As we continue our papal reflections on the Eucharist, I would like to take us back to the time just before the calling of the Second Vatican Council. Pope St. John XXIII was elected to become pope on October 20, 1958. Thought by many to be a leader who would keep the status quo and not advance many new initiatives due to his advance age, John XXIII surprised the Church by announcing a few months after his election that he would convoke an ecumenical council, only the 21st time it had been done in the 1900 year history of the Church. History therefore remembers him mostly for this historic decision. However, there was much that this pope contributed to the life of the Church apart from calling the Council. One of those contributions came in the form of an encyclical that he wrote in his first year as pope to commemorate the 100th anniversary of great priest St. John Vianney’s entrance into his heavenly reward. The name of the document was Sacerdotii nostri primordia and today marks its anniversary of promulgation (August 1, 1959).
St. John Vianney is known for his humility and zeal for souls. He is perhaps best remembered as one who would spend long hours (sometimes more than 15 hours) each day in the confessional, reconciling sinners to Christ and His Church. He also found time for teaching and preaching to his people and he was considered very effective in these efforts, no doubt an overflow of his deep interior life. Pope St. John XXIII, in reflecting on this great priest, noted how the center of his efforts was to be found in one place – the Eucharist:
The devotion to prayer of St. John M. Vianney, who was to spend almost the whole of the last thirty years of his life in Church caring for the crowds of penitents who flocked to him, had one special characteristic—it was specially directed toward the Eucharist…He did everything that there was to be done to stir up the reverence and love of the faithful for Christ hidden in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and to bring them to share in the riches of the divine Synaxis. (§45, §47)
While the Second Vatican Council would use the words “source and summit” to describe the Eucharist, St. John Vianney witnessed to this reality in his life as a priest. Many souls who witnessed his love for the Eucharist and his reverence at Mass were profoundly impacted, thus deepening their love for this great gift. His influence continues to make a difference in the lives of the faithful as they read about this great saint. In particular, priests look to this man, their Patron, hoping to imitate his holiness and love for souls, particularly his love for the Eucharist.
Toward the end of the encyclical, the Holy Father invites the faithful to pray for priests, words which I think are very appropriate to repeat today as they are ever timely, especially as we prepare to celebrate St. John Vianney’s feast day on August 4:
On the occasion of this centenary celebration, We would also like to exhort paternally all of the faithful to offer constant prayers to God for their priests, so that each in his own way may help them attain holiness. Those who are more fervent and devout are turning their eyes and their minds to the priest with a great deal of hope and expectation. For, at a time when you find flourishing everywhere the power of money, the allure of pleasures of the senses, and too great an esteem for technical achievements, they want to see in him a man who speaks in the name of God, who is animated by a firm faith, and who gives no thought to himself, but burns with intense charity. (§107)
Please ask the intercession of St. John Vianney for the priests of our diocese in general, and those of the Cathedral in particular, that we might more perfectly imitate his love for the Eucharist, which will enable us to serve all of you with greater zeal and to lead all of us to a deeper love for greatest gift we can offer to you in the Holy Eucharist.