For many people, sport is a predominantly male activity. Men play football, cricket, swim, shoot, cycle, etc, etc, and women watch. This past week has seen a reversal of that common perception, especially in Britain, where the performance of female members of Team GB has been amazing. It seems a world away in time and place from the Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, but is it?
Saints reflect the culture of their times. There are many aspects of St John Vianney’s life which place him firmly in the rural France of the years after the Revolution. He had grown up attending Mass illegally so that priests were, in some sense, heroes to him. His parents were reluctant to let him leave the family farm, but eventually he did so. As a student he struggled with Latin and other subjects and only just managed to scrape a pass to enable him to proceed to ordination. Most of his life was spent in one small village. He could easily have been like many another parish priest of his time: dutiful, a bit unimaginative perhaps, not someone who would attract notice.
St John Vianny, of course, did attract notice — not all at once, and not necessarily for the right reasons, but by the end of his life 20,000 people a year were making their way to his confessional. He saw very clearly that ignorance of the teaching of the Church had led to what we would now call a break-down of society. In his day, drinking and dancing were the prevalent evils and he preached fiercely against them. In his ministry of the confessional he addressed not just personal sin but the spiritual malaise of his time. He also had a particular care for the needs of poor women. The orphanage he founded for destitute girls did not last beyond 1847, but it signified awareness of a need that few had the courage or generosity to try to meet.
Today, we could argue that there is an even greater ignorance of the teachings of the Church, an even greater lack of respect for Christian values, which is having a detrimental effect on society. The Church has a part to play in remedying this, but sometimes it seems as though it is approaching the problems of the present with the solutions of the past. For instance, in the past much of the Church’s attention has been directed towards men, with a rather masculine spirituality being taken as normative (monks and nuns, for example, usually have very different understandings of chastity and how it works out in our lives). I am convinced that we need to rethink some of our attitudes. The success of women in the Olympics should remind us, as the life of St John Vianney himself reminds us, that the spiritual gifts of women also need nurturing, for the good of the Church and of society as a whole. That is a huge task for our pastors as well as for those of us in the pews. May the prayers of St John Vianney help us.