The Witnesses Brothers of the Sanctity
of the Priest of Ars
(Taken from the book of Br. Teodoro Berzal: “A Fraternal Collaboration. St John Mary Vianney, Br. Gabriel Taborin and the Brothers of the Holy Family in Ars”, 2013).
Brothers Gabriel, Jerome and Athanasius were called to the diocesan court which examined the cause of beatification of the Curé of Ars, along with many other witnesses. It is called Process of the Ordinary (P.O.), designed to prove the reputation of holiness and the practice of the Christian virtues of the Servant of God. The court held most of its meetings in Ars. Brother Gabriel’s testimony, however, was heard by the court in the episcopal palace of Belley on 12th September, 1864. In the manuscript, Brother Gabriel’s testimony occupies nine pages (1485-1493), counting also the questions and other formalities. The testimony of Brother Jerome, who was called to testify in July 1863, is much larger (pages 532-576 in the manuscript). And Brother Athanasius’ is even much larger: with the data provided, he could write a life of the holy Priest and a comprehensive treatise on his virtues. Br. Athanasius declared in 11 sessions before the court, between 31 July 1863 and 10 September of the same year. His testimony totals 97 pages in the manuscript. To this, we have to add his declaration in the Apostolic Process (A.P.) which took place in 1876. Br. Athanasius’ testimony in the Apostolic Process includes 63 pages. During this second trial, Br. Athanasius confirms his statements made in the P.O., completing some explanations and continuing in some way the story of the pilgrimage of Ars, narrating new miracles, speaking of the sepulchre of the holy Priest and the relics, telling the visit of some people, etc.
In the preceding paragraphs, we have had occasion to read some parts of the content of Br. Gabriel’s testimony, which deals with the relations between Br. Gabriel and Fr. Vianney, and underlines especially the humility of Fr. Vianney and his generosity with the Congregation. We present below the entire testimony of Br. Gabriel and some parts of the testimonies of Brs. Jerome and Athanasius.
But first let us remember that Br. Gabriel had already written about the sanctity of the Curé of Ars in his book The Guiding Angel of the Pilgrims to Ars (1850), in these terms: “Fr. Vianney, parish priest of Ars, is now 69 years old; he has always been endowed with admirable simplicity; the poor and retired life that he lives puts him away from dangers. Everywhere he has shown worthy of his holy ministry. The features of his benign figure announce peace and serenity of his beautiful soul; his kindness and gentleness announce will win all hearts. Heaven favoured him with the precious gift of touching the souls and working wonderful conversions, his prayers so fervent have a very special power to achieve extraordinary graces from God, and, as noted, they work wonders whose fame is spread through many places, due to the gathering of so many pilgrims. If we call him prematurely Saint, is because we judge the tree by its fruits: this man of God knows that one cannot be saint in heaven if he is not here on earth, and that it is not necessary to wait for the hour of the death to become saint. Fr. Vianney has worked in his sanctification from youth. And who, in our century, practices in higher quality the Christian and priestly virtues? This venerable Priest still lives, and knows that no one will be saved but who has persevered in the love and grace of God: the days that are reserved to him, and whose extension we ask for, will not serve but to increase his reward and to add other pages of exemplary life to what we have just said. But do not forget that it will be useless to admire forever the life of the saints, if to their example, we do not practice faithfully the laws of God and the Church”.
Testimony of Br. Gabriel
«Father Perrodin, Superior of the Major Seminary, suggested me to go to Ars to talk to the Servant of God and recommend the new Congregation. I followed his advice. I came to Ars, anonymous, without letting me know, and nothing external could indicate who I was. After having prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, I appeared in the sacristy at the time that the Servant of God was dressing with the vestments to say Mass. I was deeply impressed to see his figure, on which the traits of holiness were designed. I have always believed that in greeting me, I was called by my name, and, after he asked how I was, he was asking information about the status of the small Congregation of the Holy Family.
– ‘But, Father, – I replied very moved – how do you know me?’
– ‘Oh, – he replied with a gracious smile – the friends of the good God must be known each other well.’
He then gave me appointment for after Mass and he finished dressing the sacred vestments. In the conversation I had with the Servant of God, in the right time, he witnessed to me a lot of interest, he congratulated me for having given to my Congregation the name of Holy Family; he announced that it would prosper, despite many obstacles, and he recommended that I never be discouraged. He personally loved so much the Congregation, that he has sent us some forty postulants.
I went a second time to Ars and I knew by the mouth of the Parish Priest, who had just made a foundation for the free education of the children of the parish of Ars. He also expressed the amazement that I had not yet sent any Brothers: ‘I am angry with you, he said, I have given to you eighteen thousand francs to the diocesan box.’ He begged me to send the Brothers as soon as I could. Shortly after, I could send our Brothers to direct the school he founded.
As proof of his attention to us, the Servant of God helped us to purchase the furniture for the house of Ars; and he also built a chapel in the house and adorned it. Our Novitiate of Belley has, as a precious memory of his bounties and his friendship toward us, a monstrance of great price, a rich ciborium and silver cruets with its tray. He has also been good enough to start a Mass to be said in perpetuity every Sunday of the year in our chapel for the conversion of sinners. Other twenty Masses are to be said on weekdays with the same intention.
In a particular circumstance we urgently needed the sum of 1,200 francs. Unable to find them in Belley, I had the idea to address the Servant of God. I wrote to him for this purpose and I ordered that letter was to be submitted by Brother Jerome. As Father came to know the subject, he said: ‘I am sorry not to respond to the desire of your good Superior. Behold, everything I have.’ And he presented to Brother Jerome five cents, saying, ‘With this, it is not even enough to pay the postage of the letter. We will pray to the good Lord to help your Superior and he may find this amount.’ And he went to the confessional. Admirable Providence of God! The first person Father heard in confession offered him 1,200 francs for his good works. Then he came out of the confessional with a great happiness and told Brother Jerome: ‘You see how powerful your prayers are. God has heard you. Behold the sum your Superior needs. Write to him to come quickly and collect it…’ I attended his invitation and went to show my gratitude to him, while expressing at once my surprise. He responded with a humility that built me deeply: ‘Oh! It is the good God who hears the prayers of Brother Jerome and of all who pray willingly.’ ‘Dear Father, I told him, I will refund this amount in some time.’ ‘Go in peace, my friend, he replied, I do not pay you, but I give that sum, it is the good God who sends it to you. Willingly I would give other things, if they do not bother.’
I had contracted a double hernia for some 36 years. I talked about it to the Servant of God. He replied: ‘Ah, my friend, that is a gift of the good God. I also have a double hernia, but I will not be cured, while you will be so provided that immediately you make a novena to Saint Philomena.’ I did not think it could be cured: that is why I did a novena without much confidence. But, what was my surprise when at the end of my novena, I felt I was cured. I took off the bandage and since then I have not felt anything.
To promote the devotion of the pilgrims to Ars, I had the idea of writing a book with this title: “The Guiding Angel of the Pilgrims to Ars”. Before starting it, I consulted the Servant of God, who kindly hosted the project. He further added, ‘Write it quickly, I will do my best that over 60 copies will be sold per day.’ I wrote the book and submitted it for approval by the Bishop of the diocese. As soon as it was printed, I took six copies of the same to Father Vianney, who received them with joy and gratitude, saying that this book would do much good. But in the prologue I had had the misfortune to describe his life with some quick features, presenting him as a model of virtue and holiness. The next morning, when he saw me in the church, he made me a gesture to accompany him; he had a look of grief and of extraordinary severity. I followed him to the sacristy, he locked the door and told me very agitated and shedding copious tears:
– ‘My friend, I do not think you could write a bad book.’
– ‘How then?’, I said.
– ‘It’s a bad book, it’s a bad book’.
– ‘Tell me then how much it has cost and I will refund it to you, then we will burn it.’
My amazement was huge and I asked again why this book was bad.
– ‘It’s a bad book, it’s a bad book!’, he replied.
– ‘But why, Father?’
– ‘You speak of me as a virtuous man, as if I were a saint, while I am only a poor ignorant, the most miserable of the priests.’
– ‘But, Father, I have shown this book to educated priests; Bishop Devie has seen all the proofs of printing and has given his approval, this book cannot be a bad book.’
His tears continued to increase.
– ‘Well, delete everything that relates to me, and then it will be a good book.’
On my return from Ars, I informed immediately the Bishop about what had happened. ‘What a lesson of humility this holy priest gives to you and to me!’ –told me the Prelate, who, however, added: ‘Do not ever delete anything, I forbid it.’ I followed the advice of my Bishop, but the Servant of God did never want to put his signature on this book, which easily he made with books and objects of pity that were presented to him. Here is all I had to say about the Congregation of the Holy Family and its relations with the Curé of Ars.»
Testimony of Br. Jerome
“The Servant of God showed great zeal for all that relates to divine worship. He wanted for the church beautiful ornaments and was happy when he could acquire them. As I was in charge of the sacristy, he used to tell me gladly: ‘We have to have a good house of God; we must care for it very well’. With his great spirit of faith and his love for poverty, he also said to me: ‘An old cassock matches well with a beautiful chasuble’… Out of all the ceremonies of divine worship, he liked arrange a great solemnity in the procession with the Blessed Sacrament. In the beginning he made himself the altars for the procession and wanted to be as beautiful as possible. He carried the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of his life, as he was very weak, they asked him after the procession if he was tired. ‘How I would be, he replied, if it was He who carried me’” (P.O., p. 545).
“When Father Vianney celebrated the Holy Sacrifice, I thought seeing at the beginning of Mass another Saint Francis de Sales. I was strongly excited especially when at the beginning of the consecration and in the communion I showed on his face an expression of piety, faith, love, joy, which seemed to be consumed. There were times when I liked watching him. When he preached on the Blessed Sacrament, he did it in words that strongly impressed me” (P.O., p. 545).
“They asked him one day in my presence if he was not afraid when he was the object of those attacks by the devil; ‘Oh, he replied, we are almost comrades’. One night was plunged into a deep sadness. Suddenly he heard a voice saying these words: ‘I have hoped in you; I will not be mistaken for eternity’. He got up, opened his Breviary and the first words that caught his attention were precisely those words of the Psalm. The Servant of God found, then, consolation” (P.O., p. 548).
“One day he asked God to show him his misery, as he told us. God heard him and Father Vianney was almost tempted to fall into despair. He prayed, then, to God not to show but only a part of it, and he was heard” (P.O., p. 552).
“Although he was surrounded and sometimes pushed by an indiscreet crowd, although he was beset by inconvenient questions, challenged everywhere, he was always equal to himself, always funny and willing to do a service. He liked to talk about the things of God; he knew always how to slip in a few words about God, even in the conversations which seemed very” (P.O., p. 553).
“I know that one day a missionary said to him:
– ‘Parish Priest, if God would propose you to go to heaven right now, or remain on earth to work for the conversion of sinners, what would you do?’
– ‘I think that I would remain here’, he answered.
– ‘But the saints are happy in heaven’.
– ‘Yes, but the saints are saints’.
– ‘Would you remain here until the end of the world, rising very early every morning?’
– ‘Oh, yes, my friend, I fear not the sacrifice” (P.O., p. 554).
“He did not refuse anything to the poor who sought his charity. He was not giving, however, without distinction to all and he knew to give alms with discernment, giving much to those who were really in need and small alms to the everyday poor. He paid for the accommodation of several families” (P.O., p. 555).
“When Bishop De Chalandon sent a Circular to recommend that a statue of the Virgin Mary should be placed in each locality, the Curé of Ars said to his parishioners: ‘As we already have a statue of the Virgin Mary on the church, let’s buy a beautiful ornament in honour of the Immaculate Conception’. This ornament, all covered with gold, was used on the same day as the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception” (P.O., p. 558).
“Over the last ten years of his life I have personally seen what his meal plan was. He had been forced to soften it. Here, however, what it was: In the morning he took a regular cup of chocolate or milk. At noon he ate a dish prepared for him. Sometimes he added a bit of dessert, but he was deprived of it the last two years of his life. At night he took nothing. When it was very hot, sometimes he accepted a drink. On fasting days he only ate at noon. At the end of his life he was forced to take something in the morning. I think he ate a pound of bread per week. One day he was taking the chocolate and then eating dry bread. ‘If you dipped bread in chocolate, I said, it would be better’. ‘Oh, he replied, I know’. But he did not do it” (P.O., p. 561).
“He suffered a lot when watching his portrait reproduced in various ways and exposed in the windows of the merchants. He called it his ‘carnival’. He never wanted to sign it when they were any among the illustrations presented to him to sign them. Putting them aside he told the people: ‘This is not worth more than three days a year’, alluding to the carnival” (P.O., p. 565).
“I think, first, that the Curé of Ars had received from God the gift of tears. He was often seemed shedding tears at the pulpit, during catechesis, in the confessional, during personal interviews. It was mostly when he spoke of God’s love, sin and other similar topics. Secondly, the general opinion is that he read at the bottom of people’s hearts” (P.O., p. 567).
Testimony of Br. Athanasius
“Father Vianney founded the Providence for the education of girls and an establishment of the Brothers for the education of boys. He established these two activities with his personal sacrifices and with gifts he received from pious people. The girls’ school was first led by lay people that he recognized as pious; later it was entrusted to the Sisters of St. Joseph. The boys’ school was run by the Brothers of the Holy Family” (P.O., p. 661).
“I heard from the Servant of God that in the early years of his ministry in Ars, that is, during the first ten years, he had to suffer many contradictions, because of his style of life. They came to shout at his window and they placed on the door of the priestly house offensive posters. They wrote to the Bishop against him, and the parish priest of Trévoux came to Ars to learn about his behaviour. One day he received from a clergy member a letter full of insults. The Servant of God had not given rise to any of these persecutions. I know he tolerated that deal not only with patience but also with joy. Later he recalled those days as the most beautiful of his life” (P.O., p. 664).
“Father Vianney came to Ars as a parish priest on February 13, 1818. I heard him saying in a conversation that the first time he saw the parish, a singular thought came to him: ‘It is very small, he said to himself, but it may not contain all that one day will come’” (P.O., p. 667).
“He liked to describe the happiness of the soul in state of grace and the action of the Holy Spirit in it. ‘The Holy Spirit is our guide’, he said; ‘Man is nothing by himself, but much with the help of the Holy Spirit; man is earthly and animal, and, only the Holy Spirit can elevate the soul and bring it to the high’. I have been told that Father Lacordaire, having heard him preach on the Holy Spirit, was so amazed that followed him to the sacristy and thanked him, saying, ‘You have taught me to learn who the Holy Spirit is” (P.O., p. 670).
“He showed great spirit of faith at the time of his last illness, I have witnessed it. I was next to him with one of my Brothers at the time that Viaticum was brought to him. When he heard the bell, he began to cry. The Brother asked him what was wrong and why he was crying: ‘Are you more tired’, he asked. ‘Oh, no, he replied, I cry thinking how good is Our Lord who comes to visit us in our last moments” (P.O., p. 670).
“The Curé of Ars abandoned himself entirely in the hands of Providence. He delighted remembering the care God had taken of him, the good which he had received from him. Then he recapitulated all that had happened to him during his studies, while he was in Les Noës, in other circumstances of his life and he added: ‘I have been a beloved child of Providence; I never worried about anything and nothing has lacked me’” (P.O., p. 806).
“God allowed Father Vianney to be tempted by the devil. I have often heard the Servant of God himself telling the vexations of all kinds that he had to suffer from the enemy of salvation… One day he was in bed for a long a time; it seemed to him that the bed, which was very hard, was extremely soft and that he sank like in a couch; while a mocking voice repeated: ‘Come on, come on’. Father Vianney made the sign of the cross and everything stopped instantly. Another day in the afternoon, being next to his desk, he saw how the container of holy water that was beside his bed fell on the pillow and soon broke as if it had fallen from above onto a hard surface; I myself have seen the pieces. The Curé of Ars sometimes heard an infernal noise in the courtyard as if it were a large group of people arguing in a foreign language. Sometimes he heard singing with a squeaky voice, and he said: ‘the gaff has a voice out of tune’” (P.O., pp. 808-809.).
“The good Priest noticed that those noises were more intense and the attacks more inopportune when a great sinner came for confession or when working for some important work concerned the conversion of sinners. So one day he told me: ‘It seems that the gaff is not happy about this work (it was about a foundation of fifty Masses to be celebrated annually in the chapel of our Mother House of Belley); he makes noise all night in the attic which is above my room; and he rings the bell as for Mass; he is a good monkey’” (P.O., p. 812).
“The Servant of God had many interior trials. He was tormented by the desire for solitude; heoften spoke of it. It was like a temptation that haunted him during the day and even more at night. ‘When I cannot sleep at night, he said to me, my mind always travels; I go to La Trappe or the Charterhouse; I seeking a place to mourn my poor life and do penance for my sins’” (P.O., p. 813).
“Once, at midnight Mass, the performing of a song during the elevation made wait a few moments the Priest for the singing of the Our Father. And while he had the Sacred Host over the chalice, he seemed very excited: smiling and crying at the same time. After the office, Father Toccanier asked him what the cause of that profound emotion was. The Parish Priest replied with these words: ‘I was telling to God; if I knew I would not ever see you in heaven, I would not leave now that I have the happiness to possess you in my hands’” (P.O., p. 816).
“Father Vianney spoke many times in his teachings about the love of God; often he ended with these words: ‘To be loved by God, to be united with God, to live in God’s presence, to live for God, what a beautiful life and what a beautiful death!’ When he pitied the fate of sinners, it was always because they did not love God” (P.O., p. 819).
“The Priest of Ars loved much the faithful of his parish his whole life to; he had towards them a truly extraordinary generosity; he hasted when he was called. Even in the moment of maximum arrival of pilgrims, he left everything when one of his parishioners called him and demanded his ministry or when he was called for a sick. The faithful of his parish liked him too much and gave him proof in various circumstances” (P.O., p. 821).
“When I came to Ars in 1849, the pilgrimage was already very large. You could calculate about 25,000 outsiders who came each year to see and consult with Father Vianney or to confess to him. He did not leave his confessional, and a vicar replaced him for administrative works. Since that date, I saw how the pilgrimage grew, and later there were up to twelve public carriages to bring the pilgrims who came to Ars. Often even those carriages were not enough, as there were many people. It has been estimated that during the last six years of the life of Father Vianney the average of pilgrims per year was 100,000” (P.O., p. 822).
“He was so concerned about the conversion of sinners that one day he told me in the presence of several people: ‘If I had one foot in heaven and were told to come back to earth to convert a sinner, I would gladly come back. If I had to stay until the end of the world, to wake up at midnight and to suffer as I suffer, I would like to continue working on the conversion of sinners’” (P.O., p. 823).
“The desire to work for the conversion of sinners led him to found the work of the missions. He has established nearly a hundred in the various parishes of the diocese and even beyond, as you can see in the records of the missions that he required me to have. He loved much this work; that is why he was so much glad when receiving a significant amount for this work. One day he told me in the sacristy: ‘Comrade, did you get up early this morning? – As usual, I answered. -Worse for you, he replied, if you had done as I, you would have already made the working day; I have been given for the founding of a mission and even to spare’” (P.O., p. 827).
“He sold everything to give the money to the poor; thus, all his furnishings were sold to several people. The things he could not sell he was freely giving. We had to give him clothes and other things as the need was, without this precaution, he would have been in complete need. What was given to him, he was, in turn, giving to others. Our Superior General had brought him a rosary from Rome, that the Holy Father had blessed in a special way for the Priest of Ars; this object which he received with great pleasure, soon he parted with it” (P.O., p. 830).
“One day he told me: ‘I am blamed for not being severe enough to give penance in the confessional, for absolving penitents too easily. But can I be hard on people who come from so far, who make so many sacrifices, who often are forced into hiding to get here?’ Again he told me: ‘A penitent asked me why I was crying when hearing his confession. I cry, I said, because you are not crying enough’” (P.O., p. 832).
“The Curé of Ars was good and funny with everybody. He invited to sit down all who came before him; even he insisted; but he never wanted to sit down. His formula for greeting visitors was: ‘May I present my respects’. He was always full of care and attention to the people who were with him, as I have been witness many times” (P.O., p. 836).
“He had a very quick temper and I think if, for virtue, he had not fully mastered it, he would have been driven to anger. So, he was forced, to control himself, to become extremely violent. I have been persuaded of it watching some details almost imperceptible. Sometimes when someone so much disturbed him, he strongly twisted a handkerchief in his hand; I could see by the movement of his lips which efforts he made to repress impatience” (P.O., p. 848).
“He mitigated the severity of his diet when receiving in the meals relatives or other priests. When receiving the latter, he was very honourable. At the last meeting held at Ars before his death, several participating priests said: ‘We had the best meal of the canton’” (P.O., p. 849.).
“I have seen for a long time in his room a discipline hung on the wall, behind the curtain, to the bedside. It consisted of two strands of wire medium thickness, a length of twenty or twenty-five inches, tied to a hemp rope blackened after having been used for a long time” (P.O., p. 850).
“Two days before his death, I was alone with him in his room. He said to me: ‘I have thirty-six francs; tell Catherine Lassagne to take them and give them to the doctor who has taken care of me; that’s all I have left. I think it’s more or less what I owe him; and then tell the doctor not to come to see me any longer, because I could not pay to him” (P.O., p. 855).
“The Servant of God had such an esteem of humility that he talked about it constantly, especially in his teachings. He often told me talking about our Aspirancy: ‘Stay in the simplicity, the more you stay in simplicity, greater good you will do’” (P.O., p. 858).
“According to public opinion, the Curé of Ars often read at the bottom of heart and announced things that he could not learn naturally. I heard quoting many such facts of this kind. I can testify to the following: The Founder of our Society has told me that he came to Ars to entrust to the prayers of Father Vianney his Congregation when was at its very beginnings. The Curé of Ars, as he entered, greeted him by name and asked him how was his undertaking. Our Superior cannot believe what he was hearing, ‘But how do you know me, dear Father? It’s the first time I have the honour of meeting you’; ‘Oh, – he replied- the friends of God are recognized everywhere’” (P.O., p. 864.).
“Before coming to Ars I had once heard of Venerable Servant of God from our Founder Superior. In 1849 I was sent to Ars to found the establishment of the Brothers. Then I saw Father Vianney for the first time. From then on until his death my relations with him were very frequently. I had occasion to see him several times a day and often talk to him. I have read several biographies -partial or complete- of Venerable Father Vianney. The first published by Mr Ginot; the second by Brother Gabriel Taborin, our Founder; the third by Father Monnin, then diocesan missionary and now in the Society of Jesus” (A.P., p. 1005). Positio, p. 538. Father Francis Trochu, in the chapter entitled “The two comrades of the Curé of Ars”, of his book The Author of the Curé of Ars, has enlarged that expression of the holy Priest in these terms: “Remain humble, remain simple, said constantly Father Vianney to the Religious of the Holy Family; the more humble and simple you are, the more good you will do” (p. 119).