“Through prayer we receive a foretaste of heaven and something of paradise comes down upon us. Prayer never leaves us without sweetness. It is honey that flows into the soul and makes all things sweet. When we pray properly, sorrows disappear like snow before the sun.”
That’s St. John Vianney preaching about prayer, in a reading of his catechetical instruction that appears in the Liturgy of the Hours on his feast day every Aug. 4. It also captures something of what I encountered when I spent some time in prayer before his incorrupt heart near the start of the year. Life could be better seen not with the pile-on from sin and the burdens of this world that weigh us down, but with the light of God’s love.
Usually back in France, the “Heart of a Priest” relic has been touring the United States, sponsored by the Knights of Columbus (it will visit Los Angeles Feb. 20-26). And what powerful timing. As I was with the relic, the U.S. bishops were having their retreat in the midst of the current wave of scandal eruptions and insistence on radical renewal and reform.
The heart, as we are well reminded by Hallmark every February, is closely associated with love. It’s an image and a shorthand. The heart is the core of the thing, most especially the human person, loved into existence by God. We talk about broken hearts and healing hearts. We cannot function without it, and not well without its good health.
And so, to have the incorrupt heart of the saint who is an exemplar of the priesthood on fire for souls at this time when there is so much of suspicion and uncertainty, fear and speculation, anger and sadness surrounding the priesthood and the Church, is quite the blessing.
Our priests need our prayers in solidarity with their desires for holiness. Our holy priests need our prayers for protection. Our priests need us to help them, and this all seems so clear before the heart of Vianney. We’re all in this together with Jesus.
“Prayer also makes time pass very quickly and with such great delight that one does not notice its length,” Vianney further notes.
Still, too, this could describe my time with his heart. Over a number of hours waiting in line, venerating, and sitting in prayer, time didn’t seem to be an issue. Things seemed to be exactly as they were supposed to be.
Past, present, and future were living in the heart of the Trinity somehow and all the distractions were immaterial. Evil and sin seemed to be, indeed, melting away. There was only God and his loves, which include each person in that cathedral or even passing by unknowingly. They’re all wanted by God for the fullness of life in him. It seemed impossible to look at anyone the same. To look with the eyes of the world was a poverty relinquished, if but for this time. The experience is one to have if you have the opportunity, and to hold onto — that is, to let it carry into every day. It’s an experience of God’s love that draws us deeper into the great mission of love that our lives are meant to be. Things make more sense because trust becomes the priority.
Pilgrimage encounters are different for each person because God works with us uniquely as he made us uniquely. But if you make time for God, he will not leave you unchanged. You will grow in wisdom of the heart of God.
Vianney, who would become known as the holy Curé of Ars, is said to have told his mother as a child, “If I were to become a priest, I would like to win many souls.” And so he did — and continues to from heaven. He would say, “Oh! How great is the Priesthood! It can be properly understood only in Heaven. ... If one were to understand it on this earth one would die, not of fright but of love!”
Around the “150th anniversary of his birth in Heaven,” Pope Benedict XVI said during an August Wednesday audience, “Indeed it was at two o’clock in the morning on 4 August 1859 that St. John Baptist Mary Vianney, having come to the end of his earthly life, went to meet the heavenly Father to inherit the Kingdom, prepared since the world’s creation for those who faithfully follow his teachings (cf. Mt 25: 34).
“What great festivities there must have been in Heaven at the entry of such a zealous pastor! What a welcome he must have been given by the multitude of sons and daughters reconciled with the Father through his work as parish priest and confessor!”
“In his pastoral service, as simple as it was extraordinarily fertile, this unknown parish priest of a forgotten village in the south of France was so successful in identifying with his ministry that he became, even in a visibly and universally recognizable manner, an alter Christus, an image of the Good Shepherd who, unlike the hired hand, lays down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10: 11). After the example of the Good Shepherd, he gave his life in the decades of his priestly service. His existence was a living catechesis that acquired a very special effectiveness when people saw him celebrating Mass, pausing before the tabernacle in adoration or spending hour after hour in the confessional.”
The Eucharist was “the center” — or the heart — of his entire life, “which he celebrated and adored with devotion and respect.” Additionally, he would spend much of his day in the confessional. As Benedict put it, Vianney “did his utmost with preaching and persuasive advice to help his parishioners rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence.”
Ten years ago, in 2009, the now pope emeritus used Vianney as the patron saint of a year of priests in the Church. He quoted Vianney: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy.”
From the moment I stepped out of my Uber in a largely unfamiliar city that I happened to be visiting at the right time, I felt like I was being welcomed home by the heart of Vianney, at the foot of the cross. As you entered the Church, you immediately joined the line for veneration. Just through the doors, there was a display of Vianney images and quotes, including:
- “The first thing about the angels that we ought to imitate, is their consciousness of the Presence of God.”
- “Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints — they are your public.”
- “If you invoke the Blessed Virgin when you are tempted, she will come at once to your help, and Satan will leave you.”
- “The Lord is more anxious to forgive our sins than a woman is to carry her baby out of a burning building.”
- “There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us.”
Each one of these quotes from the holy priest appeared to be resplendent with invitation to the very heart of Jesus. They seemed to sing the urgency of his Love — of giving oneself over completely to receiving his love and living the miracle of sacramental grace of loving with that same love.
That’s, of course, at the heart of the appeal of the relic. Vianney’s heart so completely belonged to Jesus Christ so as to so closely resemble the heart of Jesus. I found myself, deep into my time there, thinking: How can this be? It seems I am in love with the heart of this saint. Well, of course, if we love the heart of Jesus, this would be an irresistible encounter, one which we wouldn’t want to end!
In that annual reading from the prayer of the Church on his feast day, Vianney explains: “Some men immerse themselves as deeply in prayer as fish in water, because they give themselves totally to God. There is not division in their hearts. O, how I love these noble souls!”
He seized on the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who “used to see our Lord and talk to him just as we talk to one another.”
Assisi famously encountered Jesus on the cross imploring him to rebuild his Church. Isn’t this what Jesus is asking each one of us today? We all have our roles as members of the most holy body of Christ. We each have our roles in rejecting evil in our lives, so as to build up the living virtue of the Church by the holiness of our lives.
Reform is not simply the work of bishops, cardinals, popes, rectors, and chancery officials. It is dependent on true conversion, continual conversion, conversion of the kind Vianney dedicated his life. The Church is in need of saints. It is in need of you and me and your parish priest and Christians in every walk of life to heed the call, to become saints by the way we live our lives.
Being around the heart of Vianney has the power of making us like fish in water in the life of prayer. It reminds us that holiness is possible in human life. Holiness is possible and necessary in the laity, in the priesthood, in consecrated life. The vocation of married life is all about sanctity, open to the raising of saints.
Nothing is beyond the forgiveness of God. No situation beyond his providential care. Things become clearer the more we enter into the heart of Love himself. Vianney is available to help us.
If you have the opportunity to encounter him on this pilgrimage tour, don’t hesitate. With a grateful and seeking heart, seek his, where you may just find yourself knowing the Sacred Heart and its life in your life more.
St. John Vianney, pray for us.