Saint Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney (1786 – 1859) was born in Dardilly, France, to poor, devout parents who owned a small farm. He grew up with little formal education but had a solid Catholic upbringing. His parents would occasionally give shelter to the destitute and once they housed St Benedict Joseph Labré while on his way to Rome on a pilgrimage.
During St Vianney’s childhood, the Catholic faith had been outlawed in France by the men who had led the French Revolution. Uncowed by this persecution, his parents attended the hidden Masses available, and took their children along with them. His first communion was at the age of 13, during a Mass held at a private home, with the windows of the room covered to conceal the burning altar candles.
In 1802, after the Catholic uprising of the Vendée, Napoleon Bonaparte relented and allowed the faith to again be practiced. St Vianney had by then decided to become a priest but was forced to wait a few more years to start his studies as he was needed by his father in the farm. In 1806, though several years older than the other students, he enrolled at the local school. He had much difficulty in learning and Latin especially was a struggle for him. However, through patience, perseverance and much prayer he was able to pass his exams and graduate. In 1812 he was accepted into the seminary and three years later was ordained a priest.
After serving as an assistant priest in Ecully for a few years, he was appointed parish priest at the small village of Ars. On his journey to the place, St Vianney got lost. A young shepherd then showed him the way. In return for the favour, the saint told the boy he would point him the way to Heaven.
In Ars, St Vianney laboured till his death at the age of 73. He lived a life of great austerity, eating very little, mostly potatoes, and hardly sleeping, offering his sacrifices for the salvation of his flock and for the love of God. He had the gift of reading souls and a knowledge of future and past events, so that people would flock to him from all over France, and beyond, in order to have him hear their confession. He spent much of his time in the confessional, often up to 16 hours a day. He also engaged in battle with the devil who would harass him in different ways, such as making noises at night to prevent him from sleeping or dragging his bed around while he lay on it.
St Vianney passed away in the middle of a stormy night, in 1859, accompanied by the bishop, after having received the last sacraments. In 1925, Pope Pius XI declared him patron-saint of parish priests.