St. John Vianney loses his day: Four reflections on the priesthood

Our offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, will be incomplete if the only time we priests offer sacrifice is at the altar. No, the sacrifice of the altar requires the constant sacrifice of one’s life.

The body of Saint John Mary Vianney, above the main altar in the Basilica at Ars, France. (Herwig Reidlinger/Wikipedia)

It is a bit ironic that as the priesthood continues to be under attack – even from not a few within the Church herself and, yes, even from those who would consider themselves the pillars of orthodoxy, the patron of parish priests lost his feast this year since August 4 was a Sunday. I would like to make some small reparation for that loss by reflecting on certain aspects of the Sacred Priesthood, dedicating this effort to St. John Vianney.

Permit me to offer for your reflection four points, each of which could be a thesis in itself.

First: Last August marked the fiftieth anniversary of my entrance into the seminary. With a strong Catholic education background, both in the Church’s teaching and her life and in the humanities, I was able to begin priestly formation at the age of seventeen without hesitation. In case you haven’t calculated my entry date precisely, it was exactly three weeks after the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae. However, I was not prepared for the theological dissent, liturgical aberrations, moral collapse, and general chaos that followed. I am being understated when I say that those eight years of seminary were, bar none, the worst eight years of my life.

A little more than eighteen months after my ordination, Almighty God surprised the world with the election of Karol Woytyla. Pope John Paul II changed the downward spiral of the previous decade, changed the ecclesial mood, changed the way priests thought about themselves. In fact, his twenty-seven years of Petrine ministry has provided me with the wherewithal to navigate the troubled waters of the past six years. Forty-two years of priestly life has given me a very varied ministry – high school teacher and administrator, university and seminary professor, bishop’s secretary, head of two national organizations, editor and publisher, parish priest. Despite some very difficult and trying moments – and even sad betrayals by some bishops – I am able to say that I have no regrets and would do it all over again.

Second: Galatians 3:1-5 has some critical applications for understanding the priestly vocation.

St. Paul chides the Galatians as being “stupid.” Tough language, no doubt. Today Paul would be called “harsh and insensitive.” However, when eternal life is at stake, we can’t be timid about challenging someone to change course. This is not simply a matter of truth-telling; it is the ultimate act of Christian charity. With great frustration in his voice, Paul asks if all his efforts and their initial positive response have been “in vain.” This is a key pastoral lesson for priests: We must never be afraid to speak the truth of Christ, all the while ensuring that it is done out of love and done in a loving way.

In the present pontificate, we have heard much about the process of “accompaniment,” which is surely important. Accompaniment, however, does not mean silence in the face of bad or misguided thoughts or behavior. In those situations, accompaniment means providing guidance and direction. Anything less is pastoral nonfeasance or malfeasance.

The finest example of holy accompaniment is found in the charming and moving Emmaus pericope (Lk 24). Those two confused disciples thought they had the story of Jesus clear, but they were wrong. The Risen Lord “accompanies” them along the road by explaining to them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that pertain to His passion, death and resurrection. He corrects their misunderstanding and brings them to the truth, which must be the goal of all accompaniment.

In a very strange expression, St. Paul speaks of an apparent experience of the Galatians, “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” To what is he referring? To be sure, the Galatians were not present on Calvary. Nor could he be talking about their beholding an image of the crucifixion, for we know that the crucifixion was too painful for the early Christians to depict; we would have to wait a couple of centuries for crucifixion scenes to appear. No, I believe that Paul is calling their attention to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which they did indeed witness, in an unbloody manner, the re-presentation of Calvary. After all, didn’t St. Paul have to remind the wayward Corinthians: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26)?

Priests are to serve as dispensatores mysteriorum Dei (dispensers of the mysteries of God) (1 Cor 4:1) – men who daily offer sacrifice in union with our Great High Priest. And so, we must strive always to be worthy ministers of the Sacred Mysteries by celebrating the rites of the Church in faithfulness to the liturgical books and in a spirit of humble, joyful service. On the day of our ordination, the bishop presented us with the gifts of bread and wine, uttering these powerful words: “Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the cross.”

Our offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, will be incomplete if the only time we priests offer sacrifice is at the altar. No, the sacrifice of the altar requires the constant sacrifice of one’s life – for Christ and for His holy people. And one of the most important aspects of such a life is that of our chaste celibacy, in imitation of the ever-chaste Bridegroom of the Church. St. Paul VI spoke of celibacy as “the jewel of the priesthood.” That jewel must be handled with all the care that it needs and deserves – something that has obviously eluded the drafters of the Instrumentum Laboris for the Amazon Synod.

Third: In Luke 11:5-13, Our Lord praises the virtue of persistence or perseverance. In another place in Luke’s Gospel (9:62), Jesus castigates anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back. Very strongly, He declares such a person unfit for the Kingdom of God. We recently had to endure the scandal of a well-known priest tell us on national television that God had led him to abandon his priestly vocation. Perhaps that man never heard the ringing assertion of St. John Paul II during his first pastoral visit to the United States in October of 1979 in Philadelphia: “Priesthood is forever – tu es sacerdos in aeternum – we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say ‘yes’ now wishes to hear ‘no’.”

How seriously must we heed the counsel of the sacred author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (12:1-2), Jesus the Priest, in whose priesthood we share. Some years ago, I asked a professional ice skater how he is able to make all those thrilling pirouettes, always landing in exactly the right spot. He said: “You have to pick some still point on the horizon, and every time you turn, you have to keep finding that still point. If you lose sight of the still point, you will land on your rear end!” Or, consider the motto of the Carthusian Order: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” (“The Cross is steady while the earth is turning”). So much in this simple phrase. The still point for us priests is Christ at the altar.

Of course, what I have been talking about is the gift of perseverance. Many years ago, I visited a holy nun who had taught me algebra in high school; she was living out her last years in the infirmary of her congregation’s motherhouse. As I was leaving, she asked me to give her my blessing and to pray that she would have the gift of final perseverance. Stunned by her plea, I replied: “Sister, after seventy years of religious life, you are worried about perseverance?” “Dear, dear Father,” she said, “it never gets easier. Actually, at times, it seems to get harder the older I get.” Along with perseverance, then, we must guard against presumption, for fidelity “never gets easier.”

Fourth and last: I would like to put in high relief the person of St. John XXIII – a pope who loved the priesthood and loved priests. It was not an accident that within the very first year of his pontificate, he offered the Universal Church an encyclical on the priesthood, Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the death of the Curé of Ars. Toward the end of that letter, the sainted Pope made this observation:

Priests often find themselves in difficult circumstances. This is not surprising; for those who hate the Church always show their hostility by trying to harm and deceive her sacred ministers; as the Curé of Ars himself admitted, those who want to overthrow religion always try in their hatred to strike at priests first of all.

Sounds like it was written for our times, doesn’t it?

Then il Papa buono (“the good Pope,” as the Italians nicknamed him), gave us firm reason to be confident in the face of trials by offering a supernatural understanding of the priestly vocation. He writes:

But even in the face of these serious difficulties, priests who are ardent in their devotion to God enjoy a real, sublime happiness from an awareness of their own position, for they know that they have been called by the Divine Savior to offer their help in a most holy work, which will have an effect on the redemption of the souls of men and on the growth of the Mystical Body of Christ. (n. 113)

Focus and determination are highlighted in the Pope’s very realistic reflection.

At the outset of this reflection, I said that fifty years on from my first day of seminary, I have no regrets and would do it all over again. My prayer is that each and every priest will always be able to say the same. For that to happen, however, we priests need the support of the faithful whom we serve – no carping negativity, no looking for conflict where none exists, loving correction when necessary. And certainly not the cry of the French Revolutionaries: “Off with all their heads!” While that may not be the mentality of the average Catholic in the pew, it has become what all too many priests experience from vocal malcontents; perhaps it is time for the “silent majority” of the laity to express their appreciation for the good priests who tend to their spiritual welfare day in and day out. Of course, even John Vianney had disgruntled laity proffer a petition against him to the bishop, demanding his removal, as well as a coterie of old crones who had him offer Masses for that very intention!

How can we address the very real problem of priestly morale? For starters, I would recommend a wonderful prayer of the Roman Missal which asks Almighty God for this grace: “Direct the hearts of Priest and people to be so disposed that the obedience of the flock may never fail the shepherd, nor care of the shepherd be lacking for the flock.”

St. John Vianney, pray for us.
St. John XXIII, pray for us.
St. Paul VI, pray for us.
St. John Paul, pray for us.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 284 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. “perhaps it is time for the “silent majority” of the laity to express their appreciation for the good priests who tend to their spiritual welfare day in and day out.”

    It’s true of a lot of things that the people who have complaints are the ones who say anything, while the ones who are pleased say nothing.

    In any event: Thank you, Father Stravinskas; I have never met you, but I admire your articles and am grateful to you for writing them.

  2. Keep them, I pray Thee, dearest Lord. Keep them for they are thine….
    Thy priests whose lives burn out before Thy Consecrated Shrine.

  3. For whatever it’s worth to the reader it seems here and during my experience that women, perhaps because of their more sensitive nature are usually more supportive and from the heart expect more from priests. In parishes, hospital care among nursing staff women want the priest to be Christ. Protestant nursing staff had been behind me in difficulties with an anti-Catholic chief of chaplain service. Fr Stravinskas’ vision of priesthood is inspiring and capsulized in these words I thought at first were those of Saint Jean Vianney, “Our offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, however, will be incomplete if the only time we priests offer sacrifice is at the altar. No, the sacrifice of the altar requires the constant sacrifice of one’s life”.

  4. Fr,
    Thank you for 50 years of priesthood, and thank God for not regretting it. The pressures these days to question; why even bother? can be answered with Christ’s simple inquiry of St.Paul(John 21:17). In each of Christ’s three requests, not once did he ask St. Peter to count his sheep, but only to feed them. Fr, please continue feeding us.

  5. Yes, Sr Francis Rita: arguably the most brilliant woman who ever taught me — and a faithful Religious to the end — even though her order went over the cliff in 1971 and hasn’t had a novice since then!

  6. Thank you, Father Stravinskas, for this most beautiful article on the priesthood and the role of the laity. God bless you and keep you. Count on our prayers.

  7. Thank you, Father Peter for your years of service. I remember seeing you on the playground of the Catholic school I attended as a child. You were then, I believe, in minor seminary. I do believe that the Curè of Ars would see it as an honor that his feast day fell on a Sunday this year. Yes, he “disappeared” as it were, hidden in the guise of “in persona Christi” which is what every priest is called to be. If more are mindful of this we will see healing of the Church’s great wounds brought on by those who forgot the sublimity of their calling and the humility it requires. I pray for all priests and bishops. May the Lord bless you in your service to Him and His people.

  8. Thank you, Fr Stravinskas! I read your words and feel that we will survive this terrible time! We will because Christ is with us and for good priests like yourself. Thank you Father for joining the priesthood!

  9. I wish I had met you padre before I left priesthood under difficult circumstances…but thank God I have continued living in Catholic faith and I brought more people to Christ than I did when I was a priest…Padre Pio has always remained my Patron saint. On my ordination day, I consecrated myself and my priesthood to the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Almighty has done great things me…She has never left me alone… she has abandoned me up to now…through her, the Almighty has continued doing great thing to me…Holy is His Name….

  10. Oh boy. Vocal malcontent here. When I see certain things in the church that are wrong we should point them out. And we should be listened to. It is a sad business that doesn’t listen to its customers. Laudato SI was just another example of beautiful writings and poor implementation on the church’s part.
    Who would ask a runner to run without any shoes or nourishment ?

  11. Dear Fr. Stravinskas, I read your article to find out more about St. John Vianney. His Feast, August 4th. every year, is the ‘Day of Grace’ at the village of Aokpe, Benue State, Nigeria. From 1993 through 1995 Our Lady appeared to a young girl of the Idoma tribal group of that area. Our Lady established August 4th. as Her Day of Grace. Of course thousands gather every year to discover what Our Lady’s Grace of the Holy Spirit will do for them. Thank you for all you do.

  12. Mandatory confession to a priest one-on-one for absolution of mortal sins in a closed box did not exist in the first 1000 years of the church. The words “I absolve you” (ego te absolvo) were not present in sacramental texts until the 12th century at University of Paris. Priests did not have the “power of the keys” until the 12th century (also a creation of the University of Paris). Prior to this, their ordination was only for them to say Mass, so they didn’t do anything but assist the bishops in saying Mass, no other sacraments were in their power, it was instead the bishops alone who performed other sacraments, even then a priest could only assist a bishop.

    A Vatican III will need to come to terms with the scholarship, and recognize that the priesthood from Innocent III to Pius XII included things that were simply church laws of the time that can be dispensed with. Confession is from Christ, but the specifics of it should change, since the church has the authority to change this. The concept of “7 sacraments no more, no less” was also a creation of the University of Paris in the 12th century, which should be dispensed with.

    Veneration of St. Vianney is hurting the recognition of this fact, since he is primarily known for sitting in the confessional box, a practice which has been largely dispensed of since Vatican II. He was canonized for political reasons in the early 20th century, and later popes undid much of the practice of the early 20th century, although confession in a box was not yet dealt with. A box as church architecture is relatively new in church history & should be totally abolished for open face-to-face confessions between people, and the legal obligation from Innocent III should be abolished, while retaining the sacrament of confession, but without the legal requirements.

    I will be satisfied if The Vatican bans the use of confessional box furniture (Pope Francis will surely not do this, he’s too conservative) and banning the practice of children going to confession, a practice unknown prior to the 20th century. They should also ban the legal requirement of mandating confession to a priest. Perhaps a Francis II will call another council to deal with these issues of scholarship and will undo the church laws of Innocent III.

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