Jean-Marie, John, Vianney was born on May 8, 1786 in the town of Dardilly, France, and was baptized the same day. Matthieu Vianney and Marie Beluze had six children, of which Jean was the third. He grew up in his family's farm in the rural town of Dardilly. The Vianneys were traditional Catholics, who always helped the poor. They even gave hospitality to Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of tramps, who passed through Dardilly on his pilgrimage to Rome.
By 1790, the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide from the government in order to carry out the sacraments in their parish. The Vianneys continued attending Mass, even though it was illegal. In order to attend Mass, the Vianneys travelled to distant farms where they would pray in secret. Since these priests would risk their lives day by day, Jean began to relate to priests as though they were heroes. His First Communion lessons were secretly carried out in a private home by two nuns. In 1799, in his own home, he had his First Communion ceremony. During the ceremony, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside. The privacy of his Catholic practices continued, especially during the process of Confirmation.
Jean learned how to read and write from his older sister, due to the Revolution's effect on France's education system. His childhood was usually spent working in his father's farm. In 1802, the Church was re-established in France, resulting in religious peace throughout the country. By this time, Jean was concerned about his future vocation, and longed for an education. He was nineteen when his father allowed him to leave the farm to be tutored by M. Balley, the curé (parish priest) of Ecully. M. Balley taught in Latin, in a school that educated students to prepare for the clergy. Most of Jean's classmates were boys between eleven and twelve, and learned easily. The school taught arithmetic, history, geography, and Latin. Jean struggled, especially with Latin, since his past education was interrupted by the French Revolution. If it wasn't for Jean's deepest desire to be a priest, and M. Balley's patience, he would have given up his struggle to continue.
During the War
Jean Vianney's studies were interrupted during 1809, when he was recruited by Napoleon's armies, to fight Spain. His recruitment was a mistake, since privately tutored theological students in the archdiocese of Lyon were exempt from conscription. Although Jean had knowledge of this, he obeyed the orders. Jean went to church to pray during the morning before departure. He then realized that his comrades had already left, and was arrested. He was later released because the recruiting captain believed his story. Shortly after he was sent to the barracks at Lyons, he became ill and was hospitalized at Roanne where nuns nursed him back to health. Once released from the hospital, he was sent back to the barracks but fell behind. As it became later into the night, he met a young man who volunteered to guide him back to his group, but instead he led him deep into the mountains of Le Forez, to a communal village, called Les Noes, where other deserted troops had gathered. He lived there for fourteen months hidden in the byre attached to a farmhouse under the care of Claudine Fayot, a widow with four children. He assumed the name Jerome Vincent, and under that name he opened a school for village children (Dom Ernest Graf). Since the harsh weather isolated the town during the winter, the deserters were safe from gendarmes. However, after the snow melted, gendarmes came to the town constantly, searching for deserters. During these searches, Jean hid inside stacks of fermenting hay in Fayot's barn. An Imperial decree, passed in 1810, granted all deserters from the years 1806 to 1810 to be exempt from punishment, allowing Jean to go back to Ecully legally.
Shortly after the death of M. Balley, John Vianney was made the parish priest of Ars, in French: Curé d'Ars. Ars was a remote town not far from Lyons. As the Curé d'Ars, Jean realized that the Revolution's aftermath resulted in religious ignorance, due to many years of the destruction of the Catholic Church in France. At the time, Sundays in rural areas were spent in the fields working, or spent dancing and drinking in taverns. Vianney was astonished, especially since Sundays were meant to be reserved for religion. Jean began by giving sermons referring to the tavern as "the devil's own shop, the market where souls are bartered, where the harmony of families are broken up, where quarrels start and murders are done." Vianney felt that he was called to bring his parishioners back to God.
Monsignor Balley was John's greatest inspiration, since he was a priest that remained loyal to his faith, despite the Revolution. "He risked his life to exercise his ministry". Vianney felt very compelled to fulfill the duties of a curé just as M. Balley did, even when it was illegal. As John began preaching his sermons each Sunday, the people of Ars became engaged in the Catholic faith, unlike before. "The people noticed that he prayed with great recollection and celebrated mass with deep devotion. They noticed too, his mortified way of life, his love for the poor and the sick, his mild words to everyone. Very soon he had won the hearts of all".
Jean Vianney began to be known internationally, and people from distant places began traveling to hear his sermons. "By 1855, the number of pilgrims had reached twenty thousand a year. During the last ten years of his life, he spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional. Even the bishop forbade him to attend the annual retreats of the diocesan clergy because of the souls awaiting him yonder". At that time, a life-long friend of Vianney, the Venerable Father Colin was ordained a deacon. Even Mother Marie de la Providence, who founded the Helpers of the Holy Souls, was asking Vianney for advice. "His direction was characterized by common sense, remarkable insight, and supernatural knowledge".
Vianney had a great devotion to St. Philomena, who was believed to be a Virgin Martyr of the early Church. Jean looked at her as his guardian and erected a chapel and a shrine in honor of the saint. The shrine still stands today. During May 1843, Vianney fell so ill he thought that his life was coming to its end. He asked St. Philomena to cure him and promised to give one hundred masses at her shrine. Twelve days later, Vianney was cured and he attributed his cure to St. Philomena.
Death and Canonization
On August 4, 1859 Jean-Marie Vianney died at age seventy three. Biographers recorded miracles performed throughout his life, obtaining money for his charities and food for his orphans; he also had supernatural knowledge of the past and future, and could heal the sick, especially children. On October 3, 1874 Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him Venerable; on January 8, 1905, Saint Pius X declared him Blessed and proposed him as a model to the parochial clergy; in the year 1925 Pope Pius XI canonized him, and assigned August 8 as his feast day. In 1969, and the feast day was moved to the anniversary of the saint's death, August 4.
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