During the Year for Priests, the Church honored St. John Mary Vianney on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his entrance to heaven. Having meditated on his life, I learned important lessons from him which, to my opinion, should once again be considered in present pastoral practice.
1. St. John Vianney's pastoral program consisted in: offering the Mass, hearing confessions, and teaching catechism. In our times when complicated pastoral programs seem to be fashionable - with the elaborate processes of planning and evaluations, the simplicity of St. John's pastoral program brings us to the essentials of pastoral ministry. In pastoral visits, the bishop is bound to be impressed with so many programs that would prove the pastoral capability of the parish priest. However, seldom does the bishop ask about how the parish priest offers the Mass, or how often does he hear confessions in a week, or if he himself teaches catechism. Blessed John Paul II wrote in Nove Millenio Ineunte: "all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness." (NMI, 30.)The primary objective of the curate is the care of souls. The objective of all pastoral programs is the holiness of the flock.
2. St. John Vianney's ministry in Ars teaches us the value of stability. He took care of one parish until the day of his death. I do not know where the bishops got the idea of changing the priests' assignments every so number of years. They say it is an exercise in detachment and so maybe it really is. But this destroys the essence of the pastorate. "I know my sheep and mine know me," said our Lord. The Lord knows each of us because he can read human hearts. But other pastors like ourselves can't read hearts. It takes time to know the flock...and by the time it happens, the term is almost over. Changing fathers every X number of years destroys the family. Maybe this works for bank managers who get transferred from one branch to another. But parish priests are not managers...they are pastors. I think the mind of the Church is reflected by the fact that bishops are not subject to a term of a determined number of years. We don't change popes after x number of years! We wait for them to die or to resign! There is value in stability because if it were not so, why would Benedictine monks regard this as a fourth vow? I do not question the transfer of priests when needed. But I question the necessity of transferring them after a set number of years.I learned from the late Cardinal Sin the valuable lesson on stability. He used to say: "You do not replace what is not broken."
3. The change in the parish of Ars was tremendous. From a spiritually indifferent community, with three taverns that provided constant entertainment, Ars became a holy parish. From afar, pilgrims came to assist at the Cure's Mass and to make their confessions to him. But more impressive than this is that the Cure became a saint because of this. His fastings and long nights in prayer transformed both the Cure himself and his parish. Although he always thought that the priesthood benefited others and not himself, it sanctified him. It made him a saint. What we need today are holy priests like St. John Vianney. Satan once appeared to him and said that if only there were 3 priests like John Vianney, his kingdom would immediately crumble!
We ought to get back the dimension of the sacred in the liturgy. The liturgy is not a festivity; it is not a meeting for the purpose of having a good time. It is of no importance that the parish priest has cudgeled his brains to come up with suggestive ideas or imaginative novelties. The liturgy is what makes the Thrice-Holy God present amongst us; it is the burning bush; it is the Alliance of God with man in Jesus Christ, who has died and risen again. The grandeur of the liturgy does not rest upon the fact that it offers an interesting entertainment, but in rendering tangible the Totally Other, whom we are not capable of summoning. He comes because He wills. In other words, the essential in the liturgy is the mystery, which is realized in the common ritual of the Church; all the rest diminishes it. Men experiment with it in lively fashion, and find themselves deceived, when the mystery is transformed into distraction, when the chief actor in the liturgy is not the Living God but the priest or the liturgical director. - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Chile, 1988)
Do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the "image," through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified. - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Spirit of the Liturgy )