St. John Vianney — Too Harsh for Our Time?

News: Commentary
by Fr. Paul John Kalchik  •  •  August 3, 2023   

A forgotten road to holiness: avoiding occasions of sin

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The fourth of August marks the feast day of St. John Vianney, one of the world's most beloved saints, known for his exceptional dedication and meticulousness.

One fascinating revelation for those learning about the saint, often affectionately referred to as the Curé D'Ars, is that he vehemently criticized dancing and all the wicked tendencies associated with it.

The original parish in Ars, as it was when St. John
Vianney was the pastor.

The Curé's fulminations are more understandable, however, if one considers that he was entrusted with reviving faith in France after the devastating impact of the nation's revolution, which sought to obliterate the Church and virtuous customs that had guided people for centuries. His ministry in the small provincial town of Ars turned it from an undisciplined, irreligious outpost into a model parish.

Central to this transformation was the Curé's unwavering dedication to the sacrament of confession for his parishioners. He sternly dealt with those who engaged in wild and promiscuous dances, substituting true faith with passion. Many times, he refused absolution and Holy Communion until true contrition was demonstrated over an extended period of time.

In some cases, the Curé even denied Holy Communion for years if he wasn't satisfied with the penances completed by the penitents. As one of the Curé D'Ars's biographers, Abbé Francois Trochu, remarked

[The Curé D'Ars] was pitiless; sin and the occasion of sin were joined together in a common reprobation. But then, he was so far seeing! Together with the dance, he fought the impure passions which it fosters. Hence also his anathema against the veilles (after-dark gatherings) as they were practiced at the time and the rejoicings in which the young people indulged on the occasions of betrothals.  

Trochu cites one of the Curé D'Ars's sermons on the evils of dancing:

There is not a commandment of God, (he explained) which dancing does not cause men to break. ... Mothers may indeed say: 'Oh, I keep an eye on my daughters,' You keep an eye on their dress; you cannot keep guard over their heart. Go, you wicked parents, go down to hell where the wrath of God awaits you, because of your conduct, when you gave free scope to your children; go! It will not be long before they join you, seeing that you have shown them the way so well. ... Then you will see whether your pastor was right in forbidding those hellish amusements.

The words of this sermon, 200 later, seem harsh and unwarranted. But at the time the saint lived, in dechristianized post-revolutionary France, the town dances were far different from the elegant, well-lit affairs purportedly from that era we now see depicted on TV. Dances in remote villages like Ars were not in elegant ballrooms, but in empty barns and open squares, with little illumination and lots of dark corners, to which people would retreat to fornicate.

When St. John Vianney first came to Ars as pastor, dances were held in the large square in front of the church. The saint, after witnessing just a couple of these shindigs, quickly got the mayor on board with him to end forthwith the use of the village square in front of the Church for occasions.

Go, you wicked parents, go down to Hell where the wrath of God awaits you.

The Curé witnessed how his parishioners, intoxicated by wine and music, easily lost their inhibitions and slinked off into the shadows to be sexually promiscuous. The Curé, not afraid to call a spade a spade, went directly to the root of the problem and banned his parishioners from all dancing outright. Sins of wantonness and adultery were, therefore, greatly reduced — something victims of the 20th-century sexual revolution may find difficult to appreciate.

Lost among modern Catholics is the idea of refraining from occasions of sin. The Curé, by eliminating one big occasion of sin for his parish, namely the dances, eliminated all the sins that went along with them. 

Despite how strange the Curé's admonitions seem to us today, they are in keeping with Christ's teaching. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to avoid the occasion of sin: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." And in the Act of Contrition, Catholics make this promise: "I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin."

The current basilica at Ars.

Many Protestant sects still maintain a robust prohibition against possible occasions of sin, prohibiting dancing and drinking. The still-popular 1984 movie Footloose mocked the Baptist Church's prohibitions against drinking and dancing.

In Kenny Loggins song "Footloose" that accompanied the film, the line "kick off your Sunday shoes" sums up the disdain Hollywood has for the concepts of purity and virtue. For Hollywood, it's all about feeling good and having a good time in the moment, while the reality of man's eternal soul is ignored. The reality that dancing and drinking can, without due temperance, incite sinful passions in many is just ignored or, as in the film, mocked.

For us, 200 years later, the stern actions taken by the Curé seem over the top. But the saint's prohibition against dances saved many of the Curé's parishioners from succumbing to the sin of fornication and the fires of Hell.

It would be remiss of us to judge the Curé solely on his strict prohibition against dancing. Rather, we should evaluate him on the entire body of his acts, namely, his admonitions to keep every Sunday holy, his tireless instruction of the faithful and his sterling example of personal piety.

Saint John Vianney was not a man to backpedal on the Faith or to let those he was responsible for saving fall into patterns of sin and end up in Hell. He was the epitome of a good pastor, a father looking out for his children's salvation.

He wrote his Sunday homilies ahead of time and memorized them before giving them, and was known for screaming his homilies so all could hear. (This was a long time before amplified sound systems in Churches.) 

His sermons would be considered offensive to many modern Catholics. They were often composed of harsh words about sin and stinging rebukes for those who made sin a habit. And ironically, they were belted out by a diminutive man, one barely tall enough to be seen over the top of the ambo.

In one homily, the Curé addressed the grave sin of pride, as follows:

But I shall reply by telling you to begin by entering into your own heart, which is but a mass of pride wherein everything is dried up. You will find yourself infinitely more guilty than the person whom you are so boldly judging, and you have plenty of room for fear, lest one day you will see him going to Heaven while you are being dragged down to Hell by the demons. 'Oh, unfortunate pride,' says St. Augustine to us, 'you dare to judge your brother on the slightest appearance of evil, and how do you know that he has not repented of his fault and that he is not numbered among God's friends? Take care rather that he does not take the place which your pride is putting you in great danger of losing.'

The saint's seemingly harsh homilies, numerous prohibitions on various occasions of sin, prolonged fasts and numerous penances were not offered by him for his own redemption but for the redemption of his parishioners.

God took to heart these mortifications offered by the Curé. Over a period of time, the village of Ars became known not only for its saintly curate but also for the depth of Catholicism practiced by its citizens, thanks to the saint. They no longer attended raucous dances, but their souls were saved, and now they enjoy being with God in Heaven.

And there in Heaven, the citizens of Ars now dance, free from all sins, and free from all inclinations to sin, with God and the heavenly host. 


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