Exposition of relic of St. Jean Vianney, patron saint of priests, draws faithful from across Diocese of Knoxville
By Bill Brewer
St. Jean Vianney is just what the faithful ordered.
Well, it was actually the Knights of Columbus and Bishop Richard F. Stika who arranged for the incorrupt heart of the patron saint of priests to visit the Diocese of Knoxville on May 23 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But for faithful like Antonio Ibarra and his wife, Ofelia, who live in Kingston and are parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle in Lenoir City, the effort to get to the cathedral after work and in time for veneration was well worth it.
The Ibarras, who were among the last ones to see the relic before veneration closed at the cathedral, are spiritually uplifted by the humble saint who devoted his life to helping average people strengthen their faith.
“He has taught me that God is not always looking for the richest or smartest. He looks for people who are charitable. And his devotion to confession made an impact on me,” Mr. Ibarra said. “I asked St. Jean Vianney to help me grow stronger in my faith.”
Zoe Ballew and Zulay Navarro-Pickering spent the day at the cathedral in prayer and veneration.
They echoed the Ibarras in saying how moved they were that God uses common, humble people to do great things.
“Someone like him can give themselves so full to help Jesus for the salvation of the world. Thanks to them we may be saved,” Ms. Ballew said.
Added Ms. Navarro-Pickering, “People are hungry for spiritual healing. So many people were here in veneration all day long. It was incredible.”
The physical heart, contained in an ornate and secure reliquary, was on display at the steps leading to the cathedral sanctuary for daylong veneration.
Bishop Stika began the day celebrating Mass for Sacred Heart Cathedral School students, who had the first opportunity to venerate the 19th-century French priest.
Bishop Stika then celebrated noon Mass at the cathedral with the major relic in place. More than two dozen diocesan priests concelebrated the Mass, and Cardinal Justin Rigali was in choir. They were joined by more than a dozen deacons and women religious.
The incorrupt heart attracted a steady stream of faithful throughout the day as they advanced in line, two by two, to kneel at the reliquary and pray. Veneration continued and confessions were heard until an evening rosary concluded at 8 p.m.
In greeting a nearly full cathedral at the noon Mass, Bishop Stika reminded the faithful that they were celebrating holiness, the holiness of a priest who lived centuries ago, but is called on now more than ever to intercede for priests and the Church at a time of great need.
In beginning his homily, Bishop Stika told the congregation that as they welcomed the saint’s heart, it was on the feast of St. Jean Vianney, Aug. 9, in 2004 that he and Monsignor Bill Gahagan had heart bypass surgery.
In describing Father Vianney, Bishop Stika said he answered his bishop’s call to bring his priesthood to Ars, France, a small town that had forgotten God and a parish church that was falling apart.
Father Vianney, as happens with many priests during their priesthood, was called on to transform a parish and community in need of love and healing.
“He was willing to give his life for his people. I think we honor him today in many different ways, but one is that confessions were heard before Mass and confessions will be heard following Mass today. Tradition tells us that he would hear confessions on a daily basis for hours upon hours upon hours.
“There are times when he would wrestle with the devil because the devil recognized in him a threat. Because he saw a priest who was willing to give his heart for his people.”
Bishop Stika explained that is why Father Vianney is the patron saint of diocesan priests. And he expressed gratitude to the Knights of Columbus, who have been entrusted with the heart of St. Jean Vianney on its pilgrimage throughout the United States.
The Shrine of Ars, France, entrusted to the Knights the relic for the national tour.
St. Jean Vianney is internationally known for his priestly and pastoral work in his parish in Ars.
He died in 1859. When his body was exhumed, it was found to be incorrupt, and it is enshrined in Ars. His still intact heart was later removed.
Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1925 and proclaimed him patron saint of parish priests in 1929. His incorrupt body and heart are displayed at his shrine in Ars.
The reliquary encasing the heart was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Diocese of Nashville on May 22 for a one-day visit. It was traveling to the Diocese of Raleigh after leaving Knoxville.
“It is continuing its journey. Why? I think the Knights of Columbus recognize the fact that as the Church is hurting this year in the United States and other parts of the world, its good and faithful priests are also hurting in the United States and throughout the world. Men who have given their lives to hear confessions, to celebrate the sacraments, to be a friend, to try to be saintly, to be a challenge to all of us,” the bishop said.
Bishop Stika confided to the congregation that he hopes their visit is deeper than seeing the incorrupt heart of a saint. He hoped they would pray for priests during their personal pilgrimage to the cathedral.
“Maybe you are here to pray for your parish priest or to pray for the priesthood of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Stika said. “Men who are human, just like you and me.”
He reminded the faithful that priests come in “different sizes and shapes, different ages, different hair colors, different personalities and temperament.”
“But all are gifted in one way or another. Some are beautiful and outstanding preachers, and some could put dead people to sleep. And everything in between,” he noted.
He pointed out that some priests particularly enjoy working with youth, while others prefer to work with older people; some prefer teaching; some are introverted while others are extroverts.
“But all had a moment in their life when they believed, and the Church believed, that they were called by Jesus, just like Jesus called the Apostles, to love, to pray for, to believe in, and to build community,” the bishop continued.
Bishop Stika mentioned Monsignor Bob Hofstetter, who has been ordained a priest for 65 years, “which is three years longer than I have been around. A very wise priest.” He also singled out Cardinal Rigali, who was ordained in 1961, and Deacon Mark Schuster, who will be ordained to the priesthood on June 8.
“And all the ones in between, backgrounds that are different, people like you, as we thank God for the example of St. Jean Vianney,” Bishop Stika said. “You know what a saint is in my definition? A person who really realizes that he or she truly is a sinner.”
The bishop observed that conditions for Christians around the world are in some ways akin to St. Jean Vianney’s era, with religious persecution spreading along with a culture of death.
“And now the abuse crisis. Do you know how Jean Vianney won back the people of his town? One priest to one person. And that’s how we can rebuild the Church that is so dented these days. The way we do it is one person to one priest. One at a time. Please allow them to be another Christ to you. Please allow them to act as your personal Christ,” he said.
Bishop Stika also had some pastoral guidance for the priests and deacons in attendance.
“Treasure the gift of ministry and service and the ability to offer sacrifice … the gift of the Eucharist,” he said. “So we pray this day for the intercession of St. Jean Vianney for more vocations for this diocese, for religious communities, and for dioceses around the world, a world that is becoming in some ways more secular. Pray for priests. And as Jean Vianney would want us to do, pray for each other, so we can truly build that kingdom on a hill … so that the Church can continue, which it will.”