Though separated by nearly two hundred years, the cultural landscape between 19th century France and 21st century America is also similar. Mentioned here are the relevant contours of 19th century France; the thoughtful reader can make the connections with present day America. Father Vianney arrived at his parish a generation after unparalleled cultural and political upheaval in France. The Revolution and subsequent Terror, the hardships under Napoleonic rule, the widespread devastation of churches, religious communities and practices, and the outright attack on the Church in France herself, were still fresh in the minds of many. The Revolution’s spawn of secularism had permeated much of French society, with even the smaller villages feeling its reverberations. God and the Church were relegated more and more to the margins of French life.
Upheaval was also felt within the Church in France. In the wake of the Revolution, the faithful were often confused about the relationship between faithfulness to the Church and allegiance to the State. The State had sought to subsume the Church, going so far as to force the clergy to take an oath to the State, effectively making the priest more of an employee of the State than a servant of the Gospel. The faithful, moreover, were scandalized when many priests succumbed to this pressure, including the then pastor of Ars, Father Saunier. Educated at the Sorbonne, Ars’s pastor took the oath in 1791 and the spiritual unraveling of the parish in Ars began. The next year the parish church was looted and Father Saunier left the priesthood. The sanctuary of the parish church was converted into a club where the “free thinkers” of the area held their meetings. Though restoration of the Church in France began in 1801, tension and confusion about the clergy still existed. Which priests could one trust? What of the priests who took the oath? What about those priests who refused and suffered or were even killed? France in the 19th century also was experiencing a priest shortage.
The religious ignorance and indifference spawned by the Revolution had their effect on the life of Ars. People frequently missed Sunday Mass, and work dominated the lives of most. The tiny settlement boasted of four taverns where the livelihoods of many families were squandered. The very people who could not find time for Sunday Mass spent themselves in festivities, lasting far into the night and ending in the usual evils. Religious ignorance was rampant in both children and adults. Ironically the efforts of the Revolution to replace worship of the living God with the goddess “Reason” reaped the fruit of widespread illiteracy, and only a minority in Ars could read. Ars, however, was no better or worse off than the other villages in France. Remnants of faith and morals were still found scattered about among some of the families. The faith and the priesthood were not despised, just ignored. The impact of the Revolution and Terror, and the poor example or lack of stable clergy left the parish unsettled, ignorant, confused and at best lukewarm.
Despite the many similarities to our own time, four primary differences exist between St. John Vianney’s time and our own. One obvious difference is that Jansenism, with its harshness, scrupulosity and anxiety, was still felt within the faithful. The heresy had been put down, but its bitterness could still be tasted in the spiritual groundwater. A second difference was respect for priests, and their authority, still existed in the culture. A third difference was the local government, embodied in the mayor and municipal counselor, who supported his efforts in the religious and moral regeneration of the village because it promoted the common good. Fourthly, differences existed within the Church between then and now. For example, today’s “culture of dissent” among some Catholic quarters and the problem of liturgical abuse were not so much part of Vianney’s time. (Read more.)Share