Jean Baptiste Vianney was born on May 8, 1786, into a peasant family in the village of Dardilly near Lyons in southeastern France. He was a quiet, patient, and deeply religious young man who wanted to become a priest but found it nearly impossible to learn Latin. His life was interrupted when he was drafted into the French army.
On his way to join his assigned unit he stopped in a church to pray. The regiment left for Spain without him, and Jean Baptiste had to hide for two years until he was no longer wanted for the army. In 1811 he entered a seminary. Three years later he was dismissed because he was unable to grasp the theological subtleties he was supposed to study. But the bishop of Grenoble was sufficiently impressed by Vianney’s firm character and level-headed judgment to ordain him a priest in 1815. After a three-year testing period, Vianney was assigned to the village of Ars as pastor.
The new curé brought a mixture of kind understanding and personal strength to the people of Ars. In the beginning his sermons were directed against drinking, swearing, and dancing. He tried to show his parishioners the value of resting from work on Sunday and of going to church regularly. His rigorous fasts and his prayers that lasted well into the night proved to the people that he was more strict with himself than with them. Gradually the spirit of Ars changed. It became a model of Christian behavior. More and more frequently visitors from other towns asked the curé of Ars to hear their confessions. His spiritual vision had grown to the point where his insights into their problems were very helpful. By 1845 Vianney was patiently spending more than 12 hours a day in the little confessional box of the parish church, while people who had come to Ars from all over France waited in long lines to ask his advice.
Vianney’s success as a confessor was accompanied by increased personal difficulties. During the few hours of rest he allowed himself at night, he was disturbed by strange noises, sometimes by such discomfort that he felt he was being physically beaten. Once his bed caught fire. He understood these troubles to be persecution by the devil and reacted by intensifying his own prayers and penances. He was 73 when he died on Aug. 4, 1859. The curé of Ars was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and declared heavenly patron for all parish priests in 1929.