Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Partnership paves the way for support of priests

An unlikely friendship, between two very different individuals, paved the way for a unique means of supporting parish priests.

On November 9 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte established the “Consulate” in France, in effect ending the French Revolution, which was a victory for him, and a few short years away from his reign as dictator. At this time Catholic Mission’s founder Pauline Marie Jaricot was four months old. Her later great-friend-to-be, Jean Marie Vianney, later to become known as the CurĂ© d’Ars, was just over twelve years old. Both grew up knowing what it meant to be Catholic in those days; Pauline was baptised in secret, and, about four miles away, and at approximately the same time, the same persecution demanded that Jean’s First Holy Communion was also concealed from the outside world.

There was a difference, of course. Pauline’s parents owned a silk factory, enabling their eight children, of whom Pauline was the youngest, to be brought up in comfort.

Jean was born into a farming family in Dardilly near Lyons and knew poverty from his earliest years. This was a source of protection during the French Revolution, a period when wealth and status could mean an introduction to Madame la Guillotine! However it also ensured that Jean’s parents were able to offer no more than a single year of school before the nine year-old was needed as a shepherd on the family farm.

Pauline’s was a loving family who doted on its youngest member. There was a very close relationship between Pauline and her brother Phineas who was just two years older. They both wanted to be missionaries. In later years Phileas became a priest and with his advice Pauline’s ambition took a different direction; instead of going out into mission territory, she would organise people to finance missionaries and their work.

Jean also had his dreams. At the age of 18, he wanted to study for the priesthood, but his lack of education was a massive drawback, especially as he had never studied Latin. His was a long and difficult road until he was finally accepted at the major seminary in Lyons, where, even when given private tuition, he failed his Latin exams. His eventual ordination in 1815 was the result of a special dispensation by the Vicar General, given because of Jean’s obvious vocation.

The young priest took his parish duties so seriously that Ars was soon on everybody’s lips. People began flocking there at the rate of 350 per day for the CurĂ©’s advice or absolution in the confessional. Jean might have failed his seminary exams, but he was proving to be an exemplary priest who not only prescribed a penance for those whose sins he forgave, but also practised an extraordinary degree of personal penance on behalf of his parishioners. Even as an old man when Jean Vianney had lost his ability to project his voice when preaching, the crowds still came to church, just to be present for the occasion.

It was through Jean Vianney’s gifts of wisdom, compassion and understanding that eventually Pauline found her way to Ars. A lifelong and close friendship soon came to birth between a woman consumed with love for the Rosary and for the missions, and a priest whose heart was equally on fire with zeal to reach out to others with God’s love. In fact Pauline would eventually found the Living Rosary and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith (Catholic Mission’s work with Communities) through her seemingly simple idea that each person could touch the hearts of ten others, who, in turn, could find ten more.

Pauline had a wide Christian vision of social problems. Her efforts to solve these met with miserable failure owing to the dishonesty of others in whom she had placed her trust. Her first idea was to create a special fund for the poor so that they would obtain interest free loans. She had the plan of obtaining a large sum of money from fifteen wealthy families to create the capital of her 'Celestial Bank', but she was unable to obtain the initial capital. Her next idea was to purchase a factory where the dignity of the working person would be upheld and families would not be separated. Pauline was persuaded to purchase a factory in Rustrel by a group of people who diverted the money provided by her and her friends. Pauline would spend the rest of her life involved in various judicial proceedings flowing from their dishonesty. Despite all her efforts the factory was sold off at a low price, and Pauline was still burdened in paying back the remaining massive debts incurred through the machinations of others. Yet, by the time Pauline died in poverty and obscurity on 9 January 1862, she had 2,250,000 followers in France alone!

Jean Vianney’s own life was touched with great suffering from which his holiness was no protection. As with all the great saints who felt driven to extremes of austerity, his general health suffered. His constant availability to others meant that he allowed himself a maximum of four hours sleep at night, sleep that was regularly disturbed by terrifying, often violent, visitations from the Devil. Even when he was dying, there were crowds outside his house, looking for Jean’s blessing and, somehow, he managed to raise his head and hand in order to satisfy their need.

Jean died on 4 August 1869, 6 and a half years after Pauline. He was beatified on 8 January 1905 and canonised in 1925. Four years later, he was declared the patron saint of parish priests. 150 years after his death, Pope Benedict has chosen to mark the anniversary by declaring the Year of the Priest starting from June 19 2009.

During the Year of the Priest we might make a special prayer for missionary priests using the friendship between Jean Vianney and Pauline Jaricot as our inspiration. These priests, inspired by Vianney and supported by Catholic Mission, are vital for the life of the Church.

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