The Great War for Civilisation and St John Vianney

Today we commemorate two very different things: the centenary of the day Britain found herself at war with Germany — the Great War for Civilisation as it was called, which left 17 million dead — and the feast day of St John Vianney, popularly known as the Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests and a man singularly well-acquainted with the deceptions of sin and the frailty of human nature.

St John Vianney himself had a peculiarly tangled relationship with the military. Although a student for the priesthood, he was drafted into the French army in 1809 because Napoleon was anxious for troops to fight in the Peninsular War. Within two days he was ill in hospital. When sent to rejoin his company at Roannne, he stepped into a church to pray and fell behind the group. The guide he secured led him deep into the mountains where he lived as a deserter for fourteen months until there was an amnesty.

I daresay a psychologist might explain the illness and the falling into some kind of trance in church as an expression of St John Vianney’s deep-seated desire to become a priest and not to fight. One must certainly allow for the fact that the moral and spiritual revulsion St John Vianney felt at the idea of war had profound effects on his mind and body. He became incapable of fighting because of his strong desire not to fight.

A hundred years ago today, this country was deeply divided about war with Germany. There were many ties of blood and friendship between our two nations, and although Kaiser Wilhelm was widely regarded as a crackpot, not everyone was convinced of the duty to defend ‘plucky little Belgium’ with military action. When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, and the terrible carnage began to mount up, the division at home became quite bitter. The forcing of white feathers on those perceived to be cowards because they were not fighting was shameful, but it was a mark of how twisted minds can become under the pressure of war. You must be made to think as I do. Anything else undermines the war effort, and that must be avoided at all costs.

Today, when war is convulsing so much of the world, and the West seems incapable of brokering even a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, let alone encouraging warring nations to make peace, it can be helpful to reflect on the experience of the last hundred years and the number of wars in which we have engaged — at least partly, perhaps even principally — because we believe others should think as we do. We have a tendency to dress our actions up with fine sentiments about liberty and democracy, but who would not admit that we have sometimes deceived ourselves? I am certainly not saying that war is never justified, or that all the wars fought during the past century have been waged on unjust or insufficient grounds, I am merely asking a question that I suspect St John Vianney, and many of those who took part in World War I, asked themselves with great earnestness of spirit: why am I doing this, and is it right? It is a question we must answer as individuals as well as nation states.

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A World Away in Time and Place?

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.

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