The Slow Student
As a child during the French Revolution, John Vianney was moved by the heroism of persecuted priests. He desired to give his life to God, but due to serious illness and being drafted into the military, John struggled for many years to complete his education for the priesthood. He had a low aptitude for academics and even failed Latin twice! As Latin was essential to administering the sacraments and understanding the core documents of the Church, this nearly cost him his ordination. One of his fellow seminarians, a decade younger, became so frustrated at John’s slowness that he boxed John in the ears. In true humility, John begged the young lad to forgive him for his stupidity. Overcome with shame, the boy embraced John, and they remained friends throughout their lives.
John’s devout holiness was recognized by his superiors, and he was finally ordained a priest on August 12th, 1815, when he was 29 years old. He was sent to Ars, a tiny town where it seemed he could do no harm. He found the people there to be lax and uneducated in their faith. Through personal example and passionate homilies on dancing, drinking, and cursing, he transformed the people and parish of Ars. His gentle, meek, and fatherly manner allowed him to share Christ in a personal, authentic way.
John Vianney lived an austere and prayerful life. It is said that at the beginning of each week, St. John Vianney would boil a handful of potatoes. Each day he would eat a few bites as his only sustenance–even as the soft potatoes began to mold, deteriorate, and smell! He believed that curbing the appetite for food was one of the most powerful mortifications one could make.
St. John Vianney, who came from such humble beginnings, is now revered as a heroic priest–such a tireless example of faith that the devil would physically attack him at night to rob him of sleep! Administering to his small parish, John spent up to 16 hours a day in the confessional, and his fame as a confessor brought thousands of pilgrims to Ars. Today, he is widely beloved as the patron of parish priests. In preparing for your next confession, try praying: St. John Vianney, intercede for me at my next confession.
The Street Performer
Another famous St. John was born 20 years later in Italy. At the age of two, John Bosco lost his father, leaving him and his two older brothers to be raised by his mother. They were very poor, but his mother always found enough to share with the homeless who came seeking food, shelter, or clothing. John frequently attended church and became very devout in his faith. He spent his time ministering to underserved youth, even though they didn’t always want to listen. One day John saw a band of circus performers capturing the attention of young people in their audience. John thought that if he could teach himself similar tricks, he could use them to attract others and share the faith. One Sunday, John staged a show for the neighborhood kids, and at the end of the show, recited the homily he had heard earlier that day. He ended by inviting his neighbors to pray with him. As the shows continued, John’s call to become a priest grew stronger. John’s older brother Antonio opposed his desire to study for the priesthood, and John left home at the age of twelve to avoid hostility.
As a young priest during the industrial revolution, John was particularly moved by the poor children in the slums of Turin. He witnessed their deplorable conditions, and their fate to end up either imprisoned or as enslaved apprentices. He dedicated his life to helping them. He founded homes for the orphans, jobs for the unemployed, enacted safeguards for apprentices, and encouraged joy and play amongst the children in his care – which at one point totaled 800. He founded the Salesians to continue his work of caring for orphaned boys. Today, he is honored as the patron saint of magicians, a title which surely makes him smile. St. John Bosco is also the patron saint of apprentices and juvenile delinquents. Even if we are not magicians, we can still pray for his intercession: St. John Bosco, help me to be a witness to the joy of knowing God!
It is reassuring to learn of their humanity when studying the lives of the saints. One can imagine St. John Vianney boiling his weekly potatoes or St. John Bosco learning to juggle. These men quietly spent their lives in service to the Church through their ministry. Let us pray for our St. Joseph seminarians to follow in the holy, but human, footsteps of both St. Johns.