"I will most gladly spend and be overspent for your souls" (2 Cor 12:15)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Arrival at Ars
When Saint John Mary Vianney arrived in the village of Ars, it counted 230 souls. He was thirty-two years old and had been ordained but three years. The young priest walked the 18 miles from his first assignment to what would be, in fact, his last. Approaching the village, he lost his way and asked directions from a group of children keeping sheep. A lad named Antoine Givre pointed him in the direction of Ars. "My young friend," said the new parish priest, "you have shown me the way to Ars; I shall show you the way to Heaven." Prophetic words in more than one way: Antoine Givre was the first parishioner of Ars to follow Saint John Mary Vianney in death forty-one years later in 1859.
Where There Is No Love, Put Love
Before sending John Mary to Ars, his bishop warned him that he would find but little love of God there. "There is little love of God in that parish," he said; "You will be the one to put it there." One is reminded of the maxim of Saint John of the Cross: "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."
Saint John Vianney would bring about the conversion of his little parish not by so much by teaching an ethic of love nor by undertaking the works of love -- even if he did these things to an heroic degree -- but by allowing himself to be transformed into Love, and Love Crucified.
Priest and Victim
For John Vianney the priesthood was not a job, not a career, not a function, not at all a question of doing, but rather one of being. Pope Benedict XVI says that the first thing we priests need to learn from Saint John Mary Vianney is the complete identification of the man with his ministry. Saint John Mary Vianney was all priest and only priest, and this at every moment of the day and night. His priesthood was not a garment to be put on and taken off: every fibre of his being had become priestly. And because the priesthood of Jesus Christ cannot be separated from his victimhood, John Mary Vianney was as much victim as priest, as much the offering as the offerer, as much the lamb of sacrifice as the sacrificer.
In his letter proclaiming The Year of the Priesthood, our Holy Father writes that, "in a humble yet genuine way, every priest must aim for a similar identification." I often reflect on this after celebrating Holy Mass: there is not a single moment when I am not all priest. Priest in my body. Priest in my heart and in all its affections. Priest in my intelligence: in my memory, imagination, and will. Priest in all that I say, in all that I touch, in all that do. Priest with every breath I draw and priest with every heartbeat. At every moment I am either coming from the altar of Christ's sacrifice or going toward it. At every moment, because it is no longer I who live but Christ the priest and victim who lives in me, I can say, "I know whence I have come and whither I am going" (Jn 8:14), and again, "I am leaving the world and going to the Father" (Jn 16:28).
The Objective Truth of the Priesthood
I share this with you, brothers and sisters, precisely because it is not personal to me; this is no less true of any other priest. It is the objective truth of the priesthood. Ordination to the priesthood by the laying on of hands and by the consecratory prayer of the Church effects a real change in a man's very being. It is not a mere dedication of his energies to a specific life's work. It is a kind of configuration to Christ, Priest and Victim, from the inside out. And it cannot be undone. "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech" (Ps 109:4).
At Home In Church
Just how did Saint John Mary Vianney go about "putting love where there was no love, so as to find love" in the parish of Ars. He began by going to the very wellspring of love, and in this beginning he persevered until death. His first biographer tells us upon arriving in Ars, "he chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought whenever needed."
With Me Where I Am
This pastoral method is, I think, a little shocking to our contemporary American notions of creative enterprise, and strategic planning, and committee forming. By abiding from before sunrise to after sunset in his parish church, Saint John Mary Vianney was not fleeing the world; he was, rather, imitating the divine economy of the Incarnation of the Son of God by pitching his tent at the very heart of the parish community, by living close to the tabernacle. In some, astonishingly literal way, Saint John Mary Vianney began his pastoral ministry by responding to Jesus' own prayer to the Father on the night before He suffered: "Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, may be with Me where I am" (Jn 17:24).
A Priest Spent and Overspent
The marvel of Saint John Mary Vianney's pastoral method is that by anchoring himself to the altar and tabernacle of his little church, he became capable of spending himself, of pouring himself actively over the entire territory of his parish. It was his Eucharistic contemplation that allowed him to say with the Apostle Paul: "I will most gladly spend and be overspent for your souls" (2 Cor 12:15). Spend himself he did, not only in the confessional from twelve to eighteen hours a day, but also by visiting the sick and caring for families, by organizing missions and parish feasts, by collecting and administering funds, by looking after orphans, by providing education for children, and by collaborating most effectively with the lay women he formed and directed. By remaining at the source of life -- the altar and the tabernacle -- the parish priest of Ars became the principal artery of Divine Love quickening and warming not only the little village's population, but thousands of souls beyond it as well.
Keeping Company With Jesus
Saint John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners how to pray by praying. They learned more from his example than from his words. "One need not say much to pray well," he used to say. "We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle. Let us open our hearts to Him, let us rejoice in His sacred presence. That is the best prayer." He invited his people to "keep company" with Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. One who keeps company with Jesus is compelled to adore Him, and one who adores him desires nothing so much as to remain in His company. This is the kind of prayer that transforms life. It heals. It restores. It sanctifies quietly and almost imperceptibly, but surely.
Saint John Mary Vianney's Mass, like that of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, made words superfluous. Eyewitnesses relate that when he offered the Holy Sacrifice, he gazed upon Host with immense love. On one occasion, while holding the Sacred Host in his hands, he went so far as to say: "I I thought I were to be eternally damned, now that I hold Thee in my hands, I would never let go of Thee." For the parish priest of Ars, nothing could compare with a single Mass. "All good works taken together," he said, "do not equal the Sacrifice of the Mass since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God."
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, in his letter for The Year of the Priest, of Saint John Mary Vianney's absolute conviction that the fervour of a priest's life depends entirely upon the Mass. Listen to the Saint's own words: "The reason why a priest is lax is that he does not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who celebrates as if he were engaging in something routine." And then, he would add, "What a good thing it is for a priest each morning to offer himself in sacrifice."
Toward the Sacerdotal Pentecost
On this second evening of our Triduum, brothers and sisters, I beg you once again to pray mightily for a new Priestly Pentecost, for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all the priests of our diocese and of the whole Church, that the holiness of Saint John Mary Vianney might be reproduced in our day -- not only in the more than 406, 0000 priests currently serving the Church in every culture and place on earth -- but in a vast number of new priestly vocations. The Heart of Jesus, Priest and Victim, waits for men to respond to His call by saying with Saint Paul, and with Saint John Mary Vianney: "I will most gladly spend and be overspent for your souls" (2 Cor 12:15)