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Popular saint?
One of the most important saints of all time is St. John Mary Vianney. In the Philippines, he is however, not as famous as our traditional patrons, the great saints like Francis of Assisi, Dominic de Guzman, Therese of Lisieux and St. Joseph. Not many churches are named after St. John Vianney and though his name is at times heard, not many lay people know his story.
In my last parish, there stood a statue of St. John at the entrance of the church. I was always asked by people who this saint was and what he did to merit sainthood. Some people simply knew him as a priest, the patron saint of parish priests.
When I was a seminarian, I gave my young cousin a holy card, a stampita, of St. John. The boy upon receiving my gift, pouted and laid aside the card on the table, clear signs of disinterest. My mother chided me and told me that, next time, I must give away pictures of happy and handsome saints! The card truly depicted a wrinkled, bent and serious old pastor!
Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI, now we have an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with this holy and exemplary servant of God. In this year for priests, we are also celebrating the 150th death anniversary of St. John. And in the middle of this year-long affair, the pope is due to proclaim this simple parish priest as the “patron of all priests” – religious, diocesan, monastic, missionary…all priests!
The Holy Father has already cited moments in the life of this saint as points for reflection for priests in their own ministry in today’s world. He has upheld his virtues and encouraged all priests to take a second look at St. John to derive firm guidance for living meaningfully their commitment to the church. Hopefully, by the end of the Year for Priests, St. John will be widely introduced to the faithful.
The Young John Vianney and his priests
In the seminary, we were always reminded that we needed perseverance in all aspects of formation. And if we found difficulty in a particular aspect, we needed to derive inspiration from the saints. For those who were having difficulties in Latin or in academics in general, St. John was the perennial model. Stories of his life always included mention of a certain lackluster mental capacity and a real hurdle with Latin that was characteristic of his years of training under his own parish priest.
He was the patron saint of those who struggled with Latin! He was the patron saint of seminarians who were unsure of graduation due to precarious grades in class!
Little was mentioned to seminarians about St. John’s early life, his family, the origin of his vocation and his discernment for the priesthood. Of course, there was this classic biography of the saint, which was not an easy reading because of the obvious embellishment of the story made by the writer, a true fan and admirer of the saint.
Last year I came across a book about this saint, treated in a lighter narrative style but equally revealing in terms of the monumental events of his life, including special aspects of his childhood and the genesis of his vocation.
In this book, I learned that the context of St. John’s childhood was the French Revolution that erupted a few years before he was born. The French rebelled against the excesses of the monarchy and the aristocracy. In the process, they also fought against the religious leaders – the bishops, priests and religious – who were perceived as allies of the oppressors of the people. These people were treated with violence and harsh treatment. Priests had to go into hiding and continued to serve the people only under a cloud of secrecy.
Ideologues rejoiced at the defeat of the church and plotted its total annihilation. But simple people, like the farming family of St. John, remained true to their Catholic faith. They practiced their faith at home and made sure the children were taught about God and the Catholic faith. But they also put their lives in the line when they hid priests-in-disguise in their own bedroom, in their fields or in their barn.
This was how the young John knew the first priests of his life – priests in hiding, priests in flight, brave priests who risked their lives for their people. like his siblings, John knew how to keep secrets about their special house guests. He delighted when asked to bring food and other necessities to the priests. His reverence for these fugitives grew as he realized they were putting themselves in grave danger in seeking to celebrate the sacraments for his family and for his neighbors.
He must have seen these priests haggard and tired, harassed and hungry but happy and determined to live the adventure of witnessing to Christ and to the spirit of love and sacrifice. Instead of loathing this kind of life lived by fearless priests, John fell in love with it. He realized he wanted to live like one of them. At an early age, he told his mother he wanted to be a man of God. And his mother, like all good Catholic parents, felt joy and pride.
Now St. John is glorified in the church as patron of all priests, yet we must realize his inspiration to his vocation did not come through the visits of angels, or the strong impact of prophets. He was inspired by ordinary and simple priests, men whom his family taught him to love and respect. No wonder, later in life he took the road of simplicity, silent dedication and tireless commitment to whatever priestly assignment came his way.
Today so many priests want to live in the glare of celebrity status. In joining some conversations of priests, you will notice how they speak of their influential, powerful and rich friends. Not a few priests are clamoring for the limelight that comes with media ministry, curial positions or posts in rich and stable parishes or missions.
St. John certainly avoided such mentality for his attitude was shaped by the persecuted but committed priests of his childhood. They were his models. They unknowingly shaped the life of the greatest model of priesthood that we now have in St. John Mary Vianney.
Remembering the priests of our lives
In declaring the Year for Priests, the Pope, in his letter to priests, recalled the priests he met in his own priestly life. Like St. John, he was also inspired by the priests whose lives he witnessed first hand. Let us listen to what Pope Benedict has to say:
“I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting death in the act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person. I also recall the countless confreres whom I have met and continue to meet, not least in my pastoral visits to different countries: men generously dedicated to the daily exercise of their priestly ministry. Yet the expression of St. John Mary also makes us think of Christ’s pierced Heart and the crown of thorns which surrounds it. I am also led to think, therefore, of the countless situations of suffering endured by many priests, either because they themselves share in the manifold human experience of pain or because they encounter misunderstanding from the very persons to whom they minister. How can we not also think of all those priests who are offended in their dignity, obstructed in their mission and persecuted, even at times to offering the supreme testimony of their own blood?”
This brings us to an important first step in appreciating the priesthood – remembering the priests who influenced our Christian life and introduced us to a serious decision to follow the Lord.
These priests may be our own parish priests. Like St. John Vianney, they are visible and active in our communities. They are so commonplace and often taken for granted that they do not receive the honor due to their sacrifice. The parish priest is there for daily Mass, for confessions, weddings, baptism, blessings and funerals. But do we thank them enough for making themselves available to us and our families, for our spiritual nourishment and growth?
Parish priests come in different shapes and sizes, moods and methods, that they seem complicated when they come to our parishes. But they are human beings with a mission from God, a mission that is one of the hardest in the church today. They serve not one or a hundred people but thousands of people, all of them to be loved and understood and cared for as children of God. Filipino parish priests serve in communities of 10,000 – 100,000 faithful.
My parish priests
I remember Msgr. Rico Santos who stayed for a very long time in our parish in Bulacan. He was a man of integrity, intelligence and involvement. He played with the young. He mingled with the adults. He was powerful when he preached and his words were never useless banter. He prepared his homilies and reflections. He was a funny guy. He was a very attractive figure that he increased the number of those involved in church work and programs.
How can I forget Fr. Francisco Sta. Ana, who, though he was not as charismatic as Msgr. Rico, was equally obsessed with service. He visited people’s homes, celebrated Masses in the barrios, supported groups and ministries. He introduced the parish to seminarians whose presence at summer time ignited hope and zest to the villages they were assigned to. He promoted and supported the vocations of parishioners who entered the seminary or the convent. One day he was found dead in his room, after an attack of his sickness, triggered by fatigue.
These two were the giants of my young life in the parish. They affected my decision to follow the Lord in priestly life.
And yes, what about the other priests of our lives? The ones who baptized us, who acts as our confessor, our spiritual directors, even the seminary formators who were strict to us – these too, were instruments of God in drawing us and purifying us for our mission. Before I became a priest, I thanked the old priest who baptized me, Fr. Peregrino of Cavite. He was so happy to meet me and expressed joy over his old friendship with my grandparents Shortly after that, he died peacefully in the Lord. At least once a year, I try to visit my former spiritual director in the seminary in his retirement home. I also pay a visit annually to the tomb of the late great Cardinal Jaime Sin who ordained me a priest.
What about you?

In this year for priests, it is not enough that we pray for priests. Prayer is an immense gift to our priests. But they need to feel our love and hear our words of gratitude. They need to learn how much they have affected our spiritual journey to the Lord. Priests have a divine mission but they remain human in composition. Thus, it helps much if they feel our love and respect.
Recently, a friend I last met many years ago, a young man whose life I guided and supported, returned for a brief vacation from his overseas job. It was not easy for him to understand why at times I was so hard in disciplining him in his work and his studies, that we parted ways in not-so-pleasant circumstances. It was difficult for me to demand excellence from him, but I knew he was a man who could accomplish much for the future of his loved ones and for his own dreams. He visited me and shared stories of trials and joys and assured me that what he learned under my tutelage has borne fruit in his present life. I assured him too, that since I last saw him, I never ceased to pray for him and entrust all his activities to the Lord. I felt so happy and proud seeing him move on in life.
What can we do for our priests? Here are some suggestions.
Recall the priests who have made a profound impact on your life. Pray for them. Pay them a visit. Or write a short note, email or text message to cheer them up.
Approach your parish priest and appreciate what he is doing for the parish. When was the last time you shared with him how much you learn from his homilies or talks?
Learn what your diocese is planning of the Year for Priests and join this activity.
You can be more creative than the above in expressing your love and respect for the priests Jesus sends your way to guide you to heaven. God bless you!