6: Penance, Prayers, and an Incorrupt Heart

In times of struggle for the institution of the Catholic Church, some look for inspiration and intercession from the Saints. St. Jean Vianney is said to have faced regular attacks by Satan, yet his ministry in the face of those has positioned him as the Patron Saint of Parish Priests, having walked the Earth during a time of great difficulty for the Catholic church in France. The incorrupt heart of St. Jean Vianney is touring the U.S. during another time of trial in the Church. More on that, and the young man traveling with the relic in this episode of Faith Full.

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In this episode we have two interviews. (Skip to Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes talking more about St. Jean Vianney)

Traveling with the Heart of a Saint

A French boy in the 19th century one day saw a priest pulling a wooden cart. The priest asked the boy the way to the village of Ars, near Lyon. The boy guided this priest to the church, and once there, the priest said, “Thank you for showing me the way to Ars…now I will show you the way to Heaven.”

The priest was Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, or parish priest of Ars.

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In modern times a relic of St. Jean Vianney is again traveling, and perhaps inspiring the faithful to seek that path to Heaven, and his guide is Evan Holguin.

“In transit, the most important thing is the relic is always with me,” Holguin says, taking a few moments away from scores of people at St. Patrick Church in Columbus, Ohio who have come to see the incorrupt heart of a saint.

“We try to drive the relic as much as possible, so I actually drove from New Haven to Indianapolis, and I’m driving all the way back, which is a lot of fun, and it’s very reassuring as I’m going these long distances knowing that the heart of St. Jean Vianney is right next to me in my passenger seat,” Holguin says. “I think it’s led to a more contemplative cross-country drive than I might otherwise do if I were just kind of with a buddy.”

Holguin is 22-years-old, and is a manager-in-training as part of the Knights of Columbus’ Management Development Program. His other title on this day is “Custodian of the Relic.”

This heart of St. Jean Vianney is in a small golden box, or reliquary, toward the front of St. Patrick Church in Columbus, Ohio. In our episode about relics, you may remember hearing about how the remains of saints, or objects they used, can act as reminders for the faithful.

Voyage for healing

The entire incorrupt body of St. Jean is normally in the Basilica of Ars near Lyon, France. Incorruptibility essentially means the remains of some saints just don’t decompose naturally.

The Knights of Columbus have sponsored a national tour for this relic of the saint
in a time of great pain and soul-searching among the faithful.

Sex abuse scandals, and the lack of accountability for misdeeds represent a “a crisis of commitment to the Gospel,” according to the head of the Knights of Columbus Carl Anderson. He said in a letter to the organization’s members and chaplains that “Repentance should include a full accounting of the misdeeds by those who have committed them.”

“Let each one of us prayerfully invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that in the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, our hearts “would be cleansed and themselves become immaculate, similar and like unto her own heart.”

Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus

St. Jean Vianney was known for his dedication to the priesthood, and to the Sacrament to Reconciliation, by which sinners can ask for and receive forgiveness, and prayerfully do penance to right the wrongs.

Evan Holguin says he’s seen great expressions of faith connected with this tour.

“There’s obviously an extraordinary grace connected with the relic, and that’s why you have so many people come to venerate it and pray before it,” Holguin says. “As I watch the people who come and venerate, in particular families who come, and you see parents teaching their young children what they’re suppose to do because they’ve never seen a relic before. I find that particularly beautiful in seeing the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next.”

Community of faith

Holguin says in some more secular media sources there’s a narrative that young people aren’t interested in the faith, or consider the Church or practices to be archaic.

But he says he sees lines long, and crowds full to venerate this relic and attend other major faith conferences, like the Seek conference for young Catholics which saw nearly 20,000 people.

“It’s very exciting and inspiring knowing that it’s not strange to be young and devoted to Catholicism and to really be interested in some of these beautiful traditions, and blessings, and practices that we have,” he says.

Evan Holguin with the Knights of Columbus was acting as “Custodian of the Relic.” (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

“Obviously right now we are in a situation of crisis and difficulty within the Church, but seeing the great devotion of all these young people and I assume so many future saints, it definitely fills me with hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Holguin adds. “Obviously there’s a lot that has to happen between now and then, but I have a strong confidence in the next generation of Catholic people, Catholic leaders, and hopefully a new generation of Catholic priests who will have been inspired by this opportunity to venerate the relic of St. Jean Vianney.”

Holguin says he’s also been inspired and encouraged by seeing this tour of the relic, and the devotion of the faithful, as evidence of an identity of the Knights of Columbus beyond some stereotypes.

For many, the Knights may be known for pancake breakfasts after Masses far-and-wide, or maybe known for deals on insurance—as I took advantage of—but the spiritual component comes through in events like this.

For hours, the faithful lined up to venerate the relic of St. Jean Vianney.

A ‘Fourth Degree Knight’ watches over the relic of St. Jean Vianney. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

The church prayed together after celebrating Mass.

And what’s known as a Fourth Degree knight, dressed formally with a ceremonial sword, stood nearby, showing reverence.

The ceremony and ritual combined with a sense of community and pilgrimage, as faithful Catholics continued to seek the path to Heaven with help of the Curé d’Ars.

Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes, O.P.

Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes, O.P. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes, O.P. is an Itinerant Preacher at St. Patrick Priory in Columbus, and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since his 20s. He told us more about the time in which St. Jean Vianney lived, and some thoughts on the Saint’s priesthood and ministry.

Here are some select quotes:

On St. Jean Vianney’s time:

“He’s a wonderful example of a parish priest, and he’s the patron of parish priests. He entered the seminary after the Napoleonic Wars and this is a time of devastation in the French church, and actually the Church in general. One of the things that people do not appreciate about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was how systematically the Catholic Church was attacked during this entire period. One statistic I saw was that in a period of 20 years, Europe lost 90% of its religious. 9 out of 10 religious within 20 years. We’ve never experienced anything that bad.”

“I think for that reason, God gave to that time a simple soul who probably if he was entering seminary at another time would have had difficulty getting through. His Latin was not good. He wasn’t a great brain for theology. What he had, however, was a loving heart. And it is this heart that visits us. This loving heart that knew the ways of God.”

On incorruptibility:

“It’s sort of like they’re 99% resurrected already. Rot does not touch their body. The Lord preserved the body for centuries, and centuries, and centuries for the edification and the perseverance of the Christian people to realize that God can bend the rules of what the world thinks is written in stone. Jesus, you read the Gospel we had today, He multiplies the loaves. From five loaves and two fish we end up with 12 baskets of fragments. Well, do the math. God is not limited by the parameters he set in the world. And He’s especially willing to bend the rules when it comes to the hearts of the ones He loves.”

On the heart as an object:

“It’s a very Biblical image. We tend, in our culture, to look at the heart as the seat of emotion. That’s not the Biblical idea. The heart is about justice. It’s about right relationship. Even the Latin word ‘cor’ heart, when I move my core closer to you physically I intrude on your space, I open up the possibility of connection, and this is the love that the Lord has come to give. First of all, intimacy between His heart and ours, and then through the lives of His saints to remind us that this is doable, that this love is something that can be part of our life, too, as it has been for the saints before us. “

On humility:

“[He was] specifically a humble priest…humility is not thinking that you’re worse than everybody. Humility is being willing to do the will of God when you see it. Pride is the opposite; pride is doing my will even if I think my will is God’s holy will. That way lies a corruption of heart that is inconsistent with any kind of holiness. I do think this is a problem in the Church now, and the society in general. We have a society that lives by the pride that wants what it wants on its own terms, and by Heaven we’ll have it. And of course all of us who are born into this society come into the life of Holy Church with that kind of baggage, and I think this explains a number of the current crises in the Church and in society. But this heart is the heart of a man who was not corrupt, of a priest who was not corrupt, of a priest who did the will of God as it was revealed to him moment by moment. I think he blazes a road for us, and shows in a very practical way fairly close to our own times, how this is lived out moment by moment, day by day in the presence of the heart of Christ.”

On the effects of spiritual acts like pilgrimages:

“You know in one sense, when you come to a relic like this it may seem that it hasn’t mattered to you before you actually experience it, but it does change you: all of the sudden you have a new memory in the mind, all of the sudden we have a new sensory experience, a vision, or a touch. And this enrichens, and deepens, and strengthens our own spiritual life in terms of commitment and purpose. And in a way all those things that are part of the life of the Church–and the relics are part of it, but pilgrimages, and Holy Water, and one’s experience of religious services and devotions–there’s layer and layer of depth that comes as we throw ourselves into a life with God in this particular way that engages the whole person.”

On the need for holy priests:

“St. Jean Vianney is a holy priest, and we certainly need holy priests. If a fish stinks in the head, the rest of the fish is probably not edible either, probably not good. So for holiness sake we need to pray for our priests that we continue, that we remain loyal, that we above all seek this holiness that is about a heart and mind and spirit that is dedicated to the purposes of God. The priest especially is called from the world and the world’s purposes to God’s purposes. He lays the Body and Blood of Christ before the people, he hears their confessions, he preaches Baptism, and calls the people again and again to understand what it is to be summoned by God to His purposes, to His life, to be enfolded by the Holy Trinity–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–even in this life, and to find ourselves with a destiny of being drawn up into the light that never ends, even in this life, through this life of holiness that we’ve been given in God’s Holy Church. So I would say, pray for your priests, because the integrity of the apostolic ministry is crucial to the life of the Church, although Christ is bigger. I mean it’s not the first time that we’ve had difficult priests. As I recall, there was one priest (Judas) in the original company who liked money more than he did Jesus, when push came to shove. But even he has a place in the story. I would say for St. Jean Vianney this is what we want: the Patron of Parish Priests to pray for us as he stands before the throne of God, as we stand before his heart that beat with love for the people he served, for his parishioners.”

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