How is the Church ever going to rise out of our current dilemma of few people coming to Mass, with or without a pandemic, the young abandoning all forms of religion, clerical abuse of power, the growing indifference of people to the demands of the gospel? This question will be with us for a long time and there are no easy answers but we have witnesses from the past that give us a glimmer of hope. Today we gave such a witness in the person of St. John Vianney, the pastor of souls from Ars, France.
He lived just after the French Revolution in times much, much worse than our own, at least in terms of the church. The church was the object of scorn and ridicule after the Revolution, partly due to its own devices and its love of the aristocracy. John Visnney emerged from this tragedy desperately wanting to be a priest but couldn’t hack the intellectual challenges nor that difficult construct of Latin. But he was persistent and was ordained a priest.
He was sent to a village named Ars, not noted for anything, given its size and small number of citizens. John Vianney accepted the challenges of the times, realizing that few people practiced their faith and fewer still understood it. They were floundering in their relationship with God and the church. John had his work cut out for him, and this “lowly” man, who at first was refused entrance in the seminary because he was thought to be rather “dim,” found his way into their hearts.
How did he do this? By loving them, being present to them, teaching them tirelessly about the faith, spending hours, literally, in the confessional everyday, preaching the basics. The people slowly started coming back and they did so in huge numbers. The authorities of the church were a bit dumbfounded, and maybe jealous, that this rather ignorant soul with limited intelligence, outshine their own pitiful witness. John Vianney LOVED the people FIRST; he gave his life for them and they knew it. And he did so by being honest with them and saying things to them they needed to hear, not necessarily things they wanted to hear.
Our church today is not that different from the church in John Vianney’s time. People today respond when they are loved and respected. But sometimes those of us who lead, lay or ordained, need to be filled with a passion to preach and teach the Faith. We have to be deeply in love with Christ and be able to “see” Him in the person who questions, who is lost, or who is filled with doubts. We have to love the people entrusted to our care.
If we begin with the Institution, it’s prescriptions and regulations, we will most certainly fail. We have to start with where the person is in their life, listening to their story attentively and even reverently. We have to be able to be vulnerable ourselves with them, sharing our own hesitancies and doubts. Love comes before the Institution, as John the Beloved Apostle entretén the empty tomb BEFORE Peter, the leader who would become a symbol of the Institution.
The Institution of the Church is absolutely necessary and given to us by Christ, but in a certain perspective. When the Institution becomes first and foremost, Christ gets lost in the ecclesiastical shuffle. And the structures become an idol to be served. The Institution is ALWAYS to serve the people, not the other way around.
When the Institution of the Church is filled with people like John Vianney, the Church shines!! And grows....