Posted February 19, 2010 in New Millennium:
He’s Admirable, But…

by Fr. David May.

If an article in Restoration starts with the theme of "penance," are you likely to continue reading? Are you still with me? If so, let’s look together at the example of St. John Vianney, patron of priests, for this is the Year for Priests, and he is its patron.

Some of you may have already heard something about this saint’s life. And perhaps you’ve been moved by the example he gave.

For example, there is his prayer near the beginning of his assignment to the lukewarm and even largely hostile parish of Ars: "Lord, I am willing to suffer anything for as long as you wish so that my parish might be converted."

There are the awe-inspiring acts of self-denial in extreme fasting and other self-inflicted disciplines. He spent long hours in church praying in solitude, especially in the early years of his ministry.

What about the upwards of 16 or 17 hours daily he spent hearing confessions as his reputation grew and spread throughout France? There are the daily catechetical lessons, the reverently celebrated liturgies, especially the great feast of Corpus Christi.

His battles with Satan, especially in the vigils of the night, are legendary. In any event, he only averaged 2-3 hours of sleep a night. His ability to read hearts was exceptional. Let’s not forget the school and orphanage he founded for the poor, and numerous other charitable works. The list goes on.

An admirable patron for priests! Admirable, yes. But imitable? That is another question.

One can be a bit overwhelmed by the heroism of this humble man, a heroism which resembles that of the Desert Fathers of the early centuries of the Church. They, too, are very admirable, but…

Nonetheless, one cannot help but be attracted by John Vianney’s love for the Eucharist. He knew it for what it really is: "It was not possible to find a finer example of worship," someone said of him. "He gazed upon the Host with immense love."

He himself once said, "All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass, since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God." And this: "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 engaged in something routine!"

From this vision of love flowed all the rest: "What a good thing it is for a priest to offer himself to God in sacrifice!"

This tells me that when the love of the Heart of Jesus breaks through somewhere, in someone’s soul, as it did in the case of this remarkable saint, there is no limit to what the Lord might accomplish through that person.

So perhaps this Year for Priests is meant to carry in a special way that grace of recognizing the love of Christ’s heart for the beautiful and immense gift that it truly is. To my mind there’s no true penance or "taking up one’s cross" until this mercy of the Savior has been revealed and recognized.

To understand this point better, let us examine briefly the well-known story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).

It’s very difficult to find any penance in the life of the younger, reprobate son. He realizes his folly thanks to an empty belly and acknowledges his sin (imperfect contrition).

He returns home and starts to apologize to his father (confession); his father cuts him short, gives him the finest robe, a ring and new sandals to re-establish the boy’s dignity and then orders up a party (absolution). But where is the penance in this picture?

Meanwhile, the elder son is out in the field seething with resentment about "slaving" for his father (we learn later), and the return of his kid brother with the ensuing celebration only adds fuel to his fire. One could say that he has viewed his whole life up to then as a kind of "penance"!

But if a penitential self-offering in response to mercy is the true meaning of penance, then this guy is simply suffering. He’s certainly not doing penance or joyfully taking up his cross!

No, there is no penance in this story, except, you might say, in the suffering love of the father for both his sons; in his vigils for the younger and his pleading with the elder. He is like the Cure of Ars weeping and pleading for his own.

In my opinion, the "real penance" begins the next day, after the party, and precisely where our story leaves off.

Penance is what we do to align ourselves with mercy, to keep us within the mercy that in the perversity of our nature we tend to reject. Penance in the Prodigal household will consist in living in the father’s household and staying with the father, and then taking care of the family farm with a grateful and generous heart.

That communion in love and self-offering is the only sure antidote to those ever-present tendencies to go off on one’s own, to create one’s own life apart from the Father. God himself gives us our penance, our "way of the Cross," in our vocational assignments with all the duties in life these entail.

Yet this penance is not devoid of joy, because it flows from the sheer gift of mercy that is at the source of redemption in Christ. And it expresses that same gift of merciful love when (ideally) we pour ourselves out for others.

And that at long last brings me back to St. John Vianney, the lovable, intimidating patron of priests. The point of this reflection is that it is not a matter of hours spent in the confessional, terrifying penances, or endless vigils.

It is a matter of responding to love of the Heart of Jesus, listening to that Love, obeying that Love, contemplating, abiding in and being refreshed by that Love. And then serving, imitating that Love according to how the Spirit leads in each instance.

For sure, this will mean becoming an offering, pouring oneself out—but not as a law! As a freedom in the Spirit who constantly renews the face of the earth and the face of the Church.

If we listen to the Spirit this year, we priests might just catch a glimpse of the joyous offering we can become anew, because we have been welcomed anew into the Heart of Love, icon of the Father’s embrace.


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