Today (August 4) is kept in the Roman Church as the feast of John Vianney, often called the Curé d'Ars, he was the Parish Priest (Curé) of the small French Village of Ars from 1818 until 1859. His ministry there was small, but it attracted enormous numbers of people as part of that curious reaction in the French Church to the bitter anti-clericalism that was spawned in the wake of the revolution.
We see it also in Lourdes and in the devotion to the Little Flower, St Therese of Lisieux. While much of the society hated the church for what it had been and the privilege it had represented, there was also an almost extreme enthusiasm for ordinary spirituality and the lot of day to day Christianity.
The tussle in France (it seems to me from my recent trip) is evident to this day. It is wildly anti-church and yet there are pockets of great devotion. One Sunday night S and I went to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to see the lights of Paris. At 10 p.m. at night there was a sort of boozy concert happening on the steps outside, it was almost profane. About 100 young people drinking, singing and generally carrying on. I don't mind such things, I like it when the prissy nature of the church is confronted by the stark reality of the world. (More homeless people should sleep on the cathedral steps!!)
We were surprised when we realised that the basilica was still open. Inside there was a Mass going on, about 400 people! It was a truly profound spiritual experience for me.
This tension is there between the Church and the Spirit.
What attracts me to Vianney is his simplicity. It is interesting that the official biographies always seem to focus on the supernatural aspects of his ministry. (Like the story that he used to tell people what they were about to confess!!) Personally, I suspect, that what drew people to him was the fact that he stayed put for forty years.
One thing I do know about simple folk in the parishes is that they are more than a bit suspicious of clergy, and it takes them a while to believe that we are actually going to try and journey with them. (I was involved in a conversation with some colleagues the other day and was noting that a priest who was moving hadn't (in my opinion) "been there very long". One of my wiser younger brethren observed "Oh he's been there 4½ years" and I was supposed to believe that was a long time!)
My first parish (4 years) taught me that despite the fact that I thought my two 2 year stints as a curate in the parishes in which I served taught me heaps. I actually knew nothing because I had barely been there before I left.
My second parish (6 years) told me that although I patted myself on the back for being four years in my first sole charge, I had only just begun to get people to believe that I may be committed to them...and then I left!
My next job (2 years) told me that I had moved too quickly out of my previous parish, and so had not confronted a whole range of things both personal and professional issues which needed to be dealt with. And so I was desperately ill formed and unready to move on!
So I have been in this parish 12 years. I will not be here as long as Fr Vianney was at Ars. I still puzzle about what I do and do not know.
But short appointments are not the way forward, by and large, if we are to build trust and co-operation.
(Unfortunately we have a king at the moment who only seems to have reigned for about two or three years over any of his kingdoms!)
I was greatly heartened (once) by former Primate John Grindrod (pictured left) who on his retirement noted that it was the parish clergy who are the backbone of our church's ordained ministry. This is what I think Vianney's life celebrates. And I believe it not just because I am a parish priest, and likely to remain so, but because it seems to be true.
In the end we have committed ourselves to plodding along together and grappling with trying to be meaningful community.
We are easily seduced these days by 'entrepreneurism' or 'church growth systems', by 'success theology' and any number of other things; but let us hear today the challenge of a simple French priest.