Saint John Mary Vianney, patron saint of parish priests worldwide, would often say that “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1589). A little over halfway into my first year as a priest, I took the opportunity to draw near to the origin of these words by making a mini-pilgrimage to Ars-sur-Formans, France. After completing my third semester of exams at the Accademia Alfonsiana, I took the next flight out of Rome to Lyon, France.
The city of Lyon is significant in itself as the former apostolic sea of St. Irenaeus, recently declared the 37th Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis. I made a brief stop downtown at the basilica dedicated to him, and then I joined three of my confreres at the small ski village of Tignes, nestled in the French Alps. The plan was to enjoy a few days of snowboarding along the Alpine piste before entering a more reflective time of prayer in the Rhone valley below. It was good to be reminded of the Alaskan topography as I took to the slopes.
After we had thoroughly exhausted all the excess energy from the Roman exam period, we made the short drive down to The Priests’ Foyer. Situated in the place where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in 1986, the guest house was built to be at the service of the priesthood. As the Foyer’s website states: “Everyone can feel at home, in its simple and warm environment of prayer, just like the welcome which the Cure of Ars, in his day, gave to his fellow priests.”
These words came alive as we were welcomed by Fr. Patrick Clement, rector of the seminary adjacent to the retreat center. During our stay, we were invited to join their community for meals, the liturgy of the hours, Eucharistic adoration, and the rosary. A highlight of the pilgrimage was the wonderful conversations with many of the seminarians from the different dioceses in France. They believe that “The Cure of Ars shows us the way to make a complete gift of oneself, for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Here the Lord loves to work with simple and poor means. His action is only made more obvious that way.”
On the morning of our first full day of the retreat, we walked over to the Basilica of Ars where I celebrated Mass at the altar above the tomb where St. John Vianney rests. The sacristan, a religious brother from Burkina Faso in North Africa, greeted us with a broad smile. He was excited to tell me about one of the special graces of being a newly ordained priest, which I learned was the privilege of celebrating the votive Mass of St. John Vianney using his very own chalice.
The words from Matthew’s Gospel rang clearer, “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:27-28). It is experiences like this that I continue to “ponder in my heart” as I begin my path as a priest. In the words of St. John Vianney, “O, how great is the priest! … lf he realized what he is, he would die … God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from heaven at his voice.”
For more information, I would recommend reading the Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the “Dies Nata/is” of the Cure of Ars. For information on the Ars Seminary and the Priests’ Foyer, see their website.