The Curé of Ars - Jesus shows us who is truly great - the last comes first

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday Year B

by Fr. Tommy Lane

We place children first and we would do anything to help a child. In Palestine at the time of Jesus it was not so, children were last. Children had no status until they matured. So can you imagine what a shock it was for the disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus placed a child before them. And not only that but Jesus said if you want to be first you must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35). The disciples and Jesus had two different ideas of service and how to achieve greatness.

One person who was last in many ways but became first was John Mary Vianney born in Dardilly near Lyons in 1786. I suppose we could say he is the most famous Pastor or Parish Priest in France since he later became the Curé of Ars but he endured many difficulties along the route. He was the dunce of his class in school and found it very difficult to learn Latin. In 1812 he went to the preparatory seminary at Verrières and was the bottom of the class of 200 due to his poor Latin but when they examined him again in French he was still the bottom of the class. His theology studies went so badly at the seminary at Lyons that he was asked to leave after five months. After that he was taught theology privately and in French by Father Balley, the Parish Priest or Curé of Ecully, and he was ordained in 1815. Three years later he was appointed to Ars. Out of the 200 people in the parish only a few were practicing their faith, they had abandoned their religion. He began by doing penance for his parishioners. Reports of his holiness spread and people came from the surrounding parishes to hear him. In 1827 people began to come on pilgrimage to Ars to confess to the Curé. From 1830 until his death in 1859 four hundred people came each day. He began hearing confessions at 1 am until before Mass at 7 am and gave a teaching at 11 am and continued hearing confessions until evening. By 1855 there was a daily service of two horse buses between Lyons and Ars, and two other buses met the Paris train at Villefranche. The railway station in Lyons even had a special ticket office for people going to Ars, so many were the pilgrims. So the one who had to leave seminary because his theological studies went so poorly was later so sought after by the faithful that even special public transport and ticket offices had to be laid on. It is an example of the last being first as Jesus teaches in the Gospel today (Mark 9:35). John Mary Vianney was last but now he is first since he is the patron saint of Pastors or Parish Priests.

Naturally someone as holy as the Curé of Ars would be the subject of attacks from the devil. These attacks were heard taking place by night in much the same way as St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) was sometimes heard struggling with the devil in his cell. At first the Curé was terrified by those attacks but he learned to cope and said to his brother priests that whenever those attacks occurred a big sinner would convert in his confessional the following day. One night the diabolical attack was more severe and Curé’s bed was set aflame, the burnt out remains of which you can still see today in the rectory/presbytery in Ars, and the devil was heard to say, “If there were three priests such as you, my kingdom would be ruined.” So the one who was last in theology was first in holiness. In the Curé of Ars we see that true greatness cannot always be measured by exams in college, true holiness does not depend on knowledge of theology or Latin.

The apostles in the Gospel today had not yet learned what true greatness is and were arguing about it among themselves (Mark 9:33). They did in time learn what true greatness is and they followed Jesus in their deaths, being martyred. Peter was crucified upside down on an X-shaped cross in Rome just to the left of where St. Peter's now stands and buried in the nearest cemetery so St. Peter's was built on top of it. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece and is said to have preached to his crucifixioners for two hours until he died. Bartholomew also known as Nathanael was killed by continuous whipping in Asia. Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India. James was put to death by the sword in Jerusalem (Acts 12:2). By their martyrdoms they won many souls for Christ. How they later matured from that day in today’s Gospel when they were arguing on the road.

What does society, our culture, our media tell us is first or is great? Drink, sex, money. What did Jesus say is first or is true greatness? On another occasion he said, “Seek the kingdom of God first….” (Matt 6:33) The more the world drifts away from God the less it recognizes what is truly great and comes first, and the more the world resembles the pathetic attitude of the disciples arguing on the road. The Church in its ministry reminds us what is truly great and comes first, reminds us that drink, sex and money are not the ultimate goals of life, that the ultimate goal of life is serve God. We take our image and model and ideal of what is truly great from Jesus and his good news. We do not want to be contaminated by the world but want to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world and to show the world what comes first.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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