Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was a religious personality of unusual force. To the incomparable exclusion of everything else he addressed himself to the greater honor and glory of God and the salvation of souls. He accepted his obligation to holiness at an early age, and it took complete possession of him. Every word he uttered was spoken out of the world of religiousness. He brought to a conclusion an achievement which it would be hard for anyone to imitate. From this man there emanated an influence which cannot be overlooked, and the results of which cannot be contested.
St. John Vianney’s mother was a woman of great piety, and she led him into the way of religion at an early age. “I owe a debt to my mother,” he said, and added, “virtues go easily from mothers into the hearts of their children, who willingly do what they see being done.” He was a good-natured boy, with blue eyes and brown hair. In spite of his lively disposition, he admitted much later on in life that “when I was young, I did not know evil. I was first acquainted with it in the confessional, from the mouths of sinners.”
It was only after much toil and trouble that St. John Vianney was admitted to the priesthood. At the age of 20, he was having great difficulty in his studies for the priesthood. Mathias Loras, perhaps the most intelligent of Jean-Marie’s fellow seminarians, who was assigned to help him in his lessons, was of a nervous and excitable temperament. One day his patience was exhausted by the sheer incapacity of the big young man, and he boxed his ears before all the others. Jean-Marie was also excitable, but he knelt down before the boy of twelve who had treated him so outrageously and humbly asked his forgiveness. Mathias had a golden heart. Suddenly he felt smitten with grief and, his face bathed in tears, he threw himself into the arms of Jean-Marie who was still on his knees. This incident marked the beginning of an abiding friendship. Mathias Loras subsequently became a missionary in the United States, and eventually Bishop of Dubuque, but never could he forget the action of Jean-Marie and the accent with which he spoke on that occasion.
In his assignment as parish priest of Ars, St. John achieved something which many priests would like to have done, but which is scarcely granted to any. Not over night, but little by little, the tiny hamlet underwent a change. The people of Ars were unable to remain aloof for long from the grace which radiated from the remarkable personality of their priest. When a man attacks inveterate disorders and popular vices, he challenges opposition. St. John was not unprepared – he knew the enemy would raise his head. “If a priest is determined not to lose his soul,” he exclaimed, “so soon as any disorder arises in the parish, he must trample underfoot all human considerations as well as the fear of the contempt and hatred of his people. He must not allow anything to bar his way in the discharge of duty, even were he certain of being murdered on coming down from the pulpit. A pastor who wants to do his duty must keep his sword in hand at all times. Did not St. Paul himself write to the faithful of Corinth: ‘I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls, although loving you more, I be loved less.’”