Rorate Caeli

Why Did “Prayer and Penance” Go Missing on the Feast of St John Vianney?

Today on the 1960 general Roman calendar is the feast of St John Mary Vianney. When he was canonized in 1925, his feast was set for August 9, but in 1960 he was bumped back a day to August 8. His dies natalis, August 4, had been occupied by St. Dominic for so many centuries that no one thought of moving him. As Gregory DiPippo pointed out at New Liturgical Movement, St. John Vianney would himself have celebrated Mass in honor of St. Dominic on August 4th.

What struck me this morning as I assisted at Mass is the Collect, which is the only proper item (the rest of the Mass is from the Common of Confessors “Os Justi”). Here is how it reads:

Almighty and merciful God, Who hast made wondrous the blessed John Mary by pastoral zeal, the yoke of prayer, and the ardour of penance [pastorali studio, et jugi orationis ac poenitentiae ardore]; grant, we beseech Thee, that by his example and intercession we may be enabled to gain the souls of our brethren for Christ and with them attain to everlasting glory. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ...

The prayer quite clearly specifies three virtues that distinguished the holy Curé of Ars: his zeal for souls, his dedication to prayer, and his life of penance. As my old St Andrew Daily Missal (1948) says in its brief introduction to the feast: “He was parish priest of Ars for nearly forty-two years: he became a model for all his brethren in the sacerdotal  ministry by his pastoral zeal, and by the unflagging ardour of his prayer and penance. Sitting up to sixteen hours a day in the confessional, he healed souls and sometimes bodies as well. His simple catechism preaching touched the hearts of grown ups as well as those of children. Meanwhile, he chastized his body as an act of reparation and impetration for sinners.”

All this was, well, too much for the redactors of the Novus Ordo, who sanitized the Collect as follows:

Almighty and merciful God, who made the Priest Saint John Vianney wonderful in his pastoral zeal, grant, we pray, that through his intercession and example we may in charity win brothers and sisters for Christ and attain with them eternal glory. Through our Lord Jesus Christ...

Pastoral zeal is still there, but without its sine quibus non foundations of the “yoke of prayer” and the “ardour of penance.” The other thing one notices is that, in keeping with their general editorial policy, the word “soul” was excised: we are to win “brothers and sisters,” but not the souls of our brethren. This is no small difference in emphasis. One used to speak of the cura animarum, the care or charge of souls, because that is the proper business of the Church—not global warming, not rainforests in the Amazon, not solar power, not economic distribution, not even world peace as such—none of this is the Church’s proper business. She is concerned with healing and saving souls for heaven, and if any earthly means will help, she will use it, but if earthly goods stand in the way, she will scorn them and spew them out. This is what penance means. This is why the old liturgy so often prayed for the grace to despise worldly goods and long for those of heaven. As fallen creatures with disordered concupiscence, we need no encouragement to pursue sensible goods; we naturally seek out wealth, pleasure, and all the more subtle kinds of worldly goods there are, none of which we carry with us into the afterlife. At the moment of death it is all gone, and only our soul, naked, with its virtues and vices, merits and sins, appears before God the Judge. 

This the great saints knew. This is what they lived, this is what they preached. That is why St John Mary Vianney is the patron of priests: because he loved souls so much that he preached the unvarnished and unabridged truth to them, even when it hurt, even when it was demanding, even when it went against the fashion of the age. He did not cut down or modify his catechism to suit the times, but cut down the pride of the times to suit revelation. He loved souls so much that he did penance for them. His greatest penance, perhaps, were those sixteen-hour days in the confessional, when he proved that, like the Good Shepherd, nothing mattered more to him than sacramentally ministering to the flock, to save even one lost sheep.

Like the other saints commemorated today—Saints Cyriacus, Largus, and Smaragdus—St John Vianney was willing to lay down his life for Christ. As the second Collect reads:

O God, Who dost gladden us with the solemn yearly festival of Thy holy Martyrs, Cyriacus, Largus, and Smaragdus, in Thy loving kindness, make us, we beseech Thee, to imitate the fortitude with which suffered the holy men whose feastday we are celebrating. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ…

Fortitude. That is what the old Collects have, all of them. That is what the new Collects so often lack: they tend to be soft, written by the soft for the soft. Hard things are quietly erased and sent down the memory hole. Liturgical euthanasia: so simple, so painless! In this way we airbrush the saints and repaint them in our own modern likeness, where platitudes replace beatitudes. No wonder the Church is a disaster. When the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?

The salt of wisdom we need is the traditional sacred liturgy. It knows what to pray for and how to pray. It shapes us into the sons who are mercifully chastened by their Father, who knows what is for their good. Even in the early twentieth century, when Pius X beatified the Curé of Ars and Pius XI canonized him, the Church knew how to write a real Collect, because she was still enrolled in the school of the Lord’s service.

Looking over the original Collect once again, one cannot fail to be struck by its resonance with the message of Our Lady of Fatima: prayer and penance. On May 13, 1917, she said to the three children: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings He wills to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?” The children responded: “Yes, we are willing.” “Then you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort.” In subsequent appearances she emphasized the faithful praying of the Rosary and the duty to make reparation for sin and sinners. On July 13, she showed the children a vision of hell which terrified them. Afterwards she said: “You have seen Hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace.”

“If what I say to you is done…” Prayer, penance, and zeal for souls. St John Mary Vianney did, ahead of time, what Our Lady of Fatima requested 58 years after his death. St Pius X, who beatified him in 1905, did, ahead of time, what Our Lady requested. It may, however, be asked why Pius XI, who canonized him in 1925, did not heed the message Our Lady gave through Sr Lucia on June 13, 1929, when she specified that the Holy Father should, in union with all the bishops of the world, consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. No subsequent pope has heeded this request from the Mother of God; every manner of dodge has been employed to half-fulfill it without actually fulfilling it to the letter. It was not a complicated request and yet it was never done and has never been done.

In the late 1960s, this non-compliance with Our Lady’s message—which, after all, is simply a repetition and new application of the Gospel’s—was elevated to a quasi-authoritative position in the lex orandi. By carefully excising, wherever possible, such “medievalisms” as “zeal for souls,” “the yoke of prayer,” and the “ardour of penance,” by ridding it of the decisive subordination of earthly goods to heavenly ones, the modern papal rite or Novus Ordo follows the line of worldification and “defatimization.” In this way, it completes the Council’s “turn towards the world” and the mock-heroic self-restraint of not condemning Communism, whose famous Manifesto had appeared 11 years before the death of Vianney.

In all these ways, St John Vianney stands as a silent reproach to the foolish path that has been taken by a saltless hierarchy. He bids us take up again, with the honesty of truth and the humility of repentance, the liturgy, the way of life, and the priorities we have spurned. In the radiant presence of the Mother of God, he knows the reward of fidelity to her requests and the cost of ignoring them.

St John Mary Vianney, patron of parochial clergy, pray for us.