St. Jean Vianney and NFP

I’m sure I’m not the only parish priest who tends to daydream when thinking of what happened in the village of Ars during the pastorate of Fr. Jean Vianney. In 1818 when he was first assigned the parish was lukewarm, with at most a few people at daily Mass and hardly any regular Communicants. By his death in 1859 Ars was receiving something on the order of 20,000 pilgrims a year. The great patron of our vocation lived out the deepest desire of our priestly hearts. He gave himself completely — as we only wish we did — and saw the fruitfulness of his vocation in a way we scarcely dare to dream of.

Fr. Vianney’s basic decision was to give himself to his parish as completely as he could. This took concrete form in his decision to go to people’s homes, and otherwise to be constantly in the confessional or in the church, available to those who might seek him. “Availability” may sound too buzzword-ish, but it’s hard to think of a better way to describe the essence of Fr. Vianney’s dedication to his parish.

His self-gift was not of the kind that mocks real love and wears kindness as a thin mask over indifference. The sermons he labored over so intensely were calls to real conversion. The penitents he received for ten or twelve or eighteen hours at a time were each called to truly open the hearts to Christ’s mercy. The nights he spent in solitary vigil prayer were offered for his parishioners to have real conversion. At first, and for years following, Fr. Vianney’s fidelity to Catholic faith in all its fullness seemed unpopular and barren. The truth proved powerful and popular eventually, but that came after the offering of much suffering and setbacks.

There’s a detail that you won’t find in every hagiography of the Curé of Ars. Three or four times, it seems, he attempted what can only be called an escape. He dreamed of a monastic life. Certainly this man of selflessness and penance wasn’t just looking for an easier way. But even such a great Saint had moments of wanting to turn away, wanting to give himself on his own terms instead of on the terms given to him by God. After a few failed attempts to change course, he realized he was exactly where he was supposed to be. This was the Cross offered him by Jesus — to give himself in this particular way, to these particular people.

The couple sitting on the rectory sofa for their first marriage preparation session may not have heard of St. Jean Vianney. Those who have heard of him probably haven’t thought of him as a model for their married vocation. But if their priest is an imitator of this great patron of his own vocation, that couple will be hearing a call to radical availability and a very specific form of self-gift. They will be challenged to accept the Cross of their vocation on God’s terms, even if they
long for a more serene and simple path.

If there are aspects of themselves and their relationship the couple is tempted to withhold from availability to God, their sex life might be at the top of the list. And if that sex life reaches its natural fulfillment and they become parents, that’s going to change everything. It’s going to transform every other part of their lives. From that perspective, to give God their fertility is to give Him everything!

Perhaps they have good reasons to delay pregnancy. Then, into the peace and simplicity of their intimate lives, NFP is going to bring a certain complication. It may feel like an unwelcome intrusion. In choosing NFP they will be choosing to give of  themselves not on their own terms, but on God’s terms. A partial gift of themselves — a gift that intentionally closes off their fertility — falls short of their vocation. The gift must be complete, a gift of all they are in that moment. If they can’t or shouldn’t give totally right now, then the giving must wait.

We priests will never withhold this challenge if we are pastors after the heart of our saintly Patron, which is to say, pastors after the Father’s own heart. We will offer ourselves even at the risk of rejection, and we will offer the fullness of what God has revealed to every couple. We will  never judge a couple unready or unworthy of all the beauty of Christian marriage. We’ll love each and every couple enough to want the best for them. We’ll never settle for calling them to a slight improvement on the ambient paganism, or a marginally better version of mediocrity. We’ll love each and every couple enough to call them to be Saints.

Fr. Vianney preached with clarity and challenge because he believed with all his heart that the truth would set his people free. Do we want freedom for our couple on the rectory sofa? Freedom from the lies of the culture of death? Freedom from the spiritual, physical, and relational devastation of contraception? If we trust Jesus as deeply as our Patron Saint, we won’t be afraid to call them to heroic discipleship. We’ll relish the opportunity!

And if we follow Jesus as faithfully as our Patron Saint, we won’t be afraid that they will find us lacking in credibility. Married and engaged couples will hear and listen to the call to total self-gift from their priest… if they see him living it himself. The very celibacy we’re tempted to see as an obstacle to our credibility can be the very foundation of our credibility. The man suggesting they go without sex for days each month has promised himself to a lifetime without sex — it’s going to be hard to tell him it’s too much to ask! But more profoundly: if they see him joyful and fulfilled in total dedication to Christ according to his vocation, how much hope it can give them in choosing the same total dedication according to their own!

— Fr. Steven Beatty, V.F. is Pastor of St Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Gallatin County, Illinois, and chaplain to Camp Ondessonk, a Catholic youth adventure camp in the Shawnee National Forest.