Backward Vianney Became an Overcomer

Dan Graves, MSL

Backward Vianney Became an Overcomer

We cannot help but feel respect for those who overcome great adversity to achieve their dreams. This is especially true when those dreams are noble. This day, August 9, is the feast of a saint whose perseverance in a noble cause meets both of those criteria.

Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney was born near Lyons, France in 1786. The French Revolution made the times unsettled and precarious. Vianney's parents were devout but poor. When the Revolution turned against the priests, the family remained loyal to the church. Jean himself made his first confession and communion secretly.

Education was impossible. The boy had received only a few months of teaching before he had to return to the plow. Nonetheless he began to study privately with the Abbé Balley, hoping to become a priest. When he entered seminary at 19, he flunked class after class because he could not master Latin and the instruction was largely in that language. His determination knew no checks. He made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. John Francis Regis and was encouraged to pursue his dream. Readmitted to his studies, he succeeded in passing with the help of prayer and human assistance, most of it from Balley. He had to be given special exams. At his ordination, this priest, who would become famous for hearing confessions, received the humiliating stipulation that he must not hear confessions.

The military impeded his plans. But when called up for service, he became too ill to join his regiment. Later he was called up again, but through dallying in a church lost his detachment, and upon meeting another deserter fled to a remote town where he hid until the following year.

Church leaders appointed Vianney to work with Balley. This kind mentor continued his training. Later, with several years of experience under his belt, he was transferred to the wicked little village of Ars. He vowed to win the town back to Christ. The people were lacking any real sense of faith. Obscenity, drunkenness, blasphemy and the violation of Sunday were taken as a matter of course. Jean restored the church and preached fervently from the pulpit against the prevailing vices. He set an example of holiness, austerity and prayer in his own life.

His efforts at reform met much opposition. One woman screamed insults outside the rectory. But with eight years of perseverance, Vianney sobered up the town. He created what he called "guilds" (accountability groups) in which men or women met to help each other.

Vianney was "haunted." For thirty years he was oppressed with noises in the nights and beatings. Once his bed was set on fire. But Vianney, who had once been forbidden to hear confessions became famous as a confessor. Because he seemed able to read the very soul, long lines of people waited to pour out their hearts to this ill-educated little man.


  1. Otten, Susan T. "St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  2. Liptak, David. 101 Saints. Milwaukee, Bruce Pub. Co., 1963.

Last updated April, 2007.

Originally published April 28, 2010.

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