LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS POPE
PROCLAIMING A YEAR FOR PRIESTS
ON THE 150th ANNIVERSARY OF THE "DIES NATALIS"
OF THE CURÉ OF ARS
Dear Brother Priests,
On the forthcoming Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Friday
19 June 2009
day traditionally devoted to prayer for the sanctification of the clergy
I have decided to inaugurate a “Year for Priests” in celebration of the
150th anniversary of the “dies natalis” of John Mary Vianney, the
patron saint of parish priests worldwide. This Year, meant to deepen
the commitment of all priests to interior renewal for the sake of a more
forceful and incisive witness to the Gospel in today’s world, will
conclude on the same Solemnity in 2010. "The priesthood is the love
of the heart of Jesus”, the saintly Curé of Ars would often say.
This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt
gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the
Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who
quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and
to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts
and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not
pay tribute to their apostolic labours, their tireless and hidden
service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the
courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and
incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as “friends of
Christ”, whom he has called by name, chosen and sent?
I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I
exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of
unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting death in the
act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person. I also recall the
countless confreres whom I have met and continue to meet, not least in
my pastoral visits to different countries: men generously dedicated to
the daily exercise of their priestly ministry. Yet the expression of
Saint John Mary also makes us think of Christ’s pierced Heart and the
crown of thorns which surrounds it. I am also led to think, therefore,
of the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests, either
because they themselves share in the manifold human experience of pain
or because they encounter misunderstanding from the very persons to whom
they minister. How can we not also think of all those priests who are
offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission and persecuted,
even at times to offering the supreme testimony of their own blood?
There are also, sad to say, situations which can never be sufficiently
deplored where the Church herself suffers as a consequence of infidelity
on the part of some of her ministers. Then it is the world which finds
grounds for scandal and rejection. What is most helpful to the Church in
such cases is not only a frank and complete acknowledgment of the
weaknesses of her ministers, but also a joyful and renewed realization
of the greatness of God’s gift, embodied in the splendid example of
generous pastors, religious afire with love for God and for souls, and
insightful, patient spiritual guides. Here the teaching and example of
Saint John Mary Vianney can serve as a significant point of reference
for us all. The Curé of Ars was quite humble, yet as a priest he was
conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a
pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord
can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine
mercy”. He spoke of the priesthood as if incapable of fathoming the
grandeur of the gift and task entrusted to a human
creature: “O, how great is the priest! … If he realized what he is, he
would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends
from heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host…”.
Explaining to his parishioners the importance of the sacraments, he
would say: “Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the
Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed
your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul
and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it
to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus
Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to
die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its
calm and peace? Again, the priest… After God, the priest is everything!
… Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is”. These words,
welling up from the priestly heart of the holy pastor, might sound
excessive. Yet they reveal the high esteem in which he held the
sacrament of the priesthood. He seemed overwhelmed by a boundless sense
of responsibility: “Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth,
we would die: not of fright, but of love… Without the priest, the
passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who
continues the work of redemption on earth… What use would be a house
filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds
the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is
the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods … Leave a
parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by
worshiping the beasts there … The priest is not a priest for himself, he
is a priest for you”.
He arrived in Ars, a village of 230 souls, warned by his Bishop
beforehand that there he would find religious practice in a sorry state:
“There is little love of God in that parish; you will be the one to put
it there”. As a result, he was deeply aware that he needed to go there
to embody Christ’s presence and to bear witness to his saving mercy:
“[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer
whatever you wish, for my entire life!”: with this prayer he entered
upon his mission. The Curé devoted himself completely to his parish’s
conversion, setting before all else the Christian education of the
people in his care. Dear brother priests, let us ask the Lord Jesus for
the grace to learn for ourselves something of the pastoral plan of Saint
John Mary Vianney! The first thing we need to learn is the complete
identification of the man with his ministry. In Jesus, person and
mission tend to coincide: all Christ’s saving activity was, and is, an
expression of his “filial consciousness” which from all eternity stands
before the Father in an attitude of loving submission to his will. In a
humble yet genuine way, every priest must aim for a similar
identification. Certainly this is not to forget that the efficacy of the
ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister; but neither can
we overlook the extraordinary fruitfulness of the encounter between the
ministry’s objective holiness and the subjective holiness of the
minister. The Curé of Ars immediately set about this patient and humble
task of harmonizing his life as a minister with the holiness of the
ministry he had received, by deciding to “live”, physically, in his
parish church: As his first biographer tells us: “Upon his arrival, he
chose the church as his home. He entered the church before dawn and did
not leave it until after the evening Angelus. There he was to be sought
The pious excess of his devout biographer should not blind us to the
fact that the Curé also knew how to “live” actively within the entire
territory of his parish: he regularly visited the sick and families,
organized popular missions and patronal feasts, collected and managed
funds for his charitable and missionary works, embellished and furnished
his parish church, cared for the orphans and teachers of the
“Providence” (an institute he founded); provided for the education
of children; founded confraternities and enlisted lay persons to work at
His example naturally leads me to point out that there are sectors of
cooperation which need to be opened ever more fully to the lay faithful.
Priests and laity together make up the one priestly people and in
virtue of their ministry priests live in the midst of the lay faithful,
“that they may lead everyone to the unity of charity, ‘loving one
another with mutual affection; and outdoing one another in sharing
honour’” (Rom 12:10). Here we ought to recall the Second Vatican
Council’s hearty encouragement to priests “to be sincere in their
appreciation and promotion of the dignity of the laity and of the
special role they have to play in the Church’s mission. … They should be
willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their
wishes, and acknowledge their experience and competence in the different
fields of human activity. In this way they will be able together with
them to discern the signs of the times”.
Saint John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness
of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting
frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed
Sacrament. “One need not say much to pray well”
the Curé explained to them
“We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts
to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. That is the best
prayer”. And he would urge them: “Come to communion, my brothers and
sisters, come to Jesus. Come to live from him in order to live with
him… “Of course you are not worthy of him, but you need him!”.
This way of educating the faithful to the Eucharistic presence and to
communion proved most effective when they saw him celebrate the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass. Those present said that “it was not possible to
find a finer example of worship… He gazed upon the Host with immense
love”. “All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice
of the Mass”
he would say
“since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of
God”. He was convinced that the fervour of a priest’s life depended
entirely upon the Mass: “The reason why a priest is lax is that he does
not pay attention to the Mass! My God, how we ought to pity a priest who
celebrates as if he were engaged in something routine!”. He was
accustomed, when celebrating, also to offer his own life in sacrifice:
“What a good thing it is for a priest each morning to offer himself to
God in sacrifice!”.
This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led
by a sole inward movement
from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned
to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to
this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession
was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval
caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion.
Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of
persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and
beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand
of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a “virtuous” circle.
By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the
faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that
their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer
forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over
France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day.
It was said that Ars had become “a great hospital of souls”. His
first biographer relates that “the grace he obtained [for the conversion
of sinners] was so powerful that it would pursue them, not leaving them
a moment of peace!”. The saintly Curé reflected something of the
same idea when he said: “It is not the sinner who returns to God to beg
his forgiveness, but God himself who runs after the sinner and makes him
return to him”. “This good Saviour is so filled with love that he
seeks us everywhere”.
We priests should feel that the following words, which he put on the
lips of Christ, are meant for each of us personally: “I will charge my
ministers to proclaim to sinners that I am ever ready to welcome them,
that my mercy is infinite”. From Saint John Mary Vianney we can
learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of Penance, to set it
once more at the centre of our pastoral concerns, and to take up the
“dialogue of salvation” which it entails. The Curé of Ars dealt with
different penitents in different ways. Those who came to his
confessional drawn by a deep and humble longing for God’s forgiveness
found in him the encouragement to plunge into the “flood of divine
mercy” which sweeps everything away by its vehemence. If someone was
troubled by the thought of his own frailty and inconstancy, and fearful
of sinning again, the Curé would unveil the mystery of God’s love in
these beautiful and touching words: “The good Lord knows everything.
Even before you confess, he already knows that you will sin again, yet
he still forgives you. How great is the love of our God: he even
forces himself to forget the future, so that he can grant us his
forgiveness!”. But to those who made a lukewarm and rather
indifferent confession of sin, he clearly demonstrated by his own tears
of pain how “abominable” this attitude was: “I weep because you don’t
weep”, he would say. “If only the Lord were not so good! But he
is so good! One would have to be a brute to treat so good a Father
this way!”. He awakened repentance in the hearts of the lukewarm by
forcing them to see God’s own pain at their sins reflected in the face
of the priest who was their confessor. To those who, on the other hand,
came to him already desirous of and suited to a deeper spiritual life,
he flung open the abyss of God’s love, explaining the untold beauty of
living in union with him and dwelling in his presence: “Everything in
God’s sight, everything with God, everything to please God… How
beautiful it is!”. And he taught them to pray: “My God, grant me the
grace to love you as much as I possibly can”.
In his time the Curé of Ars was able to transform the hearts and the
lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord’s
merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and
witness to the truth of Love: Deus caritas est (1 Jn: 4:8).
Thanks to the word and the sacraments of Jesus, John Mary Vianney built
up his flock, although he often trembled from a conviction of his
personal inadequacy, and desired more than once to withdraw from the
responsibilities of the parish ministry out of a sense of his
unworthiness. Nonetheless, with exemplary obedience he never abandoned
his post, consumed as he was by apostolic zeal for the salvation of
souls. He sought to remain completely faithful to his own vocation and
mission through the practice of an austere asceticism: “The great
misfortune for us parish priests
is that our souls grow tepid”; meaning by this that a pastor can grow
dangerously inured to the state of sin or of indifference in which so
many of his flock are living. He himself kept a tight rein on his
body, with vigils and fasts, lest it rebel against his priestly soul.
Nor did he avoid self-mortification for the good of the souls in his
care and as a help to expiating the many sins he heard in confession. To
a priestly confrere he explained: “I will tell you my recipe: I give
sinners a small penance and the rest I do in their place”. Aside
from the actual penances which the Curé of Ars practiced, the core of
his teaching remains valid for each of us: souls have been won at the
price of Jesus’ own blood, and a priest cannot devote himself to their
salvation if he refuses to share personally in the “precious cost” of
In today’s world, as in the troubled times of the Curé of Ars, the lives
and activity of priests need to be distinguished by a forceful witness
to the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI rightly noted, “modern man listens more
willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to
teachers, it is because they are witnesses”. Lest we experience
existential emptiness and the effectiveness of our ministry be
compromised, we need to ask ourselves ever anew: “Are we truly pervaded
by the word of God? Is that word truly the nourishment we live by, even
more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that
word? Do we love it? Are we deeply engaged with this word to the point
that it really leaves a mark on our lives and shapes our thinking?”.
Just as Jesus called the Twelve to be with him (cf. Mk 3:14), and only
later sent them forth to preach, so too in our days priests are called
to assimilate that “new style of life” which was inaugurated by the Lord
Jesus and taken up by the Apostles.
It was complete commitment to this “new style of life” which marked the
priestly ministry of the Curé of Ars. Pope John XXIII, in his Encyclical
Letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia, published in 1959 on the
first centenary of the death of Saint John Mary Vianney, presented his
asceticism with special reference to the “three evangelical counsels”
which the Pope considered necessary also for priests: “even though
priests are not bound to embrace these evangelical counsels by virtue of
the clerical state, these counsels nonetheless offer them, as they do
all the faithful, the surest road to the desired goal of Christian
perfection”. The Curé of Ars lived the “evangelical counsels” in a
way suited to his priestly state. His poverty was not the poverty
of a religious or a monk, but that proper to a priest: while managing
much money (since well-to-do pilgrims naturally took an interest in his
charitable works), he realized that everything had been donated to his
church, his poor, his orphans, the girls of his “Providence”,
his families of modest means. Consequently, he “was rich in giving to
others and very poor for himself”. As he would explain: “My secret
is simple: give everything away; hold nothing back”. When he lacked
money, he would say amiably to the poor who knocked at his door: “Today
I’m poor just like you, I’m one of you”. At the end of his life, he
could say with absolute tranquillity: “I no longer have anything. The
good Lord can call me whenever he wants!”. His chastity, too,
was that demanded of a priest for his ministry. It could be said that it
was a chastity suited to one who must daily touch the Eucharist, who
contemplates it blissfully and with that same bliss offers it to his
flock. It was said of him that “he radiated chastity”; the faithful
would see this when he turned and gazed at the tabernacle with loving
eyes”. Finally, Saint John Mary Vianney’s obedience found
full embodiment in his conscientious fidelity to the daily demands of
his ministry. We know how he was tormented by the thought of his
inadequacy for parish ministry and by a desire to flee “in order to
bewail his poor life, in solitude”. Only obedience and a thirst for
souls convinced him to remain at his post. As he explained to himself
and his flock: “There are no two good ways of serving God. There is only
one: serve him as he desires to be served”. He considered this the
golden rule for a life of obedience: “Do only what can be offered to the
In this context of a spirituality nourished by the practice of the
evangelical counsels, I would like to invite all priests, during this
Year dedicated to them, to welcome the new springtime which the Spirit
is now bringing about in the Church, not least through the ecclesial
movements and the new communities. “In his gifts the Spirit is
multifaceted… He breathes where he wills. He does so unexpectedly, in
unexpected places, and in ways previously unheard of… but he also shows
us that he works with a view to the one body and in the unity of the one
body”. In this regard, the statement of the Decree Presbyterorum
Ordinis continues to be timely: “While testing the spirits to
discover if they be of God, priests must discover with faith, recognize
with joy and foster diligently the many and varied charismatic gifts of
the laity, whether these be of a humble or more exalted kind”. These
gifts, which awaken in many people the desire for a deeper spiritual
life, can benefit not only the lay faithful but the clergy as well. The
communion between ordained and charismatic ministries can provide “a
helpful impulse to a renewed commitment by the Church in proclaiming and
bearing witness to the Gospel of hope and charity in every corner of the
world”. I would also like to add, echoing the Apostolic Exhortation
Pastores Dabo Vobis of Pope John Paul II, that the ordained
ministry has a radical “communitarian form” and can be exercised
only in the communion of priests with their Bishop. This communion
between priests and their Bishop, grounded in the sacrament of Holy
Orders and made manifest in Eucharistic concelebration, needs to be
translated into various concrete expressions of an effective and
affective priestly fraternity. Only thus will priests be able to
live fully the gift of celibacy and build thriving Christian communities
in which the miracles which accompanied the first preaching of the
Gospel can be repeated.
The Pauline Year now coming to its close invites us also to look to the
Apostle of the Gentiles, who represents a splendid example of a priest
entirely devoted to his ministry. “The love of Christ urges us on”
he wrote —
“because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have
died” (2 Cor 5:14). And he adds: “He died for all, so that those who
live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was
raised for them” (2 Cor 5:15). Could a finer programme be proposed to
any priest resolved to advance along the path of Christian perfection?
Dear brother priests, the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the
death of Saint John Mary Vianney (1859) follows upon the celebration of
the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Lourdes (1858). In 1959
Blessed Pope John XXIII noted that “shortly before the Curé of Ars
completed his long and admirable life, the Immaculate Virgin appeared in
another part of France to an innocent and humble girl, and entrusted to
her a message of prayer and penance which continues, even a century
later, to yield immense spiritual fruits. The life of this holy priest
whose centenary we are commemorating in a real way anticipated the great
supernatural truths taught to the seer of Massabielle. He was greatly
devoted to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin; in 1836 he
had dedicated his parish church to Our Lady Conceived without Sin and he
greeted the dogmatic definition of this truth in 1854 with deep faith
and great joy.” The Curé would always remind his faithful that
“after giving us all he could, Jesus Christ wishes in addition to
bequeath us his most precious possession, his Blessed Mother”.
To the Most Holy Virgin I entrust this Year for Priests. I ask her to
awaken in the heart of every priest a generous and renewed commitment to
the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church which
inspired the thoughts and actions of the saintly Curé of Ars. It was his
fervent prayer life and his impassioned love of Christ Crucified that
enabled John Mary Vianney to grow daily in his total self-oblation to
God and the Church. May his example lead all priests to offer that
witness of unity with their Bishop, with one another and with the lay
faithful, which today, as ever, is so necessary. Despite all the evil
present in our world, the words which Christ spoke to his Apostles in
the Upper Room continue to inspire us: “In the world you have
tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
Our faith in the Divine Master gives us the strength to look to the
future with confidence. Dear priests, Christ is counting on you. In the
footsteps of the Curé of Ars, let yourselves be enthralled by him. In
this way you too will be, for the world in our time, heralds of hope,
reconciliation and peace!
With my blessing.
From the Vatican, 16 June 2009.
BENEDICTVS PP. XVI
 He was proclaimed as such by Pope Pius XI in 1929.
 “Le Sacerdoce, c’est l’amour du cœur de Jésus” (in Le curé
d’Ars. Sa pensée
Son cœur. Présentés par l’Abbé Bernard Nodet, éd. Xavier Mappus, Foi
Vivante, 1966, p. 98). Hereafter: NODET. The expression is also quoted
in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1589).
 NODET, p. 101.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 Ibid., pp. 98-99.
 Ibid., pp. 98-100.
 Ibid., p. 183.
 MONNIN, A., Il Curato d’Ars. Vita di Gian.Battista-Maria Vianney,
vol. I, ed. Marietti, Turin, 1870, p. 122.
 Cf. Lumen Gentium, 10.
 Presbyterorum Ordinis, 9.
 “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. ‘I look at him
and he looks at me’: this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say
to his holy Curé about his prayer before the tabernacle” (Catechism of
the Catholic Church, No. 2715).
 NODET, p. 85.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 Ibid., p. 119.
 MONNIN, A., op. cit., II, pp. 430ff.
 NODET, p. 105.
 Ibid., p. 104.
 MONNIN, A., op. cit., II, p. 293.
 Ibid., II, p. 10.
 NODET, p. 128.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Ibid., p. 131.
 Ibid., p. 130.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 139.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 77.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Ibid., p. 189.
 Evangelii nuntiandi, 41.
 BENEDICT XVI, Homily at the Chrism Mass, 9 April 2009.
 Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the
Congregation for the Clergy, 16 March 2009.
 P. I.
 The name given to the house where more than sixty abandoned girls
were taken in and educated. To maintain this house he would do anything:
“J’ai fait tous les commerces imaginables”, he would say with a
smile (NODET, p. 214).
 NODET, p. 216.
 Ibid., p. 215.
 Ibid., p. 216.
 Ibid., p. 214.
 Cf. ibid., p. 112.
 Cf. ibid., pp. 82-84; 102-103.
 Ibid., p. 75.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 BENEDICT XVI, Homily for the Vigil of Pentecost, 3 June
 No. 9.
 BENEDICT XVI, Address to Bishop-Friends of the Focolare Movement
and the Sant’Egidio Community, 8 February 2007
 Cf. No. 17.
 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis,
 Encyclical Letter Sacerdotii nostri primordia, P. III.
 NODET, p. 244.
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