I have met more than one parish priest who “doesn’t have much time” for St Jean Marie Vianney. More than one priest has let slip that they find him an impossible role model for the priesthood and would rather there were some other saint as their patron.
There is a real problem here, I think, that too often we want to see saints as role models, but we confuse what made their lives holy with the “accidents” of their personal circumstances and personalities.
There may even be a genuine fear among priests that they are supposed to behave like him: spend whole days in the confessional, run an orphanage, eat meager food, run ragged at everybody’s beck and call, suffer breakdowns, and be in constant battle with the Devil. The fear of being totally run into the ground, exhausted and isolated does sadly become a reality for some priests. It is not a good advert for the priesthood and it is not a good model for how priests should live.
On the other hand, I would argue, that if a priest isn’t locked in combat with the Devil then he is not fulfilling his vocation. The Devil hates good priests but is quite happy to let the slackers carry on their merry little way. A good, holy priest who is also an isolated and overworked figure is going to need to all the spiritual armour he can muster. He will be assailed with doubt, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, pride (nobody works harder than me) and temptations. The tragedy being that a priest alone and isolated is probably the easiest to tempt: the bottles of scotch given as Christmas presents, the internet, the cookie jar.
In really caring for our priests, I do think it is important that their protection is taken seriously. I read, and enjoyed the book by Fr Jerome Bertram (Cong Orat) called Vita Communis (published by Gracewing), it is an important study of the various mechanisms for secular clergy living in community that have been in existence since the earliest days of the Catholic priesthood. The most important point raised in the book is that secular clergy were never meant to live on their own. To do so entails the self-discipline of a hermit and few are called to the life of a hermit. Since near enough the French Revolution, clergy living alone and isolated have been the norm rather than the exception and very few forced to live like that have found it has enhanced their vocation. Sadly, models for living in community dating from the early days of the 20th Century, were largely models for bullying and the abuse of curates, leading to generations of priests who couldn’t wait to get a parish of their own. This is all so sad and without arguing for the current vogue of “parish clustering”, a holy and prayerful solution to make the lives of our beloved priests holier and healthier is desperately needed.
This neatly returns us to St Jean Vianney. He is a powerful intercessor for toady’s priest because he is the archetypal isolated priest: self-doubting, overworked, academically inferior to his contemporaries and above all a frail man. It is his hours before the Blessed Sacrament and it is his total reliance on God, allowing His grace to work through him that preserved him. We shouldn’t treat our priests the way St Jean Vianney was treated, but we do, and yes, perhaps he is very nearly impossible to follow. That is why his intercession is so necessary and so powerful.