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Soldier Saints: John Vianney

Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.

Today's featured Soldier Saint is John Vianney.

John Vianney became interested in the priesthood from an early age while working on his family’s farm in France. Early in his life, the French countryside was ablaze in the fire of revolution and revolt. Many souls turned from God, and John later reflected that religious ignorance and intolerance was the bitter fruit of the labor for secular political change.

Priests, during this time, were forced to perform services in secret, and John gained a great respect for the work of pastors who defied social circumstances in order to be true to their vocation.

In 1809, at 17 years of age, John was drafted into Napoleon’s armies during the emperor’s Peninsular War against Spain. John should have been exempted as a seminary student, but times were tough and recruitment was low.(1) The law is sometimes flexible in times of war, it would seem. Spain was, to the French emperor, a clear and present danger to his continued expansion. So off John went for training, but he fell seriously ill along the way.

After he recovered, he found the conscripts had left without him, so he was sent elsewhere for another round of conscription, which he did not refuse. At a church in Roanne, he prayed fervently, for what nobody knows, during which he again fell behind his cohort. He enlisted the help of a guide to take him to where he would be trained to serve Napoleon, but instead, he was taken to a town filled with deserters.

There, he took a false name and carried out a different kind of training that evoked in him memories of secret services that prepared him for baptism and confirmation; he opened a school for children under his assumed identity. He and the other deserters carried on in secret under fake names, ten hiding in hay bales or in basements until March of 1810, when an imperial decree granted amnesty to all deserters.

John wanted to become a parish priest in Ars, France, but had trouble passing his Latin exams. The bishop was loathe to ordain him, but relented in 1815. Three years later, John inherited the church in Ars upon the death of his mentor, who had preached there.

He quickly became widely known for being able to cure the souls of people, to look deeply into their sins and aid them in profound confessions. Pilgrims began to flock there to witness John’s amazing talent for pastoring troubled souls toward reconciliation with God. He was known to have supernatural skill in seeing sins and transgressions without having to be told of them in the confessional booth.

John Vianney died August 4, 1859, with thousands in attendance at his funeral. He is the patron of priests and pastors and Pope Benedict XVI, himself a military deserter, evoked his memory during a “Year for Priests” during the 2009-10 liturgical calendar.

His memory reminds us that evading the powers that be is not in itself cowardly or impious. In his own self-imposed exile, we can more fully understand American draft dodgers and deserters living in Canada and elsewhere, who also cannot bring themselves to submit to governing authorities out of sync with their moral consciences.

Though it may be difficult for many patriotic citizens to treat deserters with love, the patron of priests guides in doing just that. John Vianney’s prayer, printed below, reminds us of the fourth chapter of the New Testaments epistle of John, insisting boldly that “God is love.”

I love you, O my God, and my only desire is to love you until the last breath of my life. I love you, O my infinitely lovable God, and I would rather die loving you than live without loving you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally. My God, if my tongue cannot say in every moment that I love you, I want my heart to repeat it to you as often as I draw breath. Amen.2

1. The military exemption for seminarians and priests is ages old. During Vietnam, they fell under the same Selective Service category as those mentally and physically incapable of military service.

2. Adapted from, retrieved May 22, 2013.

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