Thousands venerate relic of patron of priests

BRIGHTON -- The heart of the patron saint of priests traveled to the Archdiocese of Boston from France last week and many who venerated the relic said they hoped the visit would promote vocations and healing in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Over 7,000 clergy, seminarians, religious and lay Catholics came to see the heart of St. John Marie Vianney, an incorrupt relic hosted by the archdiocese from Oct. 12-14, according to Father Daniel Hennessey of the archdiocesan Vocation Office, which organized the event.

The heart, encased in a reliquary of glass and gold with a wooden base, traveled from its home at the Shrine of St. John Vianney in Ars, France. It has only left the shrine on two other occasions -- once for St. Vianney’s canonization in Rome and the other for World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. During this trip to the United States, the heart was hosted in New York before coming to Boston.

In a day of prayer open to clergy and religious, the relic was hosted at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton on Oct. 12. The relic also traveled to St. Mary Parish in Weston on Oct. 13 and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Oct. 14 for events open to the public. The three-day event began with a procession outside St. John’s Seminary to the statue of St. Vianney that stands behind the seminary.

“It’s a very important moment of grace, of prayer for all of us. In the saints we are able to glimpse a little bit of God’s holiness and His beauty,” Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley said after the relic was placed on a table near the statue. “It’s a great joy to have this relic here, calling us all to prayer, conversion and inviting, particularly our young people, to reflect on their own personal vocation.”

St. Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, was a “simple parish priest who dedicated himself to serving God’s people.” His heart is a symbol of his pastoral love, the cardinal said.

Cardinal O’Malley encouraged those gathered to pray for the archdiocese and for vocations to the priesthood.

Venerating relics is a long-standing tradition in the Catholic Church, which began with early Christians worshiping in the catacombs, the tombs of the martyrs, he added.

Hundreds of archdiocesan priests and seminarians gathered at St. John’s Seminary on Oct. 12 for the rosary, adoration, evening prayer and a talk about St. Vianney in the presence of his heart.

Father Phillippe Caratge, moderator of the sanctuary of St. John Vianney, spoke at evening prayer. He said that St. Vianney, known as the “Curé d’Ars” (French for “curate of Ars”), had something to say to all those who venerate the relic.

“The Curé d’Ars is reminding us of something very simple -- a priest is a man of prayer,” he said in French through an interpreter.

St. Vianney, born in 1786 and ordained in 1815, lived during a difficult time in France after the French Revolution. He was known to spend 14-18 hours a day hearing confessions, only sleeping for a few hours each night, he said.

St. Vianney participated willingly in God’s salvation. He desired to give himself fully to his vocation as a priest, give himself fully to God, he added.

“His secret is his heart, his heart filled with God’s love,” Father Caratge said.

The bishop of Belley-Ars, France, Bishop Guy Bagnard, spoke later that evening about the life of St. Vianney. He also addressed those gathered in French with an interpreter translating.

Bishop Bagnard said that St. Vianney was grateful for his priesthood and knew that it was a gift from God.

“John Marie Vianney received his priesthood as a gift. He was conscious that it was not because of his own strength that he had been given that priesthood,” he said.

St. Vianney also understood that being a parish priest is “both a joy and a trial,” said the bishop. During St. Vianney’s life, priests faced persecution after the French Revolution. St. Vianney grew up seeing priests as heroes who risked their lives to lead people to heaven, the bishop said.

“I would like to end with a prophetic word of the Curé d’Ars. He said, ‘There will come a time when many will be so tired of men that they will not be able to hear about God without crying,’” Bishop Bagnard said. “I believe that it is the time now where people are longing for God and that we, as priests have to bring them to Him.”

Seminarian Matt Mason has felt called to be a priest since he was a young boy and was inspired by a storybook he read about St. Vianney. The bishop’s words about the saint were also inspiring, especially when he talked about the importance of fraternity between priests, Mason said.

“As he jokingly said, being a parish priest is a trial. You need someone to look up to, someone who has been there before you,” he said.

Father Bill Ventura, who was ordained in May and assigned to St. John the Evangelist Parish in North Chelmsford, said that the bishop’s comments were “on target.” The bishop made it clear that each priest, like St. Vianney, must understand his vocation as a gift -- a gift for himself and for the Catholic Church.

Priests stand in the person of Christ and lead people to Christ, said Father Ventura who keeps a statue of St. Vianney on his desk.

“Every day I reflect on the fact that a priest brings people to heaven. That’s his first and primary reason for being,” he said.

At St. Mary’s in Waltham the following day, hundreds of Catholics waited in line, many of them for more than an hour, to kneel before the relic which sat on the church’s altar. Third Order Knights of Columbus stood guard by the relic and many attendees handed them personal crucifixes or rosaries to place near it, if only for a moment. Confessions were heard throughout the evening in English, Spanish and French. Those gathered also participated in the rosary, adoration, Mass celebrated by Bishop Bagnard and listened to a talk on St. Vianney given by Father Caratge. Night prayer was led by Cardinal O’Malley.

On Oct. 14 many Catholics came to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to venerate the relic, attend Mass, pray the rosary and participate in daytime prayer.

Sandy Cabral, from St. Peter Parish in Dorchester, said she did not mind waiting in line to venerate the relic because she was glad to see so many people attend the event.

“It’s beautiful to see [the] outpouring,” she said.

Nancy Goggin, from Immaculate Conception Parish in Stoughton, brought her three children to see the relic. She said that the presence of the sacred relic is a blessing for the Church, the archdiocese as well as her family.

“I told my children that normally you have to go to Europe to see one,” she said. “I hope that they will feel the presence of God, the presence of the Holy Sprit working in their lives.”

Several years ago, a retreat for priests in Ars attracted 900 priests from 71 countries. One of the men was pastor at The Cure of Ars Parish in Merrit, N.Y. and asked Bishop Bagnard if the relic could come to the parish’s 80th anniversary this year. Another priest, Father Michael McNamara of the Archdiocese of Boston, also attended the retreat and asked that the relic come to Boston as well. The bishop granted both requests.

“The bishop couldn’t wait to be here,” said Kathy Brenti, the bishop’s translator. “He kept saying, ‘In Boston they have suffered so much.’”

“This is an extremely important event spiritually for the Archdiocese of Boston. It’s so wonderful to celebrate the priesthood,” said Father Hennessey. “St. John Vianney is a stellar example of a man who served as an instrument of God for others.”

Father Hennessey added that he hopes that the presence of the relic will help priests and future priests to recognize their call and live their vocations fully like St. Vianney.

“Almost every day I make the same prayer, that the men the Lord is calling right now will apply, be accepted to and enter the seminary,” he said.