The Grace of Ars
By Frederick L. Miller
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman
Many folks might imagine that an early 19th-century saint, especially one known for his asceticism, would gain little inspirational traction among young people today. Fr. Frederick L. Miller thinks otherwise. His new book, The Grace of Ars, a biography of St. John Vianney (1786-1859), the celebrated Curé of Ars, France, calls everyone to spiritual renewal, especially young seminarians and priests. Fr. Miller is a diocesan priest, a professor of theology, and a spiritual director for seminarians. He has led clergymen on numerous retreats to Ars, and his book offers readers a virtual pilgrimage to the parish town of St. Vianney. Miller includes much useful supporting material: letters concerning Vianney from Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II; Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical; and a foreword by Archbishop Raymond Burke. Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed a Year for Priests beginning June 19, 2009; hence the timeliness of this volume.
St. John Vianney was ordained in 1815, and his 41-year appointment to the distressed parish of Ars began in the dark days following the French Revolution. A practical man in horrific times, he launched himself into a program of liturgical preaching, catechesis, and door-to-door evangelization among a flock afflicted with great suffering. An orphanage for girls was soon established. Vianney encouraged healing through the Sacrament of Penance, and it “is estimated that in the last decade of his life, over eighty thousand people sought him out for confession each year.”
Miller writes at length about Vianney’s asceticism and the priestly vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, noting that not all priests take the vow of poverty: the “diocesan priest, unlike the religious priest, does not profess public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. However, at his ordination, he publicly promises lifelong celibacy and obedience to his bishop.” Readers may wonder why diocesan priests are excused from the promise of poverty, but Miller merely states that the “experience of the saints convinces the diocesan priest that detachment from material possessions and a simple lifestyle facilitate pastoral charity.”
Chastity’s historical roots stem from Jesus, who “asked the twelve apostles, even though they were married, to leave everything to follow him.” Miller expounds on obedience as respect for superiors along with adherence to the Commandments, canonical and liturgical law, and frequent confession. Errors by bishops do not call for disobedience: Vianney “recognized that the priest never makes a mistake in obeying his bishop. Dying to self by the renunciation of his will, the priest obeys the bishop for the love of God.” Seminarians are given Vianney’s advice: “After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts.”
Miller warns of three temptations for priests, the first being a quest for worldly possessions: “Because the diocesan priest in the United States…has more than enough money, it is easy for him to live as a gentleman of the upper middle class, a comfortable bachelor.” Apparently, entitlement and elitism drive many priests to acquire fine homes and cars, fancy electronics and fat financial portfolios, pets and golf-club memberships — even well-stocked liquor cabinets and luxury vacations. A second temptation is desire for recognition and a “lust for the episcopacy.” Miller faults poor leadership in America: “Some bishops have contributed to the fund of clerical worldliness by their example. One wonders if one North American seminary or another over the years has not promoted a political approach to the priesthood and ambition for the episcopacy among the clergy.” The third temptation is the initiation of a personality cult through which the “personal tastes of the pastor or parochial vicar, his eccentricities, hobbies, consuming interests, style of humor, even his pet, are easily enlarged and forced on the entire parish.” After this discussion, readers will easily identify a remedy — the vow of poverty.
The text radiates a pious knowledge of fading traditional devotions that young people might find quirky or quaint. (Much material is outside younger Catholics’ historical and religious orbits.) Miller escorts readers to the mountain town of Paray-le-Monial near Ars, where one such practice began. It was here that apparitions of Jesus seen by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century gave birth to the Sacred Heart devotions, and readers pick up Miller’s longing for age-old religious customs. It is unknown if the faithful will return en masse to the novenas, block rosaries, saints’ day processions through neighborhoods, and weekly confessions (even for little children). It is said that each generation inhabits its own country, even on the same ground at the same time as others.
Amid cultural and clerical scandal and turmoil, the priestly program enacted by the Curé of Ars — evangelization, catechesis, liturgical preaching, humble lifestyle, and hands-on humanitarianism — would certainly be refreshing.
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