George William Rutler
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2007)
This is an intriguing and pious treatment of St. John Vianney [1786-1859], but the book defies easy categorization. The outline is clearly the life of the mystical French parish priest best known for his extraordinary grace as a confessor, but the author has skillfully set Vianney in the aftermath of the “troubles” of his country—the Revolution, the Gallican Church controversy, Napoleon—while from time to time speculating on Vianney’s spirituality and pastoral approaches vis-à-vis the post-Vatican II era.
George William Rutler is honest about his feelings toward the Enlightenment. In an extensive appendix he provides an overview of the French Church and its relationships with the succession of governments from Louis XVI and beyond. In Rutler’s view the “Daughter of the Church” [France] was hardly the virginal bride, with most of its clergy and bishops nondescript and woefully lacking in vision and piety. Thomas Mores and John Fishers were hard to come by. Vianney’s formative years run concurrent with a quarter-century ecclesiastical malaise, most noticeably in France but in actuality through much of Western Europe.
Rutler describes Vianney’s youth as the age of “the home church,” when domestic instruction and prayer carried faithful Frenchmen through a period of persecution, ambivalent priests [or no priests at all, in many circumstances.] He learned to farm but not to read, as Rutler puts it, though his early sense of a priestly calling compelled him to master reading skills, albeit with very modest success. His vocational aspirations were nearly derailed by military draft. For two years Vianney lived underground to avoid conscription. Rutler argues that the Napoleonic cause, poisoned, as it were, with assaults on the lands and the office of the papacy, was beneath the dignity of this pious young man.
If there were religious superiors of character in France at this time, Vianney was fortunate to have encountered them in his formative steps to orders. His piety and faith, if not his book learning, seemed have been the deciding factors in his tenuous approval for ordination. Many years later, in my own lifetime, a seminary rector commented to me that “piety comes and goes, stupidity remains forever.” Vianney would be the exception to the rule.
Once ordained, Vianney would serve a brief and rather successful term as an assistant pastor at Ecully until he received his own parish in Ars. Ars in fact had but one church—and seven saloons. The church had recently served as a shrine to the Goddess of Reason, among other things. If anything the residents of Ars were perplexed to see a pastor who actually cared about ringing the bells, providing instruction, and preparing his sermons. As is often the case, pastoral solicitude was not initially welcomed or understood by a people unbothered by matters of the soul, and episodes of enmity from time to time were not unheard of.
But Vianney’s gift as a confessor, a trait already noticeable at Ecully, soon became noteworthy in Ars as well. Rutler tends to assume that Vianney’s remarkably austere life and spiritually are at its heart, and naturally there is truth to this. His fame reached far beyond Ars, but it is hard to gauge what contemporaries really thought of him. I was disappointed that the author did not say more about Vianney’s ritual and practice within the confessional rite. For example, did Vianney have a rare perceptive psychological skill set that prompted his penitents to unburden their most secret crimes, vices, and sinful attitudes?
For Rutler, the cause is less important than the effects. Not only did Vianney save individual souls, but he seemed engaged in a struggle for the reign of God itself in Ars, a turmoil that brought him face to face with Satan. Rutler treats of the demonic assaults upon the saint with appropriate balance, much as the Evangelists did in recounting Christ’s words and deeds of the kingdom. Vianney also wrestled within himself. On three distinct occasions Vianney tried to flee Ars. Again, it is not clear precisely why. The most likely reason is his celebrity status as a confessor, which he probably found annoying and distracting. But most likely, the strain of confessional encounter, coupled with a profound sense of humility and inadequacy, led him to possible scrupulous fear that his penitential ministry just might be an outrageous affront to God in the sacramental forum. To his credit, he recognized these temptations and urges for what they were and did not succumb to them.
Rutler’s style is philosophical and meditational. He has a love [some might say a lust] for reversing familiar phrases to extract new meanings. While his sympathies lie with a triumphal Church, he is candid in his assessments about bishops and popes who compromised the holiness of the Church by opportunism, pride, fear, or intellectual arrogance. Vianney, in this framework, represents a restoration of the true dignity and spirituality of Holy Orders, a man unsullied by the type of “enlightenment” that muddled many pulpits in his day.
One of the purposes of this book is a restoration of the Sacrament of Penance. Writing in 1988 Rutler could not help but notice the disappearance of personal confession from Roman Catholic life. Rather than rail about it, the author includes a second appendix, the sermons of Pope John Paul II given during a retreat for priests at Ars in October, 1986. The talks themselves are revitalizing and nurturing, a reflection of Vianney’s exhortations to see parochial sacramental life as the extension of the Reign of God. Rutler comments that when the event was announced, a number of priests protested to the Vatican on the grounds that Vianney was not an appropriate model for the priest of today. There is sadness in hearing of this, but the author does his best to make things right by giving us a heartwarming sense of what we are missing in contemporary parish life.