Curé d’Ars, Curer of Hearts

Basilica of St. Sixtus, Ars-sur-Formans, France

Today is the bicentenary of the priestly ordination of the Curé of Ars. God always supplies the Church with saints in each century, but a few of these shine so brightly that everyone can recognize them even during their lifetime. St. John Vianney is such a saint, who easily became my favourite after I had read much about him. When I had the change to visit Ars ten years ago, I was brought to tears on entering the Basilica of St. Sixtus and praying before his incorrupt body.

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was ordained in the Major Seminary of Grenoble on Sunday, 13 August 1815, a feat that was nearly miraculous. Without proper education (only a year of school at the age of nine), he failed seminary examinations so badly that earned him the title of “the most unlearned and the most devout seminarian in Lyon”. None of this mattered as the vicar general allowed his ordination at the age of 29 in light of his reputation of goodness and holiness.

After three years of apprenticeship at Ecully, he was appointed as pastor of the tiny village of Ars-sur-Formans, 30 km north of Lyon, with a population of merely 230. He arrived in Ars when the people were in a constant state of drunkeness, profanity and immorality after the Napoleanic era. At the doorstep of the church, he prayed, “My God, make the sheep entrusted to me come back to a good way of life. For all my life I am prepared to endure anything that pleases you.” His wish was indeed granted, for he would have to endure great sufferings and mortifications for the next 41 years in this village, serving his flock until his death.

The original room of St. John Vianney
Through home visits, genuine care for his flock and powerful witness of purity and holiness, he brought back all the people in the village into the church. His fame spread when people realized he could multiply food in an orphanage. He became known for his ability to read souls, discern spirits and even prophesize. Soon people from near and far flocked to this tiny church to confess to this living saint; he had to spend 12 to 16 hours every day just to hear confessions. His ability to cure people of physical illnesses did not lessen his workload. More importantly, countless people who came to see him were converted from their former lives. By 1855, 20,000 people came annually, to the extent that Lyons railway had to establish a special booking office to handle the waves of travellers.

Much can be read about this saint and many of his homilies are well preserved. Here is an episode of a really sad day in his life that I will share. At one time when his bishop came to visit him, the pastor rejoiced and welcomed him. This attitude totally changed when the bishop announced to the crowd that he was to name their pastor as an titular canon of the cathedral chapter, and invested him with a mozzetta, the vestment proper to the hononary office. He tried to shrug off the cape during the Mass, and never again wore it but sold it immediately for charitable purpose. He avoided all honour and preferred saving souls and self-mortification as reparation of sins.

Vianney's understanding of liturgy totally influenced me. While he lived and dressed very poorly, he spared nothing for the Sacrament of the Altar. He would make use of the most beautiful decorations inside the church, vested solemnly and employed the beautiful vessels whenever he celebrated liturgy. He understood the liturgy as an action and worship of Christ, unlike the anthropocentric view of liturgy in the present days where people wrongly placed the focus on the celebrant or themselves.

When he met his eternal reward on 4 August 1859, he left the Church with an example of zeal for souls, piety, sanctity, simplicity, obedience, and other virtues too numerous to enumerate. Pope Pius X beatified him in 1905; Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1925 and made him the patron saint of pastors in 1929. Pope John XXIII devoted his whole second encyclical Sacerdotii nostri promordia just to this saint. Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year for Priests during 2009-2010 in the memory of St. John Vianney and extended his patronage over all priests.

The Basilica of Ars, which was built as an extension of the Curé’s original church, has been celebrating a Jubilee Year for the bicententary since 2 February 2015 and having its Holy Door open, one of eight churches in the world with this distinctive privilege. Let us make a pilgrimage on foot or in our heart to the shrine, and pray that our Church has more priests like the Pastor of Ars, as his vicar general once said, “The Church wants not only learned priests but, even more, holy ones.”

Photos: ⓒ 2015 Gabriel Chow


Nagasaki: City of Martyrdom, Destruction and Hope

National Shrine of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan, Nagasaki
Three days after the demise of Hiroshima, on 9 August 1947, a second atomic bomb devastated the port city of Nagasaki. The “Fat Man” bomb, with 6.4 kg of plutonium and supposedly 30% more destructive power than the Hiroshima counterpart, missed the original city centre target by 3 km and hit the Urakami valley area at 11:02 in the morning. Despite the shielding by the hills of the city from much of the bomb's power, 39% of the buildings in the city collapsed in the fire storm of wind of 1,005 km/h and 3,900°C. As many as 80,000 people perished over time due to the bomb, with many more severely injured with burns and radiation.

Urakami Cathedral
500 metres northeast from the atomic bomb hypocentre was the majestic Church of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, commonly known as the Urakami Church. Situated on the top of the Urakami hill, the church aided the B-29 bomber to identify Nagasaki and hasten its demise. The church took 50 years to build (1875-1925) but only an instant to be destroyed. It was the largest church in East Asia at the time of completion, but it also suffered the most horrific destruction. Two priests who were hearing confession and 20 penitents died under the rubble on that Thursday morning; outside the church, 8,500 out of Urakami's 12,000 parishioners met the same fate. Most Catholics in Nagasaki inhabited in this region.

Nagasaki is the birthplace and capital of Catholicism in Japan. St. Francis Xavier became the first missionary to set foot in the country in 1549. Missionary activities flourished in subsequent decades; the number of converts surpassed 300,000. Most of Nagasaki's inhabitants became Catholic. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan, became suspicious of European activities in the country, and issued a ban on Catholicism in 1587, a precursor to decades of persecutions of the Church and a stream of martyrdom.

Following a month-long parade from Kyoto with their faces mutilated, 26 priests and laypeople were crucified in Nagasaki and pierced with spears on 5 February 1597. When the news reached Rome, Pope Clement VIII was in shock over the manner of their martyrdom. This group of martyrs, St. Paul Miki and companions, was promptly beatified in 1627 and canonized in 1862, is celebrated as a memorial in the General Roman Calendar on 6 February every year. Persecutions intensified in the 17th century, especially during the Great Martyrdom of Nagasaki in 1622. 205 martyrs of Japan were beatified in 1867. Lawrence Ruiz and 15 companions were beatified in 1981 and canonized in 1987. Petrus Kibe Kasui and 187 companions were beatified in 2008.

Oura Church, Nagasaki
As missionaries were driven out and churches were torn down, the Catholic Church was thought to have totally disappeared in Japan. In fact, the Catholics went underground, with a majority in the Nagasaki region. After 200 years, when Japan reopened its doors to missionaries, the Paris Foreign Missions Society sent Fr. Bernard Petitjean for missionary work in Japan. He built a church (locally known as the Oura Church) in the French region of Nagasaki in honour of the 26 martyrs and blessed it on 19 February 1865. On March 17, a group of local people requested to pray inside the church and asked him where the statue of the Virgin Mary was. The priest then came to the realization that these Kakure Kirishitans (hidden Christians) were descendants of the underground Catholics from 200 years ago, who passed the faith from one generation to the next. For this significant event, called the Shinto Hakken (discovery of followers), Pope Pius IX appointed Fr. Petitjean as the first Vicar Apostolic of Japan in the next year, and the Oura Church became the cathedral.

Urakami Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Nagasaki
As history unfolded, Bishop Petitjean too suffered persecution from the government. However, no one would have imagined that this non-stop persecution of Nagasaki would even be topped by its annihilation by a nuclear weapon. To our consolation, Christ always wins. The Urakami Church was eventually rebuilt in 1959 and received the honour of cathedral from the Oura Church in 1962. In a country where Catholics are only 0.43% of the population, the Nagasaki archdiocese unexpectedly boasts a 4.3% Catholic population. The Church truly grows from the blood of martyrs.

During this year we are not only somberly marking the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing, but also joyously celebrating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of followers in Japan. In the face of escalation of tensions between nations, rise of terror groups and incessant nuclear arms race, we must work for peace in the world. God never fails to surprise us.

Nagasaki National Peace Memorial for the Atomic Bomb Victims

Photos: ⓒ 2015 Gabriel Chow
Also posted on Salt + Light Blog


Atomic Bomb, 70th Anniversary

Ruin of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall,
hypocentre of the first atomic bomb
At 08:15, 6 August 1945, Feast of the Transfiguration, the atomic bomb nicknamed the Little Boy was dropped by a B-29 bomber, and detonated at a height of 450 m over the city of Hiroshima to maximize its destructive effect. At that very instant, people's faces were not transfigured but transformed. History was rewritten, not so much about the war, but about humanity itself. Despite Japan's outrageous war crimes against other countries, it remains controversial as to whether the use of nuclear weapons was necessary when the war was close to the end; 140,000 civilians were killed, and Hiroshima obliterated. Japan announced its surrender 9 days later, on the Solemnity of the Assumption. World War II officially ended.

Cathedral of the Assumption, Hiroshima
Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a German Jesuit missionary in Japan, was serving in the Noborimachi church on that day. As one of the survivors of the atomic bomb, he felt called to build a cathedral as a prayer for peace, revealing his plan to Pope Pius XII in September 1946. He travelled around the world requesting assistance and eventually making his peace cathedral a reality. Construction began on 6 August 1950, the 5th anniversary of the bombing, and was completed exactly 4 years later with the rite of dedication. The designer, Tōgo Murano (村野藤吾), was moved by Fr. Lassalle's zeal and made it a labour of love.

The Apostolic Vicariate of Hiroshima, established in 1923, was raised to the dignity of diocese in 1959, when at the same time Nagasaki was promoted as a metropolitan see. Pope St. John XXIII wished to see that these two cities receive missionary priority as a remembrance to the tragic war and use of nuclear weapons. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral as a pilgrim in 1981.

Today, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is better known as the World Peace Memorial Cathedral. Daily mass is offered in a chapel, and Sunday mass is offered in the cathedral at 09:30 in Japanese in the cathedral, with an English mass celebrated in the crypt at 14:00. Spanish, Portuguese and Vietnamese masses are regularly scheduled as well.

Photos: Ⓒ 2015 Gabriel Chow