“…God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace.” – Words of absolution during the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) of the Latin rite of the Church
The town of Ars, France, 1830
The women left the confessional, and the priest waited a few moments for the next person to enter.
A few minutes passed, and when no one did he realized his work for the day had come to an end. He got up and exited the confessional, bringing to a close what had been a very long day. He had started early in the morning, at sunrise, and had been hearing confessions for the past seventeen hours. It was now well past eleven and the church was darkened but not empty. He looked out over the church, felt a twinge of pride, and gave a soft small smile. His little parish church had grown since he first came here over twelve years ago. It had grown to become a destination for pilgrims. They traveled far and wide, from all corners of France and Europe, to visit the little church in the town of Ars, and even now, at the late hour, they lingered in its chapels, praying for healings or forgiveness or for loved ones who had passed on.
Father John Vianney felt his pride grow as he took in the sight of the devoted souls still keeping vigil even at the late hour. An instant later he quickly reminded himself that it was not he who had done all this and not to let his human pride get the better of him. It was not he who had built the church into a destination for believers. It was not he who had built up the church and the school. It was not he who worked miracles in Ars; it was God who had done it. Vianney had been but his instrument. He offered up a short prayer of thanksgiving and asked God for the grace to keep himself humble. He looked up at the ceiling of the church and smiled more broadly. He said a prayer of thanksgiving for the many blessings God had doled out onto the town of Ars, their little church, and the pilgrims that came here.
He took a spot in the front row of the church and knelt in the pew to say his evening prayers. He flipped through his prayer book, reading the daily office of prayers. He had prayed from this book every morning, afternoon, and evening since being ordained a priest. They were the same prayers that every priest across the world, from the pope to the deacon of the smallest parish, would say that day. At the end he asked God not for blessings of greatness, not for success or for miracles, but only that he receive the grace he needed to continue serving the people of Ars and to do God’s will. Once he was finished he got up and began his walk to the back the church. He was stopped numerous times by pilgrims asking for one last blessing. He refused no one a moment’s attention. He blessed rosaries, medals, and children. It took him almost another twenty minutes to reach the exit.
Father Vianney stepped out into the night. It was brisk but not too cold, and he could see his breath. The full moon rode high in the night sky. He could see stars in every direction. Again he thanked God, this time for the glory of creation. He brought his thoughts back to the place he always tried to go in his mind. He reminded himself that he was so small and so insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. He considered himself an utterly simple man. Having barely been able to pass the course of study at seminary, he knew he could not understand all the things he saw around him.
To this day he still had only a rudimentary use of Latin. He had been such a poor student that when he was first ordained, he had not been allowed to do the very thing he had spent the last twelve hours doing: hearing confessions. In fact, it had been a minor miracle that he was ordained to the priesthood at all. It took a nationwide shortage of priests in France, the personal pleading of his mentor, and a leap of faith by the bishop to make it happen. Now here he stood, nearly twenty-odd years later, on the steps of his church in a growing parish as a priest.
He had been sent to Ars in his first assignment because the town was a small backwater, far from anything important, fallen into disrepair, and all but forgotten by the Church. He had been sent to Ars because it was assumed that was where the worst student in the seminary could do the least damage. As he looked up at the stars his heart filled with joy at how far he and the people of Ars had come. When he first arrived the town had almost completely rejected him. In fact, most of the townspeople had tried to drive him out because of his tough stances on drinking, gambling, and dancing. But slowly, through prayer, sacrifice, and persistence, he had won them over.
The church had grown. Chapels were added and a school was built. Eventually miracles started to occur. People were healed of illnesses. Quickly word had spread and the people began to come — a trickle at first and then more and more until it was a tidal wave. Vianney felt humble and small but also overjoyed and grateful. Of all the places in the universe, of all the people in the world, God had looked with favor on Ars. All his work, prayers, fasting, and thanksgiving was pleasing to God.
Vianney walked the short way up the street to the school, the second floor of which housed his small residence. In the courtyard a rough stout man stood waiting for him. “Good evening, Father,” he said.
“Good evening, Charles.”
“We’ve been watching all evening,” the man replied. “I haven’t seen anyone or anything. We will be here the rest of the night. You shouldn’t have any trouble.”
“I’m grateful to you and the others,” said Father Vianney. “At least with you here, I know that what I must face is inside the house and I am safe from assault by outside forces.”
“Father, I promise you no one will get into the house, but are you sure you don’t want anyone inside with you?”
Vianney looked down and nodded his head. “Yes, I’m sure. What goes on inside is for me to face. But, Charles, I will not be alone. I will have the Lord on my side.”
“It has been many years, Father; will it never end?”
“Who knows? Perhaps tonight will be the night it ends, but even still I cannot live forever.”
“Oh, Father, don’t say that! If something should happen to you while we are just standing outside…”
Father Vianney put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Charles, that’s not how I meant it. Nothing in there can hurt me physically. It is spiritual warfare I must engage in. I plan to live to be a very old man, but if I must suffer ghosts and spirits every night for the rest of my life in protection of the souls of Ars, then I happily accept my labors.”
At the mention of ghosts Charles quickly crossed himself. Father Vianney raised his right hand and, making the sign of the cross over Charles, said, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he protect you in your labors tonight as you keep watch over you, his humble servant. May he see that no harm comes to you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Goodnight, Charles. Remember, under no circumstances are you to come inside. Just keep everyone else out. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Father Vianney entered the school. The classroom was in front of him, and to his right was a stairwell leading up to his residence. Turning, he closed and bolted the door. He leaned his head up against the door and whispered, “Dear Charles, if you only knew the truth of what I face in here in the evenings.” Then he turned and, speaking more loudly to the empty room, said, “Should I even try to go to sleep tonight?” There was a moment of silence and perfect stillness in the building, followed by the sound of heavy boots walking across the floor upstairs. “Ah, very well, so begins another night with my Grapon.”
Father Vianney proceeded up the stairs to his bedroom.
He entered his room and used a candle to light three lamps that were placed about the room. The light filled the small square room entirely. The room was sparsely furnished, containing only a bed, a table, a chest of drawers, a chair, and a crucifix that hung on the wall. Vianney looked around. Holding the crucifix that dangled from his neck with his left hand, he closed his eyes and made the sign of the cross with his right. Before opening his eyes he said aloud, “I grow tired of these trivial games. Get on with it. At least show me the courtesy of showing yourself.”
When he opened his eyes, there sitting on the chair in front of him was a French nobleman. He was dressed in fine but simple clothes: beige pants and a white linen shirt. Other than the slight frills on the cuffs and the embroidery, they were timeless clothes. His olive skin glowed with a soft tan hue in the candlelight. His jet-black hair was combed back and fell to shoulder length.
“Hello, John,” the nobleman said.
“Father, if you please,” said Vianney.
“Yes, well, not by much.”
“Please, is that the best you have for me this evening, my Grapon? I’ve long since given up any doubt that I am qualified to be a priest.”
“You wondered about it tonight though…didn’t you?”
Vianney laughed. “Only long enough to praise God for how far I’ve come.”
The devil looked away. He put his foot up on the bed and rocked back in the chair. He hesitated a moment and then announced, “I’ve got big plans for the people of Ars tonight. Drinking, fighting, perhaps even a rape or a murder…” He let the last word roll off his tongue and hang in the air.
“Well then, I will pray extra hard tonight for the townsfolk. I did want to get some sleep, but I guess it’s not meant to be.” Vianney knelt at the foot of his bed and began to pray. The devil’s face turned stern and a look of anger spread across it. He pulled his foot from the bed and the chair slammed forward. Outside, Charles heard the sound and looked up at the window. The three lamps were extinguished by a gust of wind and Vianney’s room went dark. Lightning flashed across the sky and the thunder boomed, yet the night sky remained perfectly clear. Charles could hear loud noises and sounds like banging furniture coming from the upper floors. He made the sign of the cross and prayed.
Vianney knelt at the foot of his bed, his Bible opened to a long passage he had marked. He began to read but he knew the passage by heart. He closed his eyes and continued to speak the words aloud. The devil stood by the bed over him. He closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate for just a moment. Without warning the floor of the room seemed to fall away. The wooden boards under Vianney and his bed dissolved away into a black charcoal-like rock. At the same time the walls evaporated like mist and the ceiling shot into the sky.
Vianney and his bed now stood at the flat crest of a small craggy hill. Nothing green grew anywhere. All around him as far as the eye could see were similar black rock hills. Each hill was separated from others by rivers of lava and fire. The red rivers gave the sky an orange hue, broken occasionally by black plumes of smoke.
Vianney started to sweat. His head rocked softly as he focused on repeating the words of the Bible and his prayers. He could feel the heat of the fires and lava around him, but it did not affect him adversely. Rather, the sweat came from the intensity of his effort as Vianney prayed for the deliverance of the people of Ars. The devil took a step closer to him and then sat on the edge of the bed. He leaned over and whispered into Vianney’s ear. “I know you can hear all the souls down here that are in my possession. Many of your precious townsfolk of Ars are already down here with me. Right now I am working on having a few more join me.” Vianney gave no indication he had heard the statement; he did not cease his prayers or react in the slightest.
The devil continued, “You know, I have servants in Ars. My spies are amongst you. Perhaps I should send them off to visit Catherine, the schoolmistress?” Still no response came from Vianney. “You know I am patient,” said the devil. “I have all eternity to work my plans. I wonder how you can be so patient while even right now my forces are loose about your precious little town…in the bar…in the bedrooms…” Still no response came from Vianney. The devil continued this tactic for some time then suddenly changed his demeanor. “I’ve had quite enough of your attitude, you stupid impertinent fool!”
In a flash, the devil jumped up on the bed, and as he did so his form changed instantly. Vianney did not see the change but he could feel it happen. The beast looked like a cross between a bear and a wolf and it landed hard on the bed, collapsing it underneath them. It had no fur, just brown leathery skin. The skin was covered in sores that bled openly. The beast snarled at Vianney, showing rows of yellow teeth. Blood pooled at the edge of its gums. Drool dripped from its mouth. The beast was in a rage, snarling incessantly at Vianney.
Vianney refused to respond or even acknowledge its presence, and soon the beast could not hold back its rage any longer and unleashed a roar. Hot breath wafted over Vianney, and the sound echoed throughout the landscape. The beast’s huge mouth gaped open over Vianney’s head as he continued to pray at the foot of the bed, but the creature did not close its mouth on Vianney. It lowered its head and a new growl began to grow in its throat. It brought its eyes close to the face of Vianney. At last Vianney opened one eye. He looked at the beast and said, “Do you mind? I’m busy.”
The animal flew into a rage. It crouched back on its haunches and leapt at Vianney, but just as it did so a collar instantly appeared around its neck. A chain that had not been there a moment ago jerked the beast back just before it reached its intended victim. The beast shook itself and got back up. It hesitantly started again toward Vianney. This time the priest opened both eyes and stared at the beast calmly. When it was one step away, Vianney said, “You are powerless over me and Ars. Go away!” He blew a short breath at the beast, like blowing out a candle. The beast flew back, dragged as if the chain had been jerked hard. It crashed into the rocks with a tremendous thud that echoed like thunder. It slid down the wall and lay motionless on the floor. Then the beast exploded into powder and a puff of black smoke.
Vianney closed his eyes again and made the sign of the cross. He opened his eyes and saw that he was back in his own room. Nothing had been touched or moved. The sun shone just over the hills, and the first light of the morning filled his room.
Vianney left the house; he had not slept, but despite being up all night praying he did not feel tired. When he came outside Charles immediately ran up to him, a look of dreadful worry on his face. “Father Vianney, are you all right? We heard terrible things last night. Banging and crashing and noises as if an animal was loose with you up there. The men wanted to enter several times but I kept them out. There are reports of strange things happening all over the town.”
“Dear Charles,” said Vianney, patting him on the shoulder. “I am fine. The Lord is my strength. No? You did well to keep the men out. For last night the battle for Ars was won.” Vianney could not contain his joy. He slapped Charles on the back and then made the sign of the cross. Charles immediately did the same. Seeing Vianney so happy, he quickly recovered his wits. “Now let us go to the church for morning Mass, and I will see to the townsfolk,” Vianney said.
As they walked the short distance to the church, from every door and path and street the people of Ars seemed to emerge. Soon almost the whole town was present. Each one shouted problems and fears and begged Vianney’s assistance. “Father, last night I heard a ghost in my cellar,” shouted one. “Father, last night the sheep would not be still…I fear there is a specter about,” said another. Vianney reached the steps of the church, climbed them, and stood in front of the door.
“Good friends, all will be well. Who can fear the night when we have the Lord as our companion? No specter or ghost has any power in Ars. Their master, the devil, he has no power here.” The crowd murmured. They wanted to believe the priest, but last night’s strange happenings had made them wary.
“What? You do not believe me? Why should you be afraid of the devil? He is but a chained dog! He is scary but not dangerous. He barks and makes noises in the night, but he cannot even come near you. We laugh at him! He goes about making a big show, but for what purpose? Is anyone here possessed? Is anyone here ill? No! To the contrary, people come to Ars to be healed, and the devil can’t stand it. Every night and every day we inflict pain on him! Now, let us go into the church for Mass.” Vianney turned and pulled wide the double doors of the church and led the crowd inside.
Across the street the blacksmith looked on. He already had his furnace burning hot. He watched the crowd make its way into the church. He turned, thinking he wouldn’t be caught dead in there. He pulled a poker from the fire, its tip glowing bright orange red. He tapped it with a heavy metal hammer, testing it. Then he hit it once, hard, making a loud clang. A delicious thought crossed his mind. He wished he could hold Father Vianney down on the anvil and hit his head with the hammer. He struck the metal again, imagining the desired scene and its result. The blacksmith could sense someone standing behind him. He knew immediately who it was. He stuck the poker back into the fire and turned around.
Just inside the doorway of the shop stood the devil, looking as he did when he first approached Vianney the night before—young, handsome, and wearing simple timeless clothes. “My friend, I share your frustration with these matters.”
“We have worked long and hard here, and he seems to have spoiled it all,” said the blacksmith.
“It is of no import. There are many battles, some are won and some are lost. He has had a victory here, but time is on our side.”
The blacksmith walked to the door. “Where are we going?”
“West,” said the devil. “Get your things; we are leaving this place.”
The blacksmith walked over to a cabinet. From it he took a small satchel, already packed, that he flung over his shoulder.
The devil smiled. “It is time you saw the new world of America.”
The man walked out of the blacksmith shop and down the road, taking nothing else with him.