GOODYEAR — The incorruptible heart of St. Jean 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 this month as the Knights of Columbus opened the Southwestern leg of a national tour that has seen thousands of pilgrims, clergy and church representatives venerate the first-class relic.
Following a five-hour visit Sunday, 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 a special Mass. The relic then visited St. Anne Church in Gilbert and St. Joan of Arc in north Phoenix the next day.
Incorrupt means the organ, along with St. Jean 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 Fr. Jean Vianney served, the relic was scheduled to visit churches, cathedrals, seminaries and religious institutes in New Mexico, Colorado — including St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where 21 Phoenix seminarians are finishing their semester — Wyoming and Texas through May 17 before heading to the Southeastern U.S.
The entire 48-state tour, organized and hosted by the Knights, began last summer — the 200th anniversary of Fr. Jean Vianney’s arrival in Ars. It is due to wrap up May 29, coinciding with the anniversary of his canonization by Pope Pius XI May 31, 1925. Four years later, the pontiff declared St. Jean Vianney the patron saint of parish priests.
Fr. Jonathan D. Kalisch, OP, director of Chaplains and Spiritual Development Prior, Supreme Council Knights of Columbus, said Jean 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,” Fr. Kalisch explained.
But perhaps, it was Fr. Jean 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. 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 wait. He would win many back for Christ.”
There was evidence throughout the visit to the Valley’s St. John Vianney Church of the saint’s story having a profound impact on clergy and laity alike.
“Priests are often pulled in many directions,” explained Fr. 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,” Fr. Eckert said prior to celebrating Mass.
Later, from the pulpit, he would conclude 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,” he 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.
“He was devout; one of the great saints of the church. I prayed to help me to live a more devout life to God,” said Megan’s brother, Thomas J. Yee, 17, after he and his sister venerated the relic.
Some prayed for specific intentions.
“I just asked for anything that would bring some sort of healing,” said Kelly Petrella, a St. Elizabeth Seton in Sun City parishioner who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. “(With God), all things are possible,” she said.
Fr. Jean 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 Church in the United States faces fallout from clerical abuse scandals. St. John Vianney parishioner and Knights of Columbus member 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.
Fr. 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 greatest athletes of Christ for all time.”