Saturday, 6 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 2nd Day, 5th March 2010

Do you know where the Church of St Philomena is? It is in Tampin. Today, the Church of St Philomena is known as the Church of St Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney or John Baptist Mary Vianney—the Curé d’Ars. The saint for our edification and sanctification is him. He had a particular devotion to St Philomena. Who was Philomena? Well, in1802, bones were discovered in the catacombs of St Priscilla in Rome in a tomb shelf marked out to be the bones of a martyred girl: Filumena. After the discovery, popular devotion took off and even though this cult never achieved official Church sanction, John Vianney had devotion enough to build a chapel in his parish in her honour. In 1961, the feast was removed from the Universal Church calendar. For us, it was one of the quirks of historical coincidence that the parish of St Philomena should be re-dedicated to St John Baptist Mary Vianney.

So who is he? I remember a lecture given once by a Jesuit psychologist. This psychologist classified John Vianney as an idiot because he had the intelligence of an idiot. And there is some truth to this assertion. He was born on May 8, 1786 in the village of Dardilly in France. After serving a time in the army during the Napoleonic period he entered seminary formation to become a priest. He had a very difficult time. He struggled with all of his studies, particularly with Latin. Many, including his formation directors and instructors in the seminary and his own bishop, had very serious doubts that this man, who did not have strong intellectual gifts, would be suitable for the priesthood. However, John Vianney persevered and finally was ordained a priest in 1815. His bishop, acting on his estimation of this new priest as a man of few gifts, sent him to the remotest backwater village of his diocese, the village of Ars. This was a village of about 200 people. That he was born at the turn of the century is important to note. The French Revolution brought about freedom but also the political upheaval set France along the path secularism. Ars was no exception. There it was that Fr John was to labour. He spent the rest of his life there except for one brief period when he tried to flee the duties and pressures of parish life and to find a quiet place where he could pray in peace and solitude. That was not in God's plan for him and he soon returned to Ars.

He was a man of great dedication to his call to be a priest and to serve his people. He preached in a very simple manner, had a great love of the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Mother and as mentioned above, a special devotion to St. Philomena. Through his work as a confessor he brought about a spiritual renewal that touched not only the people of his parish but all of France. He regularly spent 14 to 18 hours a day in the confessional surviving on only a few hour of sleep and a diet of boiled potatoes. He was abstemious because he would boil his potatoes all at once, to be eaten over a few days. In order to prevent rats from attacking his potatoes, he would string them up and hang them from the ceiling. Often the potatoes would be covered with a layer of mould. But, as the word spread of his extraordinary abilities as a confessor, thousands, including bishops and aristocracy made the journey to Ars in order to receive his spiritual counsel. Thus a man who started his life as one whom very few thought would ever amount to anything became, by the time of his death in 1859, the vehicle for thousands of conversions.

What lessons can we learn from this man, this so-called idiot? He said something about the priesthood which would sound alien to many of our ears: "Since the priest is important, he will only be understood in Heaven. If we were to understand him on this earth, we would die of love”. And: “After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish without a priest for 20 years and beasts will be worshipped there". These two quotes do sound alien to us and understandably so. For one, they seem to exalt the priest.

So, a question to ask is this: What does he mean that if we understand the priest, we would die of love? To appreciate his sentiments, one has to look into his understanding of the Eucharist. He has this to say of the Eucharist: "All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice of man to God; but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man”. And further, he says, “If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I would greet the priest first and then the angel.... If there were no priest, the passion and death of Jesus would serve no purpose. What use is a treasure chest full of gold if there is no one who can unlock it? The priest has the key to the treasures of Heaven”.

This sounds very much like a glorification of the priest but it is not. Instead it points primarily to the place the sacrament of Holy Order has in the economy of salvation. It is certainly not about the priest. Here, at least two comments may be made about his exalted view of the priesthood.

First, it challenges us on our understanding of the Blessed Sacrament. Never mind that people come to Church dressed inappropriately, etc. To focus on dressing or to insist on behaviour is to miss the fundamental point because our dressing or behaviour, these are shaped largely by our sense of what the Eucharist is. The matter of how we behave is fundamentally couched in this question. “Do we really believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ”? Reading John 6, the discourse on the bread from heaven, we realise that Christ meant every word when He said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. And unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you”.

Only a priest can give us the bread of life because he alone has been given the power to confect the Eucharist, that is, to change bread and wine into no less the Body and Blood of Christ. You realise how closely related these two sacraments are. Therefore, if faith in one suffers, the other will too. My guess is that we have yet to arrive at that level of martyrdom, that is, the willingness to defend the Eucharist simply because we have not truly appreciated its meaning. We need grace!

This leads to the second point as it speaks about the man who is priest or rather it speaks to the man who is priest. I am deeply aware that many of us, even though we believe that we have been called by God to this vocation, are actually career priest or maybe “professional” priest. Many of us may have zeal in the beginning but often graduate to some form of professionalism to the point of clinical efficiency but is that a priest? St John Vianney challenges each and every priest on his understanding of what being a priest means. There is no such thing as a moment when a priest is not a priest. Even he himself knows it because he attempted to run away but was thwarted each time by his own parishioners. Thus, he who spent more than 15 hours a day hearing confession has blazed the trail for other priests to follow. This exaltation of “priesthood” is more a challenge than an exercise in adulation. Before John Vianney, every priest feels inadequate before this giant of a man.

Finally, a lesson to be learnt from this humble servant of God is that God does not choose the worthy to do great things. He chooses the willing. As mentioned before, he had difficulties in studies, particularly with Latin. His tutor was so frustrated with him one day that he yelled out in exasperation, “John, you are a total donkey!” John paused and quietly replied, “Well, if God could have Samson use the jawbone of a donkey to kill a thousand Philistines, imagine what He could do with a full donkey like me”. Really, God chooses the weak and make them strong in bearing witness to Him. Today, perhaps in our prayer for priests, we too might think of how God can use each of us in whatever station in life for His greater Glory. All He asked of is our willingness and the rest He will supply.