He was the son of pheasant farmers who were devout and committed Catholics. They faced great challenges during the time of the French Revolution where the practice of the Catholic faith was forbidden. It was a time of great confusion and ferment in society. Many grew up ignorant of their practice of the Catholic Faith. St. John felt a call to the priesthood and started seminary preparation where he had great difficulty with the academic studies. A very patient priest spent time with him helping him with his preparation for priesthood and recognised that despite his academic challenges, John was a deeply committed Christian young man. He was ordained despite his limitations because of his real and sincere faith. He was sent to the parish of Ars-en-dombs as parish priest. This was an isolated village, some distance from Lyon. He remained there for the rest of his life.
He was able to bring about a time of deep spiritual renewal to the parish. He also developed a reputation of being an insightful and great confessor. He was able to penetrate deeply into people’s souls and could see where their lives were heading. Eventually, he was spending as long as 18 hours a day in the confessional!! Trains were even being chartered from Paris to his parish because so many wanted to see him to get spiritual counsel and to celebrate confession with him. The parish became a place of pilgrimage. The good he was doing was recognised by both the church community and the state. He was given the medal of the Legion D’honneur. He promptly sold it and gave the money to the poor.
St. John also had some unusual encounters and experiences with the power of evil. He heard loud noises at night keeping him awake which could not be explained in any natural way. It seemed that the power of evil was trying to keep him awake to stop his effectiveness in pastoral work during the day!
Jesus said, “Thank you Father for hiding these things from the learned and the cleaver and revealing them to mere children.”
As we said, St. John was no academic. However, he certainly was not stupid. He had a wisdom and spirit filled knowledge that profoundly touched the lives of countless thousands of people.
He had an uncompromising commitment to his faith. He also had a great heart to those in need, the poor, both materially and spiritually.
What does his life teach us? We all need the gifts that God has given us according to our abilities. People such as St. Dominic or St. Ignatius of Loyola encourage intellectual pursuits and studies in the service of our faith.
However, there also comes a wisdom from the Holy Spirit that comes out of fidelity to Christ and the commitment to truly living the gospel way of life.
We are also reminded of the great value and gift of the sacrament of reconciliation or confession.
The times that St. John lived in, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the anti-clericalism of the time, the great ignorance of matters of faith, and the extreme secularisation of the time were very challenging. We also live in times when we can get discouraged because of religious indifference, ignorance among many of the real value of religious experience and many other challenges. We are reminded not to be dismayed to be people of true commitment and faith, people of hope, that Christ is still with us alive and well. We are called to be lights of the world, salt of the earth.