GOODYEAR, Ariz. (CNS) — The incorruptible heart of St. John Vianney, who used the confessional and his gift of reading hearts to lead thousands of central Europeans away from sin and toward devotion to God during the mid-1800s, made its way through the Diocese of Phoenix the first week of May.
The visit was part of the Southwestern leg of the Knights of Columbus’ national “Heart of a Priest” tour that has seen thousands of pilgrims venerate the first-class relic.
Following a five-hour visit May 5 to Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in central Phoenix, where it was venerated by over 2,500 individuals, the heart contained in a reliquary — or special glass case — traveled to St. John Vianney, the Goodyear parish named after the saint, for a three-hour stop that included Mass.
The relic then visited St. Anne Parish in Gilbert and St. Joan of Arc Parish in north Phoenix the next day, in addition to a private visit at the soon-to-open Nazareth House Seminary House of Formation and at the diocese’s priest convocation.
Incorrupt means the organ, along with St. John Vianney’s body, has not — without any chemicals or preservation — disintegrated.
Entrusted to the Knights by the Shrine of Ars, the small French village where St. John Vianney served, the relic will have visited 48 states by the time the tour ends. It is due to wrap up May 29, coinciding with the anniversary of the priest’s canonization by Pope Pius XI May 31, 1925. Four years later, the pontiff declared him the patron saint of parish priests.
The tour, organized and hosted by the Knights, began last fall to mark the 200th anniversary of Father Vianney’s arrival in Ars.
Dominican Father Jonathan Kalisch, director of chaplains and spiritual development for the Knights’ Supreme Council, said St. John Vianney’s great love of the priesthood serves as a model and witness to clergy and laity alike, and his heart is the appropriate reflection of his character.
“Thousands of pilgrims would wait in Ars to have their confessions heard by him. He would sit in the confessional between 13 and 18 hours a day,” Father Kalisch explained.
But perhaps, it was Father Vianney’s gift of reading hearts that contributed most dynamically to the drawing of souls.
“As people would wait in line for three days, he would go through the church with some assistants,” Father Kalisch told The Catholic Sun, Phoenix’s diocesan newspaper. “He could tell those who hadn’t been to church in decades, and he would not make them wait. He would let them cut the line. He knew they didn’t have the time to wait. He would win many back for Christ.”
Throughout the relic’s visit to St. John Vianney Church, there was evidence of the saint’s story having a profound impact on clergy and laity alike.
“Priests are often pulled in many directions,” explained Holy Cross Father Tom Eckert, the parish’s pastor.
“I knew I would, personally, and the whole parish community, gain great strength and grace from being reminded of the service, dedication and grace with which he carried out his ministry,” he said prior to celebrating Mass.
Later, from the pulpit, he concluded his homily with an emotional statement.
“I will never forget this. And I pray I will be a better priest for having him here today. May St. John Vianney pray for you always,” Father Eckert said.
“It was an amazing, unforgettable experience; a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Megan Yee, 13, who made the two-hour trip with a group of mostly young fellow parishioners of St. Gianna Oratory Parish in Tucson.
“I try to (live) the way he lived. He was such a model of humility,” she said.
Some prayed for specific intentions.
“I just asked for anything that would bring some sort of healing,” said Kelly Petrella, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Seton in Sun City. “(With God), all things are possible,” said Petrella, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
Father Vianney’s work in Ars took place against a backdrop of political turbulence following the Napoleonic wars, as well as anti-clericalism and religious skepticism. Today, the U.S. Catholic Church faces fallout from clerical abuse scandals.
St. John Vianney parishioner and Knight of Columbus Skip Hopley hopes the tour strengthens the cause of priests.
“The Knights have a special devotion to our priests. Part of our mission is to stand in solidarity with them and support them. This is their saint. That makes him special to us as well. Anything that touches them personally touches us,” he said.
Father Kalisch said any priest could be moved by St. John Vianney’s story.
“I love the passage where St. Paul talks about being an athlete for Christ — running the race. What we have here is one of the greatest athletes of Christ for all time,” he said.