John Vianney was born in 1786 in Dardilly, France, one of Catholic farmers Matthieu and Marie Vianney’s six children. He grew up in the anticlerical ‘Reign of Terror’ during the French Revolution, marked by the infamous mass guillotine executions. Priests were on the run and celebrated Mass stealthily. Young John Vianney regarded these priests as heroes and grew up wanting to become one.
At 20, John was allowed to leave his family to further his education in a school. He had the intention to join the priesthood but struggled in his studies, especially in his learning of Latin (required for all priests). John was many times deemed unfit for Holy Orders. His studies were again interrupted when he was drafted into Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1809. It is believed that because of his poor health, John was left behind while the troops continued without him. He then met a man who brought him to a place where deserters stayed. There, he remained for one and a half years before amnesty was granted to deserters in 1810. Finally, John was able to continue his ecclesiastical studies. He was ordained a deacon in 1815 and became the Curé (equivalent of parish priest) of Ars three years later.
The story of St John Vianney’s struggle to fulfil his purpose in life holds some relevant lessons for Catholic educators today.
1. The constant struggle to upgrade and update content and pedagogy
Just as the French priests of the 18th Century were heroes for St Vianney, educators today are heroes to our youth. We work in a difficult environment of high expectations, long hours and face constant pressure to improve ourselves. As educators, we can definitely identify with St Vianney’s difficulty in keeping up with the acquisition of knowledge. Yet, we can take courage in knowing that we are not alone, and that even saints had a hard time learning too.
2. Educating the ignorant and indifferent
As the parish priest of Ars, St Vianney realised that many of the parishioners were not properly informed about the faith, or were indifferent. He spent many hours listening to confessions and giving homilies to educate them. In a span of 30 years, the number of pilgrims who visited Ars to confess to him reached 20,000.
Like St Vianney, we too, face students who lack the will to learn. We spend long hours every week planning lessons to help our students learn effectively. Although our work can be draining and arduous, we can look to St John Vianney for strength and inspiration. Always remember that our work contributes to the spiritual and intellectual well-being of God’s children.
Even a saint can be tempted to give up at times – St Vianney tried to run away from his priestly duties at Ars four times! But eventually, he learned to accept the task given to him, and devoted the rest of his life to his congregation. Although we may have moments when we feel like giving up on our students and the education mission altogether, it becomes easier to persevere when we are reminded of our duty as educators. Take time to recharge if you must, but don’t let despair derail you from our meaningful vocation.
As St Vianney entrusted his efforts to God, let us also ask Him to be our strength and fortify us in our work as educators:
“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.