January 11, 2019

A gift from the heart: Relic of St. John Vianney draws thousands to cathedral to view ‘a miracle first hand’

People stand in line on Jan. 4 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, waiting to venerate the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney, a French priest who died in 1859 and is the patron saint of parish priests. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

People stand in line on Jan. 4 in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis, waiting to venerate the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney, a French priest who died in 1859 and is the patron saint of parish priests. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

For hours, the line of people slowly made its way forward to the heart of a saint.

They came from across Indiana and beyond to SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis to venerate and pray before the incorrupt heart of St. John Vianney, the French priest who died in 1859 and is the patron saint of parish priests.

From 10 a.m. until 5:15 p.m. on Jan. 4, an estimated 3,000 people of all ages and walks of life came to the cathedral to place themselves in the presence of this special relic held in an ornate brass reliquary.

At first, only two kneelers were placed in front of the reliquary that held the heart. But when the line of people grew so long that it wound its way up the main aisle of the cathedral and down its side aisles, three more kneelers were placed alongside the first two. Still, the line stretched from the entrance of the cathedral to its sanctuary for the entirety of the seven hours the relic was available for veneration.

Emily Brammer brought her daughter Monica, a first-grader at Lumen Christi Catholic School in Indianapolis, to pray with her in the presence of the heart of the saint that has remained the same—incorrupt—as it was when he died in 1859.

“These are really faith-building moments,” Brammer said. “Anytime you can witness a miracle first hand, it’s hard for a person ever to forget that.”

The relic was brought to Indianapolis as part of a tour of the United States sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. It is ordinarily housed at the shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France.

Bill Sherman was one among several members of the knights who served as an honor guard beside the relic during its stay at the cathedral.

“This is what the Knights of Columbus is about,” said Sherman. “I feel like it’s more than just a privilege. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something like this.”

Indianapolis was added to the tour because of the SEEK2019 conference that occurred there from Jan. 3-7, drawing 17,000 mostly college-age Catholics from across the nation. Archdiocesan leaders helped arrange that the relic could also be venerated by Catholics from across central and southern Indiana at the cathedral.

Father Jonathan Meyer, pastor of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County, has had a great devotion to the saint since the 1990s when he received priestly formation at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. Over the years, he has visited the shrine in Ars six times.

Watching so many people coming to pray in the presence of a relic of a saint so dear to him was moving for the priest.

“It’s so wonderful to see the people of our archdiocese ask for his prayers and intercession, to see the genuine faithfulness and piety of the people,” Father Meyer said. “It’s powerful to see how many parents brought their children. So it’s not only about someone who has a devotion, you’re also seeing people teach devotion.”

Debbie Gregg wanted to give that gift to the eighth-graders of St. Nicholas School in Ripley County that she teaches and is helping to prepare to receive the sacrament of confirmation. She brought the class on a pilgrimage to the cathedral to pray before the relic.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to grow in their faith and to plant seeds,” Gregg said. “We’re always praying for vocations.”

Eighth-grader Will Rees said he wanted to pray for priests before the relic.

“They give us the sacraments and lead us closer to Jesus,” he said.

The sacrament that St. John Vianney is most known for bringing to the faithful is the sacrament of penance. As his fame as a wise and caring pastor grew, thousands of people every year would flock to Ars from across Europe to confess their sins to him and receive God’s mercy. It is said that he spent as many as 18 hours a day in his parish church’s confessional.

So it was fitting that, when his heart was available for veneration at the cathedral, several priests were present for the sacrament of penance.

One was Benedictine Father Luke Waugh, pastor of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County in the Tell City Deanery. He spent several hours at the cathedral hearing confessions.

“The blessings that came from hearing confessions all afternoon cannot be counted,” said Father Luke, a member of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad. “Like me, St. John Vianney ministered in a far corner of his diocese. His ministry came alive in the confessional. To practice the ministry that he excelled in near his physical heart—a heart for people—was amazing.”

After the time for veneration of the relic at the cathedral ended, it was taken to the SEEK conference for veneration by the thousands who attended it. On the night of Jan. 5, it was placed at the front of the two exhibit halls in the Indiana Convention Center where hundreds of priests heard more than 4,000 confessions of conference participants.

Many of the people who venerated the relic at the cathedral prayed for priests.

The relic’s visit to the cathedral came at a time when the bishops of the U.S. were at prayer on retreat at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. Last September, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to take such a retreat to consider in prayer their response to the current clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

Father Patrick Beidelman, rector of the cathedral and executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Worship and Evangelization, appreciated seeing so many people pass through the cathedral to pray before the heart of such a holy priest.

“It’s encouraging and gives me hope in a time where there is a light being shined on some things in the Church where people made mistakes and people were hurt,” he said. “People still respond in faith to come in prayer to ask the intercession of someone so holy for those who serve in a role in the Church that’s so critical.”

Seminarian James “JJ” Huber took time out of assisting at the SEEK conference to come to the cathedral to venerate the relic. He was amazed at seeing so many people who joined him there.

“With all of the things that are going on in the Church right now, it’s incredibly inspiring to still see such faith among people,” said Huber, a member of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville. “It’s inspiring to me as a seminarian. People are still going to need their priests.”

Laura Elstro is one of the people who inspired Huber. She came to the cathedral from her home in Richmond, where she is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.

“As I knelt before his heart, I prayed for healing within the priesthood,” she said. “I prayed for the seminarians. I prayed for those who have left the seminary and religious life, but also I prayed for the increase for vocations in our archdiocese. We need more priests who follow the example of St. John Vianney.”

Father Meyer agreed.

“We need conversion among priests,” he said. “The only way out of what we’re in is holiness, and John Vianney’s life speaks of nothing but total devotion and holiness. That’s what we need.”

Father Eric Augenstein, archdiocesan vocations director, was amazed at the thousands who came to the cathedral to venerate the relic. He hopes the event will be an aid in his ministry in helping men discern a vocation to the priesthood.

“Being able to pray in the presence of that relic, the physical heart that had so much love for God and God’s people,” he said, “can encourage other hearts to be open to follow in his footsteps in the priesthood.”

The time for veneration of the relic concluded with Mass. Msgr. William F. Stumpf, archdiocesan vicar general, was the principal celebrant for the liturgy.

In his homily, he reflected on the “extraordinary witness” that St. John Vianney gave “by simply being a faithful, zealous and loving parish priest.”

Msgr. Stumpf ended his homily by inviting his listeners to go forth from the cathedral “to share St. John Vianney’s story, the story of a soul who fell in love with God.

“And may we, too, but especially those called to holy orders, continue to live our lives with the same love for Christ and his people.” †

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