In the Footsteps of St. John Vianney

Not that I want to turn my column into National Geographic, but let me talk to you this week about two sacred spots in France, both renowned sites of pilgrimage.

I actually write from the first one, Ars, a tiny village about a half-hour from Lyons in southeastern France.

You ever heard of it? Neither had its legendary Curé, or pastor, when he was sent there back in 1817. As a matter of fact, Father John Vianney got lost trying to find the place! He finally met a boy on the same path and asked, "Pardon me, young man, but have you ever heard of Ars?" "Sure," the lad replied, "I live there." "Tell you what," responded the newly assigned Curé of Ars, "You show me how to get to Ars, and I’ll show you how to get to heaven."

For decades, Father John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, served that village. Simple sermons, daily catechism for the children, compassion for the sick and poor, visits to families, a particular tenderness for sinners in the confessional, and a life of simplicity, prayer and penance provided a radiant example to his parish, soon making Ars more popular than even Paris, as one upset secularist protested, "It seems as if all of France is on its knees in Ars."

His effectiveness as a parish priest led Blessed Pope John XXIII to declare St. John Vianney Patron Saint of Parish Priests, and Pope Benedict XVI to hold him up for special emulation during this current Year for Priests.

So, here I am in company with 30 other brother-priests from the archdiocese on retreat. We pray before his tomb, use his very chalice at Mass and kneel before his confessional as we prepare for our own. We’ve reflected on his life, led by his biographer, one of our own, Father George Rutler.

And I have praised God for the curés we have as our sterling priests of our archdiocese.

Travel east with me now to another French village, Lourdes, in the Pyrenees Mountains, not far from the Spanish border, in southwestern France.

Lourdes is now hardly a village! It has more hotel rooms than any other city in France except Paris! Eight million pilgrims travel here annually, all to pray before the simple grotto where Our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858.

Regrettably, we’ll not get there this time. But I have been to Lourdes four times, each visit bringing a miracle. The sick flock there to bathe in the healing waters from the mysterious spring discovered by Bernadette at Our Lady’s direction. The spiritually sick—like your archbishop—have prayed there for interior miracles, and have rarely been let down. Our own Knights of Malta annually bring sick there each May—Mary’s month—for consolation and encouragement, unfailingly pointing to Lourdes as a spot of spiritual regeneration.

Lourdes is so associated with the sick that Pope John Paul II declared the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes—today—as World Day of Prayer for the Sick.

So it’s a grand day to pray with and for our sick, housebound and elders, and to ask Our Lady’s intercession for those generous, skilled souls in our Catholic health care apostolate—hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, parish nurses—as well as for women and men of faith—physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists, rehab staffs, chaplains and volunteers—who care for our sick.

Ars and Lourdes! Names that bring holiness, hope and healing! Wish you were here!