmoil was referred to by the early Desert Fathers as Cardiognosis, knowledge of the heart (see the pod of for more about that)

Vianney died at the age of 73 and the bishop presided over his funeral with 300 priests and more than 6,000 people in attendance. In 1959, to commemorate the centenary of John Vianney's death, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia. John Paul II visited Ars in person in 1986 in connection with the bicentenary of Vianney's birth and referred to the great saint as a "rare example of a pastor acutely aware of his responsibilities … “ and in honour of the 150th anniversary of Vianney's death, Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of the Priest

In November 2018, Vianney's incorrupt heart was transported to the United States for a 6-month nationwide tour. The promotional material accompanying the relic to explain this unusual tradition often in areas where there would be widespread protestant suspicion of such practices said "The heart receives special veneration because in Scripture it is considered to be a person’s hidden centre of emotional, intellectual and moral activity. Saint John Vianney is said to have lived his life according to the heart of Christ and united his heart to Christ’s. Incorruptibility is another rare sign of holiness, where the body soes not suffer By the end of the tour, "the relic [had] traveled almost 36,000 miles — almost one and a half times the circumference of the Earth — and was available for over 1,200 hours of public veneration and large numbers had visited.


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