St. John Vianney – draft dodger, saint, patron of pastors

August 4th is the feastday for Saint John Vianney, known in the 19th century as “The Cure of Ars”, in France. He is the parton saint of priests and pastors, but he is also a draft dodger; twice evading conscription into Napoleon’s armies during the Peninsular War with Spain. I reflected on his life with a view toward his military (non)service for a book I am writing. Here is the (very) rough draft, in honor of his feast today;

John Vianney became interested in the priesthood from an early age while working on his family’s farm in France. Early in his life, the French countryside was ablaze in the holy fire of revolution and revolt. Many souls turned from God, and John later reflected that religious ignorance was the fruit of the labor for political change. Priests, during this time, were forced to perform services in secret, and John gained a great respect for the work of pastors who defied social circumstances in order to be true to their vocation.

In 1809, at 17 years of age, John was drafted into Napoleon’s armies during the emperor’s Peninsular War against Spain. John should have been exempted as a seminary student, but times were tough and recruitment was low. The law is sometimes flexible in times of war, it would seem. The fight against Spain was, to the Emperor, a clear and present danger to his continued expansion. So off John went for training, but he fell seriously ill along the way.

After he recovered, he found the conscripts had left without him, so he was sent elsewhere for another round of conscription, which he did not refuse. At a church in Roanne, he prayed fervently, but for what nobody knows, during which he again fell behind his cohort. He enlisted the help of a guide to take him to where he would be trained to serve Napoleon, but instead, he was taken to a town filled with deserters.

There, he took a false name and carried out a different kind of training that evoked in him memories of the secret services that prepared him for baptism and confirmation. He even opened a school for children under his assumed identity. He and the other deserters carried on like this, often hiding in hay bales or in basements until March of 1810, when an Imperial decree granted amnesty to all deserters.

John went on to become a parish priest in Ars, France. He had trouble passing his Latin exams, and the bishop was loathe to ordain him, but relented in 1815. Three years later, John took the church in Ars upon the death of his mentor, who preached there. He quickly became known widely as the “Cure of Ars,” for being able to cure the souls of people, to look deeply into their sins and aid them in profound confessions. Pilgrims began to flock there to witness in John’s amazing talent for pastoring troubled souls to absolution and reconciliation to God. He was known to have supernatural skill in seeing sins and transgressions without having to be told of them in the confessional booth.

John Vianney died August 4, 1859, with thousands in attendance for his funeral. He is the patron of priests and pastors and his memory was evoked by Pope Benedict XVI for a “Year for Priests” during the 2009-2010 liturgical calendar. His prayer reminds us of the fourth chapter of the apostle John’s first epistle, insisting boldly that “God is love.”;

Prayer of John Vianney;

I love You, O my God, and my only desire is to love You until the last breath of my life.

I love You, O my infinitely lovable God,

and I would rather die loving You, than live without loving You.

I love You, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love You eternally

My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love You,

I want my heart to repeat it to You as often as I draw breath.

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