The little town of Ars, France, about 20 miles north of Lyon, has become famous through the holy life and labors of St. John Vianney, its beloved Cure. The story of John Vianney emphasizes how God uses the simple and under-rated people to confound those who are regarded as wise by the world. A man who was considered only marginally fit to be a priest and became a saint.
Jean-Marie Vianney was born on May 8, 1786 at Dardilly, about eight miles from Lyons, the third of six children of poor farmers. Three years later the French Revolution broke out. By the time Jean-Marie was four years old, the churches in France were served only by apostate priests who swore allegiance to the new state church. Priests who refused to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy were deported or put to death. The Vianneys, who were devout Catholics, went to distant farms to hear Mass, celebrated clandestinely by loyal priests who risked their lives to bring the sacraments to their flocks. Jean-Marie’s instruction for his First Communion had to be carried out in secret by two laicised nuns. The ceremony itself took place in 1799 in a private house at Ecully. While Mass was being celebrated, the windows of the drawing room were shuttered so that the light of the candles could not be seen. Jean-Marie worked as a shepherd and didn't begin his education until he was 20 years old. He was called for military service while in the seminary, and became a "delinquent conscript" because of illness, and hid to escape Napoleon's police. He had difficulty learning Latin, and twice failed his final exams required for ordination. He was finally ordained at the age of 30, but was thought to be so incompetent he was placed under the direction of Fr. Balley, a holy priest in a neighboring village, for further training.
Because of his apparent ineptness, he was assigned to the poor parish of Ars, a tiny town known for its dances, taverns and drunkenness. The new Cure decided that God would convert the town by its pastor doing penance for his parishioners. He gave his mattress to a beggar. He slept on the floor in a damp room downstairs, in the attic or on a board in his bed with a log for a pillow; he scourged himself with an iron chain; he ate almost nothing, two or three moldy potatoes in the middle of the day which he hung from the ceiling on rope so the rats wouldn’t eat them, and sometimes going two or three days without eating at all. He slept only two hours each night, rising shortly after midnight, going to the church where he remained kneeling without support until it was time for him to say Mass. His sleep was frequently interrupted by the devil who assaulted him with deafening noises, insults, and physical attacks. Many witnessed these diabolical visitations, but the Cure accepted them as a matter of course and often joked about them.
The village now contains two churches: the old 12th-Century church where St. John Vianney preached and a new Basilica of Ars where you can observe his preserved body in a glass reliquary. The Saint's heart is enshrined in a nearby separate building known as the Shrine of the Cure's Heart. One special moment came when we were traveling with a group of pilgrims and our priest celebrated mass using the chalice of John Vianney. Perhaps you may have the same experience--you never know what God has planned for you when you go on a pilgrimage.
St. John Vianney was given many spiritual gifts, such as the power of healing and the ability to read the hearts of his penitents. It was this latter gift which caused his fame to spread throughout France, and large crowds came to seek guidance from him. Within ten years of his assignment to Ars, an average of three hundred people visited Ars daily. In the year 1858 an estimated 100,000 pilgrims flocked to Ars. The frail Cure began hearing confessions at 1 o'clock in the morning, and he spent from 13 to 17 hours a day in the cramped confessional.
St. John Vianney died peacefully on August 4, 1859. His body was exhumed was found dried and darkened, but incorrupt. Today, a wax mask covers his face. In 1904, his still intact heart was removed and is displayed in a reliquary in a separate chapel. St. John Vianney, who as a student had difficulties being accepted for the priesthood, was canonized in 1925 and was named later the Patron of Parish Priests throughout the world. Pilgrims can also visit the home of the Curé of Ars, which was preserved the way he left it. It contains the bed set on fire by the devil as well as the Saint's rosary, breviary, library and other personal items.
The Shrine offers a full array of spiritual activities including daily Masses, Confessions, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Rosary. There are also Stations of the Cross during Lent as well as Benediction and Vespers.
In addition to the shrine itself there is an excellent wax museum detailing the life of this humble saint with over 35 wax figures in 17 settings that will bring his story to life. We highly recommend that you include it in your visit. There is an admission charge of about 6 euros for adults, but well worth it.
Some Catholic group tours of France do include Ars, but more often they do not. So be sure to find out before you book if this is one spot that you want to visit. Ars--more correctly Ars sur Formans---is near Lyon and a bit out of the way---so for independent travelers traveling by train you can take the TGV to Lyon and then connect to a regional train to Villefrance-sur-Saone for about three hours travel time. You can then take a taxi (5 miles) to Ars.
By car, of course, you can drive right to the town. Click on "View Ars, France in a larger map" on the Google map to the right for directions, weather, hotels and more.
1. Personal visits.
2. Kevin J. Wright, Catholic Shrines of Western Europe.
3. John Carroll Cruz, The Incorruptibles.
4. Official Ars Shrine website noted above.