Following His Heart
More than a quarter million Catholics venerated the incorrupt heart relic of St. Jean Vianney
During times of crisis, Christ sends saints. In the early 19th century, in the wake of the French Revolution, he sent Jean Vianney, whose witness of love and humility rekindled the faith of thousands as they flocked to his tiny parish in Ars, France.
Thousands again flocked to the holy Curé of Ars this past year, in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis affecting the Church. This time, they encountered the incorrupt heart of the patron saint of parish priests as it crisscrossed the United States in the care of the Knights of Columbus from Nov. 10 to June 13.
The “Heart of a Priest” tour, as it was called, passed through all 48 contiguous states and traveled over 35,000 miles — nearly 1 ½ times the circumference of the earth. More than 280,000 pilgrims — clergy, religious and lay people — prayed for the Church and her shepherds as the major relic made stops at cathedrals and other churches, seminaries and homes for retired priests, convents and cloistered monasteries, Catholic schools and university campuses.
While the sites visited and the miles traveled can be counted, the spiritual fruits of the relic tour cannot.
“We give thanks to God for the innumerable graces related to the pilgrimage of the heart,” wrote Father Patrice Chocholski, St. Jean Vianney’s successor as pastor of Ars, in a letter to Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “Without the organization of the Knights in the United States, this experience would not have been possible.”
The following pages feature representative photos and testimonies from the historic tour. For more information, and details on an upcoming pilgrimage of the heart through dioceses in Canada, visit kofc.org/vianney.
“It’s not every day that you can stand guard next to the heart of St. Jean Vianney. It was a once-in-alifetime opportunity. We had a tremendous Fourth Degree turnout for the relic tour.
“While I stood guard, I thought about the priests who had an impact on my life and I prayed for them. It gave me an opportunity to thank God for their spiritual leadership.”
— Michael Porter, vice supreme master of Bienville province, which includes Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana
“Bells were ringing when the relic arrived, and the little ones were all waving little yellow and white Vatican flags. The children had looks of awe on their faces as they approached the reliquary. John made sure he touched his Knights of Columbus rosary to it. Everybody was absolutely mesmerized.
“It was far more moving than we thought it would be. It really got you excited about your faith, and how we’re all called to be saints. It made us so proud to be Catholic and proud that John and our two oldest sons are Knights.
“Our parish also has a traveling statue of St. Jean Vianney, which our family received after the relic tour. Every day for 10 days, we used the K of C card to pray for vocations through the intercession of St. Jean Vianney.”
— Stacey and John Leonard, parents of seven children, from ages 3 to 25. John and his sons, Zachary and Hunter, are members of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Council 12489 in Santa Clarita, Calif.
“I have never seen so many people present at a daily Mass on campus as I did when the heart arrived. The whole abbey was packed with students and visitors. The relic was available for veneration for eight hours, and there was a constant line for confession the whole time. It was a beautiful testament to the mercy of Christ and his constant call to us to return to him.”
— Sterling Christopher Jennings, senior at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and grand knight of Benedictine College Council 4708
“I have been influenced by many good priests in my life, and I knew from a young age that my desire to pray for priests was a gift from the Lord. Discovering St. Jean Vianney, I saw in him an ally, and I eventually chose to take his name as my own.
“Hosting his heart was a grace-filled opportunity for our community. Personally, I felt inspired in my dedication to pray for priests, and spent the evening asking the Curé of Ars to pray that my heart may be made totally pure for God as his was.”
— Sister Marie Vianney, Dominican Sister of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, Ann Arbor, Mich.
“The Catholic Church, especially in the United States, has had a tough year. The relic tour was a great assistance because we need signs of life in the Church — visible, tangible, positive signs.
“The presence of the relic was a powerful vehicle for bringing people to confession, which is a strong pathway to discipleship. In Boston, there were very few times over the course of more than 20 hours that somebody wasn’t going to confession.
“Overall, some 5,000 pilgrims came to venerate the relic, and most of the people were including vocations in their prayers, especially vocations for parish priests.
“The following week, the diocese received six phone calls out of the blue from young men who wanted to discern a path to the priesthood. None of them were on a list we had; they were all new contacts. Prayer works.”
— Father Paul Soper, secretary for evangelization and discipleship, Archdiocese of Boston
“I really wanted to help bring the relic to Fort Worth, because at this time in the Church, priests need our support.
“More than 1,500 people showed up that day at the cathedral. I can’t tell you how many families came with seven, eight, nine kids to venerate the relic. I came with my wife and my 5-year-old daughter. It was a very special day.
“Most of my agents were there, too, working in conjunction with the fraternal leaders and diocesan officials; they needed a lot of hands on deck. It was a very well-run event, and a great sign of the Knights’ support for the Church. It also exposed people to the spiritual side of the Knights and our Faith in Action program, which is a game changer.”
— Chris Stark, general agent of the K of C Fort Worth Agency and member of Scott A. MacDonald Council 8512 in North Richland Hills, Texas
“St. Jean Vianney is one of the patrons of the Seven Sisters Apostolate, whose mission is to pray for the sanctity of priests. During the relic pilgrimage, dozens of Seven Sisters intercessors across the United States offered Holy Hours for priests in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the heart of our patron. When the relic visited St. Paul in May, local Seven Sisters signed up for veneration through the night, offering the time for reparation and healing in our archdiocese. “My husband and I also traveled from Minnesota to Omaha to venerate the relic in March. Lines of people stretched the length and width of the cathedral aisle, spilling onto the sidewalk outside. What a profound influence on souls the Curé of Ars continues to have! “Eternal gratitude to the Knights for bringing the holy influence of St. Jean Vianney to a Church in need of healing and love.”
— Janette Howe, founder of the Seven Sisters Apostolate, St. Paul, Minn. Her husband, John, and her son, Father Spencer Howe, are members of the Knights.
‘A DAY OF GRACE AND REPENTANCE’
A Pennsylvania bishop reflects on the reception of St. Jean Vianney’s heart in his diocese
THE RELIC VISITED Altoona on a bitter cold day in late January. The high temperature was 11 degrees Fahrenheit and the low was -4. Despite school closings and poor driving conditions, approximately 3,000 people visited the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Confessions started at 6 a.m. and never stopped. I heard confession for more than four hours that day. So many people were waiting for the sacrament an hour before the 5:30 p.m. Mass that additional priests were pressed into service; more than 20 were hearing confessions at the same time.
Minutes before Mass began, ushers had to disperse the crowd waiting to venerate the relic. So many people were in the center aisle of the cathedral that it was no longer even a line. They were one body, patiently inching forward to receive the grace of the pilgrimage.
Everyone I spoke with shared my reaction that it was a day of much needed grace and repentance. We have had more than our share of the darkness of the sexual abuse crisis and the misconduct of some priests.
My prayer intention was that St. Jean Vianney would assist our diocese with an increase in vocations to the priesthood. In the following months, as I celebrated the sacrament of confirmation around the diocese, at least one young man in each location asked me about the priesthood. And just before preparing this reflection, I received a call from a recent college graduate who wants to meet with me about his call to the priesthood. I am confident that St. Jean Vianney has been at work!
I am grateful for the numerous members of the Knights of Columbus who made this pilgrimage possible. They were examples of the Order at its best: serving the Lord and his people.
BISHOP MARK L. BARTCHAK is the eighth bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa.
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