Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The patron saint of parish priests, St. John Marie Vianney, summarized the vocation to the priesthood in these words: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Christ.” In his ministry in the tiny village of Ars, France, he brought the love of the heart of Christ not only to the 230 residents of the town, but also to the countless souls who came through the village eager to see this holy priest. In the last ten years of his four decades serving in Ars, St. John Vianney spent up to 16 hours per day in the confessional, helping penitents encounter the merciful, loving heart of Jesus.
It was not always easy for St. John Vianney in his pastoral care of the village of Ars. When assigned there, his bishop told him, “You will not find much love for God there.” Born into a devoutly Catholic family at the height of the French Revolution, St. John Vianney experienced the persecution of the Church in the anti-clerical revolutionary regime. His family frequently attended clandestine Masses offered by priests in hiding from the Terror. At a young age, he understood the sacrifices these priests were making and came to view the priesthood as a heroic life offered in conformity to the Cross of Christ. While the Revolution could not interrupt his faith, it did interrupt his education. He was not able to resume his education until he was 20, by which time he had discerned a vocation to the priesthood. His seminary studies were challenging because of the large gaps in his past education, and because they were interrupted when he was drafted to serve in Napoleon’s army. When he was finally able to return to seminary, he was almost dismissed because he struggled so mightily with Latin. No amount of difficulty, though, could erase the heroic example of persecuted priests from St. John Vianney’s mind. He persevered in his study and was ordained a priest in 1815. Just three years later he was sent to Ars, where he encountered the other side of the Revolution. While his experience of the persecution of Catholics had been one of heroic sacrifice and clandestine practice, in Ars the faith had been almost completely extinguished. Few of the already-small number of villagers went to Mass at all, and Sundays were spent by most people working in the fields or drinking and dancing in the local taverns. The Revolution had, in a very real way, changed the culture of Ars, introducing indifference and even sometimes opposition to the Gospel in the hearts and lives of the people. For the next forty years, St. John Vianney would spend himself in prayer, fasting, and missionary work to bring the people of Ars back to the heart of Christ. He began from scratch and went person to person, introducing them to Jesus, praying for them and with them, and guiding them to the mercy of God every day. When he was canonized in 1925, he was immediately named the patron saint of parish priests.
I often look to St. John Vianney for inspiration. His example is hard to follow, yet compelling on every level. While my own path to the priesthood was radically different, there are similarities. I never had to attend a clandestine Mass for fear of persecuting authorities, but at a young age I became aware of the heroic sacrifices priests are called to make for their parishes. Riding my bike through the neighborhood, I more than once came close to colliding with Msgr. McMahon as he stepped onto the sidewalk after visiting a parishioner’s home. When my next-door neighbor became ill, I remember watching him get out of his car and go into the house. My mother explained that he was there to pray with her and her family. As I got older, I served countless Masses for him. Getting to know other priests, I saw men who were willing to be in the trenches, willing to be present in the hardest moments of peoples’ lives, ready to celebrate the greatest joys, and available whenever a need presented itself. Even in the priests I didn’t like very much (it’s true!), I saw ministers of the love of Jesus. All this taught me that the priesthood is heroic.
My first thoughts about the priesthood, though, were that it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t be like them, I thought, and besides, my burgeoning athletic career beckoned. Of course, getting cut from middle school basketball and retiring from baseball after 6th grade presented some challenges. As I began to consider other options, the priesthood was presented again. This time, it was my 8th grade class yearbook, in which I was named “Most Likely to be a Priest,” an utterly incomprehensible idea at the time. But as my own faith grew, the priesthood started to make sense, no longer as an admirable job, but as something I felt drawn to myself. In fact, it was precisely not a job, but a response to the love of God. “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Christ.” Jesus Christ so profoundly loves us that He never wants us to be without His grace and mercy. His desire for humanity is that we would always know the truth of His presence, His Gospel, His love. To fulfill this desire, He calls men to serve as priests and be ministers of the Good News, servants of the sacraments. In his homily at my first Mass in 2008, Msgr. Kevin Royal reminded me that the priest “prolongs the presence of Christ in the world” by his ministry. The priesthood makes the love of Christ’s heart resonate in the world. And the priesthood is a powerful response of love to the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The greatest joy of my life is the privilege of serving the Lord and the Church as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Fairfield is not Ars. The entire population of Ars could fit in St. Pius X Church at a single Mass (well…maybe outside of the pandemic) and still leave room for our own parishioners. But for just 230 people, St. John Vianney fasted and prayed and spend 40 years laboring without rest. I am not St. John Vianney, as you well know! And with 2300 families in the parish, I might need 100 years to scratch the surface of what the Curé of Ars was able to accomplish. Far better, then, for me to fast and pray and ask the good Lord to help me love Him more so that I might share the love of the Heart of Christ with this community. And most importantly, I realize that the Lord is raising up men to share in this ministry. He is calling young men in our parish to the priesthood, to share in His love, to carry His mercy to the world, to proclaim the Gospel in heroic ways that we cannot even imagine. The whole Church stands in need of the love of the heart of Christ. Please pray for the young men in our parish whom the Lord is calling to the priesthood! Even though we do not know their names, He is calling! Pray that they would have the grace and the courage to hear the call and respond! Pray that the Lord would continue to raise up priests like St. John Vianney, priests after the Heart of Christ, to serve the Church in Fairfield County. To learn more about the priestly vocation, visit www.bridgeportpriest.org.