John Vianney was born into a farm family at Dardilly, France on May 8, 1786. This was just three years before the storming of the Bastille that began the French Revolution. His early years were spent against the backdrop of a country whose Catholic heritage and faith had been systematically destroyed.
When the Church was re-established in 1802, John seemed an unlikely candidate for the priesthood because of his lack of schooling. Nevertheless, at the age of nineteen, he convinced his father to spare him from the farm so that he could pursue his vocation. Forced to learn Latin with boys of eleven and twelve, he was a terrible student, yet he never gave up his desire to be a priest.
His studies came to an abrupt halt when he was inducted into Napoleon’s army in 1809. Through a series of mishaps, John lost his regiment, and was misled into the mountains to a troop of other deserters. After this harrowing experience, he was finally able to return to Ecully and his studies.
Because of the shortage of priests and in spite of his poor academic record, John was ordained. In 1818, he was sent to Ars, a tiny, out-of-the-way parish with a shabby church, few resources, and a lax spiritual life. Though no one expected great things from him, his personal holiness led to the miraculous transformation of the parish.
Amazing things happened in Ars, witnessed by ordinary people. The Virgin Mary appeared regularly at the rectory. So did the devil, who kept trying to smash the furniture. There were miracles of multiplying bread to feed the hungry, of healing, and of prophecy. Most dear to John Vianney’s heart were the miracles of conversions – thousands of them. Often, the Curé spent more than sixteen hours a day in the confessional in order to save a single soul.
Although it was his life-long dream to retire to a contemplative life of silence and prayer, John remained in Ars until his death in 1859, at the age of seventy-three. In 1925, he was canonized by Pope Pius XI, and he is the patron saint of priests. To date, Saint John Vianney is the only parish (diocesan) priest in all of Church history to be canonized.