We are gathered here tonight, as a community of believers, for the twin celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the official launching of the “Year for Priest.” All the three readings that we just heard captures very well what we are celebration is about. We are celebrating God’s love for us and how He desires so much for us to deepen our relationship with Him. This is captured in the symbol of the Heart of Jesus. At the same time we are also celebrating the gift of the ordained priesthood vocation, and how this is captured in the life of St John Marie Vianney, the patron of all priests.
The more we are able to love God, the more we will be able to love each other and our neighbours. In this homily, I would like to share with you some thoughts about the life of St John Marie Vianney and then briefly explain the meaning of the Sacred Heart Devotion after my homily.
As we soak in the life of St Vianney, let us remember that his holiness comes from his deep love for Our Lord. St Vianney used to be the patron saint of Diocesan priests. But, today in Rome, our Holy Father Pope Benedict will be declaring St John Marie Vianney as the patron saint of all priests.
I am very happy to have St John Marie Vianney as patron saint of priests because he truly lived a very holy life as a Parish Priest. From the very beginning of St Vianney’s desire to serve God as a priest, he faced much objections, humiliation and persecution. To begin with, his own father objected to his priestly vocation; then the seminary rejected his application because they found him to be intellectually inadequate.
However, believing strongly that God has called him to the priesthood, he persevered; eventually the seminary allowed him to enter. Perhaps, this was more out of their exasperations of his persistence rather than his suitability. Five months later he was expelled from the seminary because he could not learn Latin well enough for his studies. But, his Parish Priest gave him personal tuition and eventually he was readmitted into the seminary.
When St Vianney was finally ordained, Church authorities did not allow him to hear Confession because the authorities did not find that he had learnt the Church’s doctrines well enough. So, they sent him to a small and remote village in France called Ars, so that so that if he should do any “damage” to the faithful, it would be minimal.
In the village of Ars, there were about 230 families and they were all worldly and very weak in their faith; many were alcoholics, gamblers and prostitutes. St Vianney was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew 17:21 which says, “this kind (of sins) can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” So, St Vianney began a rigorous life of prayer, fasting and penance.
In his daily living, St Vianney led a life of poverty and penance. He slept on bare floors and ate only one or two potatoes for a day. He also took the abuses of his villages with humility and patience. His Bishop came to know of him and when many complained that his austere life was a sign of “madness,” his Bishop answered, “How I wish all my clergy would have a small grain of the same madness!”
St Vianney preached his simple sermons with great zeal and fearlessness; urging his parishioners to return to the faith. But, people were unmoved; many yawned, others banged the door, still others wrote poison letters and made many false accusations against him. He felt hurt deeply, but his love for Jesus was deeper than his hurts. So, he persevered.
St Vianney had an assistant priest who gave him unending problems. He was young, very intelligent and efficient, while St Vianney was not. But, instead of refuting his young assistant he learnt to accept him and spent his time hearing Confessions in the Parish; sometimes stretching himself for 14 to 16 hours a day!
Gradually, his parishioners began to sense that St Vianney was truly a man of God. News of his sanctity spread and from his village of 230 families he gradually attracted about 100,000 pilgrims a year who flocked to attend his Masses. Royalties and Bishops from all over France would travel long distances just to hear him preach at Masses and to have him hear their Confessions. St Vianney would be so deeply moved by the Lord in the celebrations of his Masses that they would last for three hours, and then after Mass he would find a very long queue of people wanting to go to him for Confession. I don’t think this would happen in our parish!
This seemly ignorant and unintelligent priest who was initially expelled from the seminary and then banned from hearing Confessions was said to have heard about one million Confessions during his lifetime. He had the special gift of knowing the penitent’s sins, especially when they were not confessed to him. His few words during Confession went straight into his penitents’ hearts and brought the most hardened sinners to conversion. Even at his deathbed, feeling sorry for the pilgrims who had traveled long distances to make their Confessions to him, he asked for three pilgrims to be brought to his bedside for Confession. Throughout his life as a priest St Vianney encouraged believers to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion and go to Confessions frequently.
One of the devotions that St Vianney would strongly encourage would be to spend time to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He said that this would be a powerful means of renewing our love for the Lord. This to him was one of his ways of bringing about the conversion of his parish, in addition to his austere life of fasting and penance and saying his thanksgiving prayers after each Mass. Amongst other apostolic works, St Vianney also built an orphanage and a school for the poor.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I have much to learn from St Vianney about how we should love God more fully. What is most obvious about St Vianney was his deep love for the Lord. His sanctity grew through much sacrifices and penances that he made, not so much for his own self, but for the conversion of his parishioners who had lukewarm faith or were hardened sinners.
Loving God and showing this love selflessly for the good of others and the growth of their faith is the most concrete sign that we have a healthy and well balanced faith. We cannot expect to love God fully and yet be self-centered in the way we relate to others. Neither can we say that our love for God is wholesome if we are preoccupied with our own needs and those of our own families. Jesus in today’s Gospel tells us that if our faith is to “bear fruit” we must love one another in the way that He has loved us; which is sacrificial and unconditional.
If we want to grow in holiness, one of the most important ways we can do this is to spend more quiet time with God. There were several times when I dropped by in the Church and found some people praying and pondering on the Word of God, and also writing their reflections into a booklet. I thought to myself, “What a wonderful way to spend an hour with the Lord . . . What a wonderful way to speak to the Lord and listen to Him . . . Never mind if you don’t know what to say to the Lord and don’t hear what He says to you . . . the important thing for us in prayer is to make a sincere commitment to spend time with Him . . . and persevere in the commitment. . . every now and then, the Lord’s Spirit will surely touch our hearts and give us some insights and some strength and encouragement that we need at a particular point in time of our lives.
And if we do this regularly, over time we will build up a familiar and personal relationship with the Lord. If there are anyone of you who wish to help promote this adoration of the Lord, during the day and weekday . . . you are most welcome to start it . . . This could be a beginning of helping each other to live the Spiritual dimension of our Parish Goal. Like St Vianney, I strongly believe that if our Parish is to grow in our prayer life, our love for Our Lord will also grow, and once our love for Our Lord grows, all else will follow. Our Parish will then be on the way towards becoming a vibrant and Christ-centred Parish that we will be proud belong
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
Pictures taken at the twin celebration of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the official launching of the “Year for Priest” at Church of St Ignatius